Louis Till (February 7, 1922 – July 2, 1945) was an American soldier. He was the father of Emmett Till, whose murder in 1955 at the age of 14 galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.
A soldier during World War II, Louis Till was executed by the U.S. Army in 1945 after being found guilty of murder and rape. The circumstances of his death were little known even to his family until they were revealed after the trial of his son's murderers ten years later, which affected subsequent discourse on the death of Emmett Till.
Louis Till grew up an orphan in New Madrid, Missouri. As a young man he worked at the Argo Corn Co., was an amateur boxer and was very popular with women. At the age of 17 he began courting Mamie Carthan, a woman of the same age. Her parents disapproved, thinking the charismatic Till was "too sophisticated" for their daughter. At her mother's insistence Mamie broke off their courtship but the persistent Till won out, and they married on October 14, 1940. Both were 18 years old. Their only child, Emmett Louis Till, was born on July 25, 1941. Mamie left her husband soon after learning that he had been unfaithful. Louis, enraged, choked her to unconsciousness, to which she responded by throwing scalding water at him. Eventually she obtained a restraining order against him. After violating this repeatedly, a judge forced Till to choose between enlistment in the United States Army or imprisonment. Choosing the former, he enlisted in 1943.
While serving in the Italian Campaign, Till was arrested by military police, who suspected he and another soldier, Fred A. McMurray, of the murder of an Italian woman and the rape of two others, in Civitavecchia. After a lengthy investigation he and McMurray were court-martialed, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out at the United States Army Disciplinary Training Center north of Pisa on July 2, 1945. He was a fellow prisoner of American poet Ezra Pound, who had been imprisoned for collaborating with the Nazis and Italian Fascists; he is mentioned in lines 171-173 of Canto 74 of Pound's Pisan Cantos:
- Till was hung yesterday
- for murder and rape with trimmings
Till was buried in Grave 73, Row 7 (correction: row 4 not 7) of Plot E in Oise-Aisne American Cemetery.
The circumstances of Pvt. Till's death were not revealed to his family. Mrs. Till was only told that her husband's death was due to "willful misconduct". Her attempts to learn more were comprehensively blocked by the United States Army bureaucracy. The full details of Louis Till's crimes and execution only emerged ten years later.
On August 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi, after reportedly trying to flirt with Carolyn Bryant. Her husband and brother-in-law abducted Till and tortured him to death, then threw his body into the river. Both men were arrested, charged and tried with first-degree murder, but were acquitted by an all-white jury. After the trial gained international media attention, Mississippi senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis uncovered details about Louis Till's crimes and execution and released them to reporters.
The Southern media immediately leaped upon the story: various editorials claimed that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the "Yankee" media had covered up or lied about the truth of Emmett Till's father. Many of these editorials specifically attacked a short piece that had appeared in Life magazine, which presented Louis Till as having died fighting for his country in France. This article was in fact the only published piece that ever lionized Pvt. Till. In response, Life quickly published a retraction. For white Southerners, however, the impression was left that the erroneous Life article was representative of the Northern media in general. Subsequently, other editorials went so far as to tar Emmett Till with his father's crimes. These editorials essentially portrayed Emmett as a serial rapist after the fashion of his father, thereby justifying his murder.