Till, Emmett 1941–1955
Emmett Till 1941–1955
Lynching victim, catalyst in formation of the civil rights movement
In August of 1955, a 14-year-old Chicago youth was lynched while vacationing in Mississippi—just one of more than 3,000 free blacks killed by a mob since the abolition of slavery. But unlike the great majority of these victims, Emmett Till did not die in obscurity. Less than a year and a half after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brotun v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools and threatened the rigid Southern color line, his death underscored for many the ruthless extremes to which some whites would go to preserve segregation. Till’s lynching therefore spurred efforts to promote civil rights for people of color throughout the United States.
Emmett Till was bom near Chicago in 1941. His mother, Mamie, had emigrated north from Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, her birthplace, joining the approximately 100,000 other African Americans from her home state who moved to Chicago during the 1940s. She married Louis Till, who was originally from Missouri and served as a private in the U.S. Army during World War II. The Tills divorced in 1943, and Louis was executed by the Army in 1945 after being found guilty of raping two Italian women and murdering a third in Civitavecchia, Baly, in June of 1944.
Mamie Till remarried a man named Bradley, was again divorced, and was working as a voucher examiner in the U.S. Air Force Procurement Office in Chicago during the summer of 1955. Taking a vacation that August, she wanted to rest peacefully at home and decided to send her son to visit relatives back in Mississippi.
Emmett, nicknamed Bobo, was 14 years old that summer. He had just finished the seventh grade at the all-black McCosh Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side. Between five-foot-four and five-foot-five and weighing 160 pounds, he was physically stocky and muscular. Self-assured despite a speech defect—a stutter that resulted from a bout with nonparalytic polio at the age of three—Bobo was a smart dresser with a reputation as a prankster and a risktaker.
But when he got off the Illinois Central train in August of 1955 to spend part of the summer vacation with his southern cousins, Till was entering a world and society far different from the urban environment he was familiar
At a Glance…
Born Emmett Louis Till, July 25, 1941, near Chicago, IL; beaten and shot to death, August 28, 1955, in Tallahatchie County, MS; son of Louis Till (a soldier In the U.S. Army) and Mamie Till Bradley (a clerk for the U.S. Air Force, then Chicago public school teacher). Educatian: McCosh Elementary School, Chicago, graduated seventh grade
Lynching victim. Till’s murder by a white mob in the summer of 1955 prompted a reexamination of race relations and sparked the fledgling civil rights movement in the United States.
Awards: Among the memorials to Till are the celebration of Emmett Till Day in Chicago, as proclaimed by then-Mayor Harold Washington in 1985, and the dedication of a section of the city’s 71st St., renamed Emmett Till Rd., in his honor.
with. He had lived in the nation’s second largest city all his life but was now in the backwoods of the South. Tallahatchie Country, in the northwest comer of Mississippi, was one of the most economically and culturally deprived areas in the entire country. Its median per capita annual income of $607 made it the sixth poorest county in the most impoverished state in the union. Tallahatchie was overwhelmingly rural (77 percent of the population lived on farms), poorly educated (the average adult had completed only 5.7 years of school), nonwhite (two-thirds of its citizens were black), and segregated (not one black was registered to vote). Most of the black residents worked as sharecroppers or tenant farmers on large cotton plantations. The largest town had a population of only 2, 629, and there was just one factory in the entire county.
But even in this isolated section of the country, which largely resembled the pre-Civil War South of nearly 100 years before, outside events were threatening change. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown u. Board of Education ruling the previous summer had outlawed segregated “separate but equal” public schools. The entire social structure of Southern society—to this point based on white supremacy—appeared to be threatened. According to Stephen J. Whitfield in A Death in the Delta, southern white newspaper editors interviewed by U.S. News & World Report concluded that opposition to the Brown decision was motivated by fear of “eventual amalgamation of the races—meaning miscegenation, intermarriage or whatever you want to call it.” A front-page editorial in the Jackson Daily News boldly stated that “Mississippi cannot and will not try to abide by such a decision.”
Almost immediately, white “Citizens’ Councils” began to form to forcefully resist the decision and its implementation. Their intellectual godfather, Tom P. Brady, prophesied upcoming racial violence in his pamphlet Black Monday, predicting: “The supercilious, glib young negro, who has sojourned in Chicago or New York, and who considers the counsel of his elders archaic, will perform an obscene act, or make an obscene remark, or a vile overture or assault upon some white girl.”
Emmett Till did not talk or act like his Southern cousins. He did not hang his head or add the customary “sir” when speaking with white storekeepers. In contrast, he carried a photograph of a white woman in his wallet, freely showing it to his newfound friends and relatives and boasting that she was his girlfriend in Chicago.
On Wednesday evening, August 24, a week after his arrival at the home of his great-uncle, Moses “Preacher” Wright, Till and seven other teenagers piled into a 1946 Ford, then drove to Money, a nearby hamlet consisting of three stores, a post office, school, gas station, cotton gin, and a few hundred residents. Around 7:30 p.m. they joined about a dozen other black youths congregating outside a grocery store owned and operated by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant, that catered almost exclusively to the local black field hands. Roy Bryant was away trucking shrimp to Texas, leaving his attractive, slight, 21-year-old wife in the company of Juanita Milam, who was married to his half-brother, J. W. Milam. What happened next is still being debated.
