Emmett Till

One tragic incident did a lot to encourage both black and white people to join the Civil Rights Movement and that was the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till.

In August 1955 Emmett Till who came from Chicago persuaded his mother to let him visit his cousins in the south for his holidays. Emmett was allowed to travel to Mississippi to spend the summer with his cousins.

While there he was accused of sexually harassing a white woman – the wife of a shopkeeper. His cousin recalls him wolf-whistling at the woman but she claimed it was more than that. She said that Emmett had grabbed her by the waist and cheekily asked her out on a date.

Unbeknownst to Till, the situation between African Americans and white people in the south was very different from where he came from. The slightest suggestion of flirtation, romance or sexuality between two different races was seen as fundamentally wrong and the idea that a black boy might dare to behave this way to his “superiors” (as white racists believed they were) was outrageous.

A few days after the incident the woman’s husband and brother-in-law tracked down Emmett Till and kidnapped him from his relatives’ house. They dragged him away to a remote area and beat him to death. His body was thrown in the local river.

His body was in such a state that when found it was difficult to identify him. However a ring he always wore left an imprint of initials that made it possible to say it was him. Plus he was of course missing and his relatives were fully aware that the kidnappers had not brought him back home.

The two men who killed Emmett were arrested and taken to court. The trial began in September but only lasted 4 days. The all-white jury’s decision took just one hour. They found the defendants not guilty on the grounds that the body might not be Till’s.

Emmett Till’s body was brought home to Chicago and his mother held an open casket funeral and allowed photographs of his badly beaten and disfigured compose to be published in newspapers. This helped people who were not from the south realise and understand the inequality and brutality black Americans were facing every day. As a result more African Americans joined the movement and so did increasing numbers of white people. The brave decision to show the atrocity of her son’s murder to America helped to increase understanding of the problems of segregation and also helped the Civil Rights Movement gain strength and momentum.