Emmett Louis Till was kidnapped, lynched and brutally murdered at age 14 on August 28, 1955. The acquittal of the murderers and his mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral galvanized the emerging Civil Rights movement.

The story of Emmett Till resonates among the lives of Americans as what galvanized the emerging Civil Rights Movement. 

Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois and was murdered at the age of 14 on August 28, 1955. 

In August 1955, Emmett’’s great uncle, Moses Wright, came up from Mississippi to visit the family and attend a funeral in Chicago. At the end of his stay, Wright was planning to take Till’s cousin/his grandson, Wheeler Parker, back to Mississippi with him to visit relatives in the area, and when Emmett, who was just 14 years old at the time, learned of these plans, he begged his mother to let him go along.

Initially, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till was opposed to the idea. She wanted to take a road trip to Detroit, Michigan then on to Omaha, Nebraska, and tried to convince her son to join her with the promise of open-road driving lessons.

But Emmett desperately wanted to spend time with his cousins in Mississippi, and in a fateful decision that would have grave impact on their lives and the course of American history, Emmett convinced his mother to allow him to travel with his great uncle Mose Wright and Wheeler Parker to visit relatives and stay at the home of Mose and his great aunt Elizabeth Wright in Money Mississippi on August 20, 1955.

On August 19, 1955—the day before Till left his home in Chicago with his uncle and cousin for Mississippi— His mother Mamie Till gave her son his late father’s signet ring, engraved with the initials “L.T.”

The next day she drove her son to the 63rd Street station in Chicago. They kissed goodbye, and Till boarded a southbound train headed for Mississippi. It was the last time they ever saw each other.

Three days after arriving in Money, Mississippi — on August 24, 1955 — Till and along with Simeon Wright and Wheeler Parker and other teenagers headed to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy refreshments after the others had a long day picking cotton in the hot afternoon sun.

Emmett Till purchased bubble gum, and exited the store with Simeon. As they exited the store, Carolyn Bryant, the 21 year old white female clerk, the wife of the store owner exited the store and Emmett whistled at her with a wolf whistle. 

They were shocked that Emmett whistled and left the area immediately driving away from Money as quickly as they could. Emmett made them promise not to tell what had happened to his great  uncle and aunt Mose and Elizabeth Wright.
It is believed that Carolyn Bryant now Donham who later wrongly accused Emmett of touching her hand, grabbing her by the waist and making sexual advances towards her, told her husband Roy upon his return from his trucking engagement.
Emmett Till’s Death
Four days later, at approximately 2:30 a.m., Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half brother J.W. Milam along with other white and black men kidnapped Till from Moses Wright’s home. After being identified by Carolyn Bryant, they drove away. They then drove to a barn in Drew, Mississippi. They lynched and beat Emmett Till brutally, dragged his body to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal cotton gin fan and shoved his mutilated body into the water.

After Mose Wright contacted the Leflore County Sheriff about the abduction, both Bryant and Milam were arrested on Aug 29 and held in jail without bond on kidnapping charges. Just 3 days after the kidnapping, Emmett’s badly decomposed corpse was pulled from the river. His face was mutilated beyond recognition. Mose Wright managed to identify him only by the ring on his finger engraved with his father’s initials L.T. 

“It never occurred to me that Bobo would be killed for whistling at a white woman.” — Simeon Wright, Emmett Till’s cousin

“It would appear that the state of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children.” — Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP

Open-Casket Funeral
Till’s body was shipped to Chicago, where his mother defied Mississippi authorities orders to leave the box his corpse was in closed and locked. She had it opened to positively identify that it was Emmett.

She courageously decided to have an open-casket funeral with Emmett’s body on display for five days. Thousands of people came to the Roberts Temple Church of God and Christ to see the evidence of this brutal hate crime.

Till’s mother said that, despite the enormous pain it caused her to see her son’s dead body on display, she opted for an open-casket funeral in an effort to “let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like.”

“With his body water-soaked and defaced, most people would have kept the casket covered. [His mother] let the body be exposed. (Starting on September 4, 1955 and extended to the time of his burial on September 6 in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, IL), More than 100,000 people saw his body lying in that casket here in Chicago. That must have been at that time the largest single civil rights demonstration in American history.” — Jesse Jackson

The courage and actions taken by his grieving mother Mamie Till set off a course of action that let the world know what happened to her only son. She was intent on achieving justice and taking the covers off of the hate and violence and the system of white supremacy that ruled and oppressed so many African Americans in Mississippi.
Photos of Emmett Till’s Body
In the weeks that passed between Till’s burial and the murder and kidnapping trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two black publications, Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, published graphic photos of Till’s corpse.

