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Emmett Till and “Eyes on the Prize”

August 28, 2016, marked the 61st anniversary of Emmett Till’s death. The murder of Emmett Louis Till in 1955 was one of three lynchings in 1955, but his mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral and the subsequent attention surrounding Till’s case galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.

A photo of young Emmett Till in a brimmed hat, collared shirt, and tie taken by his mother in 1954 about eight months before his murder.
Emmett Till in a photo taken by his mother in 1954 about eight months before his murder.

Till was from Chicago and had been visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi when he reportedly flirted with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant who ran a grocery story with her husband, Roy Bryant. There are varying stories of what exactly occurred at the store, but a few nights later on August 28 Till was taken from his great-uncle’s home by Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam and then brutally beaten and murdered.

The extent of Till’s injuries was so extreme that his mother Mamie Till Bradley asked for an open casket funeral to show the brutality of what had been done to her son. The funeral was documented in a Jet magazine story, published on September 15, 1955.

This event shocked the nation helped galvanize the modern civil rights movement.This article and the accompanying photo of Emmett Till’s mutilated body were seen by a young Henry Hampton. Hampton, who was the exact same age as Till, lived in St. Louis, Missouri–not that far from Money, Mississippi–and never forgot Till’s story. It had a lasting impact on him, and when he made his documentary series, Eyes on the Prize he began the story of the civil rights movement with Till’s murder.

The Film & Media Archive has many documents, photos, and material relating to the history of lynching and the Emmett Till case. For this section of the documentary, Hampton interviewed Curtis Jones, Till’s cousin, journalist William Bradford Huie, who interviewed Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam for Look magazine, and journalist James L. Hicks, who covered the trial.

Hicks described how Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright testified and identified Till’s killers,

He was called up on to testify as to, could he see anybody in the courtroom identify anybody in that courtroom that had come to his house that night and got Emmet Till out. He stood up and there was a tension in the courtroom because we had been told…that, hey, the stuff is going to hit the fan when they stand up and identify, when Moses Wright stand up and identified J.W. Milam and the other fellow…And he looked around and there was a tension and he says in his broken language, “Dar he.”

Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp who directed the 2004 documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, did extensive research at the Film & Media Archive. This film and subsequent publicity surrounding it led to the reopening of the Till case in 2005. The Film & Media Archive provided interview transcripts and documents to the Justice Department while they were investigating the case.

The FBI concluded their investigation in 2006 and passed on recommendations to the chief prosecutor for Mississippi’s Fourth Judicial District, Joyce Chiles to re-open the case. Chiles did conduct an investigation but at the end declined to press charges against Carolyn Bryant or any of the other people who were allegedly there the night of Till’s murder.

Despite this outcome, the Film & Media Archive continues to be a valuable resource for primary source materials on this case. Please contact the archive for more information on any of these resources.