Let's level-set quickly. This happened in 1955. That was only 65 years ago. Your grandparents were alive during this time. Today, Emmett Till would be 79 years old. That is only 2 years older than Joe Biden, who is running for President of the United States. We see black and white images and we convince ourselves that the horrors of our country's history were so long ago, but Emmett Till would be 17 years younger than my grandfather. This isn't ancient history. This happened while people who are still alive today, while people who still vote today were alive. Just remember that.
On August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, aged 14 at the time, was lynched in Mississippi after being accused of offending a white woman in her family's grocery store. He was murdered violently, and his killers were acquitted of his death.
During a summer vacation, he was visiting relatives in Mississippi. He spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, a married white woman who owned the small grocery store. What actually happened is a matter of controversy, but he allegedly whistled at her and flirted with her. Bryant also claimed he grabbed her waist. Several nights later, Bryant's husband and his half-brother abducted the child, beat him, mutilated him, shot him, and sunk his body in the Tallahatchie River. His body was found 3 days later.
Till's mother insisted on an open-casket funeral to expose the world to the horrors of racism in the United States. Tens of thousands attended his funeral. But in September of 1955, an all-white jury found the killers not guilty. Under double jeopardy, they could not be retried, and they publicly admitted to the murder in 1956. Carolyn Bryant has also admitted that she lied about some of the specifics of the interactions with the child that lead to his death.
EMMETT TILL'S CHILDHOOD
Emmett Till was born in Chicago in 1941 to parents Mamie Carthan and Louis Till. (If you want to further connect this crime with the "modern" world - Mamie Carthan was alive until 2003.) She was from Webb, Mississippi, but moved with her family to Illinois when she was only 2 years old to escape the violence in the south.
Mamie raised Emmett with her mother primarily, as she and Louis separated in 1942 after it was revealed he had been unfaithful, and would eventually become abusive. In 1945, he was executed for the rape and murder of an Italian woman, weeks before his son's 4th birthday.
When Emmett was 6, he contracted polio, which left him with a persistent stutter. He and his mom moved to Detroit, where Mamie met and married "Pink" Bradley in 1951. But Emmett loved Chicago, so he moved back there with his grandfather. Mamie and Pink followed later that year, but in 1952, the marriage dissolved and Pink returned to Detroit.
Mamie and Emmett lived together in Chicago's South Side. She worked as a civilian clerk for the Air Force, and Emmett helped with chores at home. In the years after Pink and Mamie's separation, he would sometimes visit and threaten her. When he was 11, Emmett told Pink he would kill him if he wouldn't leave.
However, despite his 2 father figures both being violent men, especially against his mother, Emmett was a normal, happy child. He lived near relatives and his cousins and friends would often pull pranks on one another. They played pick-up baseball and Emmett was often the center of attention among his friends.
In 1955, Emmett was 14 years old and was growing into a strong, muscular boy. He was only 5'4", but weighed about 150lbs and was pretty fit. During the summer, Mamie's uncle came and visited in Chicago and told them stories about his life in Mississippi, and Emmett wanted to see if for himself. He begged his mom to go visit her uncle, Moose Wright, in Mississippi, and she finally relented.
Mose Wright lived in Money, Mississippi, which is where Emmett headed off to. But before leaving, Mamie reminded him that Chicago and Mississippi were 2 different worlds, and he had to behave himself around white people in the south. Since 1882, more than 500 Black people had been killed by "extrajudicial violence" (read: vigilante racism) in Mississippi alone. Though the numbers had started to go down in the 50s, they certainly were not unheard of. Interracial marriages in the South were prohibited as a mains to retain white supremacy, and sex between Black men and white women could carry severe penalties for Black men.
Racial tensions were also increasing after the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education which ended segregation in public schools. Many people believed that allowing Black and white people to attend school together would lead to interracial marriage. Fragile whites strongly resisted the ruling.
Just 1 week before Emmett arrived, a black activist named Lamar Smith was shot and killed for political organizing. All 3 white suspects were released.
Emmett arrived in Money, Mississippi on August 21, 1955. Being kids, on August 24, they skipped church where uncle Mose was preaching to join some local boys to hang out. They went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy. The store was owned by 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his 21-year-old wife, Carolyn. Carolyn was managing the store alone that day.
His cousin, Curtis Jones, claimed that Emmett was showing the boys photos of his integrated classroom in Chicago, bragging that he was friends with the white children. He pointed to a white girl and said she was his girlfriend. Upon hearing this, the boys dared him to speak to Carolyn. However, another cousin would later dispute this, claiming that the photo didn't exist and no one dared him to speak to Carolyn. In 2006, Curtis Jones recanted his statements and apologized to Mamie for lying.
