Emmett Till's Death Inspired a Movement

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Mamie Till Mobley family.

The alleged teasing of white store clerk Carolyn Bryant by the 14 year-old African American Emmett Till led to his brutal murder at the hands of Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, forcing the American public to grapple with the menace of violence in the Jim Crow South. According to court documents, Till, who was visiting family for the summer in Money, Mississippi, from Chicago, purchased two-cents worth of bubble gum from the Bryant Grocery store and said, “Bye, baby” over his shoulder to Carolyn Bryant as he exited the store.

That night Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam ran into Emmett’s uncle’s home where he was staying, dragged Till from his bed, beat him to the point of disfigurement, and shot him before tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton-gin fan attached with barbed wire laced to his neck to weigh him down. Bryant and Milam maintained their innocence and would eventually be acquitted of the murder by an all-white, all male jury. They later sold their story for $4,000 to Look magazine– bragging about the murder as a form of Southern justice implemented to protect white womanhood.

For African Americans, the murder of Till was evidenceof the decades-old codes of violence exacted upon Black men and women for breaking the rules of white supremacy in the Deep South. Particularly for Black males, who found themselves under constant threat of attack or death for sexual advances towards white women – mostly imagined – Till’s murder reverberated a need for immediate change. Carolyn Bryant testified in court that Till had grabbed her hand, and after she pulled away, he followed her behind the counter, clasped her waist, and using vulgur language, told her that he had been with white women before. At 82, some 60 years later, Bryant, confessed to Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson that she had lied about this entire event.

Token for membership in the Ku Klux Klan, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Anonymous Gift.

Members of Citizens’ Councils (white supremacist civic organizations that used public policy and electoral power to reinforce Jim Crow), celebrated the acquittal, further threatening those who had testified against Bryant and Milam and members of the local NAACP. But rather than bending to the intimidation and psychic horror caused by the savage murder, Till’s family, along with national newspapers and civil rights organizations – including the NAACP used his death to strike a blow against racial injustice and terrorism.

A boycott of the Bryant Grocery caused its closure shortly after the trial , and the the Bryants and Milam moved to Texas. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley insisted on an open-casket at his funeral services – which were attended by more than 50,000 people and chronicled by Jet magazine. The photo of Till with his mother earlier that year alongside Jet’s photo of his mutilated corpse horrified the nation and became a catalyst for the bourgeoning civil rights movement.

One hundred days after Till’s murder, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus and was arrested for violating Alabama's bus segregation laws. Reverend Jesse Jackson told Vanity Fair (1988) that “Rosa said she thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till and she couldn’t do it.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks at 16 St. Baptist Church, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Estate of James Karales.

The Women's Democratic Council, under Jo Ann Robinson, called for a citywide bus boycott and asked a young, 26-year-old minister to help. His name was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. King, was deeply impacted by Till’s abduction and murder, delivering a sermon just days after Bryant and Milam’s acquittal (“Pride Versus Humility: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican,” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church), in which he lamented Till and the lack of moral piety among violent segregationists.

“The white men who lynch Negroes worship Christ. That jury in Mississippi, which a few days ago in the Emmett Till case, freed two white men from what might be considered one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of the twentieth century, worships Christ. The perpetrators of many of the greatest evils in our society worship Christ. This trouble is that all people, like the Pharisee, go to church regularly, they pay their tithes and offerings, and observe religiously the various ceremonial requirements. The trouble with these people, however, is that they worship Christ emotionally and not morally. They cast his ethical and moral insights behind the gushing smoke of emotional adoration and ceremonial piety,” King said.

March on Washington--Marchers Gathering at the Lincoln Memorial After Walking from Washington Monument Grounds, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of James H. Wallace Jr., © Jim Wallace.

Dr. King would use the momentum of outrage to galvanize the nation against social and racial injustice, invoking Till’s murder when talking about “the evil of racial injustice” in several speeches, as well as “the crying voice of a little Emmett C. Till, screaming from the rushing waters in Mississippi” in a 1963 Mother’s Day sermon. Eight years later, on the anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, Dr. King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

Learn more about Till and the African American struggle for equal rights in our Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968 exhibition.

One hundred days after Tills murder, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus and was arrested for violating Alabama's bus segregation laws.