On a steamy hot September day in 1955, in a racially segregated courtroom in Sumner, Mississippi, two white men, J.W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant—a country-store owner—were acquitted of the murder of a 14-year-old black Chicago boy. His name was Emmett Till. And in August of that year, while visiting a Deep South that he didn’t understand, Till had entered a store to buy two cents worth of bubble gum. Shortly after exiting, he likely whistled at Bryant’s 21-year-old wife, Carolyn. Enraged, Bryant and Milam took matters into their own hands. They would later admit to local authorities that they’d abducted Till three nights later. And when they finished with him, his body was so hideously disfigured from having been bludgeoned and shot that its horrifying depiction—in a photo in Jet magazine—would help to propel the American civil rights movement.
Milam and Bryant were arrested, and, with the aid of NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers and other black activists in seeking out witnesses, the prosecution produced compelling evidence. Even so, it wasn’t a surprise when the all-white, all-male jury voted “not guilty,” in little over an hour. Mississippi, after all, had had very few convictions for white-on-black murders. And the state led the nation in lynchings. (Four months after their irreversible acquittal, Milam and Bryant admitted their guilt to Look magazine, receiving a fee of some $3,000 for their story.) But the most explosive testimony, which certainly influenced the local white public’s perception of the motive for the murder, were the incendiary words of Carolyn Bryant, who was working in the store that night. On the stand, she had asserted that Till had grabbed her and verbally threatened her. She said that while she was unable to utter the “unprintable” word he had used (as one of the defense lawyers put it), “he said ’”—done something – “with white women before.’” Then she added, “I was just scared to death.” A version of her damning allegation was also made by the defendant’s lawyers to reporters. (The jury did not hear Carolyn’s words because the judge had dismissed them from the courtroom while she spoke, ruling that her testimony was not relevant to the actual murder. But the court spectators heard her, and her testimony was put on the record because the defense wanted her words as evidence in a possible appeal in the event that the defendants were convicted.)