Till in a photograph taken by his mother on Christmas Day 1954
|Born||Emmett Louis Till
July 25, 1941
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||August 28, 1955
Money, Mississippi, U.S.
|Cause of death||Homicide|
|Resting place||Burr Oak Cemetery
|Education||James McCosh Elementary School|
|Parent(s)||Mamie Carthan Till-Mobley
Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was a 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after offending a white woman in a grocery store. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.
Till was born and raised in Chicago and in August 1955, was visiting relatives near Money, in the Mississippi Delta region. He spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the white married proprietor of a small grocery store there. Although what happened at the store is a matter of dispute, Till was accused of flirting with or whistling at Bryant. Years later, Bryant disclosed that, in 1955, she had fabricated testimony that Till made verbal or physical advances towards her in the store. Till's reported behavior, perhaps unwittingly, violated the strictures of conduct for an African American male interacting with a white woman in the Jim Crow-era South. Several nights after the store incident, Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam went armed to Till's great-uncle's house and abducted the boy. They took him away and beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head 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 open 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 lack of black civil rights in Mississippi, with newspapers around America critical of the state. Although initially local newspapers and law enforcement officials decried the violence against Till and called for justice, they responded to national criticism by defending Mississippians, temporarily giving support to the killers.
In September 1955, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury of Till's kidnapping and murder. Protected against double jeopardy, the two men publicly admitted in a 1956 interview with Look magazine that they had killed Till. In 2004 the case was officially reopened by the United States Department of Justice. The defense team in the 1955 trial had questioned whether the body was that of Till. In 2004, Till's body was exhumed and positively identified. Till's original casket was then donated to the Smithsonian Institution and it is displayed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. After Milam and Bryant were acquitted, they initially remained in Mississippi, but were boycotted, threatened, attacked and humiliated by local residents. Milam died in 1980 at the age of 61, and Bryant died in 1994 at the age of 63. Bryant expressed no remorse for his crime and stated: "Emmett Till is dead. I don't know why he just can't stay dead."
The trial of Bryant and Milam received extensive press coverage. Till's murder was seen as a catalyst for the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. In December 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in Alabama and lasted more than a year, gaining a US Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.
According to historians, events surrounding Emmett Till's life and death continue to resonate. Some writers have suggested that almost every story about Mississippi returns to Till, or the Delta region in which he died, in "some spiritual, homing way." An Emmett Till Memorial Commission was established in the early 21st century. The Sumner County Courthouse was restored and includes the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. The Emmett Till Memory Project is a website and smartphone app commemorating his life; fifty-one sites in the Mississippi Delta are associated with Till.
Emmett Till was born in 1941 in Chicago; he was the son of Mamie Carthan (1921–2003) and Louis Till (1922–1945). Emmett's mother Mamie 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 violence, lack of opportunity and unequal treatment under the law. Argo received so many Southern migrants that it was named "Little Mississippi"; Carthan's mother's home was often used by other recent migrants as a way station while 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. Mamie Carthan was born in Tallahatchie County, where the average income per white household in 1949 was $690 ($6,755 in 2013 dollars). For black families, the figure was $462 ($4,523 in 2013 dollars). In the rural area, economic opportunities for blacks were almost nonexistent. They were mostly sharecroppers who lived on land owned by whites. Blacks had essentially been disenfranchised and excluded from voting and the political system since 1890, when the white-dominated legislature passed a new constitution that raised barriers to voter registration. Whites had also passed laws establishing racial segregation and Jim Crow.
Mamie largely raised Emmett with her mother; she and Louis Till separated in 1942 after she discovered 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 U.S. Army. While serving in Italy, he was convicted of rape and murder by a US military court-martial and executed in 1945.
At the age of six, Emmett contracted polio, which left him with a persistent stutter. Mamie and Emmett moved to Detroit, where she met and married "Pink" Bradley in 1951. Emmett preferred living in Chicago, so he returned there to live with his grandmother; his mother and stepfather rejoined him later that year. After the marriage dissolved in 1952, "Pink" Bradley returned alone 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. She 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 the couple's separation, Bradley visited Mamie and began threatening her. At eleven years old, Emmett, with a butcher knife in hand, told Bradley he would kill him if the man 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; he weighed about 150 pounds (68 kg) and stood 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 m) tall. 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; another cousin, 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 few 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.
Statistics on lynchings began to be collected in 1882. Since that time, more than 500 African Americans have 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 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. 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 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 dating and marriage. Whites strongly resisted the court's ruling; one Virginia county closed all its 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.
