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The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till on August 28, 1955 galvanized the emerging civil rights movement.
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Initially, Till's mother said no. She wanted to take a road trip to Omaha, Nebraska and attempted to lure Till to join her with the promise of open-road driving lessons. But Till desperately wanted to spend time with his cousins in Mississippi, and in a fateful decision that would have grave impact on their lives and the course of American history, Till's mother relented and let him go.
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 arriving in Money, Mississippi, 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.
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. 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.
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 has happened, because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like."
In the weeks that passed between Till's burial and the murder and kidnapping trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two black publications, Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, published graphic images of Till's corpse. By the time the trial commenced on September 19, Emmett Till's murder had become a source of outrage and indignation throughout much of the country. Because blacks and women were barred from serving jury duty, Bryant and Milam were tried before an all-white, all-male jury. In an act of extraordinary bravery, Moses Wright took the stand and identified Bryant and Milam as Till's kidnappers and killers.
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