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The Cruel Awakening of 1955 and the Murder of Emmett Till

Movements are responses born and fed by suffering, injustice, and inequality — the ill paths society inevitably and unfortunately stumbles down. In moments of great change, movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968), confront hypocrisy similar to how the human body confronts dangerous pathogens; through the drudgery of nonviolent civil disobedience, activists uprooted, challenged, and made the world aware of the poisonous “separate but equal” fallacy of segregation. We can argue that The Civil Rights Movement, just as any other large reform movement, did not happen in a vacuum, there was no singular event that fundamentally changed everything; there were series’ of events. However, sometimes certain events transcend our understanding of historic reality. Events that are so powerful, albeit often tragic, they awaken us. Consider the murder of Emmett Till. Surely, not the first negro murder during the dark days of Jim Crow, especially in old south Mississippi, but the murder of Emmett Till and the callousness and brutally of it and how this cruel event was confronted by the courage of a languishing mother, grieving for the loss of her son, who choose to have an open casket funeral so the entire world could see what “those men did” to her child seems to be the sole catalyst that sparked what would later be known as, the Civil Rights Movement.

Emmett Till, 1955

Emmett Till, 1955

Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till was born in Chicago on July 25, 1941, to Louis and Mamie Till. Emmett would never know his father. In 1944, Louis was drafted into the U.S. Army and deployed out to Europe as a private. Three years later, Mamie received a letter from the “Department of Defense informing her, without a full explanation, that Louis was killed in Italy due to willful misconduct.” Along with the letter included Louis’ signet ring with the initials L.T. engraved into it. In 1955, Mamie gave the ring to her son, Emmett, before his summer trip to visit family living in Money, Mississippi.

The year before Emmett’s southbound departure from the 63rd Street station in Chicago, America had gone through some rather big reforms. In May 17th, 1954, “The Supreme Court orders public schools desegregated in Brown v. Board of Education. The watershed case overturns the separate-but-equal doctrine, which dated back to the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.” Southern segregationists obviously oppose the new legislation and on July 11, 1954 in the sleepy rural town of Indianola, Mississippi, form the White Citizens Council, a supremacist organization that often used violent and intimidation tactics to keep segregation a reality in what is considered to be the cradle of confederacy.

On August 20th, 1955, Emmett Till arrives at the home of his uncle Moses Wright. Moses, a sharecropper, is able to secure his fourteen year old nephew a job picking cotton in the hot Mississippi sun. Four days later, after putting in a long day at his summer job, Emmett joins a group of teenagers at “Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market for refreshments.” Waiting to purchase some bubble gum, Emmett is the last in his group to check out. Among the teenagers who would later testify remember hearing young Emmett tell Carolyn Bryant (the wife of the store owner) “bye baby.” Some of Emmett’s friends were shocked to hear him “talk fresh” with a white woman, but none of them thought anything horrible would come of it.

Moses Wright

Moses Wright

During the early morning hours before dawn on August 28, Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband) and his half brother J. W. Milam, arrived at the home of Moses Wright and demand to see Emmett. Without consent, the two men shove the terrified teenage boy into the back of their car and take off. This will be the last time anyone sees Emmett alive. On August 31st, “Emmett Till’s [mutilated and naked] corpse is pulled from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Moses Wright identifies the body from a ring with the initials L.T.” The next day, Mississippi Governor Hugh White orders local officials to “fully prosecute” Milam and Bryant for the murder of Emmett Till. On September 3rd, “Emmett Till’s body is taken to Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God for viewing and funeral services. Emmett’s mother [forcefully requests] to have an open casket funeral. Thousands of Chicagoans wait in line to [witness] Emmett’s brutally beaten body.” According to the later testimony of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, a few months after being acquitted for the murder of Emmett Till, the pair described how they “brutally beat [Emmett], taking him to the edge of the Tallahatchie River, shooting him in the head, fastening a large metal fan used for ginning cotton to his neck with barbed wire, and pushing the body into the river.”

The open casket of Emmett Till, 1955.

The open casket of Emmett Till, 1955.

Lynching’s and other brutal forms of cowardliness murder were unfortunately common during this period of history. Just before Emmett’s arrival at the door of his uncle’s home, two other men, Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith were both murdered for their participation with the NAACP and local voter registration drives. However, one could argue that under the conditions in which southern blacks lived, the history of segregation being paved with countless corpses of maliciously murdered men and women who dared enough to whisper “Enough!,” the murder of Emmett Till seems to be the singular catalyst that spilled the already boiling pot of discontent. But the movement that was to take shape was not a reactionary violent movement as one might expect. It was a nonviolent movement carefully crafted by the ethos of agape love, a love for neighbor insomuch as to eradicate the poisonous tumor called Jim Crow and segregation that caused ill effects for both the black and white communities living in the United States.

Three months after the body of Emmett Till was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began.



“The Murder of Emmett Till: The Brutal Murder that Mobilized the Civil Rights Movement,” American Experience documentary from the Eyes on the Prize series, PBS. 2003.

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