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
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.