Last week’s case of Mary Winkler, the woman who shotgunned her minister husband to death was bad enough. But this week our case is especially heartbreaking. It is the racially motivated murder of a 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till. And the killers got away with it.
Who Was Emmett Till?
Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, moved from Webb, Mississippi to Argo, Illinois with her family when she was ten years old. They were part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West. By the time Emmett was born in 1941, his parents were living on Chicago’s South Side.
Emmet grew up in Chicago, except for a brief stay in Detroit when his mother remarried. A bout with polio at age six left him with a persistent stutter. By the time he turned 14 in the summer of 1955, his family described him as a fun-loving teenager.
Emmett Visits Money, Mississippi
Mamie Till Bradley had an uncle, Mose Wright, a sharecropper who was also a part-time minister. Wright lived in the tiny community of Money, Mississippi. When the uncle visited Mamie in Chicago in 1955, his stories of the Delta region of Mississippi intrigued young Emmett. He decided he wanted to see the area for himself and persuaded Mamie to let him visit his great-uncle there.
Before he left for Money, Mamie cautioned Emmett that Chicago and Mississippi were two entirely different worlds. She told him he needed to know how to behave in front of whites in the South. Emmett assured her he understood.
Emmett arrived in Money on August 21, 1955, a Sunday. On Wednesday, August 24, Emmett and his cousin, Curtis Jones, skipped the church service where Mose Wright was preaching. Instead, they joined some local boys and went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy candy. It was a fateful decision.
Encounter at Bryant’s Grocery
Bryant’s Grocery mostly served the local sharecroppers. Its owners were a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. When Emmett and his friends arrived at the store, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant was alone in the front of the store. In the back of the store, her sister-in-law watched children.
Accounts of what happened at the store differ depending on who’s telling the story. In some versions, Emmett wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant. This would have been a bold and dangerous step for a black man (or boy) in Mississippi in 1955. However, if he did whistle, it may have been to overcome his stutter. His mother had taught him that technique to help him with his articulation.
In court, Carolyn Bryant testified that Emmett asked her for a date. Then he allegedly grabbed her hand then her waist before muttering obscenities and bragging he’d “been with white women before.” She then testified that one of the boys with Emmett grabbed his arm and ordered him out of the store. However, Emmett’s cousin, Simeon Wright said that he entered the store less than a minute after Till and saw no inappropriate behavior. Emmett paid for his purchases, then he and Simeon left the store together.
Emmett Till Kidnapped and Murdered
In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 28, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam drove to Mose Wright’s house. Bryant was, of course, Carolyn Bryant’s husband and Milam was his half-brother. They forced Emmett to dress, then took him from the house.
Like the encounter at the grocery, there are differing versions of what happened next. Bryant and Milam later claimed they had only intended to beat up Emmett and throw him into a river to frighten him. However, according to their story, Emmett called them bastards and made other offensive remarks. But regardless of what did happen, no one saw Emmett Till alive again.
Three days after the abduction, two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River found Emmet’s body. He’d been severely beaten and shot behind the right ear. His body had a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.
Mamie Till Bradley demanded that authorities return Emmet’s body to Chicago instead of burying him in Mississippi. Despite advice to the contrary, she also insisted on a public, open-casket funeral so the world could see what had happened to her boy.
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam went on trial for murder in September 1955 in the Tallahatchie County seat of Sumner. Two hundred eighty spectators crowded the tiny courtroom, including many members of the press. The trial lasted for five days but it only took the jury 67 minutes to acquit both Bryant and Milam of the murder charges. One juror said, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.” No one else ever stood trial for Emmett Till’s murder.
The murder of Emmett Till played a significant role in igniting the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks attended a rally for Emmett Till in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon after, she refused to move to a seat in the back of a Montgomery city bus. That action was the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott.
In 1956, Look magazine published an interview William Bradford Huie conducted with Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. In the interview, the pair confessed to murdering Emmett Till. However, because of the constitutional protection against double jeopardy, authorities were powerless to try them again. Civil rights laws used in similar situations a decade later didn’t exist in 1955.
In 2017, author Timothy Tyson claimed that, in a 2008 interview, Carolyn Bryant (now Donham) said that her trial testimony was untrue. But her recantation is not on Tyson’s tape of the interview. Also, Donham’s daughter-in-law, who was present for the two interviews, said Carolyn never recanted. Whether she did or didn’t recant remains a mystery.
Timothy Tyson included his interviews with Donham in his book The Blood of Emmett Till, which helped spark renewed interest in the case. It is one of the more recent books on the case, as is Elliot Gorn’s Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till.
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