In August of 1955, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy from Chicago visited his mother’s family in Money, Mississippi. Emmett Till had grown up around racial prejudice, but had never seen anything like the segregation laws and customs of the Deep South. So, when Till supposedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the white woman standing behind the counter at Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market in Money, he most likely saw it as a way to get the woman’s attention in order to make a purchase. However, in Mississippi at this time blacks could be punished simply for looking white people in the eyes, which meant interracial flirting, which is what Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam claim the black boy was doing, a truly heinous crime. To punish the naïve child, Roy Bryant and Milam kidnapped Till from his uncle’s farm outside of the small town in the Mississippi Delta and brutally beat and tortured him before putting a bullet through his head. The murders then tied barbed wire around his neck, attached it to some heavy weights, and dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River, from which it was pulled three days later.
Till’s mother demanded her son’s body be returned to Chicago where she held an open casket funeral, as she wanted all of the world to see what had happened to her son. In the following months, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam would be brought to court for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. However, following the trial it would take the all-white jury only sixty-seven minutes to reach a verdict: not guilty. And since the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution protected the brothers from any further risk of prosecution, they proceeded to sell their story of the murder of Emmett Till to Look magazine for $2000, in which they admitted to killing the fourteen-year-old boy. The story of Emmett Till is one which serves as a perfect example of the differences between whites and blacks in the Deep South during segregation. Here was a boy who was murdered simply for whistling at a white woman, and his killers were allowed to go free simply because they were white. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the author essentially makes the point that simply being white gives a person ultimate power over the life of a black person, and the murder of Emmett Till provides a real life example of this power. While there are many events which modern historians can look back upon as having major influence in the Civil Rights Movement and as being truly heinous crimes, few stand out as much as Emmett Till and few had equal political and moral consequences.