Emmett Till

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Emmett Till

, Murder Victim / Civil Rights Figure
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  • Born: 25 July 1941
  • Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
  • Died: 29 August 1955 (lynching)
  • Best Known As: The teenage boy killed for whistling at a woman

Many scholars believe the U.S. Civil Rights movement was ignited by the brutal 1955 murder of teenager Emmett Till and the news coverage it drew. Exactly what the 14-year-old African American boy said to offend Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman working in a Mississippi grocery store, is unclear, but it seems to have involved a fresh comment and a whistle. This prompted her husband, store owner Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, to abduct, beat and shoot Till and throw his body in a river. An open-casket funeral and news pictures of his disfigured face caused worldwide news coverage of the case, in which an all-white jury acquitted the killers. After the trial, the two men, now immune from further prosecution, confessed the killing to the magazine Look. The case was reopened 50 years later and Till's body was exhumed for an autopsy, but the FBI announced in 2006 that it would not file federal charges and a grand jury refused to indict in 2007.

Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, died in 2003 at age 81, still holding out hope for a rehearing of the case. Her book, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, was published by Random House that year... When the grand jury considered the case in 2006, Carolyn Bryant was the one surviving party of interest.

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Black Biography: Emmett Till

civil rights activist; victim

Personal Information

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).
Education: 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.

Life's Work

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 Brown 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 born 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, Italy, 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 with. He had lived in the nation's second largest city all his life but was now in the backwoods of the South. Tallahatchie County, in the northwest corner 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 v. 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 corners 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.


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.

Further Reading


  • 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

Wikipedia: Emmett Till
Emmett Louis "Bobo" Till
Emmett Till
Born July 25 1941(1941--)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died August 28 1955 (aged 14)
Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi, U.S.
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Emmett Louis "Bobo" Till (July 25 1941August 28 1955) was a fourteen year old African-American boy from Chicago, Illinois brutally murdered [1] in Money, Mississippi, a small town in the state's Delta region. His murder has been cited as one of the key events that energized the nascent American Civil Rights Movement.[1] The main suspects were acquitted, but later admitted to committing the crime.

Till's mother insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to let everyone see how he had been brutally killed.[2] He had been shot, beaten and had his eye gouged out before he was then thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck as a weight with barbed wire. His body stayed in the river for three days until it was discovered and retrieved by two fishermen.

Till's body resides in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. The murder case was officially reopened in May 2004,[1] and as a part of the investigation the body was exhumed so an autopsy could be performed.[3] The body was reburied by the family in the same location later that week.[4]


Emmett Till was the son of Mamie Till and Louis Till. Emmett's mother was born to John and Alma Carthan in the small Delta town of Webb, Mississippi ("the Delta" being the traditional name for the area of northwestern Mississippi, at the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers). When she was two years old, her family moved to Illinois. Emmett's mother largely raised him on her own; she and Louis Till had separated in 1942.

Emmett's father, Louis Till, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. While serving in Italy, he was convicted of raping two women and killing a third. He was executed by the Army by hanging near Pisa in July 1945.[5][6] Before Emmett Till's killing, the Till family knew none of this, only that Louis had been killed due to "willful misconduct". The facts of Louis Till's execution were only made widely known after Emmett Till's death, by segregationist senator James Eastland, in an apparent attempt to turn public support away from Mrs. Till just weeks before the trials of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the implication being that criminal behavior ran in the Till family.[7][8]


In 1955, Till and his cousin were sent for a summer stay with Till's great-uncle, Moses Wright, who lived in Money, Mississippi (another small town in the Delta, eight miles north of Greenwood).

Before his departure for the Delta, Till's mother cautioned him to "mind his manners" with white people.

Till's mother understood that race relations in Mississippi were very different from those in Chicago. The state had seen many lynchings during the South's lynching era (ca. 1876-1930), and racially motivated murders were still not unfamiliar, especially in the "Delta" region where Till was going to visit. Racial tensions were also on the rise after the United States Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in public education.

