Till, Emmett Louis 1941–1955
Till, Emmett Louis
Emmett Louis Till, born in Chicago, Illinois, was the fourteen-year-old victim of a lynching in Mississippi that became a catalyst for the burgeoning civil rights movement in the United States. The two white men who beat and murdered Till were hastily acquitted by a jury of local white males. People across the United States and in Europe were horrified by the brutal crime and this instance of condoned killing in the South. The circumstances of the case address the sexual mythologies that bolster racist ideology, the interlocking social mechanisms of racism and sexism, and the social threat of physical violence for minorities.
THE CRIME AND TRIALS
Till traveled from Chicago to the small delta town of Money, Mississippi, to visit relatives during his summer vacation. One week into his visit, he accompanied a group of black teenagers to the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market, a white-owned store that largely catered to black field hands in the region. Congregating with other teens outside the store, Till flaunted a picture of a white girl that he claimed was his girlfriend. His bragging, and his unfamiliarity with the South's racial codes and deep-seated bigotry, led to a dare to flirt with the store owner's twenty-one-year-old wife, Carolyn Bryant. Although there are conflicting accounts of what actually went on inside the store, Till allegedly wolf-whistled at Bryant on his way outside.
Bryant and her sister-in-law decided to keep the events of that night a secret from their husbands, who were away, but gossip quickly spread through the local black community. When Roy Bryant, Carolyn's husband, heard the rumors four days later, he enlisted his half brother and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, and at 2:00 a.m. on August 28 they took Milam's truck and a pistol to the house of Moses "Preacher" Wright, Till's great-uncle. Bryant and Milam kidnapped Till at gunpoint, planning to "teach him a lesson." When their ruthless beating of Till failed to elicit either apology or cry, Milam and Bryant's plan changed course. They drove to a nearby cotton gin, where they ordered Till to move a seventy-five pound fan into the truck. From there, they drove to the Tallahatchie River near Glendora, Mississippi. Till was ordered to strip, and the two men continued to harass and beat him before Milam fired one shot into his head. They dumped Till's body into the river with the fan tied around his neck.
Three days later, the body rose to the surface. The mutilated corpse was chiefly identified by a ring Till wore that had belonged to his father. Bryant and Milam were quickly apprehended and indicted on kidnapping and murder charges. Disregarding edicts by Mississippi authorities for immediate burial, Till's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, ordered the body back to Chicago. Bradley breached further orders that the casket remain closed. After witnessing the severity of the injuries, she defiantly declared an open-casket funeral. Some 50,000 mourners viewed the body at a church in Chicago's south side. Photographs of Till's body that showed an eye out of its socket, a fractured skull, and a swollen face that resembled a child's clay sculpture were printed in Jet magazine.
A high-profile trial ensued but lasted just five days. The town swarmed with reporters, many of whom helped the short-staffed prosecution search for witnesses, while the hefty pro bono defense team argued for exoneration on the thin claim that the body could not rightly be identified. The most dramatic moment of the trial occurred when Wright extended his arm to point out the murderers in front of the all-white court. With just two words, "Thar he," he overtly challenged an entire system of black silence and subjugation in the South. The jury deliberated for sixty-seven minutes, stopping for soda to stretch out the time, and acquitted the men on September 23, 1955. Protests erupted in cities across the United States, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore.
LYNCH LAW, SEXUALITY, AND SEXISM
With the injustices of slavery still rife in Southern consciousness and on the heels of the recent decision against segregation in Brown vs. the Board of Education, the events of the Till case struck a raw nerve with Southern whites and blacks. It confirmed that Jim Crow etiquette was still the order and that Southern white vigilante violence against blacks persisted in the face of social change. Predicated on the protection of chaste, white women, lynch law was fueled by racist stereotypes about black male sexuality and sexist beliefs about women. It insisted on white male supremacy by deeming women possessions and black men sexual predators. Obsessively monitoring interactions between black men and white women in the South also served to reinforce myths of black men's hypersexuality and to insist on normative white heterosexuality and its correlative objectification of women. As such, lynching maintained the social order (strict segregation) and all of its mythologies when the law no longer would. Many scholars and writers have explored the combined racial and sexual complications of the case, for example, James Baldwin's 1964 Blues for Mister Charlie and Toni Morrison's 1986 Dreaming Emmett.
AFTERMATH OF EMMETT TILL
In 1956, Look magazine published interviews conducted by journalist William Bradford Huie with Milam and Bryant. The men were paid $4,000 for the interview and confessed to the murder. Suspicion that others were involved in Till's murder persist but have never been confirmed. Till's body was exhumed and autopsied in 2005 as part of a renewed effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to re-examine civil rights era crimes. The case was closed in 2006.
The events united the experiences of Northern and Southern African-Americans and laid the foundation for organized resistance against racial oppression. Just 100 days after the lynching and four days after attending a lecture on the Till case, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to white passengers on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Both figures laid explosive groundwork for the civil rights movement and for federal legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
The Untold Story of Emmett Till. 2005. Directed by Keith A. Beauchamp. THINKfilm LLC.