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The Murder of Emmett Till

Emmett Till was on a vacation from school in the summer of 1955. School in his home city of Chicago had let out, and he was spending the week with his cousins in the Mississippi Delta. Around 7:30pm on August 24, Till and his cousins arrived at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, a small country store in Money Mississippi tended by Carolyn Bryant. The primary attraction was the checkers game on the front porch. With his companions thus engaged, Till followed his cousin Wheeler Parker into the store. 


When Wheeler came out of the store, Simeon Wright went in. Twelve years old, Wright grew up in the Mississippi Delta, knew the rules of the Jim Crow South. He didn't want to leave his Chicago cousin alone with white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant. 


When Simeon entered the store, he saw nothing inappropriate. Contrary to the story later told in court by Carolyn Bryant, Till did not grab her or put his arms around her. He did not proposition her. He did not ask her for a date or call her "baby." He simply paid for his items and left the store. 


Shortly after the cousins left the store, Bryant came out too, heading for her car. That is when it happened. Emmett whistled. As Simeon Wright remembers it, "It was a loud wolf whistle, a big-city 'whee wheeeee.'" It was directed at Carolyn Bryant. 


The whistle violated the dearest principle of racist segregation. Black men were believed to be a threat to the sexual purity of white women. In the history of America, the merest rumor of black sexual advances justified the lynch mob. Indeed, more lynchings can be traced to rumors of black sexuality than any other cause. 


The cousins knew it. The whistle had broken an "unwritten law" that governed the interactions of black men and white women. Worried, they hurried Till away from the store as fast as possible. But they could not escape. 


Three days later, Carolyn’s husband Roy, his half-brother J. W. Milam, and an array of accomplices kidnapped Till, tortured him, shot him, attached his body to a cotton gin fan with a length of barbed wire, and dropped his body in a river. 


One month later, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam stood trial for the murder of Emmett Till. The all-white jury took only 56 minutes to acquit the two men. This despite the fact that most jurors later confided that they knew full well the men had committed murder. 


According to a sign that now stands in front of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the Till murder jump-started the civil rights movement.  

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