Till arrived in Money, Mississippi on August 21, 1955. On August 24, he and cousin Curtis Jones skipped church where his great-uncle Mose Wright was preaching and joined 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 mostly served the local sharecropper population and was owned by a white couple, 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his 21-year-old wife Carolyn. 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.
The facts of what took place in the store are still disputed. According to what Jones said at the time, 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 and one or more of the local boys dared Till to speak to Bryant. However, writing a personal account of the incident in a book released in 2009, Till's cousin Simeon Wright, who was also present, disputed Jones' version of what happened on that day. According to Wright, Till did not have a photo of a white girl in his wallet and no one dared him to flirt with Bryant. Speaking in 2015 Wright said, “We didn’t dare him to go to the store — the white folk said that. They said that he had pictures of his white girlfriend. There were no pictures. They never talked to me. They never interviewed me.”  The FBI report completed in 2006 notes "...Jones recanted his 1955 statements prior to his death and apologized to Mamie Till-Mobley".
According to some versions, including comments from some of the kids standing outside the store, Till may have wolf-whistled at Bryant. Following his disappearance, a newspaper account 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. She said that, to help with his articulation, she taught Till how to whistle softly to himself before pronouncing his words.
During the murder trial, Bryant testified 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. According to historian Timothy Tyson, Bryant admitted to him in a 2008 interview that her testimony during the trial that Till had made verbal and physical advances was false.
Simeon Wright, Till's cousin, wrote about the incident decades later and challenged the account Carolyn Bryant gave at the trial. Wright entered the store "less than a minute" after Till was left inside alone with Bryant, and he saw no inappropriate behavior and heard "no lecherous conversation." Wright said Till "paid for his items and we left the store together." In their 2006 investigation of the cold case, the FBI noted 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, after Wright and Till left the store, Bryant went outside to retrieve a pistol from underneath the seat of a car. The teenagers saw her do this and left immediately. It was acknowledged that Till whistled while Bryant was going to her car. However, it is disputed whether Till whistled toward Bryant 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.
When Roy Bryant was informed 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 black teenager walking along a road. Bryant ordered Washington to seize the boy, 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 boy in Bryant's store, and Carolyn's companion denied that the boy Bryant and Washington seized was the one who had accosted her. Somehow, Bryant learned that the boy in the incident was from Chicago and was staying with Mose Wright.[note 2] 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 Bryant's wife 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 was sharing 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." Till's great-aunt offered the men money, but Milam refused as he rushed Emmet to put on his clothes. Moses Wright informed the men that Till was from up north and didn't know any better. Milam reportedly then asked, "How old are you preacher?" to which Wright responded "64." Milam threatened that if Wright told anybody he wouldn't live to see 65. The men marched Till out to the truck and asked Carolyn Bryant whether this was the young man who had accosted her. She said that he was.
They tied up Till in the back of a green pickup truck and drove toward Money, Mississippi. According to some witnesses, they took Till back to Bryant's Groceries to drop off Carolyn Bryant and recruit two black men. The men then drove to a barn in Drew. They pistol-whipped him on the way and reportedly knocked him unconscious. Willie Reed, who was 18 years old at the time, saw the truck passing by and identified five people on the truck with Till. Reed recalled seeing J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant in the front seat, while Henry Lee Loggins and Leroy "Too Tight" Collins were in the back with Till. Both Loggins and Collins worked for Milam and were allegedly forced to help with the beating.
Willie Reed said that while walking home, he heard the beating and crying from the barn. He told a neighbor and they both walked back up the road to a water well near the barn, where they were approached by Milam. Milam asked if they heard anything. Reed responded "No". Others passed by the shed and heard yelling. A local neighbor also spotted Leroy "Too Tight" Collins at the back of the barn washing blood off the truck and noticed Till's boot. Milam explained he had killed a deer and that the boot belonged to him.
Years later, an interview with Henry Lee Loggins's son Mayor Jhonny B. Thomas revealed that Till was shot and tossed over the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora, Mississippi, near the Tallahatchie River. The group drove back to Roy Bryant's home in Money, where they reportedly burned Emmett's clothes.
In an interview with William Bradford Huie that was 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 said that he 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.[note 3]
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 Elizabeth drove to Sumner, where Elizabeth'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 and murder, Till's swollen and disfigured body was found by two boys who were fishing in the Tallahatchie River. His head was very badly mutilated, 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 a 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] His face was unrecognizable due to trauma and having been submerged in water. Mose Wright was called to the river to identify Till. The silver ring that Till was wearing was removed and returned to Wright and next passed on to the district attorney as evidence.
