Life Style

The lasting legacy of Emmett Till and how his story continues to shape the Civil Rights Movement in the United States

Story Highlights
  • The Story of Emmett Till
  • Justice Denied
  • The Aftermath

The American legal system is hailed as one of the most effective in the world. It is tough to serve a population as expansive and litigious justice, yet the US seems to do it better than most. However, they still have their failings. Politics, societal influences, and personal biases can find a comfortable place within the system and botch an otherwise straightforward case. One such case is the 1955 case of Emmett Till, which gained the attention of the entire nation and became one of the most significant catalysts for the civil rights movement.

The Story of Emmett Till

Emmett Till was born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of Louis and Mamie Till. 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. 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.

Four days later, at approximately 2:30 in the morning on August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till from Moses Wright’s home. They then beat the teenager brutally, dragged him to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan, and shoved his mutilated body into the water.

Three days later and eight miles downstream, a boy named Robert Hodges, fishing in the Tallahatchie, saw feet sticking out of the water. The badly beaten and bloated body was pulled from the river and loaded into a boat. Till’s body was shipped to Chicago, where his mother opted to have an open-casket funeral with till’s body on display for five days. Thousands of people came to the Roberts Temple Church of God to see the evidence of this brutal hate crime.

Till’s mother said that despite the enormous pain it caused her to see her son’s dead body on display, she opted for an open-casket funeral to “let the world see what they did to my boy because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like.”

Justice Denied

The defense’s arguments hinged upon the notion that the body could not be identified as Emmett Till. Even lacking a solid examination, the most it received was that a white physician looked at it from a distance (due to the smell) and said that it looked bloated and decomposed to the point of being dead for almost 5 to 10 days, far before the body was discovered. Also, the funeral parlor workers said the same. Mamie Till said she would agree to an autopsy, and then it would have been clear that a body brutally beaten would reach that level of decomposition. Still, the prosecuting attorney did not do so, thinking it would not affect the case’s outcome.

The reason for this act by the prosecution attorney can be seen in the jury selection and the atmosphere before the case. The Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Roy Wilkins, called the incident a lynching and blamed the whole state of Mississippi. While both blacks and whites condemned the incident, the influx of Northerners wishing to witness the trial and the fingers raised against the people of Mississippi had outraged them, and everyone began rooting for the defense. Businesses donated $10,000 towards the defense as they would not have been able to afford the trial. Afterward, 5 defense attorneys agreed to take the case pro bono. The jury was chosen from amongst the citizens of the same county, and enough of them were familiar to the defense attorneys to guarantee a “not guilty” verdict.

The jurors returned a verdict of “not guilty” after only 67 minutes. They would have come out sooner if not for the sheriff telling them to spend more time so as not to look bad. The jurors were given Coca-Cola, and one of them later joked that “it would have taken less time, but they were busy drinking pop.” Journalists recall having heard laughing coming from the room.

The defense had created the minimum amount of doubt to warrant an acquittal. As evidenced by later sources, the truth was that none but one juror genuinely doubted the body belonging to Emmett Till.

The Aftermath

Just two months after the trial, the Rosa Parks incident took place, and the civil rights movement began. This case served as premium fuel for the vehicle of the civil rights movement. It was one of the significant reasons why black Americans had greater freedom and equality within their country. It finally gave many people in the country a wakeup-call to, at the very least, do better than this. A year afterward, segregation in schools ended as well.

It can, however, not be emphasized enough that this case is a grim indicator of one of the darkest periods in American history. It shows the whites’ power over the black population even after the abolition of slavery.

The confidence Bryant had in committing this abhorrent act is evidence of the discrepancy that existed and the gaps the American legal system has had too close to guarantee justice for all.

Back to top button