Today would have been Emmett Till's 74th birthday.
Emmett Louis Till was the son of Louis and Mamie (nee Carthan) Till, born July 25, 1941, in Chicago. His parents separated in 1942, and Mamie and her mother. (The separation was caused by Louis' infideltiy. He later assaulted Mamie, and when he violated court orders to stay away from her, a judge gave him the choice of enlisting or prison. He enlisted, and was executed in Italy in 1945 after being convicted of rape and murder by a court-martial.) When he was six, Emmett contracted polio, and although he made a full recovery the illness left him with a persistent stutter.
Emmett was extremely bright, often acting much more mature than he was. He engaged in numerous schemes to earn money, eagerly helped his mother with chores and home piece-work, and dressed extremely well. He also bragged a lot, making exaggerated claims about his home life, schooling, wealth, and experiences. He was also robust child: At the age of 14, he weighed 150 pounds, was naturally muscular, and was 5'4" tall.
In the summer of 1955, Mamie's uncle, 64-year-old Mose Wright (a sharecropper and part-time preacher), visited her and Emmett in Chicago. Emmett was thrilled by stories of the Mississippi Delta, and his mother agreed to allow him to visit Mississippi.
Mamie warned Emmett repeatedly that Money, Mississippi, was not like Chicago. She lectured him extensively on how to behave: If a white person approached him on the sidewalk, he was to step into the street. He was to walk with his eyes cast at the ground at all times. He was never to speak to a white person, unless spoken to. He should never talk back to a white person. He could not shop in white stores. He must not be seen in town after dark. And much more... Emmett said he agreed.
Emmett arrived in Money on August 21. On August 24, he and a cousin, Curtis Jones, skipped church and went into town. That afternoon, they entered Bryant's Grocery (which catered to black sharecroppers) to buy candy. Twenty-one-year-old Carolyn was alone in the store at the cash register. Jones left Till in the store with the other boys. According to Jones, Till bragged about his integrated school in Chicago, and that he had a white girlfriend. One of the boys then dared Till to speak to Carolyn.
What happened next is unclear. Till may have wolf-whistled at Bryant. (But there is also evidence that Till sometimes whistled to overcome his stuttering.) Till may have grabbed Bryant's hand and asked her for a date. Till may have grabbed her hand and said "Bye, baby" or "You needn't be afraid of me, baby, I've been with white women before." Carolyn Bryant herself said that Till made sexual advances and asked "How about a date, baby?", and when she tried to move away he grabbed her waist and said "What's the matter baby, can't you take it?" Bryant claimed to have freed herself, after which Till told her "You needn't be afraid of me, baby," asked her to "fuck", and said "I've been with white women before." Till's cousin, Simeon Wright, challenged Bryant's version of events, noting that he was gone less than a minute and that when he re-entered the store he saw no inappropriate behavior and heard no lecherous conversation. Wright said Till paid for his items and left. An anonymous source interviewed by the FBI also confirmed Wright's account.
Not in dispute is what happened next: Bryant ran outside to her car and retrieved a pistol, and the teenagers fled across the street. Till whistled as she did so, but it is unclear if he was wolf-whistling at Bryant or whistling about a checkers game he was observing across the street.
One of the boys told Curtis Jones what happened. An older black man present urged the boys to run home, and they ddi so. Meanwhile, Bryant told her friends and family about what happened. Jones and Till decided not to tell Mose Wright what happened, fearing they would get in trouble for skipping church. That evening, a frightened Till told Jones he wanted to go home to Chicago.
Twenty-four-year-old Roy Bryant returned from a fishing trip on the morning of August 27, and was enraged. During the day, he aggressively questioned several young black men who entered his store. That evening, Bryant and a friend kidnapped a young black man walking along a road. He was released a few hours later after the young man's family vouched for his whereabouts on August 24, and Carolyn's friends said he was not the one who had accosted Roy's wife. Somehow, Bryant learned that the young black man he sought was from Chicago and staying with Mose Wright. Bryant and his 36-year-old half-brother J.W. Milam then discussed kiddnapping Till.
Some time between 2:00 AM and 3:30 AM on August 28, Roy Bryant, Milam (armed with a pistol), and another man drove to Mose Wright's house. They entered the two-bedroom cabin and demanded the "boy from Chicago". Mose took them to Till. Bryant asked Till if he'd spoken to Carolyn in the store, and Till replied, "Yeah." As Till dressed, the men threatened to kill Wright if he told the sherrif about the kidnapping. Till's great-aunt offered the men money to leave Till alone, but they did not reply to her offer.
