Lynching of Emmett Till

Emmett Till, the only child of Louis Till and Mamie Till, was born near Chicago, Illinois, on 25th July, 1941. In August, 1955, Emmett, now aged 14, was sent by Mamie Till to Mississippi to stay with relatives.

During the evening of 24th August, Emmett, a cousin, Curtis Jones, and a group of his friends, went to Bryant's Grocery Store in Money, Mississippi. Carolyn Bryant later claimed that Emmett had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date. When pulled away by his cousin, Emmett allegedly said, "Bye, baby" and "wolf whistled".

Bryant told her husband about the incident and he decided to punish the boy for his actions. The following Saturday, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, took Emmett from the house where he was staying and drove him to the Tallahatchie River and shot him in the head.

After Emmett's body was found Bryant and Milam were charged with murder. On 19th September, 1955, the trial began in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. In court Mose Wright identified Bryant and Milam as the two men who took away his nephew on the 24th August. Other African Americans also gave evidence against Bryant and Milam but after four days of testimony, the all white jury acquitted the men.

The Emmett Till case, publicized by writers such as William Bradford Huie, led to demonstrations in several northern cities about the way African Americans were being treated in the Deep South.

Emmett Till and his mother in 1955.
Emmett Till and his mother in 1955.

Primary Sources

(1) Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)

I was now working for one of the meanest white women in town, and a week before school started Emmett Till was killed.

Up until his death, I had heard of Negroes found floating in a river or dead somewhere with their bodies riddled with bullets. But I didn't know the mystery behind these killings then.

When they had finished dinner and gone into the living room as usual to watch TV, Mrs. Burke called me to eat. I took a clean plate out of the cabinet and sat down. Just as I was putting the first forkful of food in my mouth, Mrs. Burke entered the kitchen.

"Essie, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed in Greenwood?" she asked me, sitting down in one of the chairs opposite me.

"No, I didn't hear that," I answered, almost choking on the food.

"Do you know why he was killed?" she asked and I didn't answer.

"He was killed because he got out of his place with a white woman. A boy from Mississippi would have known better than that. This boy was from Chicago. Negroes up North have no respect for people. They think they can get away with anything. He just came to Mississippi and put a whole lot of notions in the boys' heads here and stirred up a lot of trouble," she said passionately.

"How old are you, Essie?" she asked me after a pause.

"Fourteen, I will soon be fifteen though," I said.

"See, that boy was just fourteen too. It's a shame he had to die so soon." She was red in the face, she looked as if she was on fire.

When she left the kitchen I sat there with my mouth open and my food untouched. I couldn't have eaten now if I were starving. "Just do your work like you don't know nothing" ran through my mind again and I began washing the dishes.

I went home shaking like a leaf on a tree. For the first time out of all her trying, Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me.

Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me - the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. I knew once I got food, the fear of starving to death would leave. I also was told that if I were a good girl, I wouldn't have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn't know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough, I thought.

I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders Mrs. Rice (my teacher) had told me about and those I vaguely remembered from childhood. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites.

(2) Chicago Defender (1st October, 1955)

How long must we wait for the Federal Government to act? Whenever a crisis arises involving our lives or our rights we look to Washington hopefully for help. It seldom comes.

For too long it has been the device, as it was in the Till case, for the President to refer such matters to the Department of Justice.

And usually, the Department of Justice seems more devoted to exploring its lobos for reasons why it can't offer protection of a Negro's life or rights.

In the current case, the Department of Justice hastily issued a statement declaring that it was making a thorough investigation to determine if young Till's civil rights had been violated.

The Department evidently concluded that the kidnapping and lynching of a Negro boy in Mississippi are not violations of his rights.

This sounds just like both the defense and the prosecution as they concluded their arguments by urging the jury to "uphold our way of life."

The trial is over, and this miscarriage of justice must not be left unavenged. The Defender will continue its investigations, which helped uncover new witnesses in the case, to find other Negroes who actually witnessed the lynching, before they too are found in the Tallahatchie river.

At this point we can only conclude that the administration and the justice department have decided to uphold the way of life of Mississippi and the South. Not only have they been inactive on the Till case, but they have yet to take positive action in the kidnapping of Mutt Jones in Alabama, who was taken across the state line into Mississippi and brutally beaten. And as yet the recent lynchings of Rev. George Lee and LaMarr Smith in Mississippi have gone unchallenged by our government.

The citizens councils, the interstate conspiracy to whip the Negro in line with economic reins, open defiance to the Supreme Court's school decision - none of these seem to be violations of rights that concern the federal government.

(3) Gary Younge, The Guardian (11th May, 2004)

The US justice department said yesterday it was reopening the case of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, providing an early catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Fourteen-year-old Emmett, from Chicago, was abducted from his uncle's home in the southern hamlet of Money on August 28 1955, after accusations that he had wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant.

His body was pulled from the Tallahatchie river with a bullet in the skull, an eye gouged out and his forehead crushed on one side.

The two white men accused of killing him - Mrs Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half brother, JW Milam - were acquitted by an all-white jury. But Milam later confessed to a reporter from Look magazine: "I'm no bully; I never hurt a ****** in my life. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice.

"Chicago boy,'" I said, "I'm tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble, I'm going to make an example of you, just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'"

Milam said he had beaten Emmett and shot him in the head with a .45-calibre pistol, then tied a heavy metal fan to the body and dumped it in the river.

Civil rights groups and other organisations have called repeatedly for the case to be reopened.

A New York senator, Charles Schumer, and a Harlem congressman, Charles Rangel, are among the most recent of those to have lobbied Congress for the case to be reopened.

