Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina Ligon, archivist at the National Archives at College Park and Mary Kate Eckles, summer intern at NARA and senior at St. John’s College
Sixty years ago, Emmett Louis Till was kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi for violating southern customs. His death was one of the sparks that led to the modern civil rights movement in the South. The images of his mutilated body published in Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender newspaper, still remain in the memories of many in America and around the world.
Emmett Till was born in Chicago, Illinois on July 25, 1941. He was raised by his mother Mamie Till Bradley in the South Side neighborhood. As a child in the North, Till was exposed to other races and had limited knowledge about the taboos of the segregated South.
In August 1955, Till visited his great-uncle Moses Wright and his cousin Simeon Wright in LeFlore County, Mississippi. One afternoon while hanging out with teen-aged boys, Emmett Till was dared to speak to Carol Bryant, a white woman behind the counter at a local grocery store. Till might have whistled at the woman, said “bye baby,” or hugged her waist. There are various accounts of the incident, as seen in the several memorandums to and from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Later that night, Carol Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam dragged young Till from his uncle’s home. On August 28th, Emmett Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River. He was wrapped in barbed wire and tied to a cotton gin fan. Till’s body was unrecognizable. He was identified by his signet ring, which his mother had given to him the day before he left Chicago. Mamie Till Bradley had the body sent back to Chicago. She had an open casket funeral to “let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this.” Despite Moses Wright risking his life during the trial by testifying against Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, the two men were acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury.
RG 60 Class 144 (Civil Rights) Litigation Case Files, 1936-1997 (NAID 603432) contains documentation used to build cases in reference to civil rights violations. The file unit 144-40-116 consists of newspaper clippings, letters, reports, and memorandums related to the Emmett Till case. The letters and telegrams included are from private citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), labor unions, and elected officials from all parts of the United States, demanding justice for Emmett Till.
The horror of Emmett Till’s murder and the outcome of the trial helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement. Just 100 days after the murder of Till, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. This action led to the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks later stated that “I thought about Emmett Till, and I couldn’t go back [to the back of the bus].”
Other file units and items from the National Archives, regional archives, and presidential libraries related to the Emmett Till case include:
- Till, Emmett (NAID 12192565) from the series Alphabetical Files, 1953-1961 (NAID 593951)
- Memorandum from National Administrative Committee of the American Communist Party Regarding the Emmett Till Lynching (NAID 12224523) from the series Federal Bureau of Investigation Files, 1953-1961 (NAID 12004580)
- 44-9540, Section 1 Serials 1-11, Mississippi (1955) Emmett Till (NAID 7614683) from the series Classification 44 (Civil Rights) Headquarters Case Files, 1924-1978 (NAID 2329984)
- Till, Emmett, Mr. (NAID 2729250) from the series General Correspondence, 1946-1963 (595046)