What most people agree on is that Emmett may have whistled at Carolyn, trying to make the boys laugh or something, as he was a known jokester. His cousin, Simeon Wright, said that they were terrified, as they'd never seen a black boy whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
During the murder trial, Carolyn testified that Emmett grabbed her hand and said, "How about a date, baby", and then followed her to the cash register, continuing to speak to her, asking "what's the matter baby" or saying "I've been with a white woman before". But in a 2008 interview, Carolyn Bryant admitted that her testimony was false, saying that him grabbing her was not true. She was 72 years old when she was interviewed and said she couldn't remember exactly what happened, but knew the part about him grabbing her was not true. "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him," she said.
All of that said, there was some sort of encounter between 14-year-old Emmett and 21-year-old Carolyn. Simeon and Emmett saw Carolyn go outside and get a gun from her car, and they left immediately.
Another boy ran across the street to tell Curtis what happened. When an older man who Curtis was with heard, he told them to leave quickly, fearing violence against them. Emmett was scared and wanted to return home to Chicago, but didn't tell his uncle what had happened. Historians believe that Roy Bryant, who was away on a work trip, didn't hear about the encounter from Carolyn, but from someone who was at the store that day. Carolyn claimed that she didn't tell her husband because she didn't want him to hurt Emmett (but then would lie on the stand, so, I'm going to call BS on her.)
THE MURDER OF EMMETT TILL
By someone's account, Roy Bryant was informed of what had happened at the store. He began aggressively questioning various young Black men and children who entered the store. At one point, he approached a Black teenager and put him in the back of his pickup truck and took him to be identified. He was determined to not be the boy in question. By some means, Roy learned that the kid was Mose Wright's nephew.
In the early morning hours of August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant and his half-brother John William Milam drove to Wright's home, armed with a pistol. He asked Wright if he had any boys from Chicago in his home. Emmett's aunt offered the men money, but they refused. They threatened his aunt and uncle, who protested that he was from up north and didn't know any better. He was taken from the home.
They tied Emmett up in the back of their pickup truck. They drove to a barn and pistol whipped him, knocking him unconscious. Beating and crying were heard from the barn. He was shot and tossed into the Tallahatchie River, and then the killers drove back to Roy's home to burn the child's clothes. In a 1956 interview, Bryant and Williams claimed they had just planned to beat him and throw him into the river to scare him. In the same interview, Milam said:
"I'm no bully; I never hurt a n***** in my life. I like n***** s—in their place—I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, n***** s are gonna stay in their place. N*****s ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a n***** gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that n***** throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand."
That night, Mose Wright stayed on his porch waiting for Emmett to return, but he never did. He and a friend drove into town trying to find him, to no avail. Mose feared for his life and would not call the police, so Curtis Jones called the police, and called Mamie.
Bryant and Milim were questioned by police, and they admitted to taking the boy from his uncle's yard, but said they released him the night before. They were arrested for kidnapping.
3 days after his abduction, Emmett's swollen, mutilated and disfigured body was found in the river. His head was mutilated and there was evidence he had been beaten on the back and the hips. His body was weighted down by a fan blade tied with a wire around his neck. He was nude and his face was unrecognizable.
The trial was held in Sumner, Mississippi in front of an all white jury. No hotels were open to black visitors who wanted to witness the trial. Mamie, among other high-profile visitors who wanted to witness the trial, had to stay in T.R.M Howard's home, the Leflore County Sheriff who was a civil rights proponent. The home was set up with armed guards.
The trial began in September of 1855 and lasted only 5 days. Black spectators sat in segregated sections, and Black reporters were ordered to sit away from the white press, further away from the jury.
The defense tried to cast doubt on the identity of the body pulled from the river, questioning whether Emmett Till was dead at all. They asserted that, yes, Bryant and Milam took him from the home, but they released him that night. They also alleged that Mose Wright, with only a flashlight that night, could not positively identify the 2 horrible racists as the men who took Emmett from the home. Mose Wright, willing to look past his fear, testified against the white men, stating he was sure it was them.
Mamie testified that she had instructed her son to watch his manners while in the south, while the defense questioned the identification of her son in his casked.
Carolyn Bryant testified, but not in front of the jury, though the prosecution argued that her testimony was irrelevant to the murder. A sheriff testified for the defense, saying Emmett was still alive, and the body retrieved from the river wasn't even his.
In closing arguments, the prosecution said that what Emmett did was wrong, but his actions warranted a spanking, not a cold blooded murder. The defense argued that Emmett being murdered was "improbable" and that the jury's "forefathers would turn over in their graves" if the voted to convict Milam and Bryant. After 67 minutes, both defendants were acquitted of the murder of Emmett Till.
Post-trial analysis blamed a lot of different things for the verdict. Some argued Mamie didn't cry enough. Also, the jury was exclusively picked from an area of town that was known for their super outward racism. (This was pulled directly from Wikipedia - isn't it something that Mamie not crying enough was listed before having a super racist jury as a reason for the trial's outcome?) In later interviews, jurors would admit that they knew they were guilty, but just didn't believe that the possible outcomes (a life sentence or the death penalty) were fair punishments for a white man killing a black man. Some believed up until 2005, even after they had admitted to the crime, that the defense was telling the truth and Emmett was never even killed.
