Contextualizing the Murder of Emmett Till in History

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By Quentin Choy

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States began to stir following the murder of a Emmett Till in 1955.

Two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam murdered the 14-year-old boy after he allegedly whistled at Roy’s wife, Carolyn.

The heinous, cold, premeditated murder of a young boy revealed deep wounds in terms of race in America.

The murder happened just a year after Brown v. Board (1954) began racial integration in schools.

Bryant and Milam kidnapped Emmett Till and beat, tortured, and shot him before dumping his corpse into a river in Mississippi.

At Till’s funeral, his mother refused to have a closed casket or have her son’s body altered by a mortician.

Rather, she wanted the ugliness of what Bryant and Milam did to her young son to be on full display for the nation to see.

Mourners at Emmett Till’s funeral.

While Till’s death served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, his death wasn’t that long ago in the context of history.

Till was born just two years before Joe Biden.

Were Emmett Till still alive today, he would be 80 years old. Just five years before Donald Trump.

He was murdered just six years before Barack Obama was born.

The spark of the Civil Rights Movement happened just six years before the first African-American president was born.

Perhaps one of the ugliest, most brutal acts of racism in American history happened just 66 years ago.

While such brutal acts like the murder of Emmett Till are less common in the United States, levels of racism still exists.

African-Americans have come a long way since Emmett Till’s murder, but they still face problems throughout society in the 21st Century.

To what extent that racism still affects society is still up for debate, but it’s fascinating to know that the murder of the a young boy that sparked a movement isn’t as distant in time as it seems.


  1. Emmett Till’s Funeral, PBS
  2. An American tragedy — the lynching of Emmett Till, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  3. The Murder of Emmett Till, Library of Congress
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14 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Quentin, thanks for sharing this. Brutally tortured does not do justice to describe what these men did to this adolescent. They desecrated him. One of the better Civil Rights Museums is in Greensboro, NC, built around the Woolworth’s where the first sit in occurred by four NC A&T college students. The guide came to a picture of Emmett Till and vividly described what they did to him. It makes you ashamed, horrified and sad that this could happen in our country. But, it did and it did again, again and again. I encourage folks to listen to Billie Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” to get a true sense, a song that the FBI tried to get unplayed. Keith

    1. Keith,

      “Brutally tortured” is an understatement. I couldn’t bring myself to fully explain what those men did to such a poor young boy. I’ll check out that song.

      Thanks again!

      1. Quentin, this is from an earlier post of mine. Here are the key verses of “Strange Fruit.” Be prepared. Keith

        Southern trees bear strange fruit
        Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
        Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
        Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
        Pastoral scene of the gallant south
        The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
        Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
        Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
        Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
        For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
        For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
        Here is a strange and bitter crop


        If you want to listen to the words, please go to the attached link.

      2. Keith,

        I just watched the clip of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” on YouTube, and it was painful to watch, hearing the anguish and sorrow in her voice.


  2. Not at all distant in history. Many of the people who believed in segregated schools and spit on the black students walking into classrooms are still alive. I’m sure that for some, their hearts did change, but for others, they probably didn’t.

    1. eurobrat,

      Yes, the history is not so distant at all. Many students my age and younger learn about such events in black and white pictures as history, yet we forget that many of the people involved are still alive.


  3. I was four years old when Emmett Till was murdered and, needless to say, I do not personally remember it, but … it is a story that has captivated and horrified me since I first learned of it many years ago. That same year, an all-white jury found Till’s killers “not guilty” and under the laws of double jeopardy they could never be tried again. They were even so cocky as to do an interview whereby they admitted killing him and confessed to all the details. The fact that humans are capable of such atrocities, such barbaric behaviour, makes me literally sick to be a human.

    1. Jill,

      I remember being so shocked and shaken learning about the murder of Emmett Till in high school. I had known about Rosa Parks and MLK’s March on Washington, but hearing the ugliness of the murder of such a young boy made me understand how the Civil Rights Movement was so imminent and necessary.


      1. Me too, my friend. Worse yet, it turns out that he didn’t even whistle at the woman, but that she falsely accused him. I think that we need to re-start the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, for our society seems to have forgotten some of the important lessons from that era.

  4. The worst of it is, in a supposedly educated and sophisticated Western Society, these horrific crimes still happen at all. Crimes like this are barbaric and should not be happening in a society that calls for immigration and calls itself Christian.

    1. David,
      This is so true! Christianity has been used to justify so many terrible things, and such crimes like those committed to Emmett Till should have no place in American society,


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