Emmett's mother Mamie was born in the small Delta town of Webb, Mississippi. The Delta region encompasses the large, multi-county area of northwestern Mississippi in the watershed of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers.
When Carthan was two years old, her family moved to Argo, Illinois , as part of the Great Migration of rural black families out of the South to the North to escape violence, lack of opportunity and unequal treatment under the law.
They were mostly sharecroppers who lived on land owned by whites. Blacks had essentially been disenfranchised and excluded from voting and the political system since , when the white-dominated legislature passed a new constitution that raised barriers to voter registration. Whites had also passed ordinances establishing racial segregation and Jim Crow laws. Mamie largely raised Emmett with her mother; she and Louis Till separated in after she discovered that he had been unfaithful. Louis later abused her, choking her to unconsciousness, to which she responded by throwing scalding water at him.
In , a few weeks before his son's fourth birthday, he was executed for the murder of an Italian woman. Emmett preferred living in Chicago, so he returned there to live with his grandmother; his mother and stepfather rejoined him later that year.
After the marriage dissolved in , "Pink" Bradley returned alone to Detroit. She began working as a civilian clerk for the U. Air Force for a better salary. She recalled that Emmett was industrious enough to help with chores at home, although he sometimes got distracted. His mother remembered that he did not know his own limitations at times. Following the couple's separation, Bradley visited Mamie and began threatening her.
At eleven years old, Emmett, with a butcher knife in hand, told Bradley he would kill him if the man did not leave. He and his cousins and friends pulled pranks on each other Emmett once took advantage of an extended car ride when his friend fell asleep and placed the friend's underwear on his head , and they also spent their free time in pickup baseball games.
He was a natty dresser and was often the center of attention among his peers. Emmett wanted to see for himself. Bradley was ready for a vacation and planned to take Emmett with her on a trip to visit relatives in Nebraska, but after he begged her to let him visit Wright instead, she relented.
Wright planned to accompany Till with a cousin, Wheeler Parker; another cousin, Curtis Jones, would join them soon. Wright was a sharecropper and part-time minister who was often called "Preacher". Before Emmett departed for the Delta, his mother cautioned him that Chicago and Mississippi were two different worlds, and he should know how to behave in front of whites in the South.
Since that time, more than African Americans have been killed by extrajudicial violence in Mississippi alone, and more than 3, across the South. Throughout the South, whites publicly prohibited interracial relationships as a means to maintain white supremacy. Even the suggestion of sexual contact between black men and white women could carry severe penalties for black men. A resurgence of the enforcement of such Jim Crow mores was evident following World War II , when African-American veterans started pressing for equal rights in the South.
Board of Education to end segregation in public education, which it ruled as unconstitutional. Many segregationists believed the ruling would lead to interracial dating and marriage. Whites strongly resisted the court's ruling; one Virginia county closed all its public schools to prevent integration. Other jurisdictions simply ignored the ruling. In other ways, whites used stronger measures to keep blacks politically disenfranchised, which they had been since the turn of the century.
Segregation in the South was used to constrain blacks forcefully from any semblance of social equality. Three white suspects were arrested, but they were soon released.
On August 24, he and cousin Curtis Jones skipped church where his great-uncle Mose Wright was preaching and joined some local boys as they went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to buy candy. The teenagers were children of sharecroppers and had been picking cotton all day. The market mostly served the local sharecropper population and was owned by a white couple, year-old Roy Bryant and his year-old  wife Carolyn. Carolyn was alone in the store that day; her sister-in-law was in the rear of the store watching children.
Jones left Till with the other boys while Jones played checkers across the street. The facts of what took place in the store are still disputed. According to what Jones said at the time, the other boys reported that Till had a photograph of an integrated class at the school he attended in Chicago, [note 1] and Till bragged to the boys that the white children in the picture were his friends. He pointed to a white girl in the picture, or referred to a picture of a white girl that had come with his new wallet,  and said she was his girlfriend and one or more of the local boys dared Till to speak to Bryant.
According to Wright, Till did not have a photo of a white girl in his wallet and no one dared him to flirt with Bryant. They said that he had pictures of his white girlfriend. There were no pictures. They never talked to me. They never interviewed me. Jones recanted his statements prior to his death and apologized to Mamie Till-Mobley". The teenagers saw her do this and left immediately.
When the older man with whom Jones was playing checkers heard the story, he urged the boys to leave quickly, fearing violence. Bryant told others of the events at the store, and the story spread quickly. Jones and Till declined to tell his great-uncle Mose Wright, fearing they would get in trouble.
Carolyn's husband Roy Bryant was on an extended trip hauling shrimp to Texas and did not return home until August That evening, Bryant, with a black man named J. Washington, approached a black teenager walking along a road. Bryant ordered Washington to seize the boy, put him in the back of a pickup truck, and took him to be identified by a companion of Carolyn's who had witnessed the episode with Till. Friends or parents vouched for the boy in Bryant's store, and Carolyn's companion denied that the boy Bryant and Washington seized was the one who had accosted her.
Somehow, Bryant learned that the boy in the incident was from Chicago and was staying with Mose Wright. Milam was armed with a pistol and a flashlight. He asked Wright if he had three boys in the house from Chicago. Till was sharing a bed with another cousin; there were eight people in the small two-bedroom cabin. Milam asked Wright to take them to "the nigger who did the talking. Moses Wright informed the men that Till was from up north and didn't know any better.
Milam reportedly then asked, "How old are you, preacher? The men marched Till out to the truck and asked Carolyn Bryant whether this was the young man who had accosted her.
She said that he was. According to some witnesses, they took Till back to Bryant's Groceries to drop off Carolyn Bryant and recruit two black men. The men then drove to a barn in Drew. They pistol-whipped him on the way and reportedly knocked him unconscious.
Willie Reed, who was 18 years old at the time, saw the truck passing by and identified five people on the truck with Till. Reed recalled seeing J. He told a neighbor and they both walked back up the road to a water well near the barn, where they were approached by Milam.
Milam asked if they heard anything. Others passed by the shed and heard yelling. A local neighbor also spotted Leroy "Too Tight" Collins at the back of the barn washing blood off the truck and noticed Till's boot. Milam explained he had killed a deer and that the boot belonged to him. Well, what else could we do? I'm no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice.
As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights.
I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.
Milam, Look magazine,  In an interview with William Bradford Huie that was published in Look magazine in , Bryant and Milam said they intended to beat Till and throw him off an embankment into the river to frighten him. They told Huie that while they were beating Till, he called them bastards, declared he was as good as they, and said that he had sexual encounters with white women. They shot him by the river and weighted his body with the fan. He did not go back to bed. He and another man went into Money, got gasoline, and drove around trying to find Till.
Unsuccessful, they returned home by 8: Distraught, she called Emmett's mother Mamie Till Bradley. They admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle's yard but claimed they had released him the same night in front of Bryant's store.
Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping.