In 1955, Emmet Till was a 14-year-old young man from Chicago- who like many Northern blacks, visited his family down South for the summer. Unlike many Northern blacks, Till would never return home to the loving embrace of his mother, Mamie Till.
In 1955, Till was murdered in Mississippi by Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam. They accused Till of whistling at Bryant’s wife. According to Till’s mother, her son had a speech impediment, he stuttered. Till was told to whistle if he was having difficulty speaking. He was never whistling at Bryant’s wife.
The whistle cost Till his life. He was kidnapped, beaten, shot and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, the 14-year-old’s body was found badly decomposed. That day the story ceased to be about what Till did. The new story was about what the United States of America, as a nation could do about seeing that a travesty like this never happened again.
The day Till was murdered, was the day that crystallized the American Civil Rights Movement. News of the murder reached across the Atlantic and people of various ethnicities, cultural backgrounds and economic statuses were outraged.
Till’s mother refused to let the senseless murder of her son go unseen and unpunished. She decided to have an open casket funeral for her son to show the torture that Bryant and Milam had inflicted upon her son. This decision sparked controversy and put the United States under a world microscope.
The US government was embarrassed, to say the least, and the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and new members. It was no longer a movement for just blacks in America, but it became a movement for all Americans who wanted more for their country. Even though there were witnesses that saw Bryant and Milam kidnap Till, they were acquitted of all kidnapping and murder charges and set free. Worldwide, the papers called the acquittal a scandal, and on the home front – the Civil Rights Movement was going full steam ahead.
Forced labor, purchased people and exploited nations; these three phrases could be the beginning of any novel, newspaper article or history text in any country in the world. It would be problematic to try to pin the offenses on any one group. It would be equally problematic for any one group to claim all of the victimization. But, in the face of these issues, there is a story that stood out and tugged at the heart strings of many nations and many people and that is the story of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old who only wanted to have fun with his cousins in the South.