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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
TILL, EMMETT, LYNCHING OF
TILL, EMMETT, LYNCHING OF. Emmett Louis Till was murdered in the Mississippi Delta on 28 August 1955, making the fourteen-year-old Chicagoan the best-known young victim of racial violence in the nation's history.
Visiting relatives shortly before he would have started the eighth grade, Till entered a store in Money, in Leflore County, and as a prank behaved suggestively toward Carolyn Bryant, the twenty-one-year-old wife of the absent owner, Roy Bryant. This breach of racial etiquette soon provoked Bryant and his half brother, J. W. Milam, to abduct Till from his relatives' home, pistol-whip and then murder him, and finally to dump the corpse into the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and Milam were prosecuted in the early autumn. Despite forthright testimony by the victim's mother, Mamie Till, a jury of twelve white men quickly acquitted the defendants. The verdict was widely condemned even in the southern white press, and more sharply in the black press and the foreign press. The brutality inflicted upon a guileless teenager exposed the precarious condition that blacks faced—especially in the rural South—as did no other episode. Such violence in defense of racial supremacy and white womanhood helped to inspire the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
Emmett Till's Lynching Ignited a Civil Rights Movement. Historians Say George Floyd's Death Could Do the Same
The deaths of Till and Floyd, in particular, have been "points of clarity" in a much longer storyline, said Amy Yeboah, assistant professor of Africana studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
"This has been a 400-year connect-the-dot picture. Instances have all connected in some form or fashion in helping us understand the hurt and pain of black people," Yeboah said.
Both moments have been marked by the circulation of horrific images of death, said Brandon Marcell Erby, who studies the rhetorical work of Till-Mobley and recently earned a Ph.D. in English and African American and Diaspora Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Erby said he sees a parallel in Till's open casket and photos of Till's body with the video evidence documenting the deaths of Arbery and Floyd.
"Now, with the videos, we see the exhibited corpse," Erby said.
Keith Beauchamp, whose documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," helped inspire the Justice Department to reopen the Till case in 2004, said he could bring himself to watch the video of Floyd's final moments only once. The ubiquitous images of black death, replaying again and again on Facebook and Twitter, have caused him racial fatigue.
"I've seen death time and time again with the work I do," Beauchamp said. "But nothing has ever hit me harder than the image of George Floyd. When I saw that image, it brought me back to when I first saw the photograph of Emmett Till at the age of 10. And it was something that I could not really wrap my head around. And I had the same reaction when I saw the officer&rsquos knee on George Floyd's neck."
Beauchamp said seeing Till's photo drove him to pursue a life of civil rights work, and he wasn't the only one.
Many of the founding members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who led the sit-in movement, were young people around Till's age who were spurred to get involved in civil rights work following his murder, said Davis Houck, co-author of "Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press" and founder of the Emmett Till Archive at Florida State University.
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Let The People See: The Story Of Emmett Till
Elliot J. Gorn’s well-written monograph on Emmett Till joins a recent flowering of scholarship on the Till case, including important books by Timothy B. Tyson, Christopher Metress, and Devery S. Anderson. What is most valuable about Gorn’s book about the life, death, and legacy of the Chicago fourteen-year-old murdered by white racists in Mississippi in 1955 is its comprehensive approach, and its melding of an accessible narrative with an analytical approach.
