|Emmett and his mother Mamie Christmas , 1955. Good times.|
It may have been pure coincidence. Probably was. And I don’t remember his name being mentioned through the long program that afternoon that I watched with rapt attention on my folk’s black and white TV. But when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. mounted that stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial cast his eye on the hundreds of thousands stretching as far as the eye could see down the National Mall and strode to the microphone to address the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice on August 28, 1964, the spirit of a 14 year old boy must have been there.
Young Emmett Till, a Chicago boy spending the summer with his Mississippi relatives, was just 14 years old when on the same date in 1955 he was dragged from their home under the cover of night and brutally murdered by a mob. After his mother bravely insisted that his horribly abused body lying in a Chicago casket be publicly displayed and photographed, Emmett’s death sparked an outraged national movement that helped end decades of consequence free lynching of Black people across the South.
And nearly sixty years later, after mob lynching has virtually disappeared, his spirit reminds us that the extra-judicial executions of unarmed Black boys, young men by police which is epidemic across the country, is just the new face of lynching. Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, hundreds of other—two a week killed by police—all victims of a pervasive national racism that continues to fester.
Young Emmett’s family history mirrored that of many others who came North from the Deep South as part of the decades long Great Migration of impoverished Blacks to the economic promise of the big cities of the Midwest. Mamie Carthan was born in 1921, the daughter of a sharecropper in Webb, Mississippi, a tiny town in the Mississippi Delta Cotton Belt. While she was still a small child the family moved to Alton in Southern Illinois which was attracting so many Southern refugees it was sometimes called Little Mississippi.
Coming of age in the Depression, Mamie married young to another former southerner, Louis Till in 1940 after moving to Argo, now part of the Village of Summit, in Chicago’s west Suburbs with her mother Alma. The couple lived with Alma. Louis drank and became increasingly abusive. Shortly after Emmett was born on July 25, 1941 the couple split up. After the divorce Louis returned to their former home and tried to kill Mamie. A judge gave him a choice between the Army and prison. Louis entered the service in 1942 and died in 1945, somewhat mysteriously executed by the military for willful misconduct. Emmett was raised by his single mother with assistance from his maternal grandmother and a network of other relatives who had come north.
During the war Mamie had gotten a good job as a typist. Along with a monthly stipend sent home by the Army from Louis and occasional transmissions of money he had allegedly won in poker games and by sharing a home with her mother and step father, Mamie was finally able to get ahead, at least monetarily and even save several hundred dollars.
Emmett, nicknamed Bobo at birth, despite being named for a favorite uncle, survived and healed from injuries sustained in his delivery when doctors at Cook County Hospital misused forceps in his breach delivery. He was doted on by both his mother and grandmother.
By 1946 Emmett was a lively kindergartener in an Argo school. During that school year an aunt and uncle from Mississippi arrived in town and moved nearby. Their son and Emmett’s cousin Wheeler Parker, Jr. became the boys best friend and inseparable companion despite a two year age gap. Because he was so poorly educated in the Delta young Wheeler was set back to Emmett’s class in school.
In the summer of ’47 Emmett was stricken by dreaded polio. His mother and grandmother feared for his life or that he would be confined to an iron lung. Despite being held in quarantine at the Cook County Contagious Disease Center and then again at home for more than 30 days, Emmett eventually recovered. The disease did leave him with a bad speech impediment and he stuttered the rest of his life. He also suffered from swollen and weakened ankles.
Grandma Alma re-married and moved to Chicago leaving Mamie alone in Argo to raise her growing son. She continued to work hard as a typist for various government agencies—the Army Signal Corps, Veteran’s Administration, and Social Security Administration all the while putting money away for Emmett’s college education.
In 1950 Alma moved to Detroit where her father lived to re-establish a relationship with him and give Emmett a father figure. She also frankly hoped to find a new husband with a good steady job in the auto industry or one of the Motor City’s other then booming industries. She got a job with the Armed Forces Ft. Wayne Induction Center, which was so busy providing draftees for the Korean War that she worked long hours, often seven days a week. Nine year old Emmett willingly stepped up to take on household responsibilities to help his hard working mother out.
Mamie began dating auto worker Pink Bradley who also got along well with Emmett. But the boy grew increasingly home sick for Argo and particularly for his best friend cousin. Reluctantly Mamie let him return there to live with his aunt and uncle in the house next to the one he grew up in. She married Pink in 1951 in Detroit with her son and mother in attendance. After a short while with the coupe, Emmett returned once again to Argo.
Not long after the wedding Pink was laid off at Chrysler. Mamie had been returning to Argo monthly to visit Emmett and was beginning to fear that he would make a life without her. The couple decided to return to Illinois. Grandma Alma bought a two flat in Chicago on South St. Lawrence Street and the family moved into the second floor. Pink got a job at the Argo Corn Products plant and Mamie returned to the Social Security Administration.
