Today marks the start of Black History Month 2017. I had originally wanted to write a post about African-Americans, who have been affiliated with NASA, given the success of the movie, Hidden Figures. But then, last week, I read news that was so astounding and actually altered history, that I felt compelled to tell a different story, and honor the memory of Emmett Louis Till.
Emmett Louis Till was an African-American teenager, who was lynched in Mississippi, at the ridiculously young age of 14, after reportedly flirting with, and allegedly intimidating, a white woman, named Carolyn Bryant. The murder suspects – Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were acquitted of kidnapping and murdering Emmett, only one month later. A few months after their acquittal, the two men admitted in a published magazine article, that they had, indeed, cut short Emmett’s young life, in the most horrific of ways. In January 2017, the world found out that, 10 years earlier, Carolyn Bryant finally admitted to lying about the incident. Yes. Lying.
This is Emmett’s story, which now, has more closure, even though that closure is bloody, brutal and burning.
Emmett Till was born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Mamie (Carthan) Till and Louis Till. Mamie was born in the small, Delta County town of Webb, Mississippi. Mississippi was the poorest state in the U.S. in the 1950s, and the Delta counties were some of the poorest in Mississippi. Economic opportunities for blacks were almost nonexistent. Most of them were sharecroppers, who lived on land owned by white men. Black people also had very few legal rights at that time.
|Emmett Till & his mother, Mamie|
Emmett never knew his father, Louis, a Private in the United States Army during World War II. Emmett’s mother, Mamie was considered to be an extraordinary woman. Defying the social constraints and discrimination she faced as an African-American woman, growing up in the 1920s and '30s, Mamie excelled, both academically and professionally. She was only the fourth, black student to graduate from Chicago's predominantly white Argo Community High School, and the first black student to make the school's "A" Honor Roll. Mamie largely raised Emmett with her mother because she and Louis separated in 1942. While raising Emmett as a single mother, Mamie worked long hours for the United States Air Force as a civilian clerk in charge of confidential files.
At the age of six, Emmett contracted Polio, leaving him with a persistent stutter, but because he was physically robust, he was able to help his mother with the cleaning, cooking and laundry. He was also considered to be a very happy child, and had a mischievous sense of humor – often telling jokes and playing harmless pranks on his friends and family.
Emmett was quite the natty dresser, and was often the center of attention amongst his friends and cousins. His nickname was ‘Bobo’ because of his ‘fun-loving, cheerful disposition.’ Although Emmett had a cherubic face, because of his style of dress and his somewhat stocky build, some people may have mistaken him for being a young adult, rather than a teenager. Mamie and Emmett moved to Detroit, where she remarried in 1951. However, Emmett preferred to live in Chicago, so he returned to the thriving, working-middle class black neighborhood of the South Side, to live with his grandmother. His mother and stepfather rejoined him later.
In the summer of 1955, Mamie’s uncle, 64-year-old Moses "Mose" Wright, who was a sharecropper and part-time minister, visited them in Chicago and told Emmett stories about living in the Mississippi Delta. Emmett wanted to see for himself. Mamie was ready for a road trip vacation to Omaha, Nebraska, and had planned to take Emmett with her. But Emmett desperately wanted to spend time with his cousins in Mississippi, and in a “fateful decision that would have grave impact on their lives and the course of American history, Mamie relented and let him go.” The day before Emmett left for Mississippi, in mid-August -- Mamie gave her son his late father's signet ring, engraved with the initials "L.T." The next day, she drove Emmett to the train station. They kissed goodbye, and Emmett boarded a train headed for Mississippi. The next time Mamie saw Emmett, he was dead and unrecognizable.
|The ring that Emmett's mother gave him|
So Emmett and his cousin, Curtis Jones, returned to Money, Mississippi – a tiny town, with a population of 200, that had three stores, a whites-only school, a post office, and a cotton gin. Before Emmett left for the Delta, his mother warned him that Mississippi was a completely different place than “Up North” in Chicago, and that, while down there, he would have to effectively genuflect, whenever he encountered white people. Emmett assured his mother that he understood.