In thirty-six succinct chapters (including an introduction and conclusion), Gorn traces the contours and context of Till’s short life, his death, the trial of his murderers, the separate trajectories of the afterlife of his murder in the black and white communities, and the ways in which in recent decades the case has re-emerged in the public discourse. The trial of two of Till’s white murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam received national and international attention in September 1955, and their acquittal became a symbol of Southern racial oppression. Bryant and Milam confessed in a January 1956 Look magazine article written by William Bradford Huie Gorn carefully scrutinizes Huie’s questionable journalistic techniques and pecuniary motivations for publishing the article. Gorn argues that the case quickly faded from memory for the white community only to be restored to white collective memory through media excavations since the 1970s. On the other hand, the case’s emblematizing of white supremacy and Southern racial injustice lingered profoundly for African Americans, a legacy due at least in part to the powerful witness of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, including her insistence that her son’s brutalized corpse be displayed at his funeral in Chicago, photos of which were published in the African American press. The author’s analysis includes revelations in FBI interviews in the 2000s, along with the admission of Carolyn Bryant to historian Timothy Tyson in 2016 that she had “made things up” when she testified in 1955 that Emmett Till had whistled, grabbed, and propositioned her in Bryant’s Grocery Store. The epilogue stresses the Till case’s continuing resonance, with heritage tourism in Mississippi emphasizing sites associated with it, the recent vandalism done to Emmett Till historical markers in the Delta, and the 2017 controversy over white artist Dana Schultz’s painting Open Casket, which some critiqued as “death porn” that instrumentalized African American suffering for white audiences. In July 2018, as Gorn’s book went to press, the U.S. Justice Department re-opened its investigation into the Till case in light of Carolyn Bryant’s admission to Timothy Tyson published in his 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till. In his introduction, Gorn highlights the long-lived power of the Emmett Till story. “Sixty years after they killed Emmett Till, his story refuses to go away. Indeed, his memory is more alive now than at any time since 1955, invoked in many variations… Emmett Till’s killers could not hold his memory down any more than his body, and it still keeps surfacing in unexpected times and places” (3,6).
Gorn effectively situates the collective racially-motivated murder of Emmett Till within the context of the history of Southern lynching and racial violence, noting that southern white conservatives and liberals rejected the term ‘lynching’ for the killing of Till, as they sought to distance the South from its benighted brutally racist past. Yet others at the time did not shy away from calling Till’s death a lynching, and his collective murder fits the larger pattern in which post-Reconstruction Southern lynchings had declined precipitously from their peak in the 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century, and had largely gone underground and were performed secretively by small groups rather than publicly by large groups by the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many scholars of lynching have used the definition agreed upon by experts on Southern mob violence in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1940, which stipulates that a lynching must be perpetrated by a group, with a group defined as “three” or more persons. Evidence suggests that Bryant and Milam may have enlisted several other men in perpetrating their act of racially charged homicide, which would fit the Tuskegee definition. Yet, arguably the Tuskegee definition becomes less important after the mid-1940s, as racially motivated collective killings furtively conducted by very small groups assumed the functions that lynching carried out by large groups had previously.
Gorn seemingly conflates Southern lynchings with highly ritualistic spectacle lynchings, writing: “Above all, lynching was not just killing, it was torture turned into spectacle—mutilation, use of blow torches, cutting off body parts, burning victims alive—all elements of vigilante justice” (p. 37). While spectacle lynchings did not comprise the majority of lynchings of African Americans in the South—most lynchings of African Americans were not highly ritualized and were not performed before extremely large crowds– these acts of gratuitous, sadistic ritualistic violence performed before enormous crowds attracted extraordinary attention and were experienced vicariously through images on postcards, becoming crucial cultural symbols of white supremacy. Gorn is surely correct that the sadistic violence of the murder of Emmett Till links directly with the spectacle lynching tradition of racially charged southern violence, including the nexus of race and sex which Ida B. Wells influentially pointed out involved a minority of cases of southern lynchings of black men (murder and assault rather than rape allegations predominated in actual lynching cases). This nexus loomed large in the Southern white defense of lynching which asserted that it was supposedly necessary to protect white women from black men. Gorn properly notes that the absence of a federal anti-lynching law—such legislation had failed in the US Senate on numerous occasions due to opposition from Southern senators asserting the doctrine of state’s rights–provided the U.S. Justice Department a rationale for refusing to get involved in the Till case. However, as the author argues, there was federal involvement in the sense that J. Edgar Hoover utilized the FBI to spy on Communists and others that he believed were using the outcry over the manifest injustice of the Till case to promote leftist causes. In his epilogue, Gorn appropriately identifies the legacy of the Till case in the continuing dialogue over American racial injustice in the Black Lives Matter movement and its protest of the lack of justice for the killings of African American men and youths such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin. As he notes, Till’s resonant memory has at times been invoked in the public discourse surrounding these more recent racially charged deaths.
