September 23rd, 1955

All-White Jury Acquits Murderers of Emmett Till

In September 1955, half-brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were indicted for murder in connection with the abduction and brutal slaying of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicago teen killed just weeks before while visiting family members in Sumner County, Mississippi. The men allegedly targeted Till after he “insulted” Bryant’s wife.

The trial took place over the course of three days. The State presented courageous testimony from Moses Wright, Emmett Till’s great-uncle who witnessed his abduction, and Willie Reed, an African American sharecropper who overheard Bryant and Milam torturing Till. The defense claimed that the mutilated body discovered in the Tallahatchie River was not that of Emmett Till. After deliberating for just over one hour, an all-white, all-male jury announced a not-guilty verdict on September 23, 1955. A grand jury in the county where Till was abducted refused to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping, although Bryant had confessed that act to police. After two fruitless attempts to prosecute Bryant and Milam for the killing, Wright and Reed fled Mississippi for their own safety.

Seven years after the acquittal, 21-year-old graduate student Hugh Stephen Whitaker interviewed jurors, witnesses, and attorneys who confirmed what many suspected, that Bryant and Milam were never at risk of conviction. In fact, all but one juror said they had rejected the defense theory and most believed Bryant and Milam were guilty of killing young Emmett Till. The jurors said they had chosen to acquit because the mandatory punishment -- life imprisonment or death -- seemed too harsh to impose upon white men for killing a black boy.


September 23rd, 1667

Virginia Assembly Declares Baptism Does Not Free Slaves from Bondage

British policy forbade the enslavement of fellow Christians. Because many Africans practiced Islam or African folk religions, the British considered them non-Christian heathens who could lawfully be held in slavery.

British colonists in the Americas were concerned, however, that if enslaved people converted to Christianity, they could not lawfully remain enslaved under British law. As a result, many slave owners did not permit enslaved people to learn about Christianity or be baptized.

On September 23, 1667, the colony of Virginia passed an act declaring that slaves who had been baptized were not exempt from bondage and ensuring slave owners that baptism would not alter the condition of a slave’s bondage.

The law allowed Christianity to spread among enslaved people without threatening slave owners with the risk that they would be required to emancipate slaves who were baptized. Yet even after its passage, many slave owners chose not to baptize their slaves or teach them Christianity because they believed religion promoted literacy and congregation of groups of enslaved people for worship, which in turn could encourage rebellion and conspiracy. Later laws forbade slaves from gathering, even for religious services. Slaves were sometimes allowed to attend religious services in white churches but had to sit in a separate section of the church.