Emmett Till was just 14 years old in the summer of 1955 when he traveled to visit family in the tiny community of Money, in the Mississippi Delta. Till was born and raised in a suburb of Chicago. He had never been to the Deep South.
The tragic story of what happened to young Till became, to many, a catalyst for the American Civil Rights Movement. But his story did not end in Mississippi. It never really ended.
"I'd like to think that if we had the trial again that, No. 1, we'd have some Black jurors ... and some women. That in fact, justice would be done. That's the optimist in me," says Florida State University professor Davis Houck, who helped create the Emmett Till Memory Project and has been instrumental in building FSU's Emmett Till Archive. "But I don't want to be too optimistic, because we're at a time in our country right now where anything goes. In terms of violence visited upon young Black boys for whistling at a white woman ... yeah. I think we're pretty far down the road from that. But I don't want to say we've arrived at some ideal place. We haven't."
The brutal murder of Emmett Till might have been lost to time, just another of the thousands of lynchings that were perpetrated all over the United States after the Civil War. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,400 lynchings, in 20 states (mostly in the Deep South), between 1877 and 1950.
Till's murder stands out separately from those, though, not because of its sheer violence — lynchings were, by definition, alarmingly savage — but because the particular inhumanity brought upon him was not automatically relegated to the inside pages of newspapers, as many others had been. Even in Mississippi, shortly after his death, news accounts almost immediately condemned the boy's murder. The governor of the state at the time — Gov. Hugh White — even spoke out against it.
Still, it wasn't until Till's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, demanded that her son be returned to Chicago for burial that the entire world took notice. She held an open-casket funeral to show what happened to him. He was beaten, shot, a 75-pound (34-kilogram) fan tied to his neck with barbed wire and then tossed into the Tallahatchie River, where he was found several days later. The brutality was hard to ignore.
"Oh, yes, we're going to open the casket," Bradley told documentarian Keith Beauchamp years later, in retelling the story of the day she saw her son's body return from Mississippi. "Let the people see what I see. I want the world to see this."
More than 100,000 people attended Till's funeral. Jet magazine published graphic photos — including one depicting Bradley above the coffin containing her battered son's body — and the outrage grew louder. When the two men accused of the murder, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury weeks later, anyone looking for further reason to put an end to lynching and demand racial justice had a rallying point.
What Really Happened?
What prompted Till's kidnapping and murder is still debated and, in reality, beside the point.
The jurors were told by Bryant's wife, Carolyn, that Till had whistled at her, come into the Bryant family store, grabbed her by the wrist, put his hands on her waist and bragged about being with white women.
Still, the original retelling of the encounter between 14-year-old Till and 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant has had remarkable staying power, despite the fact that version has been disavowed by its creator. A 1956 Look magazine article by William Bradford Huie, containing a "confession" from the murderers (Look paid them to be interviewed), was purported to tell the "true account" of the murder.
"That so-called confession continues, in some, to function as the history of what happened to Emmett Till that night," Houck says. "What the article has done, what I see, is it still divides Mississippi along Black and white lines. 'Oh, Emmett Till was kind of this borderline rapist man-child who had it coming to him.' You will hear that in polite company in Mississippi to the present day."
The Till story was a touchstone narrative of my generation. Among many southern horror stories, this was among the most morbid. The Till death picture was proof of white southerners' malevolence. Their refusal to acknowledge the killer's guilt was proof of their acceptance of evil.
Till's story was recounted throughout the 1960s as the Civil Rights Act became law. It is still widely cited by activists from Bond to Rosa Parks and beyond.
And the story of what happened in Mississippi in August 1955 may not be finished, either. Till's body was exhumed and positively identified as part of a 2004 Department of Justice reopening of the case, which resulted in no new charges. A Mississippi grand jury in 2007 found no evidence, suggested by documentarian Beauchamp that as many as 14 people may have taken part in his kidnapping and murder. In 2018, the Department of Justice again opened up an investigation; it's evidently still pending.
Many articles, books and documentaries have been produced on the story. The newest feature film, "Till," which hit the big screen Oct. 7, 2022 and stars Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley, is about Till-Mobley's attempt to expose those involved in her son's attack. There's also now an Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has several road signs that detail places in the Emmett Till story, though many of the signs continue to be shot and otherwise vandalized.
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam never took the stand in their 1955 trial for murder. They didn't need to. The jury deliberated for only 67 minutes before acquitting them. Afterward, both Bryant and Milam celebrated by lighting cigars and posing with their wives for photographs. Milam died in 1980, at age 61. Bryant died in 1994, at age 63. Bryant's wife Carolyn died on April 27, 2023, at age 88. Up to 2022, prosecutors were still trying to put her on trial for kidnapping and manslaughter.
Originally Published: Apr 14, 2020
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