Since 1882, when statistics on lynchings began to be collected, by 1955, more than 500 African-Americans had been killed by this vigilante violence, in Mississippi, alone, and more than 3,000 across the South. Most of these occurred between 1876 and 1930; however they did still occur in later years. Throughout the South, whites publicly prohibited interracial relationships, as a means to maintain white supremacy – although, ironically, most of the men who made those laws had no problem raping black women at their will. Even the suggestion of intimate contact between black men and white women could carry severe punishments for black men. White people were to determined to uphold segregation, as a way of keeping black people politically disenfranchised, and forcefully constrain them from any sense of social equality.
At the age of 14, Emmett stepped off the train in Money, Mississippi, on August 21st. Only three days later, he and his cousin, Curtis Jones, skipped church where his great-uncle Mose was preaching, joining some local boys, as they went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to buy candy and gum. The teenagers were children of sharecroppers and had been picking cotton all day. The market – which mostly served the local sharecropper population – was owned by a white couple, 24-year-old Roy Bryant, and his 21-year-old wife, Carolyn. Carolyn was alone in the store, that Sunday. Instead of going in the store with Emmett and the other boys, Curtis left his cousin to go play Checkers across the street.
According to Curtis, the other boys reported that Emmett had a photograph of an integrated class at the school he attended in Chicago, and he bragged to the boys that the white children in the picture were his friends. Accounts differ, but he either pointed to a white girl in the picture, or referred to a picture of a white girl that had come with his new wallet, and said she was his girlfriend. One or more of the local boys dared Emmett to speak to Carolyn Bryant.
Although disputed, according to several versions of what happened next, including comments from some of the kids standing outside the store when Emmett walked in, Emmett may have ‘wolf-whistled’ at Carolyn. However, one newspaper account, following his disappearance, stated that Emmett sometimes whistled to calm his stuttering. His mother said that his speech was sometimes unclear, and that he had particular difficulty with pronouncing "b" sounds, thus suggesting that he may have whistled to overcome problems asking for bubble gum.
|A young Carolyn Bryant|
Carolyn testified, during the murder trial that Emmett grabbed her hand while she was stocking candy and said, "How about a date, baby?" She said that after she freed herself from his grasp, the young man followed her to the cash register, grabbed her waist and said, "What's the matter baby, can't you take it?" Carolyn claimed that she then freed herself, and Emmett said, "You needn't be afraid of me, baby," used "one 'unprintable' word” and said, "I've been with white women before.” Carolyn also alleged that one of Emmett’s companions came into the store, grabbed him by the arm, and ordered him to leave.
Another of Emmett’s cousins, Simeon Wright (Mose's son) , writing about the incident decades later, discounted Carolyn’s testimony, saying that he entered the store "less than a minute" after Emmett was left inside alone with Carolyn, Simeon “saw no inappropriate behavior and heard no lecherous conversation.” Simeon said that Emmett "paid for his items, and we left the store together (note: “The FBI detailed in their 2006 investigation of the cold case, that a second, anonymous source, who was confirmed to have been in the store at the same time as Emmett and Simeon, and supported the latter’s story).”
|A young Simeon with his father, "Mose"|
At any rate, Carolyn claimed that she was terrified, and ran to retrieve a gun from her car, which is when the teenagers ran away.
One of the other boys ran across the street to tell Curtis what had happened in the store. When the older man with whom Curtis was playing Checkers heard the story, he urged the boys to leave quickly, fearing violence. Carolyn told others of the alleged events at the store, and the story spread quickly. Curtis and Emmett did not tell great-uncle Mose Wright, fearing they would get in trouble, for so many reasons. Emmett said he wanted to return home to Chicago as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Carolyn's husband, Roy Bryant, was on an extended trip, hauling shrimp to Texas, and did not return home until 2 days later.
