The Lynching of Emmett Till
- LAST REVIEWED: 07 June 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0028
- LAST REVIEWED: 07 June 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0028
In August 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till left his home in Chicago to visit his extended southern family in Money, Mississippi. The beginning of his stay went well, but on 24 August, barely a week into his visit, Till and group of friends visited Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. The exact details of what happened remain cloudy, but at some point Till entered the store and interacted with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman and the wife of the store’s owner. It quickly became apparent that something had gone dreadfully wrong, and Till’s friends rushed him from the store as Bryant went to her car to get a gun. For three days, nothing more happened, but then Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and Roy’s stepbrother, J. W. Milam, struck out in the dead of night for the home of Till’s great-uncle, Moses Wright. The two white men forced Till from the house, and he was never seen alive again. Three days later, Till’s bloated and disfigured corpse surfaced downstream in the Tallahatchie River, and Bryant and Milam were arrested for murder. When Till’s body was returned to Chicago in a sealed casket, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, demanded that it be opened, insisting as well on an open casket funeral. That viewing, lasting several days and drawing tens of thousands of mourners, shocked the nation, and when Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender published photographs of Till’s maimed face, the upcoming trial of young Till’s murderers became an international media event, with more than seventy newspapers and magazines sending reporters to Mississippi. Against all reasonable evidence, but not unexpectedly, the all-white, all-male jury acquitted Bryant and Milam, after deliberating for barely an hour. African American newspapers and magazines, joined by a chorus of support from the mainstream press and liberal political organizations, called for national protests and boycotts throughout the South, while an apologist southern press grew increasingly defensive. Tensions grew worse when, a few months later, Bryant and Milam, safe from further prosecution, sold their confession to a Look magazine reporter. For many historians of the civil rights movement, the lynching of Emmett Till and the brazen acquittal of his murderers, predating the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by just a few months, helped to ignite the black freedom struggle on the 1950s and 1960s.
Although Till’s lynching was a major news event in its day, scholars were slow to assess its impact. Few of the central works on African American history in the 1960s and 1970s mention the case, and it is all but ignored in early assessments of the civil rights movement. In fact, the only substantial history of the lynching produced during this period was Whitaker 1963, a master’s thesis that remains a valuable and oft-cited resource. It was not until the mid-1980s that the lynching reemerged as a seminal moment in civil rights history. Although Simpson 1981 appeared early in the decade and called for a reassessment of a “forgotten” civil rights case, the turn begins not with a scholarly book or popular history, but with a brief fifteen-minute segment in the opening episode of the influential documentary Eyes on the Prize(Hampton 1987). Aired in January 1987, the episode situates the African American response to Till’s lynching as the heroic “first step” needed in response to the Brown v. Board of Education case, highlighting the courage of Till’s mother and his great-uncle Moses Wright. Perhaps more important, however, was the documentary’s decision to show the famous casket photos published in Jet and the Chicago Defender, giving white America is first access to those influential images. Within a year, Whitfield 1988, the first full-length study of the events, was published, providing the most thorough retelling of Till’s murder and trial in twenty-five years. Whitfield also established an important scholarly precedent, insisting that any understanding of the lynching must address its literary legacy in poetry, song, fiction, and drama. Hudson-Weems 1994 builds on the author’s 1988 dissertation, and unlike Whitfield, much of her work is based on extensive interviews, making it a different kind of resource. Hudson-Weems is most notable for being the first to interpret Till’s lynching as the spark to the modern civil rights movement, an influential idea. Metress 2002 appeared a time of renewed interest in Till, providing an anthology of primary documents that not only recovered the extensive and combative press coverage, but also reintroduced some of the unresolved controversies about the lynching—controversies that had largely been forgotten but would soon reemerge. Renewed scholarly interest was matched by renewed public interest, leading to new documentaries and the development of important websites, such as PBS’s American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till and Devery Anderson’s Emmett Till Murder. Scholarship on the case culminated with Anderson 2015, which is certain to remain the definitive history of the case for decades to come.
Companion website to the documentary film directed by Stanley Nelson (see Nelson 2004, cited under Documentaries). With solid background material on race relations, lynching, sharecropping, and segregation, the site is an excellent introduction for undergraduates, preparing them to understand the context for Till’s lynching. Also provides a valuable timeline and links to primary sources, including a transcript of the film.
Anderson, Devery. Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2015.
The definitive work about the lynching. A magisterial history that combs every known resource to determine not only the facts of the case, but also its enduring legacy. Valuable in countless ways, but none more so than in its judicious weighing of evidence to sift through the distortions and mistruths that have long plagued historical understanding.
A website built around Anderson 2015. Valuable for providing a comprehensive “who’s who” of those involved in the case, as well as transcriptions of some of the most important primary sources, including early investigative works by Huie, Adams, Dixon, and Hicks. A helpful next step for those just learning about the story.
Hampton, Henry, prod. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. PBS Video, 1987.
There is an influential fifteen-minute segment on Till in the opening episode (“Awakenings: 1954–1955”) of this landmark documentary series, which first aired on 21 January 1987. By contextualizing Till’s murder as the “first step” in the civil rights movement, and signaling out Moses Wright and Mamie Till-Mobley as heroic figures paving the way for Rosa Parks, the episode did more than any other source to reignite interest in this case.
Hudson-Weems, Clenora. Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement. Troy, NY: Bedford, 1994.
Based on a 1988 dissertation, makes the then-not-yet-widely embraced claim that Till’s lynching sparked the civil rights movement. Along with Whitfield, one of the first to draw attention to the case’s literary legacy, and valuable as well for extensive author interviews with Till’s mother and cousins.
Metress, Christopher, ed. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002.
Anthology of more than one hundred documents. Starting with the press coverage of the kidnapping and trial, and providing generous selections from the most important investigative journalists, concludes with excerpts from memoirists and poets who have helped to position the lynching in our historical and literary memory.
Simpson, William M. “Reflections on a Murder: The Emmett Till Case.” In Southern Miscellany: Essays in Honor of Glover Moore. Edited by Frank Allen Dennis, 177–200. University Press of Mississippi, 1981.
Early scholarly assessment of the case. Noting that “most have forgotten the trial held in Sumner during a muggy week in September 1955” (p. 199), Simpson calls for historians to reexamine how the “activist energies” triggered by the case may have inspired the civil right movement.
Whitaker, Hugh Stephen. “A Case Study of Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case.” MA diss., Florida State University, 1963.
Crucial first scholarly attempt to assess the case. Author interviewed many key white Mississippi participants in the case, and had access to the trial transcript, making this thesis the sole source for all trial quotations until the transcript was rediscovered in 2004. Essential reading for understanding how later scholars will grapple with the case.
Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free Press, 1988.
The first book-length study, this influential work set the direction for much to follow, situating the lynching within the context of the early civil rights movement and probing the enduring effects of the murder in our racial and literary imagination. Best place to get an initial overview.
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