Written By: Ben Cosgrove

In the summer of 1955, two men, both of them white, abducted a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till from his great-uncle’s house in Money, Miss. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam beat Till almost to death, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head and then dumped his body, weighted by an enormous cotton-gin fan tied with barbed wire, into the Tallahatchie River.

Their motive: Till, visiting from his native Chicago, had reportedly flirted with or, according to some accounts, spoken “disrespectfully” to Bryant’s wife a few days before.

When an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of kidnapping and murder in September, the verdict shocked observers across the country and around the world. And when, mere months later, the men openly admitted to Look magazine that they had, in fact, mutilated and murdered Till, the outcry was so intense and the reaction of Till’s devastated family so dignified that it lit a spark that helped ignite the modern civil rights movement.

Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

The site of Emmett Till's kidnapping, Money, Miss., 1955.

The site of Emmett Till’s kidnapping, Money, Miss., 1955.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

J.W. Milam's brother Leslie owned this barn near Drew, Miss. Before his murder, Emmett Till was pistol-whipped in the barn.

J.W. Milam’s brother Leslie owned this barn near Drew, Miss. Before his murder, Emmett Till was pistol-whipped in the barn.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

The store in Money, Miss., where Emmett Till allegedly flirted with Roy Bryant's wife Carolyn.

The store in Money, Miss., where Emmett Till allegedly flirted with Roy Bryant’s wife Carolyn.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

A ring found on Emmett Till's body, which his great-uncle, the Rev. Mose Wright, used to identify his body. The ring belonged to Till's father.

A ring found on Emmett Till’s body, which his great-uncle, the Rev. Mose Wright, used to identify his body. The ring belonged to Till’s father.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

A scene in Mississippi around the time of the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, 1955.

A scene in Mississippi around the time of the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, 1955.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

Emmett Till's mother Mamie Bradley speaks to the press after her son's kidnapping and murder.

Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Bradley spoke to the press after her son’s kidnapping and murder.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

From left: Emmett Till's great-uncle, the Rev. Mose Wright; his mother Mamie Bradley; and his cousin Simeon Wright.

From left: Emmett Till’s great-uncle, the Rev. Mose Wright; his mother Mamie Bradley; and his cousin Simeon Wright.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

A crowd outside the Sumner, Miss., courthouse during the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

A crowd gathered outside the Sumner, Miss., courthouse during the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

Defendant J.W. Milam arrives at his trial in Sumner, Miss., where he is charged with the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Defendant J.W. Milam arrived at his trial for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

A scene in Sumner, Miss., during the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

A scene outside the courthouse during the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

A scene during the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

The trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

A scene during the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

The trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

Defendants Roy Bryant, left, and J.W. Milam during their trial for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Defendants Roy Bryant, left, and J.W. Milam, right, during their trial for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

Defendant Roy Bryant sits with his wife Carolyn and their children during his trial for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Defendant Roy Bryant sat with his wife Carolyn and their children during his trial for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

Defendants J.W. Milam (left) and Roy Bryant (right)sit during their trial for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Defendants J.W. Milam, left, and Roy Bryant, right, during their trial for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

Defendant J.W. Milam kisses his wife Juanita during his trial for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Defendant J.W. Milam kisses his wife Juanita during his trial for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

A sign in Sumner, Miss., site of the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the August 1955 kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

A sign in Sumner, Miss., site of the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the August 1955 kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Ed Clark; Life Pictures/Getty Images

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