Apparently Till continued talking to the other teens outside about his white Chicago girlfriend. A couple of the local boys then began taunting him, daring him to go inside the store and ask Carolyn Bryant for a date. While the other black youths stayed outside and watched through the window, Till entered the store, bought some gum, then grabbed Mrs. Bryant’s hand and asked her for. a date. She broke free and ran to the living quarters at the back of the store where her sister-in-law was staying. Realizing the seriousness of the incident, one of Till’s cousins rushed into the store, pulling him away, while Mrs. Bryant ran to the Milams’ car, retrieved a gun, and returned to the store. As the crowd of black teenagers drove off, Till, evidently determined not to lose face, allegedly wolf whistled at her.
Testimony varies as to whether Till actually whistled at Mrs. Bryant. His mother maintained that his childhood bout with polio had impaired his ability to clearly pronounce certain letters so that he sometimes made a whistling sound. One of his southern cousins seconded his inability to articulate certain speech. But two other cousins present at the scene contradicted this by confirming that he had indeed wolf whistled at Mrs. Bryant.
What is clear is that Carolyn Bryant was scared by Till who, though only 14, was considerably bigger than she. Immediately recognizing the inherent danger should the incident become known, she confided only in her sister-in-law, making her promise not to tell either of their husbands about it.
Unfortunately, this was not the case among local people of color. For them, this shattering of the accepted Jim Crow segregationist etiquette was too exciting to keep under wraps and had to be shared with others. When Bryant returned from Texas that Friday, a black neighbor told him that a visiting Chicago boy had insulted his wife.
His sense of honor threatened, Bryant informed his elder half-brother, J. W. “Big” Milam, a 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound, much-decorated World War II veteran, of the offense. The two, sober and armed with .45-caliber pistols, drove out to Moses Wright’s home late Saturday night, rousted the family from their beds and drove off with young Till in the bed of their pickup truck, despite the pleas of his great-uncle that Emmett was from the North and didn’t know any better.
Heading for a high 100-foot bluff overlooking the Mississippi River near the town of Rosedale, the two adults intended to scare the younger Till by threatening to throw him into the river. But in the darkness they could not find the spot. So they returned to Milam’s home at five in the morning, took Emmett to the toolshed and pistol-whipped him several times.
To their amazement, Till resisted, talking back to them and refusing to beg for mercy. Instead, he bragged about the various white women with whom he claimed to have had sexual relations. Infuriated, Milam decided to kill Till to make an example of him to other like-minded Northern blacks. He and Bryant drove the teen to the Progressive Ginning Company near the town of Boyle, where they knew of a discarded large gin mill fan. The two made Till carry the heavy fan to the banks of the Tallahatchie River and take off his clothes and shoes. Then Milam shot him once near his right ear. Wiring the gin fan to his neck, they rolled his body into the river and headed home to burn his clothing.
That same morning, Sunday, August 28th, the Wrights reported the abduction to a local sheriff, while one of the other visitors at their home phoned Till’s mother, Mrs. Bradley, in Chicago. She contacted the Chicago police, and they in turn began phoning sheriffs in Mississippi. By noon Sunday, Milam and Bryant were arrested. The two confessed to the kidnapping, but claimed they had released Till because he was the wrong person. Nevertheless, they were jailed on suspicion of murder.
Three days later a fisherman found a badly decomposed corpse floating in the Tallahatchie River. There was a bullet hole by the right ear, the head appeared to have been severely beaten, and a gin fan was attached to the neck. Only a ring on one of the fingers of the corpse permitted its identification. Ironically, the naked body of Emmett Till was discovered 15 miles from the birthplace of Mamie Till Bradley.
Harold Clarence Strider, sheriff of Tallahatchie County, had wanted an immediate burial. But a cousin had phoned Mrs. Bradley, who insisted that the body be sent home to Chicago. She positively identified it as her son and requested an open-casket funeral so all could bear witness to Emmett’s mutilated body.
Thousands of black mourners filed past Till’s casket in Chicago, and protest meetings were held in several cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Youngstown, Ohio, clamoring for justice. An estimated 20,000 people rallied in Harlem to demand that Congress pass an anti-lynching bill.
Whitfield reported that initially, sympathies in Mississippi ran against the two alleged murderers, reacting to the slaying with “sincere and vehement expressions of outrage,” according to the New York Times. Bryant and Milam were unable to find an attorney to defend them. But in September, as outrage outside the South intensified, Mississippians began to feel as if their state, rather than the two individuals, were on trial by the rest of the world. Outside agitators, particularly members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which condemned “the state of jungle fury” in Mississippi, incurred such resentment that white Mississippians began to draw together in defense of their own. All five lawyers in Sumner, the county seat where the trial took place, volunteered to represent the defendants pro bono (without pay).
