The brutal abduction and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till on 28 August 1955 brought nationwide attention to the racial violence and injustice prevalent in Mississippi. It also spurred the emerging civil rights movement in America.
Emmett Till – Early life
Emmett Louis Till was born on 25 July 1941, the only son of Mami Carthan and Louis Till.
Emmett never knew his father. Mamie mainly raised Emmett with her mother as she and Louis Till separated in 1942 after she discovered that he had been unfaithful. Louis later abused her, choking her to unconsciousness, to which she responded by throwing scalding water at him. For violating court orders to stay away from Mamie, Louis Till was forced by a judge in 1943 to choose between jail or enlisting in the US Army. In 1945, a few weeks before his son’s fourth birthday, he was executed for wilful misconduct while serving in Italy.
Mamie was a remarkable woman. She was only the fourth Black student to graduate from suburban Chicago’s predominantly white Argo Community High School and the first Black student to make the school’s “A” Honour Roll. While raising Emmett as a single mother, she worked long hours for the Air Force as a clerk in charge of confidential files.
Emmett Till grew up in a thriving working-class neighbourhood on the south side of Chicago. The neighbourhood was a haven for Black-owned businesses and the streets he travelled as a child were lined with Black-owned pharmacies, nightclubs, insurance companies and beauty salons.
Trip to Mississippi
In August 1955, Emmett’s great uncle, Moses Wright, who lived in Mississippi, came to visit the family in Chicago. At the end of his stay, Wright was planning to take Till’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, back to Mississippi with him to visit relatives down South. Till, who was just 14 years old at the time, begged his mother to let him go along.
Initially, Till’s mother, Mamie, was opposed to the idea. She wanted to take a road trip to Omaha, Nebraska and tried to convince her son to join her with the promise of open-road driving lessons.
But Till really wanted to spend time with his cousins in Mississippi, so Mamie relented and let him go.
Although Emmett had attended a segregated elementary school, he was not prepared for the level of segregation he encountered in Mississippi. His mother warned him to take care because of his race.
Murder in Mississippi
On 24 August, while standing with his cousins and some friends outside a store in Money, Emmett boasted that his girlfriend back home was white. Emmett’s companions, disbelieving him, dared Emmett to ask the white woman sitting behind the store counter for a date.
He went in, bought some candy, and on the way out, was heard saying, “Bye, baby” to the woman. There were no witnesses in the store, but Carolyn Bryant—the woman behind the counter—later claimed that he grabbed her, made lewd advances and wolf-whistled at her as he walked out.
Four days later, at approximately 2:30am, Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half-brother JW Milam kidnapped Emmett from Moses Wright’s home. They then beat the teenager brutally, dragged him to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan and shoved his mutilated body into the water.
Moses Wright reported Emmett’s disappearance to the local authorities, and three days later, his corpse was pulled out of the river. His face was mutilated beyond recognition, and Moses only managed to positively identify him by the ring on his finger, engraved with his father’s initials LT.
Open casket funeral
Authorities wanted to bury the body quickly, but Emmett’s mother, Mamie, requested that it be sent back to Chicago. Mami opted to have an open-casket funeral with Emmett’s body on display for five days. She wanted the world to see what racist murderers had done to her only son.
Jet, an African American weekly magazine, published a photo of Emmett’s corpse, and soon the mainstream media picked up on the story. Thousands of people came to the Roberts Temple Church of God to see the evidence of this brutal hate crime.
Mamie said that despite the enormous pain it caused her to see her son’s dead body on display, she opted for an open-casket funeral in an effort to “let the world see what has happened because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like.”
Tried for murder
Milam and Bryant were arrested and stood trial in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, less than two weeks after Emmett Till’s body was buried. There were few witnesses besides Mose Wright, who positively identified the defendants as Emmett’s killers. With the help of NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers and other black activists in seeking out witnesses, the prosecution produced compelling evidence.
Even so, it wasn’t a surprise when on 23 September, the all-white, all-male jury voted “not guilty” in a little over an hour. Mississippi, after all, had had very few convictions for white-on-black murders. And the state led the nation in lynchings.
The jury said that they believed the state had failed to prove the identity of the body. Many people around the country were outraged by the verdict and also by the state’s decision not to indict Milam and Bryant on the separate charge of kidnapping.
Four months after their irreversible acquittal, Milam and Bryant admitted their guilt to Look magazine, receiving a fee of some $3,000 for their story. But the most explosive testimony, which certainly influenced the local white public’s perception of the motive for the murder, was the provocative words of Carolyn Bryant, who was working in the store that night.
On the stand, she asserted that Emmett had grabbed her and verbally threatened her. She said that while she was unable to utter the “unprintable” word he had used (as one of the defence lawyers put it), “he said he had”—done something – “with white women before.’” Then she added, “I was just scared to death.”
The judge ruled that Carolyn’s testimony was not relevant to the actual murder, so he dismissed the jury from the courtroom whilst she spoke. But the court spectators heard her, and her testimony was put on the record because the defence wanted her words as evidence in a possible appeal in the event that the defendants were convicted. And the defendant’s lawyers told reporters of her damning allegations.
Carolyn Bryant tells the truth
In 2017, Tim Tyson, author of the book The Blood of Emmett Till, revealed that Carolyn Bryant recanted her testimony, admitting that Till had never touched, threatened or harassed her. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she said.