Although lynchings and racially motivated murders had occurred throughout the South for decades, the circumstances surrounding Emmett Till's murder and the timing acted as a catalyst to attract national attention to the case of a 14-year-old boy who had allegedly been killed for breaching a social caste system. Till's murder aroused feelings about segregation, law enforcement, relations between the North and South, the social status quo in Mississippi, the activities of the NAACP and the White Citizens' Councils, and the Cold War, all of which were played out in a drama staged in newspapers all over the U.S. and abroad.
After Till went missing, a three-paragraph story was printed in the Greenwood Commonwealth and quickly picked up by other Mississippi newspapers. They reported on his death when the body was found. The next day, when a picture of him his mother had taken the previous Christmas showing them smiling together appeared in the Jackson Daily News and Vicksburg Evening Post, editorials and letters to the editor were printed expressing shame at the people who had caused Till's death. One read, "Now is the time for every citizen who loves the state of Mississippi to 'Stand up and be counted' before hoodlum white trash brings us to destruction." The letter said that Negroes were not the downfall of Mississippi society, but whites like those in White Citizens' Councils that condoned violence.
Till's body was clothed, packed in lime, placed into a pine coffin and prepared for burial. It may have been embalmed while in Mississippi. Mamie Till Bradley demanded that the body be sent to Chicago; she later said that she worked to halt an immediate burial in Mississippi and called several local and state authorities in Illinois and Mississippi to make sure that her son was returned to Chicago. A doctor did not examine Till post-mortem.
Mississippi's governor, Hugh L. White, deplored the murder, asserting that local authorities should pursue a "vigorous prosecution." He sent a telegram to the national offices of the NAACP promising a full investigation and assuring them "Mississippi does not condone such conduct." Delta residents, both black and white, also distanced themselves from Till's murder, finding the circumstances abhorrent. Local newspaper editorials denounced the murderers without question. Leflore County Deputy Sheriff John Cothran stated, "The white people around here feel pretty mad about the way that poor little boy was treated, and they won't stand for this."
Soon, however, discourse about Till's murder became more complex. Robert B. Patterson, executive secretary of the segregationist White Citizens' Council, lamented Till's death by repeating that racial segregation policies were to provide for blacks' safety and that their efforts were being neutralized by the NAACP. In response, NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins characterized the incident as a lynching and said that Mississippi was trying to maintain white supremacy through murder. He said, "there is in the entire state no restraining influence of decency, not in the state capital, among the daily newspapers, the clergy, nor any segment of the so-called better citizens." Mamie Till Bradley told a reporter that she would seek legal aid to help law enforcement find her son's killers and that the State of Mississippi should share the financial responsibility. She was misquoted; it was reported as "Mississippi is going to pay for this."
The A. A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago received Till's body. Upon arrival, Bradley insisted on viewing it to make a positive identification, later stating that the stench from it was noticeable two blocks away. She decided to have 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." Tens of thousands of people lined the street outside the mortuary to view Till's body, and days later thousands more attended his funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.
Photographs of his mutilated corpse circulated around the country, notably appearing in Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender, both black publications, generating intense public reaction. According to The Nation and Newsweek, Chicago's black community was "aroused as it has not been over any similar act in recent history."[note 5] Time later selected one of the Jet photographs showing Mamie Till over the mutilated body of her dead son, as one of the 100 "most influential images of all time": "For almost a century, African Americans were lynched with regularity and impunity. Now, thanks to a mother’s determination to expose the barbarousness of the crime, the public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see." Till was buried on September 6 in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
News about Emmett Till spread to both coasts. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Illinois Governor William Stratton also became involved, urging Mississippi Governor White to see that justice be done. The tone in Mississippi newspapers changed dramatically. They falsely reported riots in the funeral home in Chicago. Bryant and Milam appeared in photos smiling and wearing military uniforms, and Carolyn Bryant's beauty and virtue were extolled. Rumors of an invasion of outraged blacks and northern whites were printed throughout the state, and were taken seriously by the Leflore County Sheriff. T. R. M. Howard, a local businessman, surgeon, and civil rights proponent and one of the wealthiest blacks in the state, warned of a "second civil war" if "slaughtering of Negroes" was allowed.
Following Roy Wilkins' comments, white opinion began to shift. According to historian Stephen Whitfield, a specific brand of xenophobia in the South was particularly strong in Mississippi. Whites were urged to reject the influence of Northern opinion and agitation. This independent attitude was profound enough in Tallahatchie County that it earned the nickname "The Freestate of Tallahatchie," according to a former sheriff, "because people here do what they damn well please," making the county often difficult to govern.
Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider, who initially positively identified Till's body and stated that the case against Milam and Bryant was "pretty good", on September 3 announced his doubts that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River was that of Till. He speculated that the boy was probably still alive. Strider suggested that the recovered body had been planted by the NAACP: a cadaver stolen by T. R. M. Howard, who colluded to place Till's ring on it. Strider changed his account after comments were published in the press denigrating the people of Mississippi, later saying, "The last thing I wanted to do was to defend those peckerwoods. But I just had no choice about it."[note 6]
Bryant and Milam were indicted for murder. The grand jury's prosecuting attorney, Hamilton Caldwell, was not confident that he could get a conviction in a case of white violence against a black male accused of insulting a white woman. A local black paper was surprised at the indictment and praised the decision, as did the New York Times. The high-profile comments published in Northern newspapers and by the NAACP were of concern to the prosecuting attorney, Gerald Chatham; he worried that his office would not be able to secure a guilty verdict, despite the compelling evidence. Having limited funds, Bryant and Milam initially had difficulty finding attorneys to represent them, but five attorneys at a Sumner law firm offered their services pro bono. Their supporters placed collection jars in stores and other public places in the Delta, eventually gathering $10,000 for the defense.
The trial was held in the county courthouse in Sumner, the western seat of Tallahatchie County, because Till's body was found in this area. Sumner had one boarding house; the small town was besieged by reporters from all over the country. David Halberstam called the trial "the first great media event of the civil rights movement." A reporter who had covered the trials of Bruno Hauptmann and Machine Gun Kelly remarked that this was the most publicity for any trial he had ever seen. No hotels were open to black visitors. Mamie Till Bradley arrived to testify, and the trial also attracted black congressman Charles Diggs from Michigan. Bradley, Diggs, and several black reporters stayed at Howard's home in Mound Bayou. Located on a large lot and surrounded by Howard's armed guards, it resembled a compound.
The day before the start of the trial, a young black man named Frank Young arrived to tell Howard he knew of two witnesses to the crime. Levi "Too Tight" Collins and Henry Lee Loggins were black employees of Leslie Milam, J. W.'s brother, in whose shed Till was beaten. Collins and Loggins were spotted with J. W. Milam, Bryant, and Till. The prosecution team was unaware of Collins and Loggins. Sheriff Strider, however, booked them into the Charleston, Mississippi jail to keep them from testifying.
The trial was held in September 1955 and lasted for five days; attendees remembered that the weather was very hot. The courtroom was filled to capacity with 280 spectators; black attendees sat in segregated sections. Press from major national newspapers attended, including black publications; black reporters were required to sit in the segregated black section and away from the white press, farther from the jury. Sheriff Strider welcomed black spectators coming back from lunch with a cheerful, "Hello, Niggers!" Some visitors from the North found the court to be run with surprising informality. Jury members were allowed to drink beer on duty, and many white male spectators wore handguns.
The defense sought to cast doubt on the identity of the body pulled from the river. They said it could not be positively identified, and they questioned whether Till was dead at all. The defense also asserted that although Bryant and Milam had taken Till from his great-uncle's house, they had released him that night. The defense attorneys attempted to prove that Mose Wright—who was addressed as "Uncle Mose" by the prosecution and "Mose" by the defense—could not identify Bryant and Milam as the men who took Till from his cabin. They noted that only Milam's flashlight had been in use that night, and no other lights in the house were turned on. Milam and Bryant had identified themselves to Wright the evening they took Till, Wright said he had only seen Milam clearly. Wright's testimony was considered remarkably courageous. It was the first time in the state that a black man had testified to the guilt of a white man in court.
Journalist James Hicks, who worked for the black news wire service, the National Negro Publishers Association, (later renamed the National Newspaper Publishers Association), was present in the courtroom; he was especially impressed that Wright stood to identify Milam, pointing to him and saying "There he is",[note 7] calling it a historic moment and one filled with "electricity". A writer for the New York Post noted that following his identification, Wright sat "with a lurch which told better than anything else the cost in strength to him of the thing he had done." A reporter who covered the trial for the New Orleans Times-Picayune said it was "the most dramatic thing I saw in my career".
Mamie Till Bradley testified that she had instructed her son to watch his manners in Mississippi and that should a situation ever come to his being asked to get on his knees to ask forgiveness of a white person, he should do it without a thought. The defense questioned her identification of her son in the casket in Chicago and a $400 life insurance policy she had taken out on him.
