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Collection Civil Rights History Project

The Murder of Emmett Till

The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 brought nationwide attention to the racial violence and injustice prevalent in Mississippi. While visiting his relatives in Mississippi, Till went to the Bryant store with his cousins, and may have whistled at Carolyn Bryant. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, kidnapped and brutally murdered Till, dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. The newspaper coverage and murder trial galvanized a generation of young African Americans to join the Civil Rights Movement out of fear that such an incident could happen to friends, family, or even themselves. Many interviewees in the Civil Rights History Project remember how this case deeply affected their lives.

Two of Emmett Till’s cousins, Wheeler Parker and Simeon Wright, witnessed Till’s kidnapping on the night of August 28, 1955 at the home of Moses Wright. They both describe their family’s background in Mississippi and Chicago, the incident at Bryant’s store, and the terror they felt when Bryant and Milan entered their home and took Till. Parker describes the funeral in Chicago, which drew thousands of people: “The solemn atmosphere there, you know, it’s just – it’s just unbelievable, I guess you could say. The air was filled with just, I guess, unbelief and how could it happen to a kid? People just felt helpless.”

Two journalists, Moses Newson and Simeon Booker, were assigned to cover the murder for the Tri-State Defender and JET, respectively. Booker attended the funeral with photographer David Jackson, who took the famous image of Till in the coffin. In this joint interview, Booker explains: “JET’s circulation just took off when they ran the picture. They had to reprint, the first time they ever reprinted JET magazine. And there was a lot of interest in that case. And the entire black community was becoming aware of the need to do something about it.” The two journalists also covered the trial and were instrumental in helping to find some key witnesses. Bryant and Milam were acquitted, however, which outraged the African American community nationwide.

African American children and teenagers, particularly those in the South, were shocked by the photographs in JET and the outcome of the trial. Sisters Joyce and Dorie Ladner, who grew up in Mississippi, remember keeping a scrapbook of every article about Till and their fear that their brothers could be killed too. Dorie Ladner was inspired to learn more about the law after Bryant and Milam were acquitted: “That’s where the light bulb went off: Why aren’t they being punished?  And that’s when I went on my quest to try to understand the whole legal system and equal rights and justice under the law.” Joyce Ladner discusses how she coined the term, “Emmett Till Generation,” which she uses to describe the African American baby boomers in the South who were inspired by Till’s murder to join a burgeoning movement of mass meetings, sit-ins, and marches to demand their equal treatment under the law.

Cleveland Sellers was 11 years old when he learned about Emmett Till through JET. He remembers, “I was devastated by the fact that Emmett could have been me or any other black kid around that same age. And so, I related to that very quickly. And we had discussions in our class about Emmett Till. I had a cover of the JET, took it to school. Some other students had the same thing. And so, we had rational discussions about it. And, you know, the question comes up: How do you address that? And I think, for us, it was projected out, that that would be our destiny to try to find remedies to a society that would allow that to happen, would condone that, and would actually free those who were responsible for that murder. And I think that that was a way in which we actually got away from revenge and hatred and those kinds of things. We talked about how we were going to use Emmett Till to build on, that we would rectify in our work and in our effort the dastardly tragedy that happened to Emmett Till.”

The Library of Congress holds many other online collection items related to Emmett Till, including photographs of him, his family, his funeral, and the murder trial; federal resolutions and bills including the  Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007; a press release issued by the NAACP the day after Till’s body was found; and a telegram from Paul Robeson expressing his outrage at the acquittal of Till’s murderers.

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