By the time the 1955 trial for Till’s killing began, his murder had become a source of outrage and indignation throughout the country. 

The Murder Trial
On September 7th a grand jury indicts Bryant and Milam on kidnapping and murder charges.

The trial against Emmett Till’s killers began on September 19, 1955. Because blacks and women were barred from serving jury duty, Bryant and Milam were tried before an all-white, all-male jury.

In an act of extraordinary bravery, Mose Wright took the stand and identified Bryant and Milam as Till’s kidnappers and killers. At the time, it was almost unheard of for blacks to openly accuse whites in court. By doing so, Wright put his family and his own life in grave danger.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the defendants’ guilt and widespread pleas for justice from outside Mississippi, on September 23, the panel of white male jurors acquitted Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam of all charges. Their deliberations lasted a mere 67 minutes.

Emmett Till’s Killers
In January 1956, Roy Bryant, the husband of Till’s accuser Carolyn, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, admitted to committing the murder of Emmett Till. Protected by double jeopardy laws, they told the whole story to William Bradford Huie. They confessed how they kidnapped and killed Till to Look magazine for $4,000.

“J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant died with Emmett Till’s blood on their hands,” Simeon Wright, Till’s cousin and an eyewitness to his kidnapping (he was with Till the night he was kidnapped by Milam and Bryant), later stated. “And it looks like everyone else who was involved is going to do the same. They had a chance to come clean. They will die with Emmett Till’s blood on their hands.”

Who Was Emmett Till?
Emmett Louis Till was born in Chicago, on Friday, July 25, 1941 at Cook County Hospital to Louis and Mamie Till who lived in Argo, Illinois a small town outside of Chicago. He was their only child.
Later, Emmett grew up in a thriving, middle-class black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The neighborhood was a haven for black-owned businesses, and the streets he roamed as a child were lined with black-owned insurance companies, pharmacies and beauty salons as well as nightclubs that drew the likes of Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan.

He spent his early years surrounded by a large family. Emmett known to his mother and others as Bobo or Bo, was a driven, industrious, irresistible, well nurtured, self assured, clever, confident and bright child, with sandy hair and twinkling hazel brown eyes. He was a clothes horse who was much older than his years. Those outside of his family who knew him best described him as a responsible, funny and infectiously high-spirited child. 

He was stricken with polio at the age of 6. He managed to make a full recovery,  leaving him with muscle damage and a speech defect with a light stutter that he struggled to overcome throughout his young life.

As a young child at age 10 after spending time in Chicago and Detroit, Emmett was growing to be more adventurous and independent-minded. As a preteen and teenager, Emmett was a responsible young man, full of life. He could find a way to enjoy himself in most situations. For Emmett (according to his mother) life was laughter and laughter was life giving. And he did make people laugh. There was a lot of joy in his carefree world of existence. He wanted to share that joy with everyone around him.

Emmett loved amusement parks, and the outdoors, especially the zoo. He loved to fish with his Grandmother Alma. He even had a love for music and dancing.
He had an abundance of self esteem and pride especially in his appearance. He was a meticulous young boy and loved nice clothes.
Emmett and his mother at times had a brother/ sister relationship early on that grew and turned stronger, like a partnership. After he and his mother were on their own and With his mother often working more than 12-hour days, he took on his full share of domestic responsibilities from a very young age. “Emmett had all the house responsibility,” his mother later recalled. “I mean everything was really on his shoulders, and Emmett took it upon himself. He told me if I would work, and make the money, he would take care of everything else. He cleaned, and he cooked quite a bit. And he even took over the laundry.” Emmett loved to cook his favorite meal of pork chops and corn with lots of pepper.

He attended the all-black McCosh Grammar School. His classmate and childhood pal, Richard Heard, later recalled, “Emmett was a funny guy all the time. He had a suitcase of jokes that he liked to tell. He loved to make people laugh. He was a chubby kid; most of the guys were skinny, but he didn’t let that stand in his way. He made a lot of friends at McCosh.”

