“I thought of Emmett Till, and when the bus driver ordered me to move to the back, I just couldn’t move.“
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old black kid from Chicago, visiting family in Money, Mississippi, when he entered a grocery store and violated the Southern racial mores of the era by allegedly whistling at a white woman. Three days later, another Southern social custom was practiced.
At Bryant’s Grocery Market, Till encountered Carolyn Bryant, a white woman whose husband’s family owned the store. Whether Till whistled at her will never be known. Till’s 12-year-old cousin, claimed that Till lisped and was unable to whistle. But, we do know what happened next. Bryant’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his aunt and uncle’s house, tortured him, shot him, and tossed into the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton-gin fan hung around his neck with a length of barbed wire.
Three days later, Till’s body was discovered.
Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider, who initially positively identified Till’s body, announced his doubts that the body pulled from the river was Till. He speculated that the boy was probably still alive and suggested that the recovered body had been planted by the NAACP. Strider changed his version after comments were published in the press denigrating the people of Mississippi, saying:
“The last thing I wanted to do was to defend those peckerwoods. But I just had no choice about it.”
The trial was held in September 1955 and lasted for five days. The extremely hot courtroom was filled with 280 spectators; black attendees sat in a segregated section. Reporters from the major national newspapers attended, including African-American publications. The black reporters were required to sit in a segregated section away from the white press, farther away from the jury. The sheriff welcomed the black spectators to the courtroom with a friendly: “Hello, Niggers!” The jury were allowed to drink beer during the trial, and many white male spectators carried handguns.
During the trial, the Bryant and Milam families arrived with their children dressed in their Sunday best. The men were in starched white shirts while their wives wore cotton dresses. Many white people in the surrounding counties showed up to watch the show. They brought their children, picnic baskets and ice cream cones.
The all-white jury quickly acquitted the two murderers. One juror bragged that they would have reached a verdict even sooner, but they had to break to drink some of that beer.
When Till’’s mother Mamie Till Bradley came to identify her son, she told the funeral director:
“Let the people see what I’ve seen.“
She brought him back to Chicago and insisted on an open casket at the funeral. Tens of thousands of people filed past Till’s casket, but it was the publication of a photograph in Jet magazine, with Till’s stoic mother gazing at her murdered child’s ravaged body, that forced the world to take a long hard look at the brutality of American racism.Via YouTube
For more than a century, African-American citizens had been being lynched every day with impunity. Till’s mother was determined to expose the savageness of the crime so that the American public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see.
Weeks after the trial, journalist William Huie paid the two just-acquitted murderers $3,150 for their story. They gave it to him, and it was published in Look magazine. But, since the story accused legally innocent men of murder, Look required Bryant and Milam sign release forms. Milam admitted to shooting Till, but neither of them believed they that they had done anything wrong. Their brazen admission that they had murdered Till caused Civil Rights leaders to push the Federal Government to investigate the case.
Carolyn Bryant, 1952, via YouTube
Days after the arrest, Carolyn Bryant told her husband’s lawyer that Till had insulted her, but said nothing about physical contact. Five decades later, she told the F.B.I. that he had touched her hand.
But, at the trial, she testified that Till had grabbed her hand, she pulled away, and he followed her behind the counter, clasped her waist, and, using vulgar language, told her that he had been with white women before.
Yet, in 2017, she said that wasn’t true, but that she honestly doesn’t remember exactly what did happen. Now 86 years old, she recently recanted her story. She claims that her husband Roy Bryant was physically abusive. She eventually divorced him and married at least two more times.
After Look published Bryant and Milam’s confession, the two killers were rejected by friends and supporters around the country. According to the obituary of Milam’s wife Juanita Milam, Bryant and Milam never did feel guilt for murdering Till.
Juanita Milam didn’t believe Carolyn Bryant’s story from the beginning. When the FBI re-opened the Till case in 2004, Milam gave the following comment:
“The only way I can figure it is that she did not want to take care of the store. She thought this wild story would make Roy take care of the store instead of leavin’ her with the kids and the store. The only thing to me would upset her would be if she wanted Roy to stay at the store more.“
John Lewis, Democratic Georgia Representative and Civil Rights icon, sponsored a bill to provide a plan for investigating and prosecuting unsolved Civil Rights-era murders. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was signed into law in 2008.
My favorite Confederate Monument, former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Session III and POTUS-booster once again reopened the infamous Emmett Till case. In a U.S. Justice Department statement in 2018 the reason given for reopening the Till investigation was related to “receiving new information”. However, the Justice Department did not detail what that new information was. The decision was revealed to Congress in a report, but it is unclear what the Justice Department is prepared to act on. Apparently, “several interested parties” asked the Justice Department whether any surviving suspects could be prosecuted. The Justice Department determined that the statute of limitations prevented any federal prosecution.
Emmett Till’s original casket is now displayed at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
There are over 50 official memorials to Emmett Till. Sunflower County, where Till was murdered, remains the only county in the Mississippi Delta without a single commemorative Emmett Till marker.
Bryant died in 1994 and Milam died in 1980.
James Baldwin‘s play Blues For Mister Charlie (1964) is based on the Till murder and trial. Baldwin said he was haunted for the rest of his life by the killing.
65 years after Till’s murder, at a time when the indiscriminate murders of African-Americans is largest part of our cultural conversation, Till’s name is still invoked as a reminder of the worst consequences of ignoring American racism.