As far as atrocious acts of American racism go, it’s saying a lot that it doesn’t get much worse than the murder of Emmett Till. Even more than 60 years after the 14-year-old boy was brutally killed by two white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at one of their wives, his name is still being literally assassinated.

America in 1955

Brown v. Board of Education

(Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

You could probably say as much about any given year, but 1955 was a particularly bad time to be black in the U.S., especially in the South. Brown v. Board of Education had just passed, so that was cool, but it led to even higher tensions on the street level, so there was literally no winning. It was during this time that Till decided to visit family in Mississippi, a completely normal thing that everyone should get to regret for normal reasons.

What Happened in Mississippi

During his visit, Till entered a shop owned by Roy Bryant, whose wife sold him candy, and that’s about all we really know. Till was with cousins, but they didn’t see the entire encounter, and Carolyn Bryant’s story has never been consistent. He may have whistled at her, called her by an overly familiar pet name like “baby,” and/or full-on assaulted her. Note that none of these actions carry the death penalty.

Till’s Murder

Glendora Gin

(Deisenbe/Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever happened, Roy Bryant heard about something, so he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, showed up on Till’s relatives’ doorstep in the middle of the night, snatched Till from his bed, beat him mostly to death, shot him, and dumped his body in a local river. When his remains were recovered three days later, he was so unrecognizable that his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so everyone would have to reckon with what he’d suffered. Those pictures are very available, but be warned, she had a point.

There Were Conspiracy Theories

In fact, the extent of Till’s mutilation played a key role in his killers’ defense after the county sheriff insisted the body they found couldn’t possibly be identified. He even went so far as to suggest the NAACP had planted the body (apparently from their well-stocked frame job body storage facility) and Till was safely back home, so racists were crying false flag even back then.

They Confessed Everything

Display at National Civil Rights Museum

(Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

Having been cleared of beating and shooting a child to death, Bryant and Milam wasted no time explaining exactly how they beat and shot a child to death. Just a few months later, Look Magazine paid the men thousands of dollars to run an article detailing their story and exactly how unbad they felt about it, so that … “sucks” seems like not a strong enough word but also the only word.

Reopening the Case

Emmett Till's grave

(Nick Number/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2004, the FBI reopened the case to investigate suggestions that Bryant and Milam weren’t the only people involved in Till’s murder. They didn’t turn up much that was legally useful, but they did conduct a long overdue autopsy that confirmed, among other things, that the body in question was, in fact, Emmett Till. You know. Just in case there were still any holdouts.

Carolyn Bryant’s Arrest Warrant

A grand jury considered charging Bryant with kidnapping and manslaughter after the 2004 investigation and ultimately found insufficient evidence to do so, but in 2022, Till’s family members found out about an unserved arrest warrant for Bryant from all the way back in 1955. The grand jury still decided not to charge the nearly 90-year-old woman, but surely, they’ll get her ass someday.

The Killers’ Later Lives

J.W. Milam's house

(Deisenbe/Wikimedia Commons)

If there were any justice in the world, you couldn’t admit to brutally murdering a child on the front pages and then just go about your life, and there might just be. Boycotts forced Roy Bryant to close his store and take up welding, which eventually left him blind. He and Carolyn divorced, and he served prison time for food stamp fraud. Milam was kicked off his farm, and when he finally wormed his way into a loan, he couldn’t get any black workers and went broke paying more expensive white laborers. His house was later turned into a black church, which seems satisfying but also dangerous. The only thing worse than ghosts is racist ghosts.

Top image: Image Editor/Flickr

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