Warning: This article contains graphic pictures and racial epithets.
|Emmett Till 1954|
What happens next leads to torture, murder and an unparalleled scrutiny of racism across the Mississippi delta. The incident, in a small grocery store in a rural backwater, generates newspaper headlines across the country, galvanizes public opinion and ignites the fledgling civil rights movement.
And it begins with a young black boy who just wants to buy some gum.
Behind the counter in Bryant's Store on this particular day is Carolyn, 21, wife of store owner, Roy Bryant. Roy, away for a couple of days in Texas, often leaves his capable young wife to run the business. The drama begins, according to Carolyn, at around 4.00 pm, when Emmett Till enters the store but doesn't ask for anything, he just grabs her hand and says, "How about a date?"
The young woman, shocked by the approach, frees herself from the boy's grasp and walks away. Emmett follows her to the cash register and grabs her around the waist. The 14-year-old schoolboy then says, "What's the matter baby, can't you take it. You needn't be afraid of me. I've been with white women before."
Emmett Till's cousin, Simeon Wright, who enters the store less than a minute after Emmett, says: "There was no inappropriate behavior and no lecherous conversation. Emmett paid for his items and we left the store together."
|Carolyn Bryant 1955|
However, whatever supposedly occurs inside the store now spills out on to the street when Carolyn runs outside to retrieve a pistol from her car. Why she needs a weapon to deal with a 14-year-old schoolboy is never explained.
She then alleges that Emmett Till wolf-whistles in her direction. It is, of course, quite possible that the schoolboy did whistle at her in a disrespectful manner. He was, apparently, a feisty young man, who did not lack confidence. However, according to the 2006 FBI investigation, it is more likely he was whistling towards a group of his friends playing on the opposite side of the road.
Whoever it was aimed at, that single whistle sets off a chain of events that defies belief.
Mose Wright contacts the Leflore County Sheriff about Emmett's early morning abduction. That afternoon, both Roy Bryant and his half brother, John Milam, are arrested and jailed on charges of kidnapping.
On August 31, Emmett Till's bloated and battered body is recovered from the Tallahatchie River. His head is badly damaged, parts of it beaten to a bloody pulp. He has a gunshot wound above his right ear and his right eye has been gouged out.
His naked body shows evidence of a beating to the back and hips with a blunt instrument. A heavy fan blade, tied by barbed wire to his neck, has weighed the body down to keep it submerged. There is no doubt that Emmett Till has been tortured, pistol-whipped and then shot in the head.
He is only identified by the silver ring he is wearing. The Delta-Democrat Times, a local Mississippi newspaper, reports that the body may not be Till's and suggests that the boy may have been hidden by relatives or even returned to Chicago for his safety.
As the gravity of the crime slowly unfolds, the tone of the local newspapers begins to change from mitigation to condemnation. Several newspapers call for the authorities to conduct "a vigorous conviction."
The Vicksburg Evening Post prints several letters to the editor expressing shame at the people who have caused Till's death. One reads, "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."
|Mamie Till Bradley addressing the media|
She insists on an open casket funeral so the true extent of the horrifying crime can be seen by everybody.
Photographs of Emmett Till's mutilated body are printed in Chicago newspapers making international news and directing attention to the rights of black people in the southern states. Thousands of people line the Chicago street outside the mortuary to view Emmett's body and thousands more attend his funeral. He is buried on September 6, 1955, at Burr oak Cemetery, Alsip, Illinois.
|Roy Bryant (L) - John Milam (R)|
Prosecuting attorney, Hamilton Caldwell, is not confident of gaining a conviction, particularly as there will be an all white jury, who will be looking for any excuse to acquit the defendants.
Caldwell's view is underscored when Tallahatchie County Sheriff, Clarence Strider, who initially identified Emmett Till's body and stated that the case against Bryant and Milam was "pretty good", now announces his doubts that the body pulled from the river is even Till's. He now thinks Emmett Till is probably still alive, and that a stolen cadaver was planted in the river by black radicals.
The whitewash begins.
|The Jury, Sumner court room, Sept. 1955|
They are both convincing witnesses.
Several more witnesses testify to hearing whipping and hollering from inside a barn on the morning it is believed that Emmett Till was murdered.