Till was put in the back of Bryant's pickup truck and driven to a barn at the Clint Shurden Plantation in the nearby village of Drew. The men confronted Till and pistol-whipped him. They threw him in the back of the truck again, and covered him with a tarp. Just where the men went next is unclear. There is some evidence that they took Till to a shed behind Milam's home, and beat him for the next hour or two. By now, Bryant and Milam had picked up two to four other white men. Eyewitnesses even assert that two to four black men were also accompanying him. The group drove tossed the unconscious Till back in the bed of the pickup truck and covered him with the tarp again. They drove to Bryant's store, where several people noticed blood pooling in the bed of the truck. Bryant said he'd he killed a deer. He also showed the body to one black man, and said "that's what happens to smart niggers".
By now it was early daylight. Bryant and Milam drove to a cotton mill, where they seized a 70-pound set of fan blades and some barbed wire. They then drove for several miles along the Tallahatchie River. They finally stopped, shot Till behind the right ear, stripped him, used the barbed wire to tie the fan to his body, and tossed him in the river.
Meanwhile, Mose Wright was frantic. He assumed the men would just scare and beat Till, and waited 20 minutes for them to return. When they did not, he and another man drove around trying to find Till. They returned home at 8:00 AM. Fearing for his life, Wright refused to call the police, but a terrified Curtis Jones called the Leflore County sheriff and his own mother in Chicago. Distraught, Curtis' mother called Mamie Till. (Later, Mose and Elizabeth Wright drove to Sumner to talk things over with Elizabeth's brother. He immediately contacted the sheriff.)
Leflore County Sheriff George Smith questioned Bryant and Milam. They admitted kidnapping Till but claimed they had released him some hours later in front of Bryant's store. Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping. A frantic Mamie Till contacted the NAACP, which believed that publicity would save Till's life. Medgar Evers, field secretary for the Mississippi state NAACP, disguised himself as a cotton picker and went into the cotton fields in an attempt to learn what happened to Till.
On August 31, Till's body was found by two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River. His body was badly decomposed, and his head mangled by the beating and gunshot wound. He was identified by the silver ring he wore, and its inscription. Mose Wright identified the body. There was no post-mortem.
Till's murder electrified the country. The beating and murder of a 14-year-old boy visiting the Deep South shocked the nation, which was inured to the casual violence, lynching, beating, and harassment of African Ameicans. Fearing her son would be vilified by the press, Mamie allowed the press to publish a picture of a smiling, well-dressed Emmett taken at Christmas 1954. The photograph was printed throughout the United States, garnering sympathy of Till.
The state of Mississippi attempted to bury Emmett's body immediately, which would have essentially hidden the extent of the crime. (The state would never have granted a disinterrment order.) But Mamie demanded that the body be sent to Chicago, and angry officials in Illinois supported her claim. Mississippi grudgingly packed the body in lime and shipped it by rail to Chicago.
Local opinion swiftly turned against Bryant and Milam. Mississippi governor Hugh L. White, local newspapers, local county police, and even many whites denounced the crime and asked for a thorough prosecution.
Till's body arrived in Chicago to a massive crowd. Mamie swooned as her boy's corpse was taken from the train, and pictures of the event were widely published. The A.A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago oversaw the funeral. The stench of Till's body was noticeable two blocks away. Mamie decided on 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." A glass-topped coffin was provided for the funeral.
Tens of thousands of people visited the mortuary to view Till's body, and thousands more attended his funeral on September 6 at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. Mamie DEMANDED that photographs of his mutilated corpse lying in its coffin be taken, and they were published in Jet
magazine and The Chicago Defender
newspaper (both black-owned publications, aimed at black readers). The photographs outraged Chicago's black community, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Illinois Governor William Stratton demanded that the killers be brought to justice, and mainstream newspapers nationwide commented on the publication.
Mississippi became defensive about it perceived to be "Northern" interference in a local matter. Mississippi newspapers falsely reported riots at the Rayner funeral home, ran photos of Bryant and Milam in military uniform, began running stories about Carolyn Bryant's beauty and virtue, and claimed outraged blacks and northern whites were going to invade Leflore County. Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider said he doubted that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River was Till's, and speculated Till was still alive and being hidden by the NAACP.
Bryant and Milam were indicted for murder, even though the local prosecutor doubted a jury would ever return a verdict of guilty.
The trial began on September 18, 1955. The defense argued that the body pulled from the river was not Till's, and that Mose Wright could never have positively identified Bryant and Milam as the men who took Till.
No black man in Mississippi had ever dared challenge a white man in court. When asked by the defense to identiy the kidnapper, Wright stood, pointed to Milam, and loudly announced "Thar he!" Photographer Ernest Withers secretly defied the judge's orders against photography in the courtroom, and caught the dramatic moment on film. Historian Christopher Benson said Wright had "crossed a line that no one could remember a black man ever crossing in Mississippi". A reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune
wrote that it was "the most dramatic thing I saw in my career".