Till arrived on August 21. On August 24, he joined other young teenagers as they went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to get some candy and soda. The teens were children of sharecroppers and had been picking cotton all day. The market was owned by a husband and wife, Roy Bryant and Carolyn Bryant, and mostly catered to the local sharecropper population. Till's cousin and several black youths, all under 16, were with Till in the store. Till had shown them photos of his life back home, including one of him with his friends and girlfriend, a white girl. The boys didn't believe that he had a white girlfriend and dared him to talk to a white woman in the shop.

As Till was leaving the store, he said "Bye, baby," to Carolyn Bryant, a married white woman. She stood up and stormed to her car. The boys were terrified thinking she might return with a pistol and ran away. The news of this greatly angered her husband when he heard of it upon his return from out of town several days later.

Bryant's Store in Money, Mississippi. This picture was taken in 2005
Bryant's Store in Money, Mississippi. This picture was taken in 2005

Till's cousin, Wheeler Parker, Jr., who was with him at the store, claims Till did nothing but whistle at the woman. "He loved pranks, he loved fun, he loved jokes ... in Mississippi, people didn't think the same jokes were funny." Carolyn Bryant later asserted that Till had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date. She said the young man also used "unprintable" words. He had a slight stutter and some have conjectured that Bryant might have misinterpreted what Till said.

By the time 24-year-old Roy Bryant returned from a road trip three days after his wife’s encounter with Till, it seemed that everyone in Tallahatchie County had heard about the incident, in every conceivable version. Bryant decided that he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, 36, would meet at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday to "teach the boy a lesson."


At about 12:30 a.m. on August 27, Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from his great-uncle's house in the middle of the night. According to witnesses, they drove him to a weathered shed on a plantation in neighboring Sunflower County, where they brutally beat and then shot him. The fan around his neck was to weigh down his body, which they dropped into the Tallahatchie River near Glendora, another small cotton town, north of Money.

The brothers and police tried to convince the people that Emmett Till was in Chicago and that the beaten boy was someone else, but the only way that he was recognized was by the ring on his finger that had been his father's. His mother had given it to him the day before he left for Money. The brothers were soon under official suspicion for the boy's disappearance and were arrested August 29 after spending the night with relatives in Ruleville, just miles away from the scene of the crime.

Both men admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle's yard but claimed they turned him loose the same night. Word got out that Till was missing and soon NAACP civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the state field secretary, and Amzie Moore, head of the Bolivar County chapter, became involved, disguising themselves as cotton pickers and going into the cotton fields in search of any information that would help find the young visitor from Chicago.

After collecting stories from ordinary blacks first hand, Amzie Moore, a Delta civil rights veteran and member of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and the NAACP, asserted that whites had murdered and lynched over the years "more than 2,000" blacks and thrown their bodies into the Delta’s swamps and bayous.

Some supposed that relatives of Till were hiding him out of fear for the youth’s safety or that he had been sent back to Chicago where he would be safe.

Moses Wright, a witness to Till's abduction told the Sheriff that a person who sounded like a woman had identified Till as "the one" after which the men had driven away with him. Bryant and Milam claimed they later found out Till was not "the one" who allegedly insulted Mrs. Bryant, and swore to Sheriff George Smith they had released him. They would later recant and confess after their acquittal.

In an editorial on Friday, September 2, Greenville journalist Hodding Carter, Jr. asserted that "people who are guilty of this savage crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," a brave suggestion for any Mississippi newspaper editor to make.


After Till's horribly disfigured body was found, he was put into a pine box and nearly buried, but Mamie Till wanted the body to come back to Chicago. A Tutwiler mortuary assistant worked all night to prepare the body as best he could so that Mamie Till could bring Emmett's body back to Chicago.

The Chicago funeral home had agreed not to open the casket, but Mamie Till fought it, and after the state of Mississippi would not allow the funeral home to open it, Mamie threatened to open it herself, insisting she had a right to see her son. After viewing the body, she also insisted on leaving the casket open for the funeral and allowing people to take photos because she wanted people to see how badly Till's body had been disfigured. News photographs of Till's mutilated corpse circulated around the country, notably appearing in Jet magazine, drawing intense public reaction. Some reports indicate up to 50,000 people viewed the body.