While the trial progressed, Leflore County Sheriff George Smith, Howard, and several reporters, both black and white, attempted to locate Collins and Loggins. They could not, but found three witnesses who had seen Collins and Loggins with Milam and Bryant on Leslie Milam's property. Two of them testified that they heard someone being beaten, blows, and cries. One testified so quietly the judge ordered him several times to speak louder; he said he heard the victim call out, "Mama, Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy." Judge Curtis Swango allowed Carolyn Bryant to testify, but not in front of the jury, after the prosecution objected that her testimony was irrelevant to Till's abduction and murder. It may have been leaked in any case to the jury. Sheriff Strider testified for the defense his theory that Till was alive, and that the body retrieved from the river was white. A doctor from Greenwood stated on the stand that the body was too decomposed to identify, and therefore had been in the water too long for it to be Till.
In the concluding statements, one prosecuting attorney said that what Till did was wrong, but that his action warranted a spanking, not murder. Gerald Chatham passionately called for justice and mocked the sheriff and doctor's statements that alluded to a conspiracy. Mamie Bradley indicated she was very impressed with his summation. The defense stated that the prosecution's theory of the events the night Till was murdered were improbable, and said the jury's "forefathers would turn over in their graves" if they convicted Bryant and Milam. Only three outcomes were possible in Mississippi for capital murder: life imprisonment, the death penalty, or acquittal. On September 23 the all-white, all-male jury (both women and blacks had been banned) acquitted both defendants after a 67-minute deliberation; one juror said, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long."
In post-trial analyses, blame for the outcome varied. Mamie Till Bradley was criticized for not crying enough on the stand. The jury was noted to have been picked almost exclusively from the hill country section of Tallahatchie County, which, due to its poorer economic make-up, found whites and blacks competing for land and other agrarian opportunities. Unlike the population living closer to the river (and thus closer to Bryant and Milam in Leflore County), who possessed a noblesse oblige toward blacks, according to historian Stephen Whitaker, those in the eastern part of the county were virulent in their racism. The prosecution was criticized for dismissing any potential juror who knew Milam or Bryant, for the fear that such a juror would vote to acquit. Afterward, Whitaker noted that this was a mistake, as anyone who had personally known the defendants usually disliked them. One juror voted twice to convict, but on the third discussion, acquiesced and voted with the rest of the jury to acquit. In later interviews, the jurors acknowledged that they knew Bryant and Milam were guilty, but simply did not believe that life imprisonment or the death penalty were fit punishment for whites who had killed a black man. But two jurors said as late as 2005 that they believed the defense's case. They said that the prosecution had not proved that Till had died, nor that it was his body that was removed from the river.
In November 1955, a grand jury declined to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping, despite their own admissions of having taken Till. Mose Wright and a young man named Willie Reed, who testified to seeing Milam enter the shed from which screams and blows were heard, both testified in front of the grand jury. After the trial, T. R. M. Howard paid the costs of relocating to Chicago for Wright, Reed, and another black witness who testified against Milam and Bryant, in order to protect the three witnesses from reprisals for having testified. Reed, who later changed his name to Willie Louis to avoid being found, continued to live in the Chicago area until his death on July 18, 2013. He avoided publicity and even kept his history secret from his wife until she was told by a relative. Reed began to speak publicly about the case in the PBS documentary The Murder of Emmett Till aired in 2003.
Newspapers in major international cities and Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and socialist publications reported outrage about the verdict and strong criticism of American society. Southern newspapers, particularly in Mississippi, wrote that the court system had done its job. Till's story continued to make the news for weeks following the trial, especially sparking debate among Southern, Northern, and black newspapers, the NAACP and various high-profile segregationists about justice for blacks and the propriety of Jim Crow society.
In October 1955, the Jackson Daily News reported facts about Till's father that had been suppressed by the U.S. military. While serving in Italy, Louis Till raped two women and killed a third. He was court-martialed and executed by hanging by the Army near Pisa in July 1945. Mamie Till Bradley and her family knew none of this, having been told only that Louis had been killed for "willful misconduct." Mississippi senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis probed Army records and revealed Louis Till's crimes. Although Emmett Till's murder trial was over, news about his father was carried on the front pages of Mississippi newspapers for weeks in October and November 1955. This renewed debate about Emmett Till's actions and Carolyn Bryant's integrity. Stephen Whitfield writes that the lack of attention paid to identifying or finding Till is "strange" compared to the amount of published discourse about his father. According to historians Davis Houck and Matthew Grindy, "Louis Till became a most important rhetorical pawn in the high-stakes game of north versus south, black versus white, NAACP versus White Citizens' Councils". In 2016, reviewing the facts of the rapes and murder for which Till had been executed, John Edgar Wideman presented evidence suggesting that the conviction may have been racially motivated.
