This year is the 60th anniversary of the birth of the US Civil Rights movement. Unity magazine is marking the anniversary with a series of pieces looking at the key moments of that movement. In this second article, we revisit the horrific murder of Emmett Till
By Weyman Bennett, joint secretary, Unite Against Fascism
US Civil Rights Movement part 2: Emmett Till
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine Summer 2015 / issue 12
Other articles in the US Civil Rights Movement series
Money is a tiny hamlet in the US state of Mississippi. In the middle of the village stand the burnt out remains of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. It is the site of one of the most brutal and tragic events of the Civil Rights Movement era.
In the 1950s Mississippi was an openly racist state. Like all Southern states it enforced a series of laws known as “Jim Crow”. These laws institutionalised racism: black people were denied equal treatment and the right to vote.
Racist murder and violence were ever-present. Since 1882, when statistics on lynchings began to be collected, more than 500 African Americans had been killed by extrajudicial violence in Mississippi alone. These murders were often carried out by violent white supremacist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council.
Emmett Till was not from the South. He was brought up by his mother Mamie Till Bradley in Chicago. This was a major northern city a world away from Money. Between 1940 and 1960 its black population grew from 278,000 to 813,000. Most came from the Southern states in search of jobs and to escape racism.
While black people suffered massive inequality in Chicago, there was at least formal equality between black and white people and there was no Jim Crow.
In 1955, Mamie Till Bradley’s uncle, 64 year old Mose Wright, visited her and Emmett in Chicago. Mose Wright was a sharecropper and part-time minister, whose nickname was the Preacher. He lived in Money, the Photo: US Library of Congress little hamlet with three stores, a school, a post office, a cotton gin and about 200 residents.
Mose told Emmett stories about living in the Mississippi Delta. Emmett was desperate to see Mississippi and meet his family. His mother agreed that he could go to Money for a vacation, but warned him of the dangers he could face. Emmett, aged just 14, arrived in Money on 21 August 1955.
Three days later, Emmett and his cousin Curtis Jones went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy candy. There they hung out with other young black boys. The shop was owned by a white couple, 24 year old Roy Bryant and his 21 year old wife Carolyn, who was alone in the store that day.
Till had a photograph of an integrated class at the school he attended in Chicago, and told the boys that the white children in the picture were his friends. He pointed to a white girl in the picture and said she was his girlfriend. The boys couldn’t believe he had a white girlfriend. A black man could get murdered for looking at a white woman, let alone going out with one in the Southern states in the 1950s.
They dared Emmett to speak to Carolyn Bryant. He bought sweets and some witnesses claimed he said, “Bye, baby, bye” or wolf whistled at her. An FBI investigation carried out in 2006 found that he never said anything to Carolyn. Emmett left the shop and went back to his uncle’s house.
In the early morning hours of 28 August, Roy Bryant, his half-brother John William Milam and another man drove to Mose Wright’s house. Milam was armed with a pistol. They dragged Emmett into a truck and drove away. Word got out that Emmett was missing, and soon Medgar Evers, Mississippi state field secretary for the NAACP civil rights group, and Amzie Moore, head of its local branch, became involved, disguising themselves as cotton pickers and going into the cotton fields in search of any information that might help find him.
Three days after his abduction, Emmett’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 was weighted with a cotton gin fan blade, which was fastened around his neck and body with barbed wire.
Mamie Till Bradley demanded that her son’s body was brought back to Chicago for burial. 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 Emmett’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. The photographs shocked the nation.
Roy Bryant and John William Milam were charged with Emmett’s murder. The trial was held in September 1955 and lasted five days. The courtroom was filled to capacity, and was racially segregated. Press from major national newspapers attended, but black reporters were made to sit segregated from the white press, further from the jury.
The local sheriff welcomed black spectators coming back from lunch with a mocking, “Hello, niggers.” Jury members were allowed to drink beer on duty, and many white men in the audience wore handguns holstered to their belts.
The defence’s primary strategy was that the body pulled from the river could not be positively identified, and they questioned whether Emmett was dead at all. The defence asserted that Bryant and Milam had taken Emmett, but had let him go. They attempted to prove that Mose Wright could not identify Bryant and Milam as the men who took Till. Wright’s testimony was courageous—he was the first black man in the state to accuse a white man of murder in court. The defence stated that the prosecution’s theory of the events the night Emmett was murdered was 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 23 September the all-white jury 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.”
Protected against double jeopardy (being tried for the same crime twice), Bryant and Milam were paid $4,000 by Look magazine in 1956 to tell their story. The interview took place at the law firm that had defended the pair. Milam admitted shooting Emmett Till but neither of them thought of themselves as guilty. Bryant and Milam were never re-arrested for the murder and neither spent a minute in prison.
Mamie Till Bradley was haunted by the murder of her son for the rest of her life. She toured the US and Europe campaigning for justice and in support of the Civil Rights Movement.
Emmett’s tombstone is inscribed with the words his mother said at every meeting: “Emmett Till was a little nobody who shook the world.”
- A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till by Stephen J. Whitfield
- The Emmett Till Book by M. Susan Orr-Klopfer
- Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement by Clenora Hudson-Weems
- Episode 1 of the 1987 documentary Eyes on the Prize examines the murder of Emmett Till youtube.com/watch?v=qFGgoE-uuUw
- The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till youtube.com/watch?v=bvijYSJtkQk
- “The Death of Emmett Till”, also known as “The Ballad of Emmett Till”, is a song by the American musician Bob Dylan youtube.com/watch?v=8OfCXaqieas