Since no black citizens were registered to vote in the county, none were eligible for the jury. Nevertheless, 280 racially mixed spectators, including black congressman Charles Diggs, Jr., from Michigan, packed the segregated courtroom each day. Approximately 70 reporters descended on sleepy Sumner, making this one of the most publicized trials of the twentieth century. The three major television networks picked up film daily to fly to New York for airing on the nightly news.
Moses Wright, who had been in hiding since the night of the abduction, testified for the prosecution, positively identifying Milam and Bryant as the abductors of his nephew. Mrs. Bradley also took the stand, stating that her son, born and raised in Chicago, had no knowledge of southern subculture and its unwritten rules and had never before humbled himself to white people. Mrs. Bryant, testifying with the jury absent, confirmed that a black with a “Northern brogue” had come into her store, bought some gum, propositioned her, and then wolf whistled after leaving.
Sheriff Strider testified for the defense, claiming that no one had witnessed the murder and denying that the body found was Emmett Till. After hearing defense attorney John Whitten’s challenge that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men,” the jury deliberated for only 67 minutes before acquitting the two defendants on September 23.
In keeping with Southern standards of justice at that time, white violence against blacks was actually found to be justified in such a case. Hugh Stephen Whitaker, interviewing the jurors in 1962 for his master’s thesis, found that they all believed that Milam and Bryant had murdered Till, but concluded that since the victim had insulted a white woman, they could not prosecute her husband for defending her.
Reaction to the verdict was swift. The Northern media, black publications, and the international press were aghast, denouncing the decision. “All over people of every race and color read with shame and revulsion what had happened,” Commonweal observed. By contrast, Southern newspapers tended to praise the jurors’ verdict. That November, a grand jury failed to indict the two half-brothers on separate kidnapping charges.
The Till lynching and trial was the first big racial story after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, making headlines worldwide. It awakened African Americans from all comers of the nation to the plight of their people in the South, leading many to believe that continued passivity would only help perpetuate segregation. Mrs. Bradley summed up these feelings by telling a Cleveland audience in 1955, as quoted in Whitfield’s book A Death in the Delta: “The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
A black boycott of the Bryant-Milam stores destroyed business, forcing the half-brothers to sell out within 15 months of the trial. Desperate for money, they sold their story to Southern writer William Bradford Huie and Look magazine for $3,500. Guaranteed of no further prosecution, they admitted to the murder in print, making their neighbors and defendants appear silly. Peer pressure soon forced both families to move out of Mississippi.
The trial awakened people from all regions of the United States to the undeniable need for understanding and compromise between blacks and whites. William Faulkner, an influential, Nobel Prize-winning author and Mississippi native, reassessed his views on race relations, proclaiming in a November 1955 address to the Southern Historical Association that to “be against equality because of race or color, is like living in Alaska and being against snow.” Addressing his home state’s racial paranoia in his 1956 essay “On Fear,” he asked “What are we Mississippians afraid of?” On a national level, the Till case influenced passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, establishing a Civil Rights Commission to investigate the allegations of citizens claiming to be deprived of the right to vote.
When Emmett Till stepped off the Illinois Central train in Mississippi in August of 1955, he entered a thoroughly segregated world. No civil rights workers were agitating for change in the South. No voter registration campaigns had begun. No Freedom Schools were yet established, and no Freedom Riders were driving throughout the region in buses. But Till’s murder and the subsequent worldwide attention drawn to the trial and its aftermath started a crack, albeit small, in the dam of Southern resistance to change.
His memory lingers in the American imagination. His mother formed the Emmett Till Players in his native Chicago to keep his memory alive. A statue of Till and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dedicated in Denver’s City Park in 1976, links him with the subsequent civil rights movement. In literature, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s only play, Dreaming Emmett (1986), relates Till to the social changes of the three decades following his death. And Wolf Whistle (1993), a novel by white Southern writer Lewis Nordan, transforms the events surrounding the murder of Emmett “Bobo” Till into a universal experience.
Brady, Tom P., Black Monday, Association of Citizens’ Council, 1955.
Burnham, Louis, Behind the Lynching of Emmett Louis Till, Freedom Associates, 1955.
Huie, William Bradford, Wolf Whistle, Signet, 1959.
Simpson, William M., “Reflections on a Murder: The Emmett Till Case,” in Southern Miscellany: Essays in Honor of Glover Moore, edited by Frank Allen Dennis, University Press of Mississippi, 1981.
Walter, Mildred Pitts, Mississippi Challenge, Bradbury Press, 1992.
Whitaker, Hugh Stephen, A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case (unpublished master’s thesis), Florida State University, 1963.
Whitfield, Stephen J., A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till, The Free Press, 1988.
Williams, Juan, Eyes on the Prize: America ’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, Viking, 1987.
Chicago Defender, October 1, 1955.
Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1991, p. 17.
Commonweal, September 23, 1955, pp. 603-604.
Ebony, March 1986, pp. 53-58.
Jet, August 12, 1991, pp. 6-9 (a reprint of articles originally appearing in an issue from September of 1955).
Life, October 10, 1955, p. 48.
Look, January 24, 1956, pp. 46-49.
Reader’s Digest, April 1956, pp. 57-62.
USA Today, September 25, 1992, p. A5.
—James J. Podesta