Watch this video segment—adapted from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: "The Murder of Emmett Till”—to learn the story of a 14-year-old black boy who was brutally murdered on a visit to Mississippi from Chicago in 1955. After Emmett whistled at a white woman, he was beaten and murdered by two white men; they were later found innocent by an all-white jury. Emmett’s tragic death and the subsequent publicity about the trial helped spark the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s.
Emmett Till was 14 years old in the summer of 1955 when he was murdered by two white men in Money, Mississippi. Why did this happen? Because Emmett had whistled at a white woman.
Emmett Till was raised in Chicago, where segregation was less severe than in the South. If Emmett Till had been raised in Mississippi, he would have known that there were written and unwritten rules there for how black people were expected to behave around white people. The official rules of segregation, known as “Jim Crow” laws, prohibited black people from using “whites only” water fountains and restrooms, sitting in the “whites only” section at restaurants or on buses, or buying a home in a white neighborhood. One of the unwritten rules was that black people were not supposed to look white people in the eye. Before he left Chicago, Emmett’s mother warned him to get off the sidewalk and walk in the street if a white person came toward him.
Emmett traveled to Money, Mississippi, to visit relatives that summer. While at a store with some of his cousins, he whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Mrs. Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, subsequently kidnapped Emmett from his relatives’ home, beat him, shot him in the head, and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. The racist southern court system gave Emmett’s white killers an all-white jury at their trial and allowed their supporters to intimidate or block black witnesses from testifying in court. This ensured a “not guilty” verdict for Bryant and Milam, who, after the trial was over, publicly admitted to killing Till.
But even as many southern whites rejoiced in the verdict, many black citizens of the South were moved by anger and grief over Emmett Till’s murder to protest segregation and the rules it forced them to live by. Two months after the verdict, a black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, attended a meeting of civil rights activists; four days later, she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. Rosa Parks later said that when she was threatened on the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn't go back.”
Have a discussion with your students to determine their prior knowledge about the following background information relevant to this video:
If you would like to supplement the video with a reading, ask students to read the background essay before having the following discussions:
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