9 – The Murder of Emmett Till – 1955
This was one of the most notorious Klan crimes of the 21st century and was arguably the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant who worked as a cashier in the town of Money, Mississippi. Four days later, Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped and beat 14-year old Till before shooting him in the head. This disgusting crime took place on August 28, 1955, and on November 1, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery. Parks later wrote that “the news of Emmett’s death caused me… to participate in the cry for justice and equal rights.”
Till was born in Chicago in 1941 and was visiting relatives in Money in August 1955. On August 24, Till spoke to Bryant in a small grocery store and was accused of flirting and whistling at the cashier. Decades later, Bryant admitted that allegations of Till being menacing and sexually crude towards her were not true. Indeed, what happened on that day is still a matter of dispute. The only thing that’s clear is that whatever Till’s conduct if he was even guilty of anything untoward, did not warrant the death penalty.
Till probably whistled at Bryant as she left the store; an act that broke the well-known taboo relating to social conduct between the races in the South. Coming from a big city, young Emmett was probably unaware of this unwritten rule. In any case, Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, knew there could be trouble and drove away from the scene as fast as he could. On August 26, Bryant’s husband, Roy, returned to town after being away hauling shrimp in Texas.
Roy heard rumors of what happened while in town and confronted his wife. After she told him her version of events, he resolved to kidnap Till and teach him a lesson. With the aid of his half-brother, J. W. Milam, his wife, and a black man named Johnny Washington, Bryant went looking for Till. Bryant caught and beat one black teenager, but it was a case of mistaken identity. At around 2:30 am, Bryant and Milam learned that Till was staying at the house of Moses Wright. They kidnapped him and probably shot him in Leslie Milam’s barn. They tied a fan to Till’s neck with barbed wire and threw him in the Tallahatchie River.
Till’s body was found three days later, and an estimated 50,000 people filed past his coffin in the funeral chapel. Although Bryant and Milam admitted kidnapping Till, they claimed they let him go in the town of Money. With the aid of the County Sheriff, H. C. Strider, the two men were acquitted despite overwhelming evidence against them. Strider even claimed that the body in the river wasn’t Till’s. After deliberating for just 67 minutes, the all-white, all-male jury allowed Bryant and Milam to walk free. The local Citizen’s council, a KKK offshoot, visited the jury to ensure they voted the ‘right’ way Once again, the vile racists had escaped justice.