Protected against double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam struck a deal with Look magazine in 1956 to tell their story to journalist William Bradford Huie for between $3,600 and $4,000. The interview took place in the law firm of the attorneys who had defended Bryant and Milam. Huie did not ask the questions; Bryant and Milam's own attorneys did. Neither attorney had heard their clients' accounts of the murder before. According to Huie, the older Milam was more articulate and sure of himself than the younger Bryant. Milam admitted to shooting Till and neither of them believed they were guilty or that they had done anything wrong.
Reaction to Huie's interview with Bryant and Milam was explosive. Their brazen admission that they had murdered Till caused prominent civil rights leaders to push the federal government harder to investigate the case. Till's murder contributed to congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957: it authorized the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in local law enforcement issues when individual civil rights were being compromised. Huie's interview, in which Milam and Bryant said they had acted alone, overshadowed inconsistencies in earlier versions of the stories. As a consequence, details about Collins and Loggins and others who had possibly been involved in Till's abduction and murder, or the subsequent cover-up, were forgotten, according to historians David and Linda Beito.[note 8]
The media and literature continued to reflect on the murder of Emmett Till. Langston Hughes dedicated an untitled poem (eventually to be known as "Mississippi—1955") to Till in his October 1, 1955 column in The Chicago Defender. It was reprinted across the country and continued to be republished with various changes from different writers. Author William Faulkner, a prominent white Mississippi native who often focused on racial issues, wrote two essays on Till: one before the trial in which he pleaded for American unity and one after, a piece titled "On Fear" that was published in Harper's in 1956. In it he questioned why the tenets of segregation were based on irrational reasoning.
Till's murder was the focus of a 1957 television episode for the U.S. Steel Hour titled "Noon on Doomsday" written by Rod Serling. He was fascinated by how quickly Mississippi whites supported Bryant and Milam. Although the script was rewritten to avoid mention of Till, and did not say that the murder victim was black, White Citizens' Councils vowed to boycott U.S. Steel. The eventual episode bore little resemblance to the Till case.
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem titled "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon" (1960). The same year Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a white attorney is committed to defending a black man named Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. Lee, whose novel had a profound effect on civil rights, never commented on why she wrote about the character Robinson and shaped his story. Literature professor Patrick Chura notes several compelling similarities between Till's case and that of Robinson. Writer James Baldwin loosely based his 1964 drama Blues for Mister Charlie on the Till case. He later divulged that Till's murder had been bothering him for several years.
Bob Dylan recorded a song titled "The Death of Emmett Till" in 1962. Anne Moody mentioned the Till case in her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, in which she states she first learned to hate during the fall of 1955. Audre Lorde's poem "Afterimages" (1981) focuses on the perspective of a black woman thinking of Carolyn Bryant 24 years after the murder and trial. Bebe Moore Campbell's 1992 novel Your Blues Ain't Like Mine centers on the events of Till's death. Toni Morrison's play Dreaming Emmett (1986), is a feminist look at the roles of men and women in black society, which she was inspired to write while considering "time through the eyes of one person who could come back to life and seek vengeance." Emmylou Harris includes a song called "My Name is Emmett Till" on her 2011 album, Hard Bargain. According to scholar Christopher Metress, Till is often reconfigured in literature as a specter that haunts the white people of Mississippi, causing them to question their involvement in evil, or silence about injustice. The 2002 book Mississippi Trials, 1955 is a fictionalized account of Till's death. In 2016 artist Dana Schutz painted Open Casket, a controversial work based on photographs of Till in his coffin as well as a verbal account by Till's mother on seeing her son following his death.
After Bryant and Milam admitted to Huie that they had killed Till, the support base of the two men eroded in Mississippi. Many of their former friends and supporters, including those who had contributed to their defense funds, cut them off. Blacks boycotted their shops, which went bankrupt and closed, and banks refused to grant them loans to plant crops. After struggling to secure a loan and find someone who would rent to him, Milam managed to secure 217 acres and a $4,000 loan to plant cotton, but blacks refused to work for him. He was forced to pay whites higher wages. Eventually, Milam and Bryant relocated to Texas, but their infamy followed them; they continued to generate extreme animosity from locals. After several years, they returned to Mississippi.[note 9] Milam found work as a heavy equipment operator, but ill health forced him into retirement. Over the years, Milam was tried for offenses such as assault and battery, writing bad checks, and using a stolen credit card. He died of spinal cancer in 1980, at the age of 61.
Bryant worked as a welder while in Texas, until increasing blindness forced him to give up this employment. At some point, he and Carolyn divorced; he remarried in 1980. He opened a store in Ruleville, Mississippi. He was convicted in 1984 and 1988 of food stamp fraud. In a 1985 interview, he denied that he had killed Till, but said: "if Emmett Till hadn't got out of line, it probably wouldn't have happened to him." Fearing economic boycotts and retaliation, Bryant lived a private life and refused to be photographed or reveal the exact location of his store, explaining: "this new generation is different and I don't want to worry about a bullet some dark night". He died of cancer in 1994, at the age of 63.