AND A FUNERAL THAT SHOOK THE WORLD
When Roy Bryant was told what had happened, he aggressively questioned several, young black men who entered his store. Somehow, Roy learned that the young man in the incident was from Chicago and was staying with Mose Wright. Several witnesses overheard Roy and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, discussing taking Emmett from his great-uncle’s house.
In the early morning hours—between 2:00 and 3:30 am—on August 28, 1955, Roy and J.W., and another man, drove to Mose Wright's house, armed with a gun and a flashlight. Roy asked Mose if Emmett was in the house, to which Mose confirmed, "Yes." The 3 vigilantes threatened to shoot Emmett and told him to get dressed. The men also threatened to kill Mose, if he reported what he had seen. Mose’s wife offered the men money, but they were more interested in what they saw as ‘justice,’ rather than money.
They put Emmett in the back of a pickup truck and drove to several, different locations in neighboring towns, brutally pistol-whipped and beat him, gouged out his eye and eventually shot him in the head. The group drove with Emmett in the truck to Roy’s store, where several people noticed blood pooling in the truck bed. Roy explained he killed a deer, but in one instance, showed the body to a black man, who questioned him, saying, "that's what happens to smart niggers!"
After leaving the store with a now dead Emmett, the 3 murderers drove to the town’s cotton gin to take a 70-pound (32 kg) fan— and drove for several miles along the Tallahatchie River, looking for a place to dispose of Emmett’s body, weighing it down with the fan, by tying it around his neck with barbed wire.
|The cotton gin fan used to weigh down Emmett|
After Emmett was abducted, his great-uncle Mose drove around trying to find him. Unsuccessful, he returned home by 8:00am. The family eventually contacted the Sheriff, even though they feared for their lives.
Roy and J.W. were questioned by the Leflore County Sheriff. They admitted they had taken Emmett, but claimed they had released him the same night in front of Roy’s store. Roy and J.W. were arrested for kidnapping. Word got out that Emmett was missing, and soon, several Civil Rights activists and organizations got involved to try to find out what had happened to Emmett.
Three days after his abduction, Emmett’s swollen and beyond-recognition, disfigured body was found by two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River. Evidence of the beatings and the shooting were obvious, and his body was still weighted by the fan that was fastened around his neck with barbed wire. He was naked, but was still wearing a silver ring with the initials "L. T." – the very ring that Emmett’s mother had given him before he left for Mississippi. Mose Wright was called to the river and identified Emmett, who then informed Mamie.
An autopsy was not performed, and Emmett’s body was clothed, packed in lime, put in a pine coffin, and prepared for immediate burial in Mississippi. His mother, Mamie, called several local and State authorities in Illinois and Mississippi, and successfully demanded that the body be returned to Chicago.
|Mamie, enduring the horror of identifying Emmett's mutilated body|
The A. A. Rayner Funeral Home, in Chicago, received Emmett’s body. Upon arrival, Mamie insisted on viewing it to make a positive identification. As difficult as it was for her, she decided to have an open-casket funeral, saying, "There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. I just wanted the world to see, and I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like."
More than 100,000 people lined the street outside the Funeral Home to view Emmett’s body, and days later thousands more attended his funeral .
Emmett was buried on September 6, in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. Here is an 8-minute video that powerfully speaks the truth of what happened immediately after his death (WARNING VERY GRAPHIC PHOTOS OF EMMETT POST-MORTEM)
|As appeared in JET magazine|
Photographs of Emmett’s mutilated corpse circulated around the country, notably appearing in JET magazine and The Chicago Defender, both black publications, and drew intense public reaction. According to The Nation and Newsweek, Chicago's black community was "aroused as it has not been over any similar act in recent history," white witnesses began changing their story to put Emmett (and even the NAACP) in an unfavorable light.