"As a nation, we should never be afraid to acknowledge our mistakes - however difficult - so that we can learn from them," Mr Schumer argued.

"The truth, as they say, will set you free. It's no less true in the case of Emmett Till from 50 years ago than it is today, and I am confident that when this resolution passes, we'll get the help we need to find out the truth about this pivotal moment in American history."

In the process of making a documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, the film-maker Keith Beauchamp found witnesses who did not testify at the trial and have not previously spoken in public. They include Emmett's cousin, who shared his bed the night he was abducted. They all say there were more people involved in the murder than previously thought.

Justice department officials did not say what prompted them to reopen the case.

When the Emmett's body was returned to Chicago - against the wishes of the sheriff in Mississippi - his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on burying him in an open coffin.

"Do you want me to fix him up?" the undertaker asked her. "No," said Mrs Mobley, who died last year. "You can't fix that. Let the world see what I saw."

Her decision to leave the coffin open and delay the funeral by three days exposed the rest of America and the world to what was happening in Mississippi.

Thousands in Chicago lined up to see the body and the pictures were published in the black magazine Jet. The murder was the subject of the first play by the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a poem by the Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, and a song by Bob Dylan.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955 - the event that eventually led to the end of segregation on public transport - she said it was Emmett Till's lynching that was on her mind.

"This brutal murder and grotesque miscarriage of justice outraged a nation and helped galvanise support for the modern American civil rights movement," said Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

"We owe it to Emmett Till, and we owe it to ourselves, to see whether after all these years some additional measure of justice remains possible."

The five-year statute of limitations on any federal charges has long since expired but a state case could still be brought, Mr Acosta said.

Other civil rights-era killings in Mississippi have been reopened with mixed results.

In 1994 Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 murder of a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Medgar Evers.

But there has been little progress in efforts to bring murder charges for the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers in Neshoba county, Mississippi, which were chronicled in the film Mississippi Burning.

(4) Gary Younge, The Guardian (6th June, 2005)

It has long been clear who murdered Emmett Till. In 1955, Carolyn Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother JW Milam were paid $4,000 for an interview with Look magazine in which they effectively admitted it. "I'm no bully," he told the magazine. "I never hurt a ****** in my life. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice ... 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble, I'm going to make an example of you, just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.' "

But that was two months after both men had been acquitted by a jury of their peers - all white, southern men. At the end of the five-day trial, their defence lawyer had made a simple pitch to the bigotry of the jurors. "Your fathers will turn over in their graves [if Milam and Bryant are found guilty] and I'm sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that [outside] pressure." It took the jury just 67 minutes to return a not-guilty verdict. One of the jurors said they would have returned earlier if they had not stopped for a soda.

But last year the US justice department reopened the case, after a film-maker called Keith Beauchamp, who was making a documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, found witnesses who did not testify at the trial and had not previously spoken in public. Among them was Wright, who shared a bed with Emmett the night before he was abducted. "The last time I saw him, some men were forcing him to get out of bed and get his clothes on, and that was it," said Wright, now 62. "I never dreamed we would finally get to this day." The new witnesses all say there were around 10 more people involved in the murder than was previously thought, five of whom are still alive today. At least one them is believed to be black.

The decision to reopen the case last year was greeted enthusiastically by civil rights campaigners and some politicians. "As a nation, we should never be afraid to acknowledge our mistakes - however difficult - so that we can learn from them," said New York senator Charles Schumer on the day of the announcement. "The truth, as they say, will set you free. It's no less true in the case of Emmett Till from 50 years ago than it is today."

But the decision to exhume the body initially divided Emmett's remaining family. "I personally don't see the point at this time of digging his body up," Bertha Thomas, a distant cousin and president of the Emmett Till Foundation, told the New York Times. "They don't need his body or remains in order to pursue [the perpetrators] if they have solid proof that other people were involved." Before she died, Mobley had told loved ones that she did not want her son to be exhumed; she simply wanted the state of Mississippi to apologise.

But other family members said that without the exhumation it would not be possible to secure a prosecution. With no autopsy performed when he died, the original jury could not even be sure that the body in question was Emmett's, despite Mobley's positive identification during the trial. "Most reasonable people fully believe that it is Emmett Till in the grave," Robert Garrity, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau's office in Jackson, Mississippi, told USA Today. "I believe it is Emmett Till. But we know from the '55 trial that the defence raised the spectre that the state had not ever proved that Emmett Till was dead, much less that the body was indeed Till."

The autopsy, says Alvin Sykes, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, will be "Emmett's first and last chance to speak for himself ... He'll be able to tell us that it is him, and as much as possible, whether there is any evidence or support for others being involved." This is only one of a rash of civil rights-era cases that have recently been reopened decades after the crimes were committed. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre in Montgomery, Alabama, 25 cases have been re-examined or are under re-examination, which have led to 26 arrests, 21 convictions, two acquittals and a mistrial. On June 13, Edgar Ray Killen will go on trial for the murder of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi - the case that formed the basis for the movie Mississippi Burning.

The FBI also recently found what is believed to be the only existing transcript of the 1955 Till trial. "It was in pretty poor shape," said Garrity, "so we had to go through it line by line, word by word, and retype it." Leesha Faulkner, a reporter who covers courts for the North-east Mississippi Daily Journal, says it is common for such records to have gone missing in Mississippi. "If something didn't suit somebody, they took it home and put it in their attic and never said anything about it."

The FBI plans to use the transcript to seek out discrepancies between witness statements then and now. But just as new evidence trickles in, so older evidence continues to fade, bringing a sense of urgency to a case that until recently was relegated to the past. "The witnesses and potential defendants are getting much older," says Senator Schumer. "We cannot afford to wait."