Civil Rights and Non-Violence


The Story of Emmett Till

The young Emmett Till, wearing a button-down shirt, tie, and a hat
Photo courtesy Mamie Till Mobley

“Emmett Till showed us what could happen if we broke the code… 
If we spoke out of turn, we could die.”
—Jibrell Khazan, one of the Greensboro Four

The Greensboro Four lunch counter sit-in became a catalyst for change in the segregated South. Find out how they were inspired to protest by the tragic fate of a young Chicago boy.

In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till had left his home in Chicago for a vacation at his uncle’s house in Money, Mississippi. A few days after arriving in Money, Till and his young cousins went into a nearby market to buy candy. Working behind the counter that day was Carolyn Bryant, the 21-year-old white owner of the store, along with her husband Roy. As Till left the store, he allegedly whistled at the woman as a joke. Not amused, the woman threatened to get a gun as the frightened youngsters ran away.

Three days later, Till and the others thought the incident had passed without consequence. But in the middle of the night, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, showed up at the house where Till was staying. Armed with a pistol and flashlight, they pushed through the house to find Till, forced him to get dressed, then dragged him away as the rest of the family begged them to leave the boy alone. On August 31, three days after the abduction, a boy fishing in the nearby Tallahatchie River found Till’s submerged body. The brutalized corpse was missing an eye, had a severed ear, a bullet hole in the head and he was anchored by a 75-pound cotton gin fan that had been tied to his neck with barbed wire.

Emmett Till’s mother Mamie mourns for her son while being comforted by three men
Photo: CORBIS/Bettmann

While local authorities wanted to bury Till quickly in Mississippi before the story spread, Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, insisted the body be returned to Chicago. At his funeral there, which was attended by tens of thousands of people, Bradley made a startling choice to have an open-casket service. She allowed Jet magazine to take pictures. Within days, the photographs of Till’s unrecognizable face had spread throughout the country and the world, sparking horror, shock and anger. The trial of Bryant and Milam ended in acquittal, as the all-white, all-male jury–warned by the defense that “their forefathers would turn over in their graves” if the men were convicted–voted not guilty on grounds that the state had failed to prove the identity of the body.

“That sent me some messages,” said Greensboro Four member Franklin McCain in FEBRUARY ONE. “I concluded rather quickly that if that is all this life has to offer, then it’s not worth living.” But McCain and the rest of the Greensboro Four decided to seek change rather than accept the type of life segregation offered, and with their sit-in, they sparked a revolution.


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