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PHOTO ESSAY

Jim Crow Justice

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Emmett Till

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till is pictured here with his mother Mamie, shortly before he left his home in Chicago for vacation in the Mississippi Delta in late summer 1955. On the evening of 24 August, Till and seven other black teenagers entered a store in Money, a hamlet in Leflore County. Although witnesses disagreed about what happened next, at the other boys' instigation Till approached Carolyn Bryant, the young wife of the shop's owner, asked her for a date, allegedly whistled at her, and possibly squeezed her hand. Two days later he was dead—beaten, mutilated (some witnesses have said the fourteen-year-old was castrated), shot, and sunk in the Tallahatchie River. Despite a witness account incriminating shop owner Roy Bryant and his half brother, J. W., and wrenching testimony from Mamie Till, an all-white jury acquitted the two defendants after less than an hour of deliberation. The verdict sent shockwaves of editorial criticism and protest throughout the country as well as abroad, and inspired works by novelists Toni Morrison and James Baldwin (both of whom wrote plays), scenarist Rod Serling (who wrote a television drama), singer Bob Dylan (who wrote a song), and poet Gwendolyn Brooks (who wrote a ballad). Till's murder put a spotlight on the travesties of Jim Crow justice and became a rallying cry for the growing civil rights movement. In 2004, shortly after the death of Mamie Till-Bradley and due largely to the efforts of the documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, federal authorities reopened the case to determine whether others were involved in Till's kidnapping and brutal slaying.

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