The Lynching Of 14 Year Old Emmett Till Catalyzed The Civil Rights Act

In the summer of 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The new law made it illegal to discriminate against any person on the basis of his or her race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It stands today as the single largest civil rights achievement in U.S. history.

The catalyst for this eventual legislation may have occurred nearly a decade before it's enactment. In the hot, sultry town of Money, Mississippi.

In the summer of 1955 Emmett Till was visiting his Uncle Mose Wright and family during summer vacation. The 14 year old African American boy had come to Money from his home in Chicago, Illinois. Although he was from the segregated south side of Chicago, he was about to experience segregation in it's cruelest form.

On August 24th Emmett and his cousins were standing in front of a small store when he began bragging about knowing white people back in Chicago, apparently even stating that he had a white girlfriend. One of his cousins casually mentioned that the woman working in the store was white and dared Emmett to go in and speak to her.

Till took on the dare and went in the store, coming out shortly afterwards with a candy bar in hand. Soon thereafter the boys left the area. The woman working inside the store that day was the store owner's wife, Carolyn Bryant. Her husband Roy happened to be away on business.

A few nights later Mose Wright and his wife were awakened at their home by two men demanding to speak to Emmett. The two men were Roy Bryant and his wife's brother, J.W. Milam. After questioning the young boy they decided to kidnap him.

Despite his Aunt's pleas and an offer of money from his Uncle, Emmett was thrown into the back of Roy's vehicle and taken to a nearby building. There he was beaten with a pistol and forced to carry a 75 pound industrial fan to the truck.

The men then drove him to the Tallahatchie River and forced him at gunpoint to take off his clothes. They then, without conscience, tied the cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, crushed in his skull, gouged out one of his eyes, and shot him in the head.

The body of Emmett Till was found in the river on August 28th, nearly unrecognizable. In fact Mose Wright could only definitely identify the body by a ring that Emmett wore. Bryant and Milam were arrested even before the body was found but no white lawyers would take the case on the boy's behalf.

The authorities in Mississippi wanted to bury the body very quickly but the boy's mother Mamie Bradley demanded it be returned to Chicago. There the brave woman promptly displayed the brutal remains for four days in an open viewing. Thousands of people walked past the casket.

The entire ordeal soon became national news. Even garnering some international attention. When the NAACP called the hate crime a lynching, white people across the southern United States became outraged.

The murder case went to trial on September 19, 1955. Five prominent lawyers stepped up to defend the two white men in front of an all white jury. In his closing statement, defense attorney John Witton said: "Your fathers will turn over in their graves if you find these two guilty and surely every last Anglo- Saxon one of you has the courage to free these two men."

The jury deliberated for less than an hour on September 23rd before coming out with a verdict of not guilty on all counts.

On January 24th, 1956 Look Magazine published the confessions of Bryant and Milam. When asked why they were telling the story both men said they needed the money. They were each paid an estimated 3500 dollars knowing full well that the double jeopardy law would protect them from prosecution.

After seeing on the news how Hispanic children are being treated on the California roadways by supposed upstanding U.S. citizens, I shudder to think how this story would be treated if it happened today. I'm certain it would not be bi-partisan.

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