On January 24, 1956, Look magazine publishes the confessions of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, two white men from Mississippi who were acquitted in the 1955 kidnapping and murder of Emmett Louis Till, an African American teenager from Chicago. In the Look article, titled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” the men detailed how they beat Till with a gun, shot him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River with a heavy cotton-gin fan attached with barbed wire to his neck to weigh him down. The two killers were paid a reported $4,000 for their participation in the article.
In August 1955, 14-year-old Till, whose nickname was Bobo, traveled to Mississippi to visit relatives and stay at the home of his great-uncle, Moses Wright. On August 24, Till went into Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, to buy candy. At some point, he allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who ran the store with her husband Roy, who was away at the time. (Bryant later admitted she made this up.) Till’s harmless actions carried weight in an era when prejudice and discrimination against Black people was persistent throughout the segregated South.
In the early hours of August 28, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Emmett Till from his great-uncle’s home. The men were soon arrested but maintained their innocence. On August 31, Till’s decomposed body was found in the Tallahatchie River. On September 3, Till’s mother held an open-casket funeral for her son, in order to bring attention to his murder. An estimated 50,000 mourners attended. Afterward, Jet magazine published graphic photos of Till’s corpse.
On September 19, the kidnapping and murder trial of Bryant and Milam began in Sumner, Mississippi. Five days later, on September 23, the all-white, all-male jury acquitted the two men of murder after deliberating for a little over an hour. The jury claimed it would’ve reached its decision even more quickly—despite overwhelming evidence that the defendants were guilty—had it not taken a soda break. The acquittal caused international outrage and added fuel to the emerging American civil rights movement.
Milam and Bryant were never brought to justice and both later died of cancer. In 2004, the U.S. Justice Department reopened the case amid suggestions that other people—some of whom are still alive—might have participated in the crime. Till’s body was exhumed by the FBI in 2005 and an autopsy was performed. In 2007 a grand jury decided not to seek an indictment against additional individuals. In 2017, Tim Tyson, author of the book The Blood of Emmett Till, revealed that Carolyn Bryant recanted her testimony, admitting that Till had never touched, threatened or harassed her. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Bryant said. She died in 2023.