The family’s domestic bliss was short lived. Pink was unfaithful. Mamie threw him out, reconciled once, and split with him for good in 1953.
Despite this set back Emmett was flourishing into a lively, spirited young man popular with his classmates despite his speech problems. He enjoyed a close relationship with his mother and grandmother and the company of his cousins. Due to Mamie’s hard work the family thrived modestly, an example of the successful upward mobility of her generation of Black migrants to the north. They were firmly settled into a community and had established a comfortable church home, a vital part of urban Black life.
Mamie took a new, responsible job with the U. S. Air Force in charge of confidential files and began a lasting relationship with a new man, a barber named Gene Mobley who would later become her husband. Mobley developed a strong relationship with the boy
Emmett really enjoyed dressing up for church and other occasions. He can be seen bursting with pride in family photos in his snappy fedora, spotless white shirt, tie, and jacket. He had grown into stocky but muscular young teenager, weighing about 150 pounds and standing 5’ 4” in the summer of 1954 when he was 14.
He had grown up all of his life hearing stories about life in Mississippi. To a boy who loved the outdoors and had a sense of adventure those stories sounded irresistible—fishing and swimming in local ponds and streams, climbing trees, roaming the fields and scrub woods barefoot and with little adult superstition. When his cousin Wheeler announced plans to spend the summer down south with relatives, Emmett begged for a chance to go with him. Reluctantly, his mother agreed. But before he left she gave him a stern lecture about how different and dangerous the South could be and how he would have to watch out how he acted around White folk. Emmett assured her he understood. But he didn’t. He couldn’t have.
In August Emmett and Wheeler accompanied Wheeler’s grandfather, and Mamie’s uncle Moses Wright, a preacher and sharecropper on a visit to tiny Money, Mississippi.
Emmett arrived in Money on August 21. Three days later he and another cousin, Curtis Jones skipped church where Wright was preaching to idle with other boys around Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a typical rural village store. What happened next is shrouded in controversy and mystery.
All agree that Emmett entered the store where 21 year old Carolyn Bryant, wife of the owner, was tending store. Some say Emmett wolf whistled at her. Others that he whistled as he ordered bubble gum in frustration over his stutter. Carolyn would later claim that Emmett had “come on to her” and asked her for a dated. She claimed to be intimidated and menaced by someone she described as nearly a full grown man.
The boys departed the store. Carolyn ran outside and obtained a revolver from a car and all of the boys quickly scattered. Over the next few days she spread the tale which seemed to grow more menacing with each retelling.
Carolyn’s husband Roy returned from a fishing trip on August 27 and first hear Carolyn’s tale.
In the early morning hours of August 28 Roy Bryant, his 36-year-old half-brother J. W. Milam, and a third man after a long evening of drinking and raving about the incident, drove to Moses Wright’s isolated sharecropper cabin. They entered the home, occupied by eight people, rousing the house and flashing a pistol. They demanded to know, “the boy who did the talking.” Unsure of what was meant, Emmett Till said it was him. Threatening to shoot him on the spot the men ordered him to dress. Moses was ordered to tell no one about the visit. His distraught wife retrieved all of the family’s cash and offered to pay the men to leave the child alone. They dragged Emmett away. He was never seen alive again.
They loaded the boy into the car and took him to a barn at a nearby plantation where they pistol whipped him unconscious. Then they loaded him into the back of a pick-up truck and apparently roamed the county trying to decide what to do with him, stopping to administer more beatings if they heard him stir. At some point Emmett was shot. The men drove by the Bryant store where by some accounts they showed the body to a Black man saying, “This is what happens to smart niggers.”
It was passed dawn when the men stopped at a cotton gin and stole a 70 pound fan blade. They drove to an isolated spot along the Tallahatchie River where they weighted Till’s body with the blade and tossed him in the river. He may, or may not have still been alive at the time.
Moses Wright searched the next morning for his missing nephew but feared notifying authorities. Another relative called Leflore County Sheriff George Smith to report a kidnapping. He also called Mamie in Chicago.
It did not take Sherriff Smith long to locate and question Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam who readily admitted that they had taken Till and beaten him to “teach him a lesson” but claimed to have released him alive and able to walk away at Bryant’s store. They were confident that this was both reasonable and justifiable and that no white officials would take action against them. Smith, however, did charge the men with kidnapping undoubtedly knowing that no jury would convict them. Without a body, which they were sure would never turn up, they had nothing to fear.
The Black community quietly scoured the area for Till. Medgar Evers, Field Secretary of the state NAACP arrived in disguise as a cotton picker to join the search and conduct his own investigation.
