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The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till on August 28, 1955, galvanized the emerging Civil Rights Movement.
Trailer for the documentary film "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till." Video courtesy of Keith Beauchamp.
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In an act of extraordinary bravery, Moses Wright took the stand and identified Bryant and Milam as Till's kidnappers and killers. At the time, it was almost unheard of for blacks to openly accuse whites in court, and by doing so, Wright put his own life in grave danger.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the defendants' guilt and widespread pleas for justice from outside Mississippi, on September 23,
the panel of white male jurors acquitted Bryant and Milam of all charges. Their deliberations lasted a mere 67 minutes. Only a few months later, in January 1956, Bryant and Milam admitted to committing the crime. Protected by double jeopardy laws, they told the whole story of how they kidnapped and killed Emmett Till to Look magazine for $4,000.
"J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant died with Emmett Till's blood on their hands," Simeon Wright, Emmett Till's cousin and an eyewitness to his kidnapping (he was in the store with Emmett the day he was kidnapped by Milam and Bryant), later stated. "And it looks like everyone else who was involved is going to do the same. They had a chance to come clean. They will die with Emmett Till's blood on their hands."
Coming only one year after the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of racial segregation in public schools, Emmett Till's death provided an important catalyst for the American Civil Rights Movement. One hundred days after Till's murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama city bus, sparking the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott. Nine years later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing many forms of racial discrimination and segregation. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act, outlawing discriminatory voting practices, was passed.
Though she never stopped feeling the pain of her son's death, Mamie Till (who died of heart failure in 2003) also recognized that what happened to her son helped open Americans' eyes to the racial hatred plaguing the country, and in doing so helped spark a massive protest movement for racial equality and justice.
"People really didn't know that things this horrible could take place," Mamie Till said in an interview with Devery S. Anderson in December 1996. "And the fact that it happened to a child, that make all the difference in the world."
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