Emmett Till was buried September 6 in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. The same day, Bryant and Milam were indicted by a grand jury.


When Mamie Till came to Mississippi to testify at the trial, she stayed in the home of Dr. T.R.M. Howard in the all-black town of Mound Bayou. Others staying in Howard's home were black reporters, such as Cloyte Murdock of Ebony Magazine, key witnesses, and Congressman Charles Diggs of Michigan, the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Howard was a major civil rights leader and fraternal organization official in Mississippi, the head of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), and one of the wealthiest blacks in the state.

On the day before the trial, Frank Young, a black farm worker, came to Howard's home. He said that he had information indicating that Milam and Bryant had help in their crime. Young's allegations sparked an investigation that led to unprecedented cooperation between local law enforcement, the NAACP, the RCNL, black journalists, and local reporters. The trial began on September 19. Mose Wright, Emmett's great-uncle, was one of the main witnesses called up to speak. Pointing to one of the suspected killers, he said "Dar he," to refer to the man who had killed his nephew.

Another key witness for the prosecution was Willie Reed, an 18-year-old high school student who lived on a plantation near Drew, Mississippi in Sunflower County. The prosecution had located him because of the investigation sparked by Young's information. Reed testified that he had seen a pickup truck outside of an equipment shed on a plantation near Drew managed by Leslie Milam, a brother of J.W. and Roy Bryant. He said that four whites, including J.W. Milam, were in the cab and three blacks were in the back, one of them Till. When the truck pulled into the shed, he heard human cries that sounded like a beating was underway. He did not identify the other blacks on the truck.

On September 23 the all-white jury, made up of 12 males, acquitted both defendants. Deliberations took just 67 minutes; one juror said they took a "soda break" to stretch the time to over an hour "to make it look good." The hasty acquittal outraged people throughout the United States and Europe and energized the nascent Civil Rights Movement.

Aftermath of the trial

Even during the trial, Howard and black journalists such as James Hicks of the Baltimore Afro-American named several blacks who had allegedly been on the truck near Drew including three employees of J.W. Milam: Henry Lee Loggins, Levi 'Too-Tight' Collins, and Joe Willie Hubbard. In the months after the trial, both Hicks and Howard called for a federal investigation into charges that Sheriff H.C. Strider had locked up Collins and Loggins in jail to keep them from testifying.

In a January 1956 article in Look Magazine for which they were paid $4,000, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant admitted to journalist William Bradford Huie that he and his brother had killed Till. They did not fear being tried again for the same crime because of the Constitutional double jeopardy protection. Milam claimed that initially their intention was to scare Till into line by pistol-whipping him and threatening to throw him off a cliff. Milam claimed that regardless of what they did to Till, he never showed any fear, never seemed to believe they would really kill him, and maintained a completely unrepentant, insolent, and defiant attitude towards them concerning his actions. Thus the brothers said they felt they were left with no choice but to fully make an example of Till. The story focused exclusively on the role of Milam and Bryant in the crime and did not mention the possible part played by others in the crime.

In February 1956 Howard's version of events of the kidnapping and murder, which stressed the possible involvement of Hubbard and Loggins, appeared in the booklet by Olive Arnold Adams. At the same time a still unidentified white reporter using the pseudonym Amos Dixon wrote a series of articles in the California Eagle. The series put forward essentially the same thesis as Time Bomb but offered a more detailed description of the possible role of Loggins, Hubbard, Collins, and Leslie Milam. Time Bomb and Dixon's articles had no lasting impact in the shaping of public opinion. Huie's article became the most commonly accepted version of events.

In 1957 Huie returned to the story for Look Magazine in an article which indicated that local residents were shunning Milam and Bryant and that their stores were closed due to a lack of business.

Milam died of cancer in 1980 and Bryant died of cancer in 1994. The men never expressed any remorse for Till's death and seemed to feel that they had done no wrong. In fact, a few months before he died, Bryant complained bitterly in an interview that he had never made as much money off Till's death as he deserved and that it had ruined his life. Mamie (as Mamie Till Mobley) outlived them, dying at the age of 81 on January 6, 2003. That same year her autobiography Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (One World Books, co-written with Christopher Benson) was published.

