The Emmett Till Trial, illustrated by Franklin McMahon

The 1955 trial of two men for the murder of 14-year old Emmett Till, sparked national outrage and helped to mobilize the civil rights movement. New material from the Chicago History Museum includes illustrations of the proceedings by the legendary Franklin McMahon.

Jurors, 1955 (ink on paper) by (William) Franklin McMahon (1921-2012) / Chicago History Museum, USA

 

Drawing the News

Franklin McMahon described himself not as a cartoonist, illustrator, or even as an artist; instead, he thought of himself as a reporter who used art to tell stories. (NY Times obituary, March 7, 2012) McMahon was prolific, his line drawings told many of the most defining events of the 20th century, such as the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, the space program, Second Vatican Council and the Selma-Montgomery civil rights march. Perhaps his most famous works were part of his series covering the 1955 trial of two men accused of murdering a 14-year old African-American teen for 'flirting' with a white women in Jim Crow's Mississippi. Bridgeman is delighted to be able to license McMahon's Emmett Till drawings on behalf of the Chicago History Museum.

Mose Wright testifying, 1955 (ink and wash on paper) by Franklin McMahon / Chicago History Museum, USA
Willie Reed on the witness stand, 1955 (ink and wash on paper) by Franklin McMahon / Chicago History Museum, USA

Emmett Till's Murder & Trial

In August of 1955 a young boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was in Mississipi visiting his Uncle, Mose Wright. Mississippi was a world away from Chicago and Till had walked into a tinderbox of racial tension. A few months earlier, the Supreme Court had ordered the integration of all southern schools and the summer had seen an increase in racially motivated violence all over the south.

There are different reports on what exactly happened, but Till supposedly whistled at a white woman in a local grocery store. After hearing the story the woman's husband, Roy Bryant, and his brother J.W. Milam, went to confront the teen. Armed with a pistol and a flashlight, the two men forced their way into Wright's home and abducted Till in the middle of the night. His battered body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River. To the surprise of the community, an all-white grand jury ordered Bryant and Milam to stand trial for murder.

Despite overwhelming evidence and compelling testimony, including Bryant and Milam's admission that they took Till from his Uncle's house, the all-white, male jury acquitted both men of all charges.

 

Aftermath

Mose Wright, who displayed enormous courage to stand up during the trial and identify his nephew's abductors, and Willie Reed, who testified that he had seen the accused enter a shed where he had also heard screams, were both relocated to Chicago for their protection. Till's grief-stricken mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on an open casket at the funeral so that the brutality of what had a happened to her son would be visible for all to see. Emmett Till's murder, the trial and Bryant and Milam's subsequent public admissions of guilt under the protection of double-jeopardy, were momentous events in a momentous year. The outrage helped to mobilize the civil rights movement. A few months after the acquittal, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and the burgeoning movement turned into a full-fledged revolt. The case was also a major catalyst for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

View Franklin McMahon's drawings of the trial available through Bridgeman

 


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