To this reviewer, Gorn reaches the pinnacle of his narrative and interpretive powers in the middle of the book as he skillfully recreates the September 1955 trial of Till’s murderers, Bryant and Milam, using deft reading of myriad primary sources to situate the reader in the courtroom, in the context of whites and blacks in the Mississippi Delta responding to the first wave of the Civil Rights Movement, and in Chicago, where black migrants from the Delta responded with knowing horror and outrage at the white South’s cruelty. He effectively develops the Cold War context here in which the Soviets effectively employed visceral evidence of American racial injustice such as the Till case as powerful propaganda against American democracy, even as the Eisenhower administration refused to take action. Gorn also meaningfully recreates the worlds of the young Emmett Till and of his mother Mamie Till Bradley along with those of his murderers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, identifying gaps in the historical record and offering plausible interpretations of actions and motivations. Finally, he convincingly suggests the reasons why the story of Emmett Till continues to grip the American psyche. “Emmett Till’s story is invoked again and again today because it has become our foremost civil rights tale of innocence violated, of undeserved suffering and death” (292). While other scholars have also powerfully documented and analyzed aspects of the story of Emmett Till, and Timothy Tyson’s recent book should also be read by all interested in the Till case, Elliot Gorn’s book is highly recommended for its deep excavation of archival sources, its readability, and its analytical power.
Michael J. Pfeifer, Professor of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
Confronting the Murder
Students will confront and process emotionally difficult visual images and subject matter, and also analyze multiple perspectives of a major international historical event. In addition, students will develop a fundamental understanding of the significance of this event within the historical context of the time period. This first lesson introduces students to the film and explores their personal reactions, as well as contemporary responses to the brutal murder of a fourteen-year old African American boy in 1955.
This lesson is the first in a series of four complementary activities that accompany the documentary film The Murder of Emmett Till. They provide a vehicle for discussing this powerful film while also establishing important historical context to better understand its place within American history and for our understanding of the fragility of democracy. Ideally, it should be used with the other three lessons in the series, but it also can be used on its own.
The setting of the film and lesson is the summer and fall of 1955. Early on the morning of August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, a 14 year-old African American teenager, was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Mississippi. The crime sent shockwaves throughout the nation and the rest of the world. His death came at a time of heightened racial tension in the American South following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court the previous year. The trial and acquittal of the accused murderers galvanized the nascent Civil Rights Movement and forever changed American society.
Facing History resources are used extensively in all four lessons. The lessons can be used online with students if there is access to computers or teachers can simply download information from the links and photocopy them for students.
Additional Video Resources:
The award winning series Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement is an excellent documentary supplement to the film and lesson. Episode 1, Eyes on the Prize: Awakenings (1954–1956) is particularly relevant to the activities in the lesson, and includes sections on the murder, trial, and civil rights actions that followed the crime.
The following books can provide important background to the murder and trial of Emmett Till:
- Metress, Christopher, editor. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 2002.
- Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor And Black in the Rural South. New York: Dell Publishers, 1968.
- Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free Press London: Collier Macmillan, 1988.
First watch The Murder of Emmett Till. Ask students to use their journal both during and after the film to write down their personal responses to anything they see or hear that has an impact on them. Because the film depicts a brutal murder, it is important to allow the classroom time to process the emotional impact the film has on students. There are many ways to help students pause and reflect about how images and scenes depicting violations of human rights or killing of people personally affect them. One such technique used by some teachers is called Big Paper. It honors silence, reflection, and the thoughtful sharing of responses to these situations. Click on the link to learn more about this powerful teaching strategy.
As a final exercise in this lesson, students could create an identity chart for Emmett Till. Click here for examples of how this can be done with students. They then could create their own identity chart and discuss as a class some of the similarities and differences with Emmett Till's chart. While students might point to age, gender, class, ‘race,' and geography, there is also the issue of historical context. To understand more fully the life of Emmett Till and the country he lived in during the early 1950s, students will need to investigate more.
