Emmett Till

The brutal movement that mobilized the civil rights movement

When 14-year-old Emmett Till took a train from Chicago to Money, Mississippi in the summer of 1955, he entered the heart of Jim Crow country. Though he might have experienced segregation in Chicago, the outgoing youngster had little concept of how hostile white Southerners could be to African Americans.

Before putting her only son Emmett on bus in Chicago, his mother gave him a stern warning: “Be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly.”

Emmett, all of 14, didn’t heed his mother’s warning. On Aug. 27, 1955, Emmett was beaten and shot to death by two white men who threw the boy’s mutilated body into the Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi. Emmett’s crime: talking and maybe even whistling to a white woman at a local grocery store.

Emmett’s death came a year after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation. For the first time, blacks had the law on their side in the struggle for equality. Emmett’s killing struck a cord across a nation. White people in the North were as shocked as blacks at the cruelty of the killing. The national media picked up on the story, and the case mobilized the NAACP, which provided a safe house for witnesses in the trial of the killers. Emmett became a martyr for the fledgling civil rights movement that would engross the country in a few years.


The Emmett Till murder trial, 1955

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