Mamie Till also testified, with the defense insinuating that she'd had her own son killed to get a $400 life insurance policy. Eyewitnesses testified to hearing Till beg for mercy while being beatenin Milam's shed, while Sheriff Strider testified that the body retrieved from the river was white.
On September 23, the all-white jury acquitted both defendants after 67 minutes. One juror said, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long." In later interviews, the jurors acknowledged that Bryant and Milam were guilty, but did not believe life imprisonment or the death penalty was a fit punishment for whites who had killed a black man.
In November 1955, a grand jury declined to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping, despite the testimony given that they had admitted taking Till.
Fleeing white retribution, Mose Wright and two other black witnesses relocated to Chicago.
In October 1955, the Jackson Daily News
reported the facts about Louis Till's rapes and murder. (It was the first Mamie knew of this, as the Army had previously only told her that he'd been executed for "willful misconduct".) Mississippi senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis then released Army records about Louis Till's crimes. More articles were written about Louis Till in Mississippi than about Emmett Till, and most whites in the state believed that Emmett had inherited his father's depraved traits.
Bryant and Milam told their story to Look
magazine in 1956 for $4,000. Protected by constitutional prohibition against double-jeopardy, the two gleefully told how they'd kidnapped Till, brutally beaten him, and how Milam shot him in the head. Reaction to the interview was explosive. Their brazen admission led directly to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which allowed the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in local law cases when civil rights were being compromised.
In Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider, sparking a year-long grassroots boycott of the public bus system. Parks later said, "I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn't go back." Till's murder influenced Harper Lee's rendition of the character Tom Robinson in her novel To Kill A Mockingbird
Support for Bryant and Milam swiftly eroded in Mississippi after the interview. They were ostracized, their shops went bankrupt, and banks refused them loans. Both relocated to Texas, but eventually returned to Mississippi. Milam operated heavy equipment operator, was convicted of a wide variety of petty crimes, and died of spinal cancer in 1980 at the age of 61. Bryant worked as a welder, went blind, divorced Carolyn, remarried in 1980, opened a store, and was twice convicted of food stamp fraud. He died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 63. In 1882, he told an interviewer that Emmett Till had ruined his life: "Emmett Till is dead. I don't know why he can't just stay dead."
Carolyn Bryant remarried and still lives in Greenville, Mississippi. As of 2015, she's 87 years old. She has never spoken about the events in the store.
Mamie Till married Gene Mobley, became a teacher, and changed her surname to Till-Mobley. She spent the rest of her life working to educate people about her son's murder. She died of heart failure on January 6, 2003, at the age of 81. The same year, her autobiography Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America
, was published.
Mose Wright died in 1966, never having returned to Mississippi. Simeon Wright is now 73 and Curtis Jones is now 75. Both men live in Chicago.
Unresolved questions as to who was involved in the murder and cover-up led federal authorities to try to resolve the questions about Emmett Till's murder. Till's body was exhumed and an autopsy conducted by the Cook County coroner in 2005. DNA, dental records, and other analysis positively identified the body as Till's. The autopsy also revealed Till had a broken left leg, and two broken wrists.
The house where 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted in the dead of night is long gone. The Bryant store still exists, but is in a severe state of decay. Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, site of Till's funeral, is still open and holds services every Sunday.
Emmett Till's name is inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, as one of 40 martyrs to the civil rights cause. In 1991, a 7-mile stretch of 71st Street in Chicago was renamed "Emmett Till Road". McCosh Elementary School in Chicago, where Till had been a student, was renamed the "Emmett Louis Till Math And Science Academy" in 2005. The "Emmett Till Memorial Highway" was dedicated between Greenwood and Tutwiler, Mississippi, the same route his body took to the train station on its way to Chicago. In 2007, Tallahatchie County issued a formal apology to Till's family, recognizing the terrible miscarriage of justice. In 2008, Congress enacted the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which authorized the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute unsolved civil rights-era murders.
In July 2009, a manager and three workers at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, were charged with digging up bodies, dumping them in a remote area, and reselling the plots. Hundreds of remains were cast aside. Till's grave was not disturbed, but law enforcement discovered the original glass-topped casket rusting in a dilapidated storage shed. The coffin was supposed to have been placed in storage for safekeeping at a planned Emmett Till memorial museum. The cemetery manager, who administered the museum fund, pocketed the donations.
Relatives of Mamie Till-Mobley donated the casket to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The casket will go on display when the museum opens in 2016.