Emmett Louis Till was an African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman
Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was an African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Till was from Chicago, Illinois, and visiting relatives in Money, a small town in the Mississippi Delta region. He spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the married proprietor of a small grocery store there. Several nights later, Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam went to Till's great-uncle's house and abducted the boy. They took him away and beat and mutilated him before shooting him and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, Till's body was discovered and retrieved from the river. Till's body was returned to Chicago.
His mother, who had mostly raised him, insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of the killing. "The open-coffin funeral held by Mamie Till Bradley exposed the world to more than her son Emmett Till's bloated, mutilated body. Her decision focused attention not only on American racism and the barbarism of lynching but also on the limitations and vulnerabilities of American democracy". Tens of thousands attended his funeral or viewed his casket and images of his mutilated body were published in black-oriented magazines and newspapers, rallying popular black support and white sympathy across the U.S. Intense scrutiny was brought to bear on the condition of black civil rights in Mississippi, with newspapers around the country critical of the state. Although initially local newspapers and law enforcement officials decried the violence against Till and called for justice, they soon began responding to national criticism by defending Mississippians, which eventually transformed into support for the killers. In September 1955, Bryant and Milam were acquitted of Till's kidnapping and murder. Protected against double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam publicly admitted in an interview with Look magazine that they killed Till. Problems identifying Till affected the trial, partially leading to Bryant's and Milam's acquittals, and the case was officially reopened by the United States Department of Justice in 2004. As part of the investigation, the body was exhumed and autopsied resulting in a positive identification. He was reburied in a new casket, which is the standard practice in cases of body exhumation. His original casket was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. The trial of Bryant and Milam attracted a vast amount of press attention.
Till's murder is noted as a pivotal catalyst to the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. Events surrounding Emmett Till's life and death, according to historians, continue to resonate. Some writers have suggested that almost every story about Mississippi returns to Till, or the region in which he died, in "some spiritual, homing way".
Emmett's mother was born in the small Delta town of Webb, Mississippi. The Delta region encompasses the large, multi-county area of northwestern Mississippi in the watershed of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers. When Carthan was two years old, her family moved to Argo, Illinois, as part of the Great Migration of rural black families out of the South to the North to escape lack of opportunity and unequal treatment under the law. Argo received so many Southern migrants it was named "Little Mississippi"; Carthan's mother's home was often used as a way station for people who had just moved from the South as they were trying to find jobs and housing. Mississippi was the poorest state in the U.S. in the 1950s, and the Delta counties were some of the poorest in Mississippi. In Tallahatchie County, where Mamie Carthan was born, the average income per household in 1949 was $690 ($6,755 in 2013 dollars); for black families it was $462 ($4,523 in 2013 dollars). Economic opportunities for blacks were almost nonexistent.
Most of them were sharecroppers who lived on land owned by whites. Blacks had essentially been excluded from voting and the political system since the white-dominated legislature passed a new constitution in 1890, and had very few legal rights. Till was born in Chicago and nicknamed "Bobo" as an infant by a family friend. His mother Mamie largely raised him with her mother; she and Louis Till separated in 1942 after she discovered he had been unfaithful. Louis later choked her to unconsciousness, to which she responded by throwing scalding water at him.
For violating court orders to stay away from Mamie, Emmett's father Louis was forced by a judge to choose between jail or enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1943; he was executed in Italy in 1945 after being convicted of rape and murder by a court-martial. At the age of six Emmett contracted polio, leaving him with a persistent stutter. Mamie and Emmett moved to Detroit, where she met and married "Pink" Bradley in 1951. Emmett preferred to live in Chicago, so he relocated to live with his grandmother; his mother and stepfather rejoined him later that year. After the marriage dissolved in 1952, Bradley returned to Detroit. Mamie Till Bradley and Emmett lived together in a busy neighborhood in Chicago's South Side, near extended relatives. She began working as a civilian clerk for the U.S. Air Force for a better salary and recalled that Emmett was industrious enough to help with chores at home, although he sometimes got distracted. His mother remembered that he did not know his own limitations at times. Following his and Mamie's separation, Bradley visited and began threatening her. At eleven years old, Emmett, with a butcher knife in hand, told Bradley he would kill him if Bradley did not leave.
