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Submitted By: Sandra Massie

Emmett Till was only 14 years old when he was visiting relatives (a great uncle Mose Wright) in Money, Mississippi, on August 24, 1955, when he reportedly flirted with a white cashier at a grocery store. Four days later, two white men kidnapped Till, beat him and shot him in the head. And just like it still is today, the men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them. But, because they knew that they could not be tried twice for the same crime, they later confessed to the murders to Look Magazine. Till’s murder and open casket funeral solidified the emerging Civil Rights Movement

Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955), was an only child, born to parents Louis and Mamie Till on July 25, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois. Emmett Till never knew his father, who was a private in the United States Army during World War II. His parents later separated in 1942 and 3 years later received word that his father had been executed for misconduct while in Italy. On August 19, 1955—the day before Till left with his uncle and cousin for Mississippi—Mamie Till gave her son his late father’s signet ring, engraved with the initials “L.T.” The next day she drove her son to the 63rd Street station in Chicago. They kissed goodbye, and Till boarded a southbound train headed for Mississippi. It was the last time they ever saw each other.

Three days after he arrived in Money, Mississippi, the 14 year old Emmett Till was visiting his relatives, a great-uncle Mose Wright and his family, on August 24, 1955—Emmett Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy refreshments after a long day picking cotton in the hot afternoon sun. What exactly transpired inside the grocery store that afternoon will never be known. Till purchased bubble gum, and some of the kids with him would later report that he either whistled at, flirted with or touched the hand of the store’s white female clerk—and wife of the owner—Carolyn Bryant.

Several nights later, Carolyn Bryant’s husband Roy Bryant, who was away at the time the incident occurred and his half-brother J. W. Milam went to Till’s uncle’s house. They took Till away to a barn, where they beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him through the head and disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River, using a 70-pound (32 kg) cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire for weight. Moses Wright reported Till’s disappearance to the local authorities, and three days later, his corpse was pulled out of the river. Till’s face was mutilated beyond recognition, and Wright only managed to positively identify him by the ring on his finger, engraved with his father’s initials—”L.T.” Three days later, Emmett Till’s body was discovered and retrieved from the river. The fourteen year old’s body was returned to Chicago to his mother, who had pretty much raised him by herself. She insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of the killing.

The open-coffin funeral exposed the world to more than her son Emmett Till’s bloated, mutilated body. Her decision focused attention not only on American racism and the barbarism of lynching but also on the limitations and vulnerabilities of American democracy.” It was recorded that tens of thousands attended his funeral or viewed his casket and images of his mutilated body were published in black-oriented magazines and newspapers, rallying popular black support and white sympathy across the United States. Till’s murder trial attracted a vast amount of press and media who responded due to national criticism and public outcry for justice, and shed light on the condition of black civil rights in Mississippi.

Just as it is today, with Travon Martin, Michael Brown and other blacks who were murdered by white men, in September 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan were aquitted of Emmett Till’s kidnapping and murder, partially because Till’s body was so badly disfigured, it affected the trial, they had problems identifying his body in court except for a ring Till’s mother had given him, this partially lead to Bryant’s and Milam’s acquittals. Because Bryant and Milan were protected against double jeopardy, they both publicly admitted in an interview with Look Magazine that they killed Emmett Till. The case was officially reopened by the United States Department of Justice in 2004 and the body was exhumed. Till’s original casket was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. “I Can’t Breathe”

The teenagers murder is noted as a turning point, motivating the African-American Civil Rights Movement and put Southern racism on the spot. The case was officially reopened by the United States Department of Justice in 2004. As part of the investigation, the body was exhumed and autopsied resulting in a positive identification. He was reburied in a new casket, which is the standard practice in cases of body exhumation. His original casket was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

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