A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story
“I had done nothing that could really be called bad. I had been foolish, yes, but I had not done anything bad. The trouble was, this was Marion, Indiana, where there was very little room for foolish black boys.”
On a sweltering August night in 1930, two older boys invited sixteen-year-old Jimmie Cameron for what they said would be a joyride. Instead, they held up a young white couple parked in a remote Lover’s Lane. The stickup went horribly wrong. The boys were arrested, dragged from jail by a mob, and lynched on the courthouse lawn before thousands of spectators. Miraculously, Cameron lived to tell the story.
The American South held millions in a type of agricultural bondage. Whites and blacks left their lives as sharecroppers and tenant farmers for the promise of work in factories. Some people moved less than a hundred miles from rural homes to the larger county seat towns and cities. Others traveled much farther, taking the train from southern rural Mississippi up to cities like Detroit and Chicago. For most, leaving the South was a permanent situation. They said their goodbyes with little intention of ever returning to the place of their birth and upbringing. As people settled, married, and had children in northern cities, it was not uncommon to send their young folks south to spend the summer with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Emmett Till was one such young folk.
After the Second World War, Chicago was a booming town. People of all ethnicities and color filled in the city&rsquos boundaries established in 1893. Factories were once again making consumer goods and steel mills were working at full output. Urban and suburban kids rushed to the Maxwell Street Market on Sunday mornings to listen to artists with Chess Records jam in a sort of continuation of their Saturday night gigs. Despite all of its problems with racism, segregation, and neighborhood conflicts, Chicago was a good place to be.
Mamie Carthan moved to Chicago from the Mississippi Delta with her parents when she was two years old. In 1940, against her parent&rsquos wishes, she married a man from New Madrid, Missouri, Louis Till. Mamie gave birth to Emmett on July 25, 1941. The marriage was fraught with violence. Mamie obtained a restraining order and divorced Till. When Till repeatedly violated the restraining order, he was given the choice between prison or enlisting in the US Army. Till chose the Army, and eventually, he was court-martialed for raping women while serving in Italy. Till&rsquos sentence was death by hanging. He was hanged on July 2, 1945. The accounts of Louis Till&rsquos crimes, court-martial, and death were concealed from the family. They were revealed during a murder trial in 1955.
Emmett Till, 14, went to Mississippi to visit relatives during the summer of 1955. He arrived in Money, Mississippi on August 21st. The following Sunday, Emmett skipped church with his cousin. They, along with some local boys, went to Bryant&rsquos Grocery and Meat Market to get candy. Roy Bryant, 24, and his wife, Carolyn, 21, owned and operated the store that served mostly the sharecropping population. Blacks were not barred from the store, but local custom stated that they were not permitted to speak to white folks unless spoken to first.
What happened between Till and Carolyn Bryant inside the store is unclear. Till&rsquos mother stated that her son had difficulty speaking at times, particularly &ldquob&rdquo sounds. To alleviate his sometimes stuttering, Till would whistle. Carolyn Bryant went on record stating that as she was stocking candy in the store, Till stated, &ldquoHow about a date, baby?&rdquo She then claimed that Till began to make advances toward her stating that she should &ldquonot be afraid of me, baby&rdquo as he had been with &ldquowhite women before.&rdquo
Between 2 and 3 am on August 28, 1955, three days after Till&rsquos encounter with Carolyn Bryant, Roy Bryant and another man went to Till&rsquos great-uncle&rsquos cabin and forcibly took Till. Carolyn Bryant stated that Till was indeed the boy who had accosted her, while Till&rsquos great-aunt offered to pay the Bryants money in exchange for not taking Emmett away. After Emmett Till was taken, his whereabouts were unknown. Around August 31, 1955, two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River found a swollen and disfigured body.
Emmett Till&rsquos head was badly disfigured. The time his body had spent in the water increased the after death swelling. Till had been pistol-whipped and one of his eyes had dislodged from its socket. He had been shot above the right ear and he had markings on his back and hips that were consistent with being beaten. Instead of being strung up a tree, Emmett Till was weighted down with a 70-pound fan blade that was attached to his neck with barbed wire. When his body was recovered, Till was naked and wearing a silver ring with &ldquoL.T. May 25, 1943&rdquo engraved on it.
