Warning: This post contains images that some may find disturbing.
Emmett Till was born July 25, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois to Mamie and Louis Till. Mamie was originally from Webb, Mississippi. She moved to Illinois as a young child to escape the overt racism of the Jim Crow south.
Mamie and Louis separated within a year of Emmett’s birth and he was co-parented by his grandmother. Louis was abusive and cheated on Mamie.
In 1943, he enlisted in the Army to avoid going to jail. Louis was killed in 1945 for an alleged rape and murder in Italy. Mamie was notified of his death, but not told the reason.
When Emmett was 6, he had polio. He recovered, but had a stutter for the rest of his life.
Emmett was a good kid. His mother worked long hours and he willingly took care of the household chores. He liked to dress well and was well-liked at school.
In 1955, Mamie’s uncle, Moses Wright, visited Chicago. Emmett became enamored with his great-uncle and his stories of the Mississippi Delta. He begged his mother to let him go back home with Moses for a visit. Mamie didn’t like the idea, but eventually agreed.
Moses lived in Money, Mississippi. Mamie knew that Money was nothing like Chicago. She tried to explain this to Emmett. She urged him to take caution in how he interacted with the white citizens of Mississippi.
Brown vs. The Board of Education had just ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional the year before. This didn’t mean an end to segregation and it definitely didn’t mean an end to racism, especially in the south and especially in Mississippi.
On August 24, Emmett had been in Mississippi for just 4 days. He and his cousin, Curtis Jones, went to Bryant’s Grocery.
Carolyn Bryant and her husband, Roy, owned the grocery store. Carolyn was behind the counter when Emmett walked in to buy some candy.
What happened in the store between Emmett and Carolyn has been lost to history. They were alone in the store for just a minute before another of Emmett’s cousins, Simeon Wright, entered. He said that the interaction between the two seemed normal.
It has been reported that when Emmett left the store, he whistled. It is unknown if he whistled at Carolyn or at the chess game his other cousins were playing across the street. It didn’t matter. His cousins knew that that whistle was dangerous. Emmett probably didn’t.
Any indication that a black man was hitting on a white woman could get that man killed. What Carolyn told her husband happened in that store that day was a death sentence.
She would later testify, without a jury present, that Emmett grabbed her hand and asked her for a date calling her “baby.” She claimed that she pulled away from him and walked away. According to Carolyn, 14 year old Emmett then grabbed her waist and told her not to worry because he had been with white women before. Then he left with his cousin.
The boys ran home, but they didn’t tell Moses what had happened.
On August 27, Roy heard about the incident outside the store. That night he and his half brother, J. W. Milam, went to Moses’s house looking for Emmett.
They arrived around 3am, pulled Emmett from his bed and led him to their truck. They tied Emmett up and drove him to a barn where they beat him. They shot him and threw Emmett’s body in the Tallahatchie River.
When Emmett didn’t return to Moses’s house, the sheriff was called. Roy and J. W. admitted to kidnapping Emmett, but claimed to have let him go near the grocery store. They were arrested.
Emmett’s body was found 3 days later. His face was disfigured. His eye was hanging out of the socket and he had been tied to a heavy fan blade with barbed wire.
Emmett was naked, but he was still wearing a ring his mother have given him with his father’s initials on it. He was unrecognizable. The ring was the only way Moses could identify the body.
Mamie was devastated and she demanded that Emmett’s body be returned to Chicago. When she saw it, she decided that she would have an open casket funeral. She wanted the world to see what had been done to her son.
50,000 people viewed Emmett’s body and thousands attended his funeral. Pictures of his body, mutilated, in his casket were printed in Jet magazine. America was outraged, including Mississippi, at first.
By the time Roy and J. W. were indicted for Emmett’s murder, the tides had changed. The trial was held in Sumner, Mississippi. The defense tried to prove that there was no way to know that the body that had been pulled out of the river was even Emmett’s. The local sheriff arrested witnesses so that they couldn’t testify.
The courtroom was segregated and African Americans were sat as far away from the all-white, all-male jury as possible.
When asked in court to identify the man who took Emmett from his home, Moses said that he could only identify J. W. Moses stood and pointed at him. This could have cost Moses his life.
It took about an hour for the jury to find Roy and J. W. not guilty on the murder charges. One juror said that it wouldn’t have taken that long, except that the jury took a break and drank soda. The kidnapping charges were dropped. No one was ever criminally punished for Emmett’s murder.
Moses and other witnesses who testified were forced to leave the area for fear of their lives.
The year after the trial, safe from further prosecution, Roy and J. W. were paid $4000 for an interview with Look magazine. They admitted to the kidnapping and murder. Neither expressed any remorse.
This interview led to backlash in Money. The grocery store went bankrupt. Roy and J. W. couldn’t find work. The men moved to Texas, but their reputations followed them.
J. W. died in 1980 and Roy died in 1994.
Mamie toured the country telling Emmett’s story. She passed away on January 6, 2003.
In 2004, Emmett’s case was reopened by the United States Department of Justice. They exhumed his body and DNA confirmed that the body pulled from the river was, in fact, Emmett’s. He was buried in a new casket and his glass-topped one is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In 2017, Carolyn was interview by author Timothy Tyson. She admitted that she lied about Emmett grabbing her waist. She claimed not to remember exactly what happened in the store that day, but she said, “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to h
Rosa Parks later said that she was thinking of Emmett when she refused to give up her seat on the bus on December 1, 1955.
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