Emmett’s murder also aroused feelings way beyond Chicago about segregation, law enforcement, civil rights, vigilante justice, relations between the North and South, and the social caste system in The South, which were played out in most of the media, and continued to gather momentum.
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were indicted for murder. The Grand Jury's prosecuting attorney, was not confident that he could get a conviction in a case of white violence against a black man accused of insulting a white woman. A local black paper was surprised at the indictment and praised the decision, as did the New York Times. Meanwhile, Mamie had been tirelessly appealing to every politician she could reach, including the President of the United States, to investigate Emmett's murder.
THE TRIAL AND THE MEDIA
During the trial in Sumner, Mississippi, the small town was besieged by black and white reporters from all over the country, calling it "the first, great media event of the Civil Rights Movement.” The day before the start of the trial, a young, black man named Frank Young arrived to tell the prosecutor he knew of two witnesses to the crime. Levi Collins and Henry Lee Loggins were black employees of Leslie Milam, J. W.'s brother, in whose shed Emmett was first beaten. Levi and Henry were spotted with J. W., Roy, and Emmett. The prosecution team was unaware of Levi and Henry. The local Sheriff, however, booked them into the Charleston, Mississippi jail, to keep them from testifying.
The trial was held in September 1955, lasting for five days. The courtroom was filled to its 280-spectator capacity, and as was the custom, was racially segregated, including with the media. Some visitors from the North found the court to be run with surprising informality. Jury members were allowed to drink beer, while on duty, and many white men in the audience wore handguns holstered to their belts.
|Scenes from the Trial|
The Defense's primary strategy was arguing that the body pulled from the river could not be positively identified, and they questioned whether Emmett was dead at all. The Defense asserted that Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam had taken Emmett, but had let him go. Emmett’s great-uncle Mose Wright's testimony was considered remarkably courageous and a first in the State, for a black man implicating the guilt of a white man in court.
Northern journalists were especially impressed that Mose stood to identify J.W., pointing to him, saying, [“There he is.”], calling it an historic moment, and one filled with "electricity," and one journalist even calling it "the most dramatic thing I had ever seen in my career."
|The moment that Mose Wright stood up and accused J.W. Milam|
Emmett’s mother, Mamie, testified resolutely, but the Defense questioned her identification of her son in the casket in Chicago and a $400 life insurance policy she had taken out on him.
On September 23rd, the all-white jury acquitted both defendants after a 67-minute deliberation. One juror said afterwards, "If we hadn't stopped to drink [soda], it wouldn't have taken that long.”
In later interviews, some jurors acknowledged that they knew Roy and J.W. were guilty, but simply did not believe life imprisonment or the death penalty fit punishment for white men who had killed a black man. Others remained steadfast that they believed the Defense’s case.
In November 1955, a grand jury declined to indict Roy and J.W. for kidnapping, despite the testimony given that they had admitted taking Emmett.
So, there was NO justice for Emmett;
NOR his mother and family.
At this point, the trial had reached international notoriety, and reactions from newspapers in major, international cities, and religious and socialist publications, were furious about the verdict and very critical of American society. Meanwhile, Southern newspapers, particularly in Mississippi, wrote that “the court system had done its job.”
Protected by their acquittals, Roy and J.W. sold their story to Look magazine in 1956 for close to $4,000. J.W. admitted to shooting Emmett, and neither of them thought of themselves as guilty, nor that they had done anything wrong.
“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.' “
J. W. Milam, Look magazine, 1956
Reaction to the Look interview was explosive. Their brazen admission that they had murdered Emmett caused prominent Civil Rights leaders to push the Federal Government harder to investigate the case. Emmett Till’s murder was one of several reasons the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed; it allowed the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in local law enforcement issues, when civil rights were being compromised.