In 1991, a seven-mile stretch of 71st street in Chicago was renamed "Emmett Till Road," after the slain boy. In 2006 a Mississippi historical marker marking the place of Till's death was defaced, and in August 2007 it went missing.[9] Less than a week later a replica was put up in its place.[10]

Recent investigations

In 2001, David T. Beito, associate professor at the University of Alabama and Linda Royster Beito, chair of the department of social sciences at Stillman College, were the first investigators in many decades to track down and interview on tape two key principals in the case: Henry Lee Loggins and Willie Reed. They were doing research for their biography of T.R.M. Howard. In his interview with the Beitos, Loggins denied that he had any knowledge of the crime or that he was one of the black men on the truck outside of the equipment shed near Drew. Reed repeated his testimony at the trial that he had seen three black men and four white men (including J.W. Milam) on the truck. When asked to identify the black men, however, he did not name Loggins as one of them. The Beitos also confirmed that Levi 'Too-Tight' Collins, another black man allegedly on this car, had died in 1993.

In 1996, Keith Beauchamp started background research for a feature film he planned to make about Till's murder, and asserted that as many as 14 individuals may have been involved. While conducting interviews he also encountered eyewitnesses who had never spoken out publicly before. As a result he decided to produce a documentary instead, and spent the next nine years creating The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. The film led to calls by the NAACP and others for the case to be reopened. The documentary included lengthy interviews with Loggins and Reed, both of whom the Beitos had first tracked down and interviewed in 2001. Loggins repeated his denial of any knowledge of the crime. Beauchamp has consistently refused to name the fourteen individuals who he asserts took part in the crime, including the five who he claims are still alive.

On May 10, 2004, the United States Department of Justice announced that it was reopening the case to determine whether anyone other than Milam and Bryant was involved. Although the statute of limitations prevented charges being pursued under federal law, they could be pursued before the state court, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and officials in Mississippi worked jointly on the investigation. As no autopsy had been performed on Till's body, it was exhumed on May 31, 2005 from the suburban Chicago cemetery where it was buried, and the Cook County coroner then conducted the autopsy. The body was reburied by relatives on June 4. It has been positively identified as that of Emmett Till.

In February 2007, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that both the FBI and a Leflore County Grand Jury, which was empaneled by Joyce Chiles, a black prosecutor, had found no credible basis for Keith Beauchamp's claim that 14 individuals took part in Till's abduction and murder or that any are still alive. The Grand Jury also decided not to pursue charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham, Roy Bryant's ex wife. Neither the FBI nor the Grand Jury found any credible evidence that Henry Lee Loggins, now living in an Ohio nursing home, and identified by Beauchamp as a suspect who could be charged, had any role in the crime. Other than Loggins, Beauchamp still refuses to name the 14 people who he says were involved although the FBI and District Attorney have completed their investigations of his charges and he is free to go on the record. A story by Jerry Mitchell in the Clarion-Ledger on February 18 describes Beauchamp's allegation that 14 or more were involved as a "legend."

The same article also labels as "legend" a rumor that Till had endured castration at the hands of his victimizers. The castration theory was first put forward uncritically in Beauchamp's "Untold Story" although Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett's mother) had said in an earlier documentary directed by Stanley Nelson, "The Murder of Emmett Till," (2003) that her son's genitals were intact when she examined the corpse. The recent autopsy, as reported by Mitchell, confirmed Mobley-Till's original account and showed no evidence of castration.

