How the Civil Rights Movement Worked

The Emmett Till Case
Mrs. Mamie Bradley, mother of Emmett Till, is near hysteria at his funeral service. Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

In August 1955, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. Although he had experienced segregation up North, he wasn't prepared for life in Mississippi, one of the most heavily segregated states in the country. On a dare from a cousin, Emmett flirted with a white woman as he was buying candy in a store — while leaving, he turned allegedly around and said "Bye, baby" to her. (Some other reports say he wolf-whistled at her; others that he said nothing to her.)

A few nights later, he was taken from his relatives' home by Roy Bryant, the woman's husband and owner of the store, and J.M. Milam. Three days after Emmett's kidnapping his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, beaten beyond recognition and with a bullet in his skull and barbed wire around his neck.

A telegram Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Bradley, sent to President Eisenhower that pleads for action.
National Archives and Records Administration

Surprisingly, Bryant and Milam were quickly arrested for kidnapping. Most locals, including whites, were shocked at the violent crime; Emmett's uncle, Moses Wright, was only able to identify his nephew's body because he had been wearing a ring with his initials engraved on it. Newspapers and officials demanded justice, and after Wright testified against Milam and Bryant, pointing them out as the kidnappers, many other blacks stepped forward to give testimony.

Although the two men were pronounced "not guilty" by an all-white jury, the effect of the Emmett Till case on the nation was profound. Emmett's mother Mamie was particularly moved by the effort to spread awareness about the brutality of racism. When her son's body was shipped back up to Chicago for the funeral, she made sure it was an open-casket funeral so people could see what had happened to Emmett.

The Emmett Till case received national attention. Many of those who heard stories on the radio or saw pictures of Emmett's body were young people — the same generation that would soon grow up and demand widespread change across America.