INFLUENCE ON THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Through the constant attention it received, Emmett’s case became a symbol of elusive justice for black people in the South. In 1955, The Chicago Defender newspaper urged its readers to react to the acquittal by voting in large numbers, a reminder that most blacks in the South had been disenfranchised since the turn of the 20th Century. NAACP operative, Amzie Moore, considers Emmett Till’s story to be the start of the Civil Rights Movement, at the very least, in Mississippi.
The faith in the white power structure waned rapidly. Negro faith in legalism declined, and the revolt officially began on December 1, 1955, with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider, sparking a year-long, well-organized, grassroots boycott of the bus system, designed to force the city to change its segregation policies, Rosa later said when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, "I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn't go back."
EMMETT’S STORY IN POPULAR CULTURE
The story of Emmett Till began to seep into the consciousness of Americans, through media and literature. For example, The Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes, dedicated an untitled poem (eventually to be known as "Mississippi—1955") to Emmett, in his October 1, 1955 column in The Chicago Defender;
In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a white attorney is committed to defending a black man, named Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. Harper, whose novel had a profound effect on civil rights, never publicly stated Tom Robinson's origins. However, several professors note compelling similarities between Emmett’s case and that of Tom;
|Trial Scene from To Kill a Mockingbird movie|
Bob Dylan also recorded a song titled The Death of Emmett Till, in 1962;
Bebe Moore Campbell’s 1992 novel, Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, is based on Emmett’s death;
and Emmy Lou Harris includes a song, called "My Name is Emmett Till" on her 2011 album, Hard Bargain. Here, she sings it live.
The story of Emmett Till is one of the most important of the last half of the 20th century. And an important element was the casket.... It is an object that allows us to tell the story, to feel the pain and understand loss. I want people to feel like I did. I want people to feel the complexity of emotions.
Lonnie Bunch III, Director of The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture
Mamie Till also recognized that what happened to her son helped open Americans' eyes to the racial hatred plaguing the country, at the time, and in doing so, helped spark a massive, protest movement for racial equality and justice.
THE 60-YEAR OLD LIE
In January 2017, Timothy Tyson, author of the upcoming book The Blood of Emmett Till , and a senior research scholar at Duke University, released details of a 2007 interview with Carolyn Bryant. He revealed that, in that interview 10 years earlier, Carolyn Bryant Donham (she had divorced and remarried twice) admitted to him that she had lied about Emmett making advances toward her. “That part’s not true,” she told Timothy, as reported by Vanity Fair. In the interview, the then 72-year-old also said she could not remember the rest of the events that occurred between she and Emmett in the grocery store, but “nothing that boy did, could ever justify what happened to him." When Carolyn, herself [later], lost one of her sons, “she thought about the grief that Mamie must have felt and grieved all the more, admitting that she ‘felt tender sorrow’ for his mother,” Timothy reportedly wrote in his book.
Understandably, the family is extremely upset about Carolyn's confession, as well as the fact that Timothy Tyson waited 10 years to go public with it. However, it is the news for which they had been fighting and waiting, for decades.
Watch Emmett’s Cousin’s response to this new revelation.
Honestly, Carolyn’s confession disgusts me, but the fact that she lied does not surprise me.
This Chicago Tribute article, reacting to the news, perfectly reflects how I feel about Carolyn Bryant, the false accuser.
To quote the article’s author:
“We will not elevate the status of her lie by calling it a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. We will not ask her to step forward tomorrow and warn America about the consequences of hatred. After this, we will not bother to think of her again. Instead, we will use the courage and wisdom of Mamie Till-Mobley to drive us forward.”
While I feel a tremendous sense of loss for young Emmett’s life, I will continue to “drive forward’ and tell the stories that must be told, even when they are ugly and unfair.
Recent, unwarranted killings of young, African-American teenagers (and men), such as Trayvon Martin, have drawn similarities to Emmett’s murder.
Let’s hope and pray that this history does not continue to repeat itself. The jury is still out…
Watch this short Biography Channel video about Emmett’s legacy
OR if/when you have time, watch this full PBS documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till.