Mamie Mobley had warned her son, Emmett Till, about the dangers of the Deep South. As a child her family had migrated to Chicago from Mississippi, a state notorious for its Jim Crow laws and white supremacist terror. She had little desire to return, even to visit her uncle Mose Wright, a sharecropper who lived on a plantation near Money, Mississippi. Still, her fourteen-year-old son wished to spend time with Wright's grandson, Curtis, and pleaded with her to allow him to ride the Illinois Central line into the South. Mamie relented and sent him off with a warning. "If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person goes past," she told him, "do it willingly."22
On one warm afternoon during that summer of 1955, Emmett Till and Curtis took a ride to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, a country store in the town of Money. They came to meet up with some other black children from the area, to buy snacks and play checkers on the porch near the entrance. According to one account, Till had been bragging to the boys about a white girlfriend back in Chicago. Skeptical, one boy challenged Till to talk to a white woman inside the store. Till, eager to meet the challenge, entered the store, purchased some bubble-gum, and while exiting said to the young woman, "Bye, Baby." Outside, the boys asked him, "How did you like the [white] lady in the store?" Till whistled his approval.
Rumors of the incident spread quickly through the town, reaching Roy Bryant, the husband of Carolyn Bryant, the young white woman in the store that afternoon. Three nights later, Bryant and his brother-in-law J. W. "Big Jim" Milam sped out to Mose Wright's home to find the boy from "up nawth" who "done the talkin.'" They stormed into the small cabin, and at gun point, snatched Till from his bed, warning 64-year-old Wright to keep his mouth shut or, "you'll never live to be sixty-five."
Exactly what happened next is unknown, but when the young boy's body was discovered three days later, the evidence revealed that Till had been brutally murdered. The child's neck had been wrapped in barbed wire and weighed down by a steel cotton-gin fan, his skull bored by a bullet hole, one eye gouged, and his forehead crushed on one side. His maimed features were so unrecognizable his mother Mamie could only identify him by his hairline, teeth, and fingers. Fearing unwanted media attention, the Mississippi sheriff hoped to bury Till's corpse immediately, but his mother refused to allow the speedy burial. Instead she demanded to have her son's tortured body displayed at the funeral in an open casket, to let "the world see what they did to my boy." Thousands of mourners attended the ceremony to pay their respects and to see what two white men had done to an eighth-grade boy on vacation in Mississippi. The black publication Jet magazine, with Mamie Mobley's permission, printed chilling images of Till's mutilated face for all of black America to see. And when an all-white, all-male jury took just over an hour to unanimously acquit both Bryant and Milam of murder, black radio preachers throughout the country delivered the details of the trial and called upon the community to demand justice.
White-on-black crime, or "white death," as African-American author Richard Wright called it, was nothing new in the ex-Confederate states. The memory of Radical Reconstruction, a "tragic era" in which African Americans held political power, reminded whites in the South of the need to confine blacks to "their place." With each successive generation of black Americans, white segregationists in the South grew more concerned about the nuisance of the "new negroes," those who were "sassy," who "talked back," and who refused to give in to white demands. Through the use of terror, intimidation, and legal means, whites managed to control where blacks could shop, eat, learn, rest, work, reside, sleep, play, be nursed, and be buried. Southern blacks were denied the right to vote and were forced to use separate toilets, entrances, textbooks, water fountains, bibles, parks, and even prostitutes. Those blacks who chose not to accept the prevailing norms in the South risked physical reprisal. With violence, whites intended to warn the rest of the black community against challenging white supremacy in the South.
In 1955, the year following the Supreme Court's decision against segregation in Brown v. Board, at least eight black citizens were lynched in the South, and many more suffered from racially motivated violence. These crimes occurred largely in Mississippi, the most segregated state in the country. In Belzoni, Mississippi, George Lee, a grocery store owner and NAACP member, was fatally shot while leaving the courthouse after attempting to vote. Lamar Smith, another black Mississippi citizen, was gunned down in front of the county courthouse after casting his ballot. But the most gruesome, tragic, and widely-publicized murder was of young Emmett Till, tortured, beaten, shot, choked, and drowned for speaking to a white woman.
Till's murder marked a bitter turning point in the lives of many black Americans. In her autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi, civil rights activist Anne Moody remembers, "Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me—the fear of being killed just because I was black."23 Myrlie Evers, wife of slain NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, explains, "It's too bad to have to say that sometimes it takes those kinds of things to help a people become stronger and to eliminate the fear that they have to speak out and do something."24 Upon learning that both Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury, black congressman Charles Diggs, Jr. felt a new kind of conviction: "I was strengthened in my belief that something had to be done."25
For so many, the image of a child's crushed skull illustrated the reality of the crisis in the South and inspired a new, steadfast fighting spirit. The generation haunted by the memories of Emmett Till's death would lead an unprecedented struggle against racial injustice.