In March 2007, Till's family was briefed by the FBI on the contents of its investigation. The FBI report released on March 29, 2007 found that Till died of a gunshot wound to the head and that he had broken wrist bones and skull and leg fractures.[11]

Popular culture

  • The murder of Emmett Till was felt deeply by African-Americans, civil rights activists and many others. Artistic works drawing on the incident include the first play by eventual Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, poems by Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Audre Lorde, and a song by Bob Dylan called "The Death of Emmett Till."
  • The James Baldwin play "Blues for Mister Charlie" is also loosely based on the case.
  • Boxer Muhammad Ali, 13 years old at the time of the murder, said in an interview that the news of the Till murder had a profound effect on him and how he viewed white people.
  • The 1990s alternative rock band Emmett Swimming is named after Emmett Till. According to the band, "the idea of the name was basically that a 14-year-old boy should be swimming in the river, not dying in it."
  • Recent fictionalized accounts include two award-winning novels: Bebe Moore Campbell's Your Blues Ain't Like Mine (1992) and Lewis Nordan's Wolf Whistle (1993).
  • The 2003 rap song "Through the Wire" by Kanye West talks about his girlfriend on an airplane being "scared as hell that a guy look like Emmett Till" that shows that, if nothing else, the image of Emmett Till remains fresh in the minds of Americans.
  • The September 15, 2003 Boondocks comic strip had the following exchange:
    Huey: I was thinking... what would Emmett Till say to Kobe Bryant right now?
    Caesar: You think you've got it bad? All I did was whistle!
  • The 2005 rap music video "Cadillacs On 22s" by David Banner shows Banner wearing a black T-shirt with the words "R.I.P. Emmett Till" printed on it.
  • In 2005, the play The State of Mississippi and the Face of Emmett Till premiered in the south for the first time at Dillard University in New Orleans. The show, written by David Barr, was performed again in October (as The Face Of Emmett Till) with a different cast at Coppin State University.
  • In 2005, a 38-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 49 north from Greenwood, Mississippi to Tutwiler, Mississippi was renamed in honor of Till.
  • In February 2006, the elementary school that Till had attended in Chicago (James McCosh Math & Science Academy) was renamed in his honor. At the renaming ceremony, plans for an Emmett Till Museum on the school's grounds were discussed.
  • In 2006, the band Make Believe (band) released the album Of Course, featuring the song "Pat Tillman, Emmett Till".
  • Richard Powers' novel, The Time of Our Singing, 2003, has a chapter telling this story.[citation/review at http://www.januarymagazine.com/fiction/timeofsinging.html ]
  • In Marvel Comics Black Panther #23 there is a mention of Emmett Till.
  • Referred to in 'Cave Bitch', a track on Ice Cube's 1993 album Lethal Injection: "Cuz everytime I turn on the TV / I see several brothers with she-devils / Smilin' cuz you out on a date / But sooner or later, the bitch'll yell rape / Soon as daddy found out you a jigaboo / He'll kill like he did Emmitt Till."
  • In Michael Crummey's novel The Wreckage (2005), the main character is living in Chicago and reads about the murder of Emmett Till.
  • On June 20, 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 923 - Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.

See also


  1. ^ a b c JUSTICE DEPARTMENT TO INVESTIGATE 1955 EMMETT TILL MURDER. United States Department of Justice. Retrieved on 2007-08-24.
  2. ^ Parker, Laura. "Justice pursued for Emmett Till", USA Today, 2004-03-10. Retrieved on 2007-08-24. 
  3. ^ "Body of ’55 civil rights victim returned to grave", Associated Press, 2005-06-04. Retrieved on 2007-08-24. 
  4. ^ "Emmett Till's Body Reburied", WMAQ-TV, 2005-06-04. Retrieved on 2007-08-24. 
  5. ^ http://www.booknotes.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1777 Transcript of interview with Christopher Benson, author of Death of Innocence, a book documenting the Emmett Till case.
  6. ^ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/sfeature/sf_forum_0124.html
  7. ^ PBS People and Events: Mamie Till Mobley
  8. ^ PBS forum question posed to Stanley Nelson Jr., producer and director of The Murder of Emmett Till.
  9. ^ "Marker Commemorating Till's Death Disappears", 2007-08-22. Retrieved on 2007-08-22. 
  10. ^ "Sign commemorating Till's death replaced in Delta", Associated Press, 2007-08-24. Retrieved on 2007-08-24. 
  11. ^ Johnson, Carla. "Emmett Till's Family Gets Autopsy Report", ABC News, March 30, 2007. Retrieved on March 30, 2007. 


External links


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