Usually, however, Emmett was happy. He and his cousins and friends pulled pranks on each other (Emmett once took advantage of an extended car ride when his friend fell asleep and placed the friend's underwear on his head), and spent their free time in pickup baseball games. He was a natty dresser and often the center of attention among his peers. In 1955, Emmett was stocky and muscular, weighing about 150 pounds (68 kg) and standing 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 m). Despite his being 14 years old, whites in Mississippi claimed Till looked like an adult. Mamie Till Bradley's uncle, 64-year-old Mose Wright, visited her and Emmett in Chicago during the summer and told Emmett stories about living in the Mississippi Delta. Emmett wanted to see for himself. Bradley was ready for a vacation and planned to take Emmett with her, but after he begged her to visit Wright, she relented. Wright planned to accompany Till with a cousin, Wheeler Parker, and another, Curtis Jones, would join them soon. Wright was a sharecropper and part-time minister who was often called "Preacher". He lived in Money, Mississippi, a small town in the Delta that consisted of three stores, a school, a post office, a cotton gin, and a couple hundred residents, 8 miles (13 km) north of Greenwood. Before Emmett departed for the Delta, his mother cautioned him that Chicago and Mississippi were two different worlds, and he should know how to behave in front of whites in the South. He assured her he understood. Since 1882, when statistics on lynchings began to be collected, more than 500 African Americans had been killed by extrajudicial violence in Mississippi alone, and more than 3,000 across the South. Most of the incidents took place between 1876 and 1930; though far less common by the mid-1950s, these racially motivated murders still occurred. Throughout the South, whites publicly prohibited interracial relationships (while indulging in affairs with black women) as a means to maintain white supremacy.
Even the suggestion of sexual contact between black men and white women could carry severe penalties for black men
Jim Crow mores was evident following World War II, when African-American veterans started pressing for equal rights in the South
Even the suggestion of sexual contact between black men and white women could carry severe penalties for black men. A resurgence of the enforcement of such Jim Crow mores was evident following World War II, when African-American veterans started pressing for equal rights in the South. Racial tensions increased further after the United States Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in public education, which it ruled as unconstitutional. Many segregationists believed the ruling would lead to interracial marriage. Whites strongly resisted the court's ruling, in the case of a Virginia county, closing all the public schools to prevent integration. Other jurisdictions simply ignored the ruling. In other ways, whites used stronger measures to keep blacks politically disenfranchised, which they had been since the turn of the century. Segregation in the South was used to constrain blacks forcefully from any semblance of social equality. A week before Till arrived in Mississippi, a black activist named Lamar Smith was shot and killed in front of the county courthouse in Brookhaven for political organizing.
Three white suspects were arrested, but they were soon released. Encounter between Till and Carolyn Bryant The remains of Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market as it appeared in 2009 Bryant's Grocery, 2013 Till arrived in Money, Mississippi on August 21, 1955. On August 24, he and cousin Curtis Jones skipped church where his great-uncle Wright was preaching, joining some local boys as they went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to buy candy. The teenagers were children of sharecroppers and had been picking cotton all day. The market was owned by a white couple, 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his 21-year-old wife Carolyn; it mostly served the local sharecropper population. Carolyn was alone in the store that day; her sister-in-law was in the rear of the store watching children. Jones left Till with the other boys while Jones played checkers across the street. According to Jones, the other boys reported that Till had a photograph of an integrated class at the school he attended in Chicago,[note 1] and Till bragged to the boys that the white children in the picture were his friends. He pointed to a white girl in the picture, or referred to a picture of a white girl that had come with his new wallet, and said she was his girlfriend. One or more of the local boys dared Till to speak to Bryant. The facts of what took place in the store are still disputed. According to several versions, including comments from some of the kids standing outside the store when Till walked in,
Till may have wolf-whistled at Bryant. A newspaper account following his disappearance stated that Till sometimes whistled to alleviate his stuttering. His speech was sometimes unclear; his mother said he had particular difficulty with pronouncing "b" sounds, and he may have whistled to overcome problems asking for bubble gum. According to other stories, Till may have grabbed Bryant's hand and asked her for a date, or said "Bye, baby" as he left the store, or "You needn't be afraid of me, baby, I've been with white women before." Bryant testified during the murder trial that Till grabbed her hand while she was stocking candy and said, "How about a date, baby?" She said that after she freed herself from his grasp, the young man followed her to the cash register, grabbed her waist and said, "What's the matter baby, can't you take it?" Bryant said she freed herself, and Till said, "You needn't be afraid of me, baby," used "one 'unprintable' word" and said "I've been with white women before." Bryant also alleged that one of Till's companions came into the store, grabbed him by the arm, and ordered him to leave. Till's cousin, Simeon Wright, writing about the incident decades later, challenged Carolyn Bryant's account. Entering the store "less than a minute" after Till was left inside alone with Bryant, Wright saw no inappropriate behavior and heard "no lecherous conversation." Wright said Till "paid for his items and we left the store together." The FBI noted in their 2006 investigation of the cold case that a second anonymous source, who was confirmed to have been in the store at the same time as Till and his cousin, supported Wright's account. In any event, Bryant was allegedly so alarmed she ran outside to a car to retrieve a pistol from under the seat. Upon seeing her do this, the teenagers left immediately. It was acknowledged that while Bryant was running to her car, Till whistled.