Till's mother married Gene Mobley, became a teacher, and changed her surname to Till-Mobley. She continued to educate people about her son's murder. In 1992, Till-Mobley had the opportunity to listen while Bryant was interviewed about his involvement in Till's murder. With Bryant unaware that Till-Mobley was listening, he asserted that Till had ruined his life, expressed no remorse, and said, "Emmett Till is dead. I don't know why he can't just stay dead."
In 1996, documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, who was greatly moved by Till's open-casket photograph, started background research for a feature film he planned to make about Till's murder. He asserted that as many as 14 people may have been involved, including Carolyn Bryant Donham (who had remarried). Mose Wright heard someone with "a lighter voice" affirm that Till was the one in his front yard immediately before Bryant and Milam drove away with the boy. Beauchamp spent the next nine years producing The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, released in 2003.
That same year, PBS aired an installment of American Experience titled The Murder of Emmett Till. In 2005, CBS journalist Ed Bradley aired a 60 Minutes report investigating the Till murder, part of which showed him tracking down Carolyn Bryant at her home in Greenville, Mississippi.
A 1991 book written by Stephen Whitfield, another by Christopher Metress in 2002, and Mamie Till-Mobley's memoirs the next year all posed questions as to who was involved in the murder and cover-up. Federal authorities in the 21st century worked to resolve the questions about the identity of the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River.
In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was reopening the case to determine whether anyone other than Milam and Bryant was involved. David T. Beito, a professor at the University of Alabama, states that Till's murder "has this mythic quality like the Kennedy assassination". DOJ had undertaken to investigate numerous cold cases dating to the Civil Rights Movement, in the hope of finding new evidence in other murders as well.
The body was exhumed, and the Cook County coroner conducted an autopsy in 2005. Using DNA from Till's relatives, dental comparisons to images taken of Till, and anthropological analysis, the exhumed body was positively identified as that of Till. It had extensive cranial damage, a broken left femur, and two broken wrists. Metallic fragments found in the skull were consistent with bullets being fired from a .45 caliber gun.
In February 2007, a Leflore County grand jury, composed primarily of black jurors and empaneled by Joyce Chiles, a black prosecutor, found no credible basis for Beauchamp's claim that 14 people took part in Till's abduction and murder. Beauchamp was angry with the finding. David Beito and Juan Williams, who worked on the reading materials for the Eyes on the Prize documentary, were critical of Beauchamp for trying to revise history and taking attention away from other cold cases. The grand jury failed to find sufficient cause for charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham. Neither the FBI nor the grand jury found any credible evidence that Henry Lee Loggins, identified by Beauchamp as a suspect who could be charged, had any role in the crime. Other than Loggins, Beauchamp refused to name any of the people he alleged were involved.
In October 2016, the sign marking the site where Till's body was found was shot multiple times by an unknown person, leaving it riddled with more than 40 bullet holes.
In 2017, author Timothy Tyson released details of a 2008 interview with Carolyn Bryant, during which she disclosed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony. Tyson stated: "she said with respect to the physical assault on her, or anything menacing or sexual, that that part isn't true". She also said: "nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him". The 72-year-old Bryant said she could not remember the rest of the events that occurred between her and Till in the grocery store. Tyson said that Roy Bryant had been verbally abusive toward Carolyn, and "it was clear she was frightened of her husband". Bryant described Milam as "domineering and brutal and not a kind man". An editorial in The New York Times said: "This admission is a reminder of how black lives were sacrificed to white lies in places like Mississippi. It also raises anew the question of why no one was brought to justice in the most notorious racially motivated murder of the 20th century, despite an extensive investigation by the F.B.I."
The New York Times quoted Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till's, who said, "I was hoping that one day she [Bryant] would admit it, so it matters to me that she did, and it gives me some satisfaction. It's important to people understanding how the word of a white person against a black person was law, and a lot of black people lost their lives because of it. It really speaks to history, it shows what black people went through in those days."
Till's case attracted widespread attention because of the brutality of the lynching, the victim's young age, and the acquittal of the two men who later admitted killing him. It became emblematic of the injustices suffered by blacks in the South. In 1955 The Chicago Defender urged its readers to react to the acquittal by voting in large numbers; this was to counter the disenfranchisement since 1890 of most blacks in Mississippi by the white-dominated legislature; other southern states followed this model, excluding hundreds of thousands of citizens from politics. Myrlie Evers, widow of Medgar Evers, said in 1985 that Till's case resonated so strongly because it "shook the foundations of Mississippi—both black and white, because...with the white community...it had become nationally publicized...with us as blacks...it said, even a child was not safe from racism and bigotry and death."
