10 Historically Pivotal Murders

Emmett Till
A young Emmett Till before his brutal end that spurred so many civil rights activists to demand change © Bettmann/Corbis

Few incidents affected the U.S. civil rights movement more than the brutal murder of Emmett Till. In August 1955, Till was 14 years old and visiting relatives in Mississippi when he happened to speak to Carolyn Bryant, a grocery store owner. Bryant's husband, enraged that an African-American had "flirted" with his wife, went with two other men to Till's great-uncle's house, where they abducted him, beat him and removed one of his eyes before finally shooting him in the head. Till's body was discovered several days later, having been sunk into a river with a heavy fan.

Till's mother decided that, because of the brutal inhumanity of the crime, the funeral would be open casket. Newspapers and magazines published pictures of Till's mutilated body, and the public demand for justice reached a fever pitch. Public outcry over Till's death was a huge factor influencing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as Northerners and Southerners alike could no longer turn a blind eye to the reality of violence against African-Americans in the South.

Bryant and his accomplices were acquitted of all charges by an all-white, all-male jury. A few months later, protected by double jeopardy laws that prevented them from being tried again, they admitted to Till's murder during an interview in Look magazine. They were never imprisoned.