Although racially motivated murders had occurred throughout the South for decades, the circumstances surrounding Emmett Till grew beyond the details of a 14-year-old boy who had unknowingly defied a severe social caste system. Till's murder brought considerations about segregation, law enforcement, relations between the North and South, the social status quo in Mississippi, the NAACP, White Citizens' Councils, and the Cold War, all of which were played out in a drama staged in newspapers all over the U.S. and abroad. When Till went missing, a three-paragraph story was printed in the Greenwood Commonwealth and quickly picked up by other Mississippi newspapers. They reported on his death when the body was found, and the next day, when a picture of him his mother had taken the previous Christmas showing them smiling together appeared in the Jackson Daily News and Vicksburg Evening Post, editorials and letters to the editor were printed expressing shame at the people who had caused Till's death. One read, "Now is the time for every citizen who loves the state of Mississippi to 'Stand up and be counted' before hoodlum white trash brings us to destruction." The letter said that Negroes were not the downfall of Mississippi society, but whites like those in White Citizens' Councils that condoned violence.
Till's body was clothed, packed in lime, and put in a pine coffin and prepared for burial. It may have been embalmed while in Mississippi. Mamie Till Bradley demanded that the body be sent to Chicago; she later stated that she endeavored to halt an immediate burial in Mississippi and called several local and state authorities in Illinois and Mississippi to make sure that her son was returned to Chicago. A doctor did not examine Till post-mortem.
Mississippi's governor, Hugh L. White, deplored the murder, asserting that local authorities should pursue a "vigorous prosecution". He sent a telegram to the national offices of the NAACP promising a full investigation and assuring them "Mississippi does not condone such conduct". Delta residents, both black and white, also distanced themselves from Till's murder, finding the circumstances abhorrent. Local newspaper editorials denounced the murderers without question. Leflore County Deputy Sheriff John Cothran stated, "The white people around here feel pretty mad about the way that poor little boy was treated, and they won't stand for this."
Soon, however, discourse about Till's murder became more complex. Robert B. Patterson, executive secretary of the segregationist White Citizens' Council, lamented Till's death by reiterating that racial segregation policies were in force for blacks' safety and that their efforts were being neutralized by the NAACP. In response, NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins characterized the incident as a lynching and stated that Mississippi was trying to maintain white supremacy through murder, and "there is in the entire state no restraining influence of decency, not in the state capital, among the daily newspapers, the clergy, nor any segment of the so-called better citizens". Mamie Till Bradley told a reporter that she would seek legal aid to help law enforcement find her son's killers and that the State of Mississippi should share the financial responsibility. She was misquoted; it came out as "Mississippi is going to pay for this".
The A. A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago received Till's body, and upon arrival, Bradley insisted on viewing it to make a positive identification, later stating that the stench from it was noticeable two blocks away. She decided to have an open casket funeral, saying "There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see." Tens of thousands of people lined the street outside the mortuary to view Till's body, and days later thousands more attended his funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. Photographs of his mutilated corpse circulated around the country, notably appearing in Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender, both black publications, and drew intense public reaction. According to The Nation and Newsweek, Chicago's black community was "aroused as it has not been over any similar act in recent history".[note 5] Till was buried on September 6 in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
News about Emmett Till spread to both coasts. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Illinois Governor William Stratton also became involved, urging Governor White to see that justice be done. The tone in Mississippi newspapers changed dramatically. They falsely reported riots in the funeral home in Chicago. Bryant and Milam appeared in photos smiling in military uniforms and Carolyn Bryant's beauty and virtue were extolled. Rumors of an invasion of outraged blacks and northern whites were printed throughout the state so that the Leflore County sheriff took them seriously. Local businessman, surgeon, and civil rights proponent T. R. M. Howard, one of the wealthiest blacks in the state, warned of a "second civil war" if "slaughtering of Negroes" was allowed. Following Wilkins' comments, white opinion began to shift. According to historian Stephen Whitfield, a specific brand of xenophobia in the South was particularly strong in Mississippi, urging whites to reject the influence of Northern opinion and agitation. This independent attitude was profound enough in Tallahatchie County that it earned the nickname "The Freestate of Tallahatchie", according to a former sheriff, "because people here do what they damn well please", making the county often difficult to govern.
Consequently, Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider, who initially positively identified Till's body and stated that the case against Milam and Bryant was "pretty good", on September 3 announced his doubts that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River was Till's, who, he speculated, was probably still alive. The body, according to Strider, was planted by the NAACP: a cadaver stolen by T. R. M. Howard, who colluded to place Till's ring on it. Strider was motivated to change after the comments made in the press about the people of Mississippi, later saying, "The last thing I wanted to do was to defend those peckerwoods. But I just had no choice about it."[note 6]
Bryant and Milam were indicted for murder, despite the reservations of the grand jury's prosecuting attorney, Hamilton Caldwell, who was not confident a conviction would ever be returned in a case of white violence against a black male accused of insulting a white woman. A local black paper was surprised at the indictment and praised the decision, as did the New York Times. The high profile comments made in Northern newspapers and by the NAACP concerned the prosecuting attorney, Gerald Chatham, who worried that they would not be able to secure a guilty verdict, even with the evidence they had. Initially, with limited funds, Bryant and Milam had difficulty finding attorneys to represent them, but five attorneys at a Sumner law firm offered their services pro bono. Collection jars were placed in stores and other public places in the Delta, eventually gathering $10,000 for the defense.