Newspapers across the country reported on the condition of Emmett Till&rsquos body when it was discovered. The next day, an image of Till and his mother on Christmas Day, happy and smiling, was published. Readers were astonished and outraged. They sent letters to their local newspapers that ran the story about Till, proclaiming the horrors of the South. Writers proclaimed that the problem in the South was not with African Americans but with the white people that would brutally murder a teenager simply for speaking out of turn.
Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett&rsquos mother, demanded that her son be returned to Chicago. She fought with local authorities who were determined to bury Till in Mississippi. With assistance from the NAACP, the mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, and the governors of Illinois and Mississippi, Till&rsquos body was clothed, placed in pine coffin, packed in lime, and shipped north. Mamie Bradley insisted that the entire world see what had happened to her son and held an open-casket funeral. As her son&rsquos body continued to decompose, tens of thousands of people lined up outside of the mortuary to view the body. Thousands of people attended the funeral. Till&rsquos body was interred on September 6, 1955, in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
Shortly after Till&rsquos body was found, a murder trial began in the county in which the body was found. Reporters who went to the trial remarked on the relaxed atmosphere of the courthouse, lending credence to the courtroom being more of a spectacle instead of a place for legal matters. To some, it seemed like a spectacle. On September 23, 1955, an all-white male jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam after a 67-minute deliberation.
Under oath, Carolyn Bryant stated that Emmett Till had accosted her. She testified that Till had grabbed her hand while she was stocking candy and asked her for a date. In Mississippi, and throughout the South, it was not acceptable for a black boy or man to touch a white woman. The true crime was not that Till had whistled at Bryant, but that he had touched her, which was how she was accosted. For that misstep, Till paid with his life. In 2008, Carolyn Bryant stated in an interview with a historian that she had lied under oath, and that she had not been accosted.
Read these excerpts from an interview with Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of History and Africana Studies and chair of the history department at New York University, on the legacies of Emmett Till's murder.
Spark for a New Generation
The Emmett Till case was a spark for a new generation to commit their lives to social change, you know. They said, "We're not gonna die like this. Instead, we're gonna live and transform the South so people won't have to die like this." And if anything, if any event of the 1950s inspired young people to be committed to that kind of change, it was the lynching of Emmett Till.
Emmett Till, in some ways, gave ordinary black people in a place like Montgomery not just courage, but I think instilled them with a sense of anger, and that anger at white supremacy, and not just white supremacy, but the decision of the court to exonerate these men from murdering -- for outright lynching this young kid -- that level of anger, I think, led a lot of people to commit themselves to the movement. And Montgomery felt the reverberations of that just like Little Rock, Arkansas, two years later.
And I think that that anger was somehow transformed into social movement and, ironically, into love. And what I mean by that is into love for the people who they're trying to defend and love for a nation that had for so long oppressed them, but they felt was transformable. They felt that as black people involved in the movement, that Emmett Till's body was sacrificed in some ways, that George Lee's body was sacrificed, that many of the activists who were murdered were sacrificed for the sake of saving the country, redeeming this nation. And I think that's why, you think of something like the non-violence philosophy of the Civil Rights movement as directly related to the violence meted out on people like Emmett Till.
Mamie Till Bradley's decision to have an open-casket funeral was incredibly courageous and, in fact, it was the thing that was -- even more than his murder -- an emotional catalyst for many people who were drawn to this incident, largely because she made the decision to allow the world to see what these white supremacists did to her son, and it became an international event, and that image of his face was marked on just about every single black person, of that generation, let alone people in Europe and Africa and Asia who saw the same images. I know for me personally, when I first saw those images, years later, it was shocking to me. It was one of those unforgettable images that I think that every generation, years afterwards, will never forget.
Pressure on Mississippi
For Mississippi to legitimize itself, it had to have a trial. It had to at least show a front of justice. Otherwise, it could be easily dismissed by the federal government -- and all of its claims for the right to be autonomous, to have state's rights, to take care of its own affairs, would have been null and void.
