The new film Till opens
wide in theaters today and is already a critical success
generating an astonishing 98% fresh rating from the review aggregator
Rotten Tomatoes and is equally impressing its audience
with PostTrak reporting a 92% positive score, with 87% saying
they would definitely recommend it. It
is already generating Oscar buzz.
My wife Kathy and I have already bought tickets for a screening
More importantly, the movie shine
attention on the horrific 1955 lynching of young Chicagoan
Emmett Till in Mississippi and his mother’s breakthrough crusade for
justice. It follows on the heel of
another major media account earlier this year—an episode of the PBS
series Women of the Movement focusing on Mamie Till-Mobley
and coincides with the unveiling of a statue in Emmett Till's
memory in Greenwood, Mississippi.
The film took years to come to the
screen. It was unsuccessfully pitched
to most major studios for more than a decade despite Black
history and Civil Rights Movement flicks routinely being released as
Oscar bait. But unlike most of
those films, the story was not going to be told through the intermediary
of a White savior figure. It
was finally picked up by Orion Pictures in 2020 in the wake
of the Black Lives Matter movement.
With the backing of Whoopie
Goldberg and the participation of the Till family, Keith
Beauchamp who researched the murder and its aftermath for
more than 20 years and produced the 2005 documentary The Untold Story of
Emmett Louis Till was brought on board as a producer and writer. Award winning Chinonye Chukwu was
brought on as the director and a writer.
Together the creative team decided to focus on Mamie
They also made another crucial decision—“No
acts of physical violence against African-Americans will be shown
on screen. Many films have
dwelt on the grizzly details of assault on slaves and attacks during
the Civil Rights Era so that audiences would have to face grim
reality—a motive not unlike Mamie Till’s decision to openly
display Emmett’ grotesquely mutilated body at his funeral. But in the opinion of Chukwu, some had gone overboard
to violence porn. Repeated scenes
in the TV series adaptation of the novel The Underground Railroad
may have been the most shocking example.
So, the audience does not actually see the vicious torture and
murder of a child. But the horror
of beings snatched by a mob from his bed is there and the ugly
facts emerge as Mamie learns the details and exposes them during her
Danielle Deadwyler stars as Mamie Till and has been widely praised. She already has been nominated for Outstanding
Lead Performer for the Gotham Independent Film Awards—the first in
the cinema film award season.
Fifteen year-old Jalyn Hall portrays the doomed Emmett and
Whoopi Goldbergs joins the accomplished cast as Alma Carthan,
If you are not familiar with the
story, I first blogged about the case several years ago. Here is that adapted post.
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.
Emmett Till, left, was linked to Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown whose deaths helped spark the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Today, 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, and others—all victims of a pervasive
national racism that continues
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.
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.
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.
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 stepfather, Mamie was finally able to get ahead, at least
monetarily and even save several hundred dollars.
nicknamed Bobo at birth 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.
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 boy’s 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.
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 speech impediment, and he stuttered the rest of his life. He also suffered from swollen and weakened ankles.
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
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.
began dating auto worker Pink Bradley who
also got along well with Emmett. But the
boy grew increasingly homesick 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 couple, Emmett returned once again to Argo.
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.
family’s domestic bliss was short lived. Pink was unfaithful. Mamie threw him out, reconciled once, and
split with him for good in 1953.
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.
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
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 spent
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.
Emmett and Wheeler accompanied Wheeler’s grandfather, and Mamie’s uncle Moses Wright, a preacher and sharecropper on a visit to
tiny Money, Mississippi.
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
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 date. She claimed to be intimidated and menaced
by someone she described as nearly a full grown man.
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.
husband Roy returned from a fishing
trip on August 27 and first hear Carolyn’s tale.
early morning hours of August 28 Roy Bryant, his 36-year-old half-brother
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 the family’s cash and offered to pay the men to
leave the child alone. They dragged
Emmett away. He was never seen alive
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
It was past 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
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.
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.
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.
Till's abused and mutilated body, pulled from a river three days after the murder, was unrecognizable.
28 two 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.
Wright identified the body. Till’s body
was never turned over to the coroner for
a postmortem examination. It was packed in ice and destined for a speedy
local burial. Mamie had to intercede 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.
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. She made sure that gruesome photographs were clearly taken
of the body.
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
strove to maintain white supremacy
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Emmett's murderers, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant and their wives at their 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.
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—and profiting
from falsely claiming his death.
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
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.
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.
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 claimed 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 Mockingbird 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 that she began carries on her work and her
Despite being able to get away with
murder, Neither Bryant nor Milam fared very well. Their farms and business were dependent on
the patronage and labor of black sharecroppers who 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.
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 Till’s 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.
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.