Emmett Till was a black teenager from Chicago who was severely beaten and then shot in the head in Money, Mississippi, on August 28, 1955. He was 14 when he died, and his only crime was addressing a white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Dylan wrote this song very early in his career, telling Till's story in a literal narrative.
Some say Till merely spoke to Bryant while others say he flirted. Either way, nothing he did came close to justifying his tragic murder at the hands of Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam.
To compound the injustice of the whole ordeal, both killers were acquitted of their crimes. Afterwards, they boasted of what they'd done. The incident sparked a surge of civil rights protests, including a march led by Martin Luther King and attended by Rosa Parks.
Seven years after the event, Dylan wrote this song. He recorded it for Marcus Witmark & Sons, which was one of Dylan's first two publishing companies. This version appeared on various Bootlegs, but the song was not officially released as a Bob Dylan recording until 2010, when it appeared on The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964. In 1972, it was included on the compilation Broadside Ballads Vol. 6: Broadside Reunion, where Dylan was credited as Blind Boy Grunt.