The other thing is that in the age of the Cold War, states like Mississippi and Alabama were looked upon by the world. The United States had a foreign policy of proving that democracy exists at home, proving that it doesn't have a race problem or a colonial problem. And it became more and more difficult for the State Department to do its work outside of the United States when back home you have all this racism and violence.
And so there was pressure on Mississippi from the State Department, pressure on Mississippi from the federal government, pressure on Mississippi congressmen, senators and the governor to look legitimate. So they tried to strike this balance between legality and legitimacy, on the one hand, and the same old white supremacy and violence, on the other. And so the trial was somewhat of a show, though everyone knew what the outcome would be -- and that is, "not guilty."
We often think of Emmett Till as a case of a young man being murdered, but we don't always pay attention to what it meant for a young woman and young mother to stand up and really commit her life to activism, to social change. The courage that [Till's mother] exhibited, I think, was a role model for many of the women who were drawn to the civil rights movement. You know, we often talk about Fannie Lou Hamer or we talk about Ella Baker. We don't always talk about Mamie Till Bradley as one of those heroines who stood up at a time when not many women were being called forth in the struggle to that degree.
Legacies of Emmett Till
I think there are at least two distinct legacies of Emmett Till. One, that the level of violence that was commonplace in a place like Mississippi became known to the world, and that violence generated anger and outrage -- and in some ways courage -- for those fighting in Mississippi and those willing to come South to fight that fight.
I think the second legacy of Emmett Till is that Jim Crow racism, as it used to exist from the age of slavery, could no longer exist. Now something has to change. And black people in Mississippi itself were the ones who were going to make that change. And the great thing is that the change that they made, the extension of citizenship to all people, is a change that affected all of America, not just black people, but whites, Latinos, Asian Americans. It extended democracy to the country when democracy had never been extended to everyone before.
A Brutal Lynching And A Possible Confession, Decades Later
A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. The 14-year-old was killed in Mississippi in 1955. The FBI has reopened the investigation into his lynching. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption
A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. The 14-year-old was killed in Mississippi in 1955. The FBI has reopened the investigation into his lynching.
On Aug. 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was gruesomely lynched in the small town of Money, Miss. He was a boy from Chicago, visiting his relatives. Although the case is now 63 years old, a recent book has spurred the Department of Justice to reopen the investigation into his death.
Duke professor Tim Tyson has written civil rights history books that have brought national acclaim. Blood Done Sign My Name is a searing memoir of a racial killing in his hometown of Oxford, N.C., in 1970. His father, a Methodist minister, sided with the town's black community and was excoriated as a white traitor.
Tyson's life and worldview were never the same.
A few weeks after Blood Done Sign My Name's publication, Tyson got a phone call. A fan was on the other end raving about how much her mother-in-law loved his memoir and she wanted to meet him.
"You know I sort of pretended she hadn't said it and was getting off the phone, and then she said, 'You might know my mother-in-law, her name was Carolyn Bryant?' "
Indeed Tyson did. Carolyn Bryant had been at the center of one of the country's most infamous racial slayings — the killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. Tyson arranged to meet her.
"I went to her house I walked in the door. She gave me a big hug. She served me pound cake and coffee. And she seemed like pretty much any kind of Methodist church lady I've ever known in my life."
Tortured and killed
In 1955, Carolyn Bryant was a strikingly beautiful 21-year-old Mississippi woman, who had married into a rough and violent working-class family. She and her husband were the owners of a small rural grocery store. Bryant was behind the counter that late August day in the summer of 1955, when Emmett Till came in to buy some bubble gum. Tyson says what happened next still is a matter of dispute.
"We do know a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago visiting his relatives in Mississippi had some kind of harmless encounter with a white woman," explained Tyson. "And her kinsmen came in the middle of the night snatched him away from his family at 2:30 in the morning. Drunk men with guns dragged him off, tortured him to death in a tool equipment shed in unspeakable ways and threw his dead body in the river."
Carolyn Bryant's husband and brother-in-law were charged with murdering Till. In her statement to her husband's lawyer at the time, Carolyn said Emmett Till had been sassy and disrespectful when he was at the counter. She told the lawyer that, as the boy left the store, he turned around and said, "Bye baby!"