After Milam and Bryant publicly admitted that they had in fact killed Emmett Till, their support base eroded. Their friends and supporters cut them off, Black people boycotted their shops, which ultimately went bankrupt and closed. Banks refused to grand them loans. Black people refused to work for either of them. They moved to Texas, where their infamy followed them, so they went back to Mississippi. Milam, after a lifetime of working odd jobs and committing other crimes, he died of spinal cancer in 1980.
Bryant and Carolyn divorced, and some poor woman remarried him in 1980. He also committed other crimes, and died in 1994 of cancer.
Emmett's mother married Gene Mobley and became a teacher, changing her surname to Till-Mobley. She continued to educate people about her son's murder. In 1992, she listened to Bryant interview about his murder of Emmett, claiming that he had "ruined his life" and expressed no remorse. "Emmett Till is dead. I don't know why he can't just stay dead," he said, not knowing the mother of his victim was watching.
As of 2018, Carolyn Bryant was still alive and turned 84. She has remarried twice since then. She has allegedly admitted to feeling "tender sorrow" for her accusations against Emmett. Later on, her own son would die, and she felt even more regretful for her actions because she could relate further to Mamie. (Boooo)
LEGACY, HONORS, AND NOW
There are truly countless ways in which Emmett Till is commemorated in the United States today. Statues have been created, streets and highways have been named after him, and Civil Rights sculptures all include his name. Demonstrations have been held, helping Mamie to realize the significant impact her son's death had on the world. Part of an elementary school was renamed for him, memorial funds have been created in his name, and a bill for solving Civil Rights-era murders has been signed into law in his name.
His death has been represented in various aspects of culture, including television episodes, poems, books, autobiographies, documentaries, songs, plays, movies and musicals.
At the time, Emmett's story attracted widespread attention due to the brutality of the murder, the acquittal, and his young age. His death ignited protests around the world. Martin Luther King Jr. held a rally for Emmett, which was attended by Rosa Parks before she had become famous for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. His death sparked activism in younger Black students, as well.
Now, Emmett Till's name is remembered among so many others who have died in such horrific ways. Notably, just a few months ago in 2020, 65 years after Emmett Till was murdered by 2 racist white men, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by 2 racist white men while out for a jog. It is easy to think that what happened to Emmett Till was so long ago, and that things like this just don't happen anymore, but they do.
The civil rights movement is having one of its biggest moments right now. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the murder of George Floyd, the murder of Breonna Taylor. It may not be the 50s in the south, but Black people are still disproportionately affected by police violence, and still face racism on a day-to-day basis, sometimes fatally. As we march and call our representatives and make donations and demand change for the extensive list of names of Black lives that have been taken far too soon, we don't forget Emmett Till's name. We can't forget.
It does seem crazy to think about 2 white men murdering a black teen and getting away with it, eventually admitting to the crime while living the rest of their lives as free men. Though they were ostracized, they both lived into their 60s while Emmett Till never got to turn 15. But it isn't crazy. The officers involved in the murder of Breonna Taylor have not been arrested and are living freely. Some of the cops involved in the death of George Floyd got out on bail that was crowdfunded by the American people. When the public found out that Bryant and Milam had committed the murder, they lost their support. But these cops were caught on camera watching their fellow police officer murder George Floyd, and citizens of the U.S. in 2020 are donating to GoFundMe's to get them out of jail. People are still posting articles and posts about the criminal history of the murdered victims in attempt to make it seem like it was their fault. What's the difference between saying, "follow the law and you won't be killed" and "don't whistle at a white woman and you won't be killed"? We aren't nearly as far away from 1955 as we'd like to believe we are.
I wish the list of names added to Emmett Till's in the last 65 years was a whole hell of a lot shorter than it is. But it isn't. In 65 years, we've made strides. On paper, Black people have the same rights as white people. But that doesn't mean that systemic racism doesn't run rampant in higher education, the housing industry, the financial industry, law enforcement, or quite literally any entity you can think of. Being able to sit next to a white student at school doesn't matter if the police shoot you for playing with a toy gun before you become a teenager.
It is always profoundly disheartening to write about such horrific things from the U.S.'s past without being able to bask in the fact that it is behind us. I wrote about a mass shooting from the 50s, and it was terrible to think about how mass shootings have only increased since then. In the same way, it is so very disheartening to write about such an obvious act of racism in the 50s without getting to at least be glad things like that don't happen anymore. But they do.
Rest in power, Emmett Till. You shouldn't have had to become the face of a civil rights movement, you should have just gotten to live your life. But since you, and all of the other Black men and women who had died in the same heartbreaking way as you, have been dealt this horrific hand, we must work harder than ever to ensure it wasn't in vain. #BlackLivesMatter in 1955, today, and every single day.