There was overwhelming evidence that J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant had murdered the 14-year-old in 1955, but they never spent a day in prison thanks to an all-white jury.
In the early morning hours of August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, his half-brother, J.W. Milam, and perhaps several other people, barged into the Leflore County home of a black sharecropper named Moses Wright. In front of Wright's family, Milam and Bryant kidnapped his 14-year-old grand-nephew. The boy's fate would make him a lasting symbol of the horrors perpetrated against African-Americans not just in the Mississippi Delta but in the entire Jim Crow South. His name was Emmett Till.
Till was visiting from Chicago. A week earlier, he'd arrived by train at the station in nearby Winona, just across the street from Tardy Furniture.
His troubles began when he and his cousins went to Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market, a white-owned store that served mostly blacks, in Money, Mississippi. There, Till apparently did something to offend Roy Bryant's wife, Carolyn, who was tending the store. Carolyn Bryant later testified that Till touched her hand, grabbed her waist and let out a "wolf whistle" as he left the store. In a 2007 interview with historian Timothy Tyson, Bryant said that parts of this account were false. Till had never touched her waist, not that doing so would have justified what happened next.
Three days after his abduction, Till's naked body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River. His head was crushed — he'd been brutally beaten and shot — and he was tied to a 75-pound cotton gin fan with a piece of barbed wire that was wrapped around his neck. A ring on his finger had to be used to help identify him.
Rumors spread quickly that Milam and Bryant were responsible. Several witnesses had seen the men take the boy from his family's home that night. Both men were questioned by police. While they confessed to kidnapping Till, Milam and Bryant claimed they'd later released him after Carolyn said he wasn't the one who'd "done the talking" to her at the shop.
Milam and Bryant were arrested and indicted for murder.
There were other witnesses. A young neighbor of Milam's family said he saw Milam, Bryant and several other men take Till to a barn that night and heard them beating him. A black man in town saw Milam at a gas station the following morning. Milam had something bulky under a tarp in the bed of his truck and blood was dripping from the tailgate.
Meanwhile, Till's bereaved mother, Mamie Bradley, wanted her son's body brought home to Chicago. According to historian Timothy Tyson, Moses Wright negotiated the removal of Till's body from Mississippi by promising a local undertaker that he wouldn't, under any circumstances, open the coffin. But 625 miles north, Bradley had another idea. "Let the people see what they did to my boy," she reportedly said.
Till's open-casket funeral drew a crowd of 50,000 by some estimates. Civil rights leaders seized the opportunity to decry a racist and violent southern culture. Pictures of Till's battered, unrecognizable face were printed in JET magazine and publications across the country. News of his hideous lynching led to outrage around the world.
When Milam and Bryant were brought to court in September 1955, Mississippians groused that their entire way of life was being put on trial. Just a year after the Supreme Court had forced an end to school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Southerners were quick to bristle at what felt like more overreach from outsiders.
"To read the inflammatory statements from Negro leaders of the North, one would suppose that young Emmett Till was the victim of a gigantic conspiracy involving every white person in our state," wrote a columnist in Mississippi's paper of record, The Clarion-Ledger, under the headline, "Our State A Target for Hate Campaign."
In fact, Mamie Bradley had told The Chicago Defender, "The whole state of Mississippi is going to pay for this thing."
The trial of Milam and Bryant lasted five days.
Eighteen-year-old Willie Reed, who lived on the same plantation as Milam's brother, testified that he saw seven men drive by on the night Till disappeared with a boy who resembled Till in the back of the truck. Farther up the road, Reed saw the truck pulled over at the Milam family's barn; he saw J.W. Milam go in and out of the building, and he heard the sounds of a beating.
"I heard somebody hollering, and I heard some licks like somebody was whipping somebody," Reed testified.
Moses Wright, Till's 64-year-old great-uncle, took the stand to identify the men who had stormed into his home. He pointed toward the defendants one at a time. "There he is," Wright said, indicating Milam. Then he moved on to Roy Bryant.
Milam and Bryant were tried before a jury of their peers — white men — and their acquittals came swiftly. The men lit cigars and posed jubilantly for photographs following the announcement. "A jury of twelve white neighbors of the defendants reached the verdict after one hour and five minutes of deliberations," wrote The New York Times.
"If we hadn't stopped to drink pop," one juror said in an interview, "it wouldn't have took that long."
The men had been tried for murder in Tallahatchie County, where Till's body had washed up. Several weeks later a grand jury in Leflore County, where Till had been abducted, declined to indict Milam and Bryant on kidnapping charges.
Just four months after their acquittal, Milam and Bryant, protected by double jeopardy, accepted an offer of $1,500 each to give a tell-all interview to Look Magazine. The story, headlined "The shocking story of approved killing in Mississippi," detailed how the men pistol-whipped Till with their .45s and then shot him in the head.
"We were never able to scare him," Milam said. "What else could we do?"
J.W. Milam died in 1980 and Roy Bryant in 1994. Neither man was ever held accountable for their murder of Emmett Till.
In 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI opened an investigation into the murder to determine if other people had been involved who might still be alive. Agents searched the barn where Till had been beaten, exhumed his body for forensic examination and interviewed the few remaining witnesses about the murder.
The FBI's report analyzed the period in Mississippi history when Emmett Till was lynched. "'Negro Justice,' an unwritten, de facto, separate legal system, served as the foundation for jurisprudence between black and whites ... a system where the gravity of the crime was determined in large part by its impact on whites," the report read. "The black community had almost no recourse when ... crimes [were] committed against blacks by whites."
It seems not much has changed. In 2007, new evidence from the FBI's investigation was presented to a Leflore County grand jury. It declined to indict anyone else in connection with Till's murder. In short order, the case was closed.
But it hasn't been forgotten.
Beside the old Bryant's Grocery, a historical plaque that was once defaced is now covered in handwritten notes from students born long after Emmett Till died. "An all white male jury acquitted the murderers," one said. "It's not who killed him, it's what killed him," said another.
A third read, "You can kill a boy. You can destroy a marker, but you can't get rid of the idea of freedom."