On August 28 twp boys fishing along the river discovered Emmett Till’s nude body. His face was an unrecognizable pulp. He had been shot behind one ear and beaten over much of his body. The fan blade had been tied around his neck by barbed wire that bit deep into his flesh. After three days the body was also badly bloated. A silver ring inscribed L. T. and May 25, 1943 he was known to be wearing was found on his finger.
Moses Wright identified the body. Till’s body was never turned over to the coroner for a post mortem examination. It was packed in ice and destined for a speedy local burial. Mamie had to intercede with all of her force to have the body released and shipped by rail to Chicago where it was taken to the funeral home of A. A. Sammy Rayner, an important community leader and rising political star.
|Till's mutilated body horrified the nation.|
Mamie insisted on viewing the body to make a positive identification. She was nearly overcome by the stench, which was reported detectable up to two blocks away. She was also horrified by the mutilated corpse. She determined then and there to have an open viewing so the world could see what had happened to her beloved son. A special glass topped coffin was ordered to facilitate the public viewing. But she made sure that gruesome photographs were clearly taken of the body.
Down south after the first three paragraph story had appeared in the local paper, the story quickly spread as did public outrage at the senseless brutality against a young boy. Even some white’s admitted horror and sympathy as details emerged. The governor of Mississippi even wrote to the national NAACP pledging his backing for a full investigation. NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins wasted no time in calling Till’s death a lynching and charging that Mississippians were strove to maintain white supremacy through murder.
Up north Mayor Richard Daley and Illinois Governor William Stratton, a Republican both demanded an investigation. After plenty of advance publicity, including the brutally provocative photos of the body published in the Chicago Daily Defender and nationally in Jet Magazine, thousands lined up to view the body at the funeral home.
Coverage in the South began to change from initial sympathy for the victim. False accounts of riots at the funeral were published as were rumors that armies of enraged Blacks were arming themselves in Chicago and preparing to descend of the state. Bryant and Milam were pictured in their military uniforms and lauded as veterans and family men. Carolyn Bryant was held up as a model of Southern womanhood—and also noted for her beauty.
The case was now in the hands of Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider because the body was found in his jurisdiction. He had originally said that a good case could be made against Bryant and Milam, but after the exaggerated reports from the north surfaced he claimed to take seriously local press accounts that Till may have survived and been spirited away in secret back to Chicago and that the body found in the river was not his but one stolen from a funeral home by outside agitators.
Despite this a Grand Jury actually indicted Bryant and Milam for murder. Although the Northern press seemed impressed, the local prosecutor knew that getting a conviction of white men for the murder of a Black was virtually impossible.
Reporters swarmed the tiny County Seat at Sumner, village so insignificant that it had only one rooming house. Reporters had to find hotel accommodations miles away. Mamie and Michigan Congressman Charles Diggs did not even have that option. They had to stay miles away at the home of Dr. T. R. M. Howard, a prominent Black businessman, surgeon, and civil rights leader in Mound City. His home had to be put under 24 hour guard.
The trial began speedily enough in September. The day before it began the prosecution learned of two witnesses to Till’s beatings, Levi “Too Tight” Collins and Henry Lee Loggins, were Black employees of Leslie Milam, J. W.’s brother who were willing to testify. Conveniently, Sherriff Strider arranged for them to be arrested and held in the Charleston, Mississippi jail so that they could not testify.
The trial last five days in a broiling, segregated courtroom. Northern reporters were stunned that the jury was allowed to drink beer while hearing testimony and that many of the white men attending the trial casually wore pistols strapped to their waists.
A dramatic highlight of the trial came as Moses Wright stood and pointed to J. W. Milam and identified him as one of the men who had abducted Till. It was the first time in Mississippi history that a Black man had publicly accused and identified a white in a trial. It was an electrifying moment. Mamie Till took the stand and gave a dramatic account of her warnings to her son to behave around white folk down South. The defense badgered her, trying to get her admit that she could not identify the body. She was also painted as cold and greedy for having a $400 life insurance policy on her son—the kind that were peddled door-to-door in the Black community to cover burial expenses—an profiting from falsely claiming his death.
Carolyn Bryant was allowed to testify out of the hearing of the jurors. She maintained that she feared for her safety as well as being shocked by Till’s alleged advances on her. Some court observers believe that transcripts or accounts of her testimony were smuggled to or shown to the jurors anyway.
Mamie was impressed by the summation of the prosecution, which she felt was a genuine attempt to get a guilty verdict. But it was not to be. After less than an hour and a half of deliberation the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Some jurors later claimed that they knew the men were guilty but felt that the required sentences for murder—the death penalty or life in prison—were too harsh for “killing a nigger.” Others would maintain years later that they believed the defense claim that the body was not Till’s.
