Mississippi · Racially Motivated

Emmett Till, face of 1950s racism

August 28, 1955
Money, Mississippi
Emmett Till (14) is beaten, shot, and thrown into a river for allegedly sexually harassing a white grocery store clerk

Please be advised, this article contains the use of an uncensored racial slur and graphic images of a deceased child.

Till, who was from Chicago, had been visiting family in Mississippi at the time of his murder. On August 21, Till and his cousins Curtis Jones and Simeon Wright entered a grocery store. According to Jones at the time of investigation, Till had been bragging about attending a non-segregated school and having white friends, and the boys dated Till to flirt with the white store clerk. Wright, however, disputed the claim and said “We didn’t dare him to go to the store — the white folk said that. They said that he had pictures of his white girlfriend. There were no pictures. They never talked to me. They never interviewed me.” Also, before his death, Jones recanted his statements and apologized to Till’s mother.

It is likely Till whistled near the clerk, Carolyn Bryant; it was noted in newspapers after Till’s disappearance that he would often softly whistle before talking, a trick taught to him by his mother to help alleviate some of the difficulties he had with talking due to a stutter. The whistle may have been mistaken for a flirt by Bryant. Bryant would claim in court that Till grabbed her wrist as she stocked and said, “How about a date, baby?” She also claimed when she shook his hand from hers he said “What’s the matter baby, can’t you take it?” and “You needn’t be afraid of me, baby,” before he used “one ‘unprintable’ word” and told her “I’ve been with white women before.” In 2017, an interview with Bryant from 2008 was disclosed in which she admitted to fabricating the verbal and physical harassment.

Bryant’s husband Roy had been away during this time but returned on August 27. After hearing reports of the incident between his wife and Till, embellished through the grapevine, Bryant, J. W. Milam and several other men (including 2 of Milam’s employees allegedly forced to assist) abducted Till from his home at gunpoint in the early hours of August 28. The group tied Till up and threw him into the back of the truck, pistol-whipping him to the point he lost consciousness.

In a barn, the group beat Till, gouged his eye out, shot him, tied a 70 lb. weight around his neck with barbed wire to weigh him down, and thrown into a river. His family waited for him to return and after 20 minutes they began an unsuccessful search. Till’s cousin Curtis Jones, fearing for his own life and upon hearing their grandfather Moses Wright was not going to call police, informed authorities and his mother who in turn contacted Till’s mother. Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping. To gather information on Till’s whereabouts, members of the NAACP posed as cotton pickers to try to discreetly ask about the disappearance.

On August 31, Till’s beaten and disfigured body was found by 2 boys fishing in the river. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on a public and open-casket funeral for Emmett, to show the public the ugly truth of lynching and racism.

The subsequent trial of the murderers became sensationalized nation-wide. Northern visitors commented on the informality of the trial, including jurors drinking beer during testimonies, the sheriff loudly greeting black spectators with a cheery “hello, Niggers!” following a lunch break, and many of the white spectators wearing handguns. The trial lasted 5 days and ended in an acquittal of all defendants after a 67 minute deliberation. One of the all-white all-male jury (people of color and women were banned from serving on the jury) said of the length of deliberation: “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

In 1956, during an interview for Look magazine, Bryant and Milam confessed to the murder, claiming to initially only wanting to beat and scare Till but lost control when the teen called them bastards and talked of “having” white women. Once their confession was known, many of those who had supported them during trial, including those who aided in their defense funds, cut them off. The black population boycotted their shops and they quickly went bankrupt, and banks refused to lend to them to pay for crops. Eventually Milam was able to procure enough money to start a cotton field but black cotton pickers refused to work for him and he was forced to hire white workers who cost a higher wage. Bryant moved to Texas, but fearing boycotts or violence he refused to disclose his past to those in his new life or his exact location to those from his old life and interviewers, explaining “this new generation is different and I don’t want to worry about a bullet some dark night.” Both Milam and Bryant died of cancer, in 1980 and 1994 respectively.

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