The NAACP asked Mamie Till Bradley to tour the country relating the events of her son's life, death, and the trial of his murderers. It was one of the most successful fundraising campaigns the NAACP had ever conducted. Journalist Louis Lomax acknowledges Till's death to be the start of what he terms the "Negro revolt," and scholar Clenora Hudson-Weems characterizes Till as a "sacrificial lamb" for civil rights. NAACP operative Amzie Moore considers Till the start of the Civil Rights Movement, at the very least, in Mississippi.
The 1987 Eyes on the Prize, a 14-hour Emmy award-winning documentary, begins with the murder of Emmett Till. Accompanying written materials for the series, Eyes on the Prize and Voices of Freedom (for the second time period), exhaustively explore the major figures and events of the Civil Rights Movement. Stephen Whitaker states that, as a result of the attention Till's death and the trial received,
Mississippi became in the eyes of the nation the epitome of racism and the citadel of white supremacy. From this time on, the slightest racial incident anywhere in the state was spotlighted and magnified. To the Negro race throughout the South and to some extent in other parts of the country, this verdict indicated an end to the system of 'noblesse oblige.' The faith in the white power structure waned rapidly. Negro faith in legalism declined, and the revolt officially began on December 1, 1955, with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.
In Montgomery, Rosa Parks attended a rally for Till, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.. She soon after, refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white passenger. The incident sparked a year-long well-organized grassroots boycott of the public bus system. The boycott was designed to force the city to change its segregation policies. Parks later said when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, "I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn't go back."
According to author Clayborne Carson, Till's death and the widespread coverage of the students integrating Little Rock Central High School in 1957 were especially profound for younger blacks: "It was out of this festering discontent and an awareness of earlier isolated protests that the sit-ins of the 1960s were born." After seeing pictures of Till's mutilated body, in Louisville, Kentucky, young Cassius Clay (later famed boxer Muhammad Ali) and a friend took out their frustration by vandalizing a local railyard, causing a locomotive engine to derail. It is speculated that Till's story influenced Harper Lee to create the character Tom Robinson in her novel To Kill A Mockingbird, but she said the plot was related to a much earlier incident in her life.
In 1963, Sunflower County resident and sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer was jailed and beaten for attempting to register to vote. The next year, she led a massive voter registration drive in the Delta region, and volunteers worked on Freedom Summer throughout the state. Before 1954, 265 black people were registered to vote in three Delta counties, where they were a majority of the population. At this time, blacks made up 41% of the total state population. The summer Emmett Till was killed, the number of registered voters in those three counties dropped to 90. By the end of 1955, fourteen Mississippi counties had no registered black voters. The Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 registered 63,000 black voters in a simplified process administered by the project; they formed their own political party because they were closed out of the Democratic Regulars in Mississippi.
"We the citizens of Tallahatchie County recognize that the Emmett Till case was a terrible miscarriage of justice. We state candidly and with deep regret the failure to effectively pursue justice. We wish to say to the family of Emmett Till that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved one."
Fifty years after his death, Till's remains were exhumed in 2005 and the Department of Justice conducted an autopsy and DNA analysis for identification of his body. When Till was reburied in a new casket in 2005, plans had begun for an Emmett Till Memorial Museum at the Illinois cemetery. His original casket was to be installed there. The cemetery manager who administered the memorial fund pocketed donations intended for the memorial. It is unclear how much money was collected.[not in citation given]
On July 9, 2009, a manager and three laborers at Burr Oak Cemetery were charged with digging up bodies, dumping them in a remote area, and reselling the plots. Till's grave was not disturbed, but investigators found his original glass-topped casket rusting in a dilapidated storage shed. The casket was discolored and the interior fabric torn. It bore evidence that animals had been living in it, although its glass top was still intact. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. acquired the casket a month later. According to director Lonnie Bunch III, it is an artifact with the potential to stop future visitors and make them think.
Carolyn Bryant Donham, interview with the author, Raleigh, NC, September 8, 2008.
Emmett, she said, had a speech impediment. She'd taught him to whistle softly to himself before pronouncing his words, in order to help with his articulation. He'd been ordering bubble gum in the store. Till Mobley was convinced he'd merely been trying to do so with clarity.
Some claimed that Till had made 'indecent advances' and wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, whose family owned the store. Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, however, rejected this assertion, saying that her son sometimes whistled when he got stuck pronouncing a word (she gave, as an example, bubblegum.)
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