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Jury for the Emmett Till Trial

Jury for the Emmett Till Trial. Sumner, MS, 1955.
Bettmann/CORBIS, BE065167.

In 1955 an all-white, all-male Mississippi jury (seated in the first two rows of this photograph) acquitted two white men of murdering Emmett Till, a black boy of 14. Emmett was a 14-year-old Chicagoan who was visiting relatives in the town of Money, Mississippi when, accused of whistling at a white woman, he was dragged from his bed, beaten beyond recognition and shot, his body dumped into the Tallahatchie River. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were charged with the murder.

According to an article in the Chicago Defender by L. Alex Wilson (Sept. 24, 1955), "difficulty in selection of the jury can be attributed to several factors:

1. — They had contributed to a defense fund for J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, half brothers charged with the crime.
2. — They were related to attorneys involved in the case or to the defendants.
3. — They had formed definite opinions about the case.
4. — They lived in the area where the crime was committed."

The trial was highly publicized and controversial. Till's mother had only been able to identify him by the initialled ring he was wearing, and so the defense made case that Till was not really dead. The prosecution had difficulty finding witnesses to testify against the accused murderers for fear of retaliation. The trial was held in a segregated court room. The jury of white men deliberated for just over an hour before acquitting the suspects. The two men were tried in November 1955 for kidnapping and were again acquitted.

In 1956, Look magazine paid Bryant and Milam to tell their side of the story in an interview. They confessed to killing Till but did not feel they had done anything wrong. The men were protected by double jeopardy and so could not be tried again for the crime. After the interview was released, they lost much of their support and went bankrupt. In 1957, the Civil Rights Act was passed, allowing the federal government to intervene in cases of racial injustice such as Till's. The case was reopened in 2004. The body was exhumed and determined to be that of Emmett Till. He is widely considered a martyr of the Civil Rights movement.