The circumstances surrounding the death of Emmett Till provide chilling insight into the racism that dominated the South in the 1950s. Till was a fourteen-year-old Chicago native visiting relatives in Mississippi. While out with his cousins and friends on the night of 24 August 1955, he allegedly accosted a white woman in the grocery store owned by her husband. Accounts vary as to what Till actually said or did. According to the woman Till grabbed her and made lewd remarks. Some witnesses claimed that he only whistled at her. Still others asserted that he made no advances at all, that he whistled habitually to control a speech defect.
A Brutal Murder
Roy Bryant considered his wife's honor tainted by the incident. Several nights after the episode, Bryant, his half brother J. W. Milam, and possibly other accomplices kidnapped Till from his relatives' home in the middle of the night. The two men beat him severely and, apparently enraged that he had a picture of a white woman in his wallet, shot Till and threw him in a nearby river. Several days later the body was found, and Bryant and Milam were charged with murder.
A Surprise Verdict
Mississippi politicians and newspapers unanimously condemned the murderers and promised swift justice. However, Mississippians became more defensive as for weeks the press bombarded them with harsh condemnations of racial violence in the South. The highly publicized trial of the two men was charged with racial tension. African-American politicians and reporters from the North were treated contemptuously and were segregated in the courtroom. The prosecution was poorly prepared, and the substance of the defense was the astounding claim that Till was not actually dead. The badly decomposed body was identified only by Till's ring on its finger. The sheriff of Tallahatchee County, who investigated the case, speculated on the witness stand that an unnamed group of "rabble-rousers" had planted the evidence. The all-male, all-white jury was apparently convinced: they acquitted Bryant and Milam after deliberating slightly longer than an hour.
The World Reacts
News of the verdict was received around the country and the world with astonishment. A survey of European reactions conducted by the American Jewish Committee reported that American prestige had been "seriously damaged" by the outcome of the trial. The press in Mississippi, on the other hand, closed ranks and praised the fairness of the trial.
The Killers Tell the Truth
The truth of what happened that night became public knowledge several months after the trial. William Bradford Huie, an Alabama journalist in Mississippi to report on the aftermath of the case, offered Bryant and Milam money to tell their story. Since the two could no longer be prosecuted for a crime of which they had already been acquitted, they gladly told for a fee of how they had beaten and killed young Till. Huie reported what the killers told him in the 24 January 1956 issue of Look magazine. Now publicly exposed as murderers, Bryant and Milam were ostracized by the community, and both moved elsewhere within a year. Emmett Till in death became a martyr for the civil rights movement, a symbol of the racial hatred African-Americans had yet to overcome.