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emmett till, civil rights, criminal justice, law enforcement, legal history, southern history, race, lynching, brown v. board, desegregation


Few racially motivated crimes have left a more lasting imprint on American memory than the death of Emmett Till. Yet, even as Till's murder in Mississippi in 1955 has come to be remembered as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, it contributed to something else as well. Precisely because it came on the heels of the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Till's death convinced Mississippi Governor James P. Coleman that certain aspects of the state's handling of racial matters had to change. Afraid that popular outrage over racial violence might encourage federal intervention in the region, Coleman removed power from local sheriffs, expanded state police, and modernized the state's criminal justice apparatus in order to reduce the chance of further racial violence in the state. Though his results proved mixed, many of Coleman's reforms lived on, contributing to the end of public torture and lynching as an accepted mode of punishment in the state. This article discusses those changes, suggesting that they not only influenced the fight for civil rights, but encouraged the modernization of criminal justice in the South.