However, it is disputed whether Till whistled toward Carolyn or toward a checkers game that was occurring just across the street. One of the other boys ran across the street to tell Curtis Jones what happened in the store. When the older man with whom Jones was playing checkers heard the story, he urged the boys to leave quickly, fearing violence. Bryant told others of the events at the store, and the story spread quickly. Jones and Till declined to tell his great-uncle Mose Wright, fearing they would get in trouble. Till said he wanted to return home to Chicago. Carolyn's husband Roy Bryant was on an extended trip hauling shrimp to Texas and did not return home until August 27. Murder When Roy Bryant was told of what had happened, he aggressively questioned several young black men who entered the store. That evening, Bryant, with a black man named J. W. Washington, approached a young black man walking along a road.
Bryant ordered Washington to seize the young man, put him in the back of a pickup truck, and took him to be identified by a companion of Carolyn's who had witnessed the episode with Till. Friends or parents vouched for the young men in Bryant's store, and Carolyn's companion denied that the young man Bryant and Washington seized was the one who had accosted her. Somehow, Bryant learned that the young man in the incident was from Chicago and was staying with Mose Wright. Several witnesses overheard Bryant and his 36-year-old half-brother John William "J. W." Milam discussing taking Till from his house. In the early morning hours—between 2:00 am and 3:30 am—on August 28, 1955, Bryant, Milam, and another man (who may have been black) drove to Mose Wright's house. Milam was armed with a pistol and a flashlight. He asked Wright if he had three boys in the house from Chicago. Till shared a bed with another cousin; there were eight people in the small two-bedroom cabin. Milam asked Wright to take them to "the nigger who did the talking".
When they asked Till if it was him, he replied, "Yeah", for which they threatened to shoot him and told him to get dressed. The men threatened to kill Wright if he reported what he had seen. Till's great-aunt offered the men money, but they did not respond. They put Till in the back of a pickup truck and drove to a barn at the Clint Shurden Plantation in Drew. Till was pistol-whipped and placed in the bed of the pickup truck again and covered with a tarpaulin. Throughout the course of the night, Bryant, Milam, and witnesses recall their being in several locations with Till. According to some witnesses, they took Till to a shed behind Milam's home in the nearby town of Glendora, where they beat him again and tried to decide what to do. Witnesses recall between two and four white men and two and four black men who were either in or surrounding the pickup truck where Till was seated. Others passed by Milam's shed and heard someone being beaten. Accounts differ as to when Till was shot; either in Milam's shed or by the Tallahatchie River. The group drove with him in the truck to Bryant's store, where several people noticed blood pooling in the truck bed. Bryant explained he killed a deer, and in one instance showed the body to a black man who questioned him, saying "that's what happens to smart niggers". Well, what else could we do?
He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—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, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers 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 nigger 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 nigger 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.' J. W. Milam, Look magazine, 1956 In an interview with William Bradford Huie, published in Look magazine in 1956, Bryant and Milam said they intended to beat Till and throw him off an embankment into the river to frighten him.
They told Huie that while they were beating Till, he called them bastards, declared he was as good as they, and had had sexual encounters with white women. They put Till in the back of their truck, drove to a cotton gin to take a 70-pound (32 kg) fan—the only time they admitted to being worried, thinking that by this time in early daylight they would be spotted and accused of stealing—and drove for several miles along the river looking for a place to dispose of Till. They shot him by the river and weighted his body with the fan. Mose Wright stayed on his front porch for twenty minutes waiting for Till to return. He did not go back to bed. He and another man went into Money, got gasoline, and drove around trying to find Till. Unsuccessful, they returned home by 8:00 am. After hearing from Wright that he would not call the police because he feared for his life, Curtis Jones placed a call to the Leflore County sheriff and another to his mother in Chicago. Distraught, she called Emmett's mother Mamie Till Bradley. Wright and his wife also drove to Sumner, where Elizabeth Wright's brother contacted the sheriff. Bryant and Milam were questioned by Leflore County sheriff George Smith. They admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle's yard but claimed they had released him the same night in front of Bryant's store. Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping.
Word got out that Till was missing, and soon Medgar Evers, Mississippi state field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Amzie Moore, head of the Bolivar County chapter, became involved. They disguised themselves as cotton pickers and went into the cotton fields in search of any information that might help find Till. Three days after his abduction, Till's swollen and disfigured body was found by two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River. His head was very badly damaged. He had been shot above the right ear, an eye was dislodged from the socket, there was evidence that he had been beaten on the back and the hips, and his body weighted by the fan blade, which was fastened around his neck with barbed wire. He was nude, but wearing a silver ring with the initials "L. T." and "May 25, 1943" carved in it.[note 4] Confusion about Till's whereabouts and a positive identification of the body retrieved from the river compounded issues in the case that eventually influenced the trial. Hodding Carter in the Delta Democrat-Times, a local Mississippi newspaper, reported that Till may have been hidden by his relatives or perhaps returned to Chicago for his safety. The body's face was unrecognizable due to trauma and having been submerged in water. Mose Wright was called to the river and identified Till. The silver ring Till wore was removed and returned to Wright, and further passed to the district attorney. Stories from witnesses, both black and white, conflict about whether the ring was on Till's body and who knew he had worn it previously.