What does the murder of Emmet Till and the subsequent trial of his murderers tell us about American society in the 1950’s

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Last updated: November 14, 2019

The murder of Emmet Till happened on Saturday 27th August 1955. Emmet Till was born in Chicago on July 25th 1941; this means that he was 14 years old. Emmet Till was sent by his mother to visit relatives in Mississippi, in the south of America.

At this time there was racial prejudice in the North, but mostly black and white people were treated equally. The South of America was completely different. In the south the “Jim Crow” laws were in place. These laws made it legal for black people to be completely separated from the white people. Black people were not allowed to sit on the same benches, or eat in the same restaurants as white people.As Emmet Till was brought up in the less racist north, he was not accustomed to the separation in the South. He did not answer white shop keepers with the expected “yes sir, no sir” he talked to them as he did when he was at home, not with the respect that was normal in the south.Emmet Till was hanging around with the local black boys and was dared to go into the local convenience store to ask the white girl behind the counter, Carolyn Bryant for a date.

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When Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant heard about the incident he took his brother in law J.W.Milam to Moses Wright’s cabin where Emmet Till was staying. Milam used racist language and took Emmet Till in his pick-up truck.When Milam and Bryant sold their story to a newspaper, Milam was reported as saying this to Emmet before killing him ” I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble, I’m going to make an example of you- just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”Three days later a decomposed body of a human male was found. The state of the body when found suggested that this man had been tortured so badly that Moses Wright could only identify it as Emmet’s by the ring on his finger.At first many white people from Mississippi were appalled at the brutality of the murder.

This murder made national news and there were protests held in the north. Many people blamed not just Milam and Bryant but held the whole of Mississippi guilty. This changed many of Mississippi’s inhabitant’s views of the murder, many became very defensive. Sheriff Strider first said that the body had been dumped in the river two days before it was found, but later changed his mind to say that the corpse must have been in the river longer, and it also resembled that of an adult.

At the trial their was lots of evidence against Milam and Bryant including an eye witness stating that he saw Emmet Till in the back of a pick-up truck owned by Milam. A jury of 12 white men found Milam and Bryant not guilty. The jury took over an hour and later some said that they waited to deliver the verdict to make it look good. The foreman of the jury later said that the verdict was guilty because the state failed to identify the body positively as that of Emmet Till. This was mainly due to Strider changing his original statement about the body.There was lots of evidence to suggest that this murder was racially motivated.

The first point is that the murder was committed in Mississippi, a southern state where white people still ruled. When slavery was stopped in America after the civil war many white southerners were resentful towards the now free blacks. Although it was illegal the white southerners set out to make sure that the black people had a lower social standing to the white people. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) used violence to maintain white supremacy in the south. The KKK randomly attacked black people to make sure there was always an element of fear in their lives.I think that the way in which this murder was carried out and the following verdict of not guilty, shows that in the south of America racism was still happening. This shows that although the law changed the people’s attitudes did not; there was still a feeling of white supremacy in the southern states. I also think that the way Emmett Till was used to acting in the North and the way most southerners acted shows that there was a great divide of people’s attitudes in America.

The North had always campaigned for slavery to be abolished, while the confederates (the south) wanted to keep slaves. I think that this murder shows how the North and the South’s attitudes did not change even though the North won the civil war.What are the similarities and differences between the case of Emmet Till and the more recent murder of James Byrd in 1998?James Byrd was killed on June 7th 1998; his body was discovered on a road in Jasper, Texas, without his head or right arm. The police found a trail of blood from the torso to a head and an arm located in a ditch. The police followed this trail and came to a pair of tennis shoes, a shirt, a wallet and other personal items. They followed the trail on until it ended and at this site they found a cigarette lighter, a tork wrench set and a nut driver with the word “Berry” inscribed on them, cigarettes, beers, a compact disc and other items. The cigarette lighter had the word “Possum” and a triangular symbol inscribed on it.

James Byrd face was to distorted to make an identification with a picture so he had to be fingerprinted.It was later concluded that John William King (also known as Bill King an Possum), Shawn Berry and Lawrence Russell had abducted Byrd and beaten him. They then chained him to the back of Berry’s truck and dragged him for a couple of miles leaving a trail of blood.

All three men were arrested; Berry said that King and Russell were responsible for Byrd’s murder and that he did not know about the dragging until it had already started and that he could do nothing about it as he was threatened himself. I know this as in the affidavit it says, “Berry stated that he looked towards the rear of the truck and saw the black male being dragged by a chain. When Berry asked King to let him out of the truck, King told Berry, “You’re just as guilty as we are.

Besides, the same thing could happen to a nigger lover”All three men were arrested and tried separately; the juries all contained at least one black male and some women. All three men got the death penalty and are on death row now.There are several similarities between these two murders. Emmett Till and James Byrd were both black men and both their murders were racially motivated. This is shown, as both sets of murderers were white, they lived in the southern states of America and were racists.

Till’s murderers were quoted to be using racist language and to “be tired of ’em sending your folk down here”. Byrd’s Murderers had links to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). I know this, as Bill King owned a lighter that had a triangle symbol on it, this symbol was later recognised as a symbol of the KKK.Both murders were committed while the victim was outnumbered. Till was murdered by two people and Byrd was murdered by three. This could be important as this means the murder could not be an accident and it would not have been a fight. Because the victim was outnumbered both these murders could be described as lynching.

Also both of the victims were horrifically tortured and beaten.There were also some differences between these crimes. The differences are not in the actual murders or the motives for the murders, but the subsequent trial of the murderers. Till’s murderers were tried together at the same time in the same court.

Byrd’s murderers were tried separately at different times and they had different lawyers.The jurymen for Till’s murder were all white males, there was nine farmers, two carpenters and an insurance salesman. Whereas the trials of Byrd’s murderers all included black men and women, which would make the jury seem more fair to the victim.There were different verdicts, Bill King, Shawn Berry and Lawrence Russell were all given the death sentence and are awaiting the punishment. Bryant and Milam walked away as free men even though there was lots of evidence to suggest they committed the murder and they later admitted to the crime.

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