But Bryant's story eventually changed. And the change came after Emmett Till was buried back in his hometown of Chicago.
An open casket burial became a national story
Till's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, held an open casket funeral for her son. Jet Magazine covered it and published a national story along with a gruesome photo of the badly mutilated child lying in repose. The story and the photo horrified and infuriated African-Americans across the country.
The powerful NAACP and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters took up the cause of Till's lynching, and the story spread to major news outlets. So when Carolyn Bryant took the stand back in Mississippi to testify in her husband's murder trial, her story had changed. "She essentially told the age-old story of the black beast rapist," Tyson says. "It was a well-worn story that Southerners black and white have heard for a long time."
Bryant testified that Till grabbed her by the hips and spoke of sex with white women. Even the trial judge was skeptical, and although he allowed Bryant to testify, he sent the jury out of the courtroom while she did. The judge appeared to understand that, in 1955 in Mississippi, testimony of dubious provenance wasn't needed for an all-white jury to find Bryant's husband and brother-in-law innocent of the charges.
In fact, it took little more than an hour to deliver a verdict of not guilty.
'That part's not true'
Nearly 50 years later, in her daughter-in-law's living room, Tyson says Carolyn Bryant told him that she had lied that day in court.
"She started muttering, 'Well they're all dead now anyway.' " Of the attack, the sexual assault, she said, "That part's not true."
Tyson's subsequent book, The Blood of Emmett Till, published in 2017, caused a sensation. Not so much because Bryant's revelation was really all that shocking, but because white Southerners involved in lynching cases usually take the truth of what happened to their graves.
This summer, the FBI quietly reopened the case, requesting the author's notes and tapes of his interview with Bryant. The Justice Department declined NPR's request for comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Carolyn Bryant is now in her 80s and lives with her daughter-in-law Marsha Bryant, in North Carolina. In an interview with NPR, Marsha Bryant denied her mother-in-law had confessed to lying to author Tim Tyson. "What she said on the stand is what's she said all along. She didn't change her story," said Bryant.
This is the second time the Department of Justice has reopened the case. The first was back in 2004. But at that time, a Mississippi grand jury refused to take any further legal action. Nearly 15 years later, Carolyn Bryant is the only person connected to the case who is still alive, and few believe the Justice Department would go so far as to indict her now.
Jim Coleman is a law professor at Duke University and has followed the case. "I don't see anything that would be accomplished by a federal reopening of the case," he said, "other than the publicity of the Justice Department having reopened the case."
The year after Till was killed, in a Look magazine article, Bryant's husband and brother-in-law admitted they had killed Till. They said that they had struck a blow for white supremacy and were proud to do it and that the teenager had it coming.
The Emmett Till generation
The case became a shame upon the nation and a Southern disgrace.
It inspired a generation of young black men and women across the country to go to the Deep South, risk their lives and organize African-Americans to vote.
In 1955, activist Charles Cobb was about same age as Emmett Till. "I can remember even now standing on street corner looking at that photograph with my friends of his body," remembered Cobb. "Those of us who made our way into the civil rights movement in the 1960s call ourselves the Emmett Till generation."
In 1962, Cobb left Howard University in Washington, D.C., and headed for the Mississippi Delta, where Till was killed. He spent the next five years organizing for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
"We were an organization of organizers," he said. "And we embedded ourselves in rural black communities, trying to persuade people that gaining the right to vote was worth putting their lives at risk, putting their jobs at risk, putting their homes at risk."
The men who killed a beautiful child from Chicago in order to terrorize the local black community believed they had served the cause of white supremacy well. But in fact, they had done anything but.
Though it would take another decade, the seeds of the Voting Rights Act were planted in 1955, in Mississippi, in Emmett Till's blood.
Correction Oct. 27, 2018
A caption on an earlier version of this story misspelled the location of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill., as Aslip. In addition, in the audio version as well as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say Blood Done Sign My Name was Tim Tyson's first book on civil rights history.