A second attempt to bring the two men to trial for kidnapping, to which they had readily admitted, collapsed when the Grand Jury refused to bring an indictment.
After the second Grand Jury Dr. Howard had to pay for the relocation to Chicago for their safety of Moses Wright; Willie Reed, a young man who testified to seeing Milam enter the shed from which screams and blows were heard; and a third witness who testified against Milam and Bryant.
Debate raged about the case for weeks, not just in the United States, but around the world. The more condemnation rained down on Mississippi, the more defiant local politicians and press became. Mississippi senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis pressed the Army to release the supposedly sealed records of Louis Till’s 1945 execution in Italy for willful misconduct—information Mamie Till had long sought but been denied. It turned out the elder Till was charged with two rapes. The revelations stayed on Southern front pages for weeks, along with the assumption that Emmett had inherited his father’s “innate depravity” and was held up as proof the boy must have made moves against Carolyn Bryant. The Black and Northern press erupted in predictable outrage at the new smear.
In 1956, safe from any further prosecution because of the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy, Milam and Bryant agreed to sell their story for $4000 each to Look Magazine. The interview was conducted by their defense attorneys, who claim to have never heard the story themselves, in the presence of writer William Bradford Huie. Both men readily admitted to the killing and not only expressed no regret but seemed boastful. The more articulate Milam shocked readers by his casual admission:
Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. “Chicago boy,” I said, “I'm tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”
Needless to say the revelations created yet another sensation—and revulsion in all but the most committed racists. William Faulkner, Mississippi’s most revered literary icon heaped public scorn on cowardly white men apparently so terrified by a boy that they had to kill him.
Till and his case quickly became the stuff of legend. He was frequently a character or referred to in novels, short stories, poems and verse by important writers including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks. James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison. The case was an unstated inspiration for Harper Lee and her acclaimed novel To Kill a Mocking Bird which was published the next year. He was the subject of several songs over the decades, notably Bob Dylan’s The Death of Emmett Till in 1962 to Emmy Lou Harris’s My Name is Emmett Till in 2011.
On a practical level, the Till case inspired stepped up demands for justice across the South. It is widely considered one of the touchstone moments of the Civil Rights Campaign era.
Mamie did marry Gene Mobley, adopted the name Till-Mobley, and drew some solace from that lasting relationship. She went back to school and became an admired teacher. But she dedicated her life to keeping the memory of her son alive and to fighting for justice and equality. She died of heart failure in 2003, aged 81. The Emmett Till Foundation she began carries on her work and her son’s legacy.
Despite being able to get away with murder, Neither Bryant or Milam fared very well. Their farms and business were dependent on the patronage and labor of black sharecroppers when refused to buy or work for either of them. Banks refused to extend the customary loans for seed for their cotton crops. They lost their business and could not find employment locally since black laborers would not work with them. Both relocated to Texas but found that their infamy and troubles followed them. After several years they returned to Mississippi and tried to live quietly. Milam worked as a heavy equipment operator until ill health caused his retirement. He had many brushes with the law for assault and battery, writing bad checks, and using a stolen credit card. He died of spinal cancer in 1980, at the age of 61. Bryant worked as a welder until going nearly blind. He and Carolyn divorced and he remarried. He opened another store in Ruleville, Mississippi and was convicted in 1984 and 1988 of food stamp fraud. He blamed Emmett Till for ruining his life. Bryant died of cancer in 1994, at the age of 63.
As for Carolyn who started it all. She remarried and became Carolyn Bryant Donham . In 2003 filmmaker Keith Beauchamp charged that she was actually present for and complicit in the murders with as many as 13 other individuals in his documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. Those allegations caused a new Grand Jury investigation of the case, which included the exhumation of Tills body, which for the first time was autopsied and positively identified by DNA. Grand Jury found no evidence against Carolyn or anyone other than her husband and Milam. She sought a quiet life but never expressed any remorse about the murder. In fact she still seemed to regard Till’s death as a personal compliment to her beauty and virtue. She is the only survivor among the principals in the case.
One final odd note. After Emmett Till’s body was exhumed for that 2004 autopsy, it was re-interred at Bur Oaks Cemetery in a new coffin. The Cemetery operator claimed that the historic glass-topped casket viewed in 1955 was being preserved and would be donated to museum. He even collected money for its restoration. After a huge scandal involving digging up bodies, dumping them in a remote area, and re-selling the plots was uncovered, investigators digging on the property to retrieve and identify lost remains, unearthed a trench filled with refuse including the original coffin. It was damaged, but its historic glass top was intact. Eventually the coffin was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. where hopefully it will be preserved, restored, and put on public display. Till’s grave and remains were undisturbed during the hoopla.