The defense strategy is to question whether the body pulled from the river is even that of Emmett Till, who they suggest is probably still alive. Defense counsel admits that Bryant and Milam took Emmett from Mose Wright's house (they couldn't argue against that, given the strength of the evidence) but insist they released him unarmed.
|Sheriff Strider 1955|
The twelve good men and true are out for just 67 minutes; unsurprisingly, they return a verdict of "Not Guilty." On November 9, 1955, a Leflore grand jury refuses to indict Bryant and Milam on kidnapping charges, and the two men are released from custody.
And then the smear campaign starts. The Jackson Daily News reports facts about Emmett Till's father that has 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 hanged near Pisa in July 1945. Mamie Till and the family know nothing about this, having been told by the army that Louis had been killed for "wilful misconduct."
The story remains on the Mississippi newspapers front pages for several weeks. It is a blatant attempt to blacken Emmett Till's character by suggesting he was prone to a genetic instinct to violence. It does not change the fact that a young boy was brutally murdered and justice was not done.
Hundreds of thousands of people, mainly in northern cities, attend rallies protesting the verdict. Southern newspapers, particularly those in Mississippi, state that the court system has done its job. The difference of opinion between the northern and southern states is palpable.
If you have never heard Emmett Till's story before reading this article, what do you think happened to Roy Bryant and John Milam? Did they confirm the court's verdict by continuing to protest their innocence? Did they perhaps offer a shred of sympathy to the bereaved mother of Emmett Till, who had lost her son in such a traumatic fashion?
No, they didn't.
|John W. Millam 1955|
Protected by the rules of "Double Jeopardy" (they cannot be tried twice for the same crime) the two men admit to killing Emmett Till and then go on to describe exactly how they did it, proving beyond any reasonable doubt that the courts had not done their job.
Ex-soldier, John Milam, states that his intention is to "...just whip him, and scare some sense into him." And Big John Milam knows exactly where to take the boy.
Over at Rosedale, the Big River bends around under a bluff. The idea was to "...stand him up their on the bluff, whip him with the colt .45, shine a light on him and make him think we were going to push him in the river. Because that's what happens to smart niggers. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights."
But the Chicago schoolboy stood up to them. He didn't think they had the guts to kill him. And the two men didn't like that. Milam says, "We were never able to scare him." So they pistol-whipped him with their .45's instead, both men taking it turn to smash the guns across the boy's head. Pistol-whipping prisoners is a court martial offense in the army, but that didn't seem to bother these two upstanding southern gentlemen.
|Roy Bryant 1955|
Roy Bryant continues the story: "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. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are going to stay in their place. And then I just made up my mind. Chicago boy, I said, I'm going to make an example of you."
And they surely did that. First, they make him carry a 74 pound ginning fan; he staggers under the weight of it. Then they order him to strip naked before attaching the fan to his neck with a piece of barbed wire.
Having concluded their brutal assault, they shoot Till above his right ear and roll him into twenty feet of water. Seventy-two hours later and eight miles down river, a group of boys out fishing see two bloated feet sticking up out of the water. Sheriff Clarence Strider identifies the body as Emmett Till. Realizing the implications, he tries to get the body buried that same day, ordering Till's Mississippi relatives to "...get the body into the ground by nightfall."
Emmett Till's mother, Mamie, makes sure that does not happen.
In 1957, an unsuccessful attempt is made to assassinate Sheriff Strider, whose perjured testimony and overt racist behavior helps pervert the course of justice. He later tries to justify his actions, "The last thing I wanted to do was defend those peckerwoods. But I just had no choice about it."
On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, 42-year-old Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white passenger. She is quoted as saying, "I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn't go back."
John William Milam dies of cancer in 1980, at the age of 61. His passing goes unnoticed.
|Roy Bryant's Store 1955|
In 1994, at the age of 63, Roy Bryant dies of cancer. Nobody mourns his passing.
In 2006, the FBI reopens the case. They exhume Emmett Till's remains and confirm his identity beyond any doubt. Agents also believe that a third person may have been involved in the murder of the Chicago schoolboy. The investigation is ongoing.
In 2007, Tallahatchie County issue a formal apology to Emmett Till's family. It reads: "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 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."
Mamie remarries and lives happily with Gene Mobley until his death in 1999.
She dies of heart failure, aged 81, in 2003.
She does not live long enough to hear the apology.
Emmett Till (1941-1955)
Murdered in Mississippi.
Pictures and information courtesy of:
www.pbs.org (American Experience)
The Emmett Till Murder Trial: A Chronology.
Douglas O. Linder
Look Magazine (1955 ed.)
Tallahatchie County Archives