Boy from Chicago: Emmett Till

THE MURDER – Emmett Till was a fourteen year old boy from Chicago when he went to visit some relatives in Mississippi August 20, 1955. While at a store in Money, Mississippi a few miles from where he was staying, Emmett whistled to the white clerk, Carolyn Bryant, and asked her for a date. Till’s relatives knew he had broken the social norms around black/white relations in Mississippi and that it was likely retribution would follow. Insinuating sex with a white women was liable to get a black man killed. Two days later, Friday Augsust 26th Roy Bryant returns from a business trip in Texas and is told what happened. He gathers his buddy, Leslie Milam and some other men and kidnaps and beats Emmett to death back at Leslie’s barn. Leslie is reported to have said to someone who noticed blood dripping from the truck and pooling on the ground, “This is what happens to smart niggers.” (Linder, UMKC) They then proceed to tie a heavy fan to his neck with barbed wire and drop him into the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, according to the FBI REPORT, Emmett’s body was found by a man fishing. He was identified by his father’s silver ring because there was such gruesome damage to the body on Emmet’s body when found. At his funeral, 50,000 people attended.

THE TRIAL – Bryant and Milam had been arrested the day after they had dumped Emmett’s body. However, justice was not to be served.  In 1955, none of the black residents of Tallahatchie County were registered voters and thus, under the jury selection rules then in place, no black was eligible to serve as a juror.  During the six hours of jury selection, the county’s sheriff-elect assisted the defense team, advising the lawyers as to which jurors were “doubtful” and which were “safe.”  All of the twelve white men seated for the jury seemed safe.  One of the defense attorneys said later, “After the jury was chosen, any first-year law student could have won the case.”  The prosecution were denied access to the two black men who aided Bryant and Milam in the murder, as the Sheriff of the County held them in another jail under different names. The loaded jury deliberated for only a single hour before returning with a “not-guilty” verdict.

CRT applied analysis – In this case, the law was used a mechanism for the perpetuation of racial hierarchy. The fact that the Jury identified with the accused, and refused to convict meant that the white majority could capture and kill black boys with impunity. The law failed to punish a lynching that so fundamentally offended the public conscious that it provoked a massive social uprising. Bryant later confessed that when he returned to Mississippi and was told that Emmett had broken the social code around black-white relations, he had to teach him a lesson or else risked being seen as a coward and a fool by his community. The societal pressure put on Bryant influenced his decision making and ultimately led to Emmett’s death. The embedded assumption was that any black male who would challenge the social order by harassing a white woman was a threat. Emmett needed to be put back into line to maintain the white-supremacy that imbued the Mississippi community. Through the use of force, the hierarchy could once again be clearly seen and therefore dissipate any notion of racial emancipation and firmly re-establish the racial caste system through severe violence. In this case, the legal system played an important role in legitimizing the racial subordination with a not-guilty verdict where the facts of the case were not in dispute. The law had been protecting lynching in Mississippi since the 1880s. Since blacks could not vote, all-white juries would protect the offenders who had acted in the public interest of the white majority. Intimidation was ever present and Till’s murder takes place in this overall context. (Whitaker, pp. 191.)

Aftermath – The aftermath of the case caused major upheaval around the United States. “Till’s case became emblematic of the disparity of justice for blacks in the South.” (Jones, pp. 39–40.) It forced all segments of society to confront the racialized marginalization.

According to Stephen Whitaker, “Negro faith in legalism declined, and the revolt officially began on December 1, 1955, with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.” (Whitaker, pp. 201.) Rosa Parks began the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks later said when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.” Many people were inspired to change the status quo after the verdict from Till. The legal system itself had to be restructured to accommodate the changing society. Thousands of people marched in protest rallies that took place in several cities across America.

The 1957 Civil Rights Act was a restructured legal response that came as a result of the outcrying of support, it allowed the Department of Justice to intervene in local law enforcement issues when civil rights were being compromised. By addressing the legal protection given by local justice to racialized enforcement, the Law was able to adapt to the changing power structure in society, Black people in the United States would no longer tolerate a status quo that allowed what happened Emmett Till and the subsequent trail.


Houck, Davis; Grindy, Matthew (2008). Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press, University Press of Mississippi.

Jones, Camara Phyllis (2002). “Confronting Institutionalized Racism”. Phylon

Till-Mobley, Mamie; Benson, Christopher (2003). The Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, Random House. – Douglas Linder Famous Cases Accounts UMKC University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Whitaker, Stephen (Summer 2005). A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Murder and Trial of Emmett Till,Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8 (2), pp. 189–224.


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One response to “Boy from Chicago: Emmett Till

  1. This is an excellent post.

    Of interest, Henry Giroux opens his book Stormy Weather (2006) with a comparison of the biopolitics of disposability related to the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the death of Emmett Till. Both cases involve racialized constructions of certain lives as being disposable. I think that you would enjoy the book.

    On a related note, I think that your use of the concept of ‘impunity’ is important here. The law can be involved in the construction of racialized social hierarchies in many ways – the construction of classes, the regulation of apartheid, etc – but I would argue that it is most powerful and insidious when it operates by withdrawing its protection from certain groups. By consistently failing to respond to lynchings, the legal system created a state of impunity.