After moving away from Argo to Chicago, he would often take the streetcar back to Argo every chance he could get. He loved to play baseball with family and friends and attend church there. He also told others he wanted to be a professional baseball player.
He lived for the fellowship and He lived for the fun. 
He was analytical and persuasive. He had an uncanny ability to work things out with people, to negotiate, to resolve things. Emmett also had a deep sense of justice. As he dreamed of his future, He shared with his mother that he wanted to be a motorcycle police officer. He liked the work he saw police doing and loved being a peacemaker.  

The Importance of Remembering Emmett Till:

Although, you won’t find Emmett Till’s name and story in the timeline of American History, few crimes have matched in unbridled savagery His kidnapping and murder and discovery of his body represents one of the most horrific inhumane injustices committed against an innocent young person in this country. It also revealed more than the handiwork led by of a pair of hate-crazed “white supremacists.” It reminded the nation of how after some 92 years after the emancipation proclamation Blacks were still denied the most common of rights of their humanity and denied their constitutional rights as American citizens.

Emmett’s Impact on Civil Rights
“I thought about Emmett Till, and I couldn’t go back [to the back of the bus].” — Rosa Parks

Coming only one year after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of racial segregation in public schools, Till’s death provided an important catalyst for the American civil rights movement.

One hundred days after Till’s murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama city bus, sparking the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott. Nine years later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing many forms of racial discrimination and segregation. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act, outlawing discriminatory voting practices, was passed.

[Emmett Till’s murder was] one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of the 20th century. — Martin Luther King Jr.

Though she never stopped feeling the pain of her son’s death, Mamie Till (who died of heart failure in 2003) also recognized that what happened to her son helped open Americans’ eyes to the racial hatred plaguing the country, and in doing so helped spark a massive protest movement for racial equality and justice.

“People really didn’t know that things this horrible could take place,” Mamie Till said in an interview with Devery S. Anderson, author of Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, in December 1996. “And the fact that it happened to a child, that makes all the difference in the world.”

Emmett Till’s Accuser 
More than six decades later, in January 2017, Timothy Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till and a senior research scholar at Duke University, revealed that in a 2007 interview Emmett Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant Donham (she had divorced and remarried) admitted to him that she had lied about Till making advances toward her.

“That part’s not true,” she told Timothy Tyson, The interview was reported in a 2017 Vanity Fair article upon the publishing of Tyson’s book, The Blood of Emmett Till.

Bryant Donham also told Tyson, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” and admitted she “felt tender sorrow” for his mother.

In the summer of 2018, the Justice Department reportedly reopened the investigation into Till’s death with the “discovery of new information.”

According to the Clarion Ledger, Although, Timothy Tyson’s book on Emmett Till became a bestseller thanks to the bombshell quote he attributed to Carolyn Bryant Donham — that she lied when she testified about Till accosting her.
Donham’s daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant, who was present for the two tape-recorded interviews Tyson did with Donham, said her mother-in-law “never recanted.” Adding to the intrigue is the fact the quote Tyson attributed to Donham isn’t on the recordings. https://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2018/08/21/emmett-till-carolyn-bryant-donham-recant-quote-missing/1017876002/
Justice For Emmett Till
After fighting for Justice for close to 47 years, Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett’s mother died on Jan 6, 2003 at age 81.
In 2004 The Department of Justice announced the reopening of the Till case. With new evidence and the identification of others that may have been involved, Emmett’s case was reopened in 2004. In 2005 His body was exhumed for autopsy and positively identified. Since his body was reburied in a new casket, the Till family donated the original casket to the Smithsonian Institution of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, DC.  
In 2007 a majority-black grand jury in Greenwood, Mississippi declined to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham, considering charges ranging from manslaughter to accessory after the fact. They found no credible evidence to support the claim that Carolyn Bryant Donham and others were involved in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. 
And yet today, His case remains open and appears on the Department of Justice Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes cold case list. 
It is unclear whether the government would bring forth new charges, though recent federal efforts (2016 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act) to reexamine racially motivated crimes from the past now through 1979, had occasionally produced results, including the 2010 conviction of a former Alabama state trooper charged with killing activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965.
No matter the outcome of the newest 2018 investigation, Emmett Louis Till will always be remembered and his death will not be in vain, as we continue to seek Justice For Emmett Till and seek to empower the families of the victims of racially motivated violence and murder.

© 2020 Emmett Till Legacy Foundation
All rights reserved

Sources: Excerpts from, The Death Of Innocence,The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America,  Biography, Simeons Story: An Eye Witness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till

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