Friday, August 28th, 2020 marked the 65th Anniversary of the death of Emmett Till. He was a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was visiting his family in Money, Mississippi in 1955. Young Emmett wasn’t aware of just how racist it was in the south when he went, so when he walked into a store to get some candy he playfully whistled at a young white cashier named Carolyn Bryant.
His cousins were terrified, jumped in the vehicle, and they all quickly left the scene. They already knew the danger that the boy was now possibly in. Emmett didn’t realize it until her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milan, showed up at his uncle’s house late at night with flashlights and pistols in hand looking for the boy.
They abducted Emmett, took him to an old shed deep in the country, and tortured him brutally for hours on end. A few days later, a local boy was fishing in the Tallahatchie River and found the teenager’s terribly mutilated body.
The late Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes, (who was about the same age as Emmett in 1955 but lived in Philadelphia when the gruesome murder took place), described it like this in his 2004 report:
“His body was weighed down by a cotton gin fan attached to his neck by barbed wire. He’d been badly tortured, an eye was detached, an ear cut off, and he appeared to have been shot in the head…”
Local authorities in Mississippi wanted to shadow the event from the outside world by quickly trying to bury his body there. But, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, wrestled with them until she got her son’s body sent back home to Illinois. When she saw how it looked, it tore her soul apart. Still, as deeply and painfully hurt and mortified as she was, she wanted America to see exactly what had happened to her son, so that it would expose what was going on in the deep South.
Mamie had Emmett’s funeral at the Robert’s Temple Church of God In Christ in Chicago with an open casket, and the pictures of her dead son shocked the entire country. His death further sparked the Civil Rights Movement, and to this very day those photos continue to be a horrific symbol of what took place during that awful time in American history.
The People Who Were Involved in Emmett Till’s Murder
It all started when Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant, who was in her early 20’s in 1955. She told her husband Roy, who was the owner of the store that Emmett and his cousins walked into to buy candy that day, that Emmett had touched her and said sexual things to her. But, years later, America found out that was a lie.
Timothy Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till, is the only person who ever spoke to Carolyn Bryant on record about the African-American boy’s gruesome death. Timothy was once on an episode of Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien talking about his interview with Carolyn. “She brought me inside her house,” he began, “and she was like every Methodist church lady that I ever knew growing up. She was 74-years-old maybe, something like that, a little frail.”
The host asked Tyson about the part in his book where he’d written that Carolyn had said that she’d lied about Emmett grabbing her around the waist and uttering obscenities at her back in 1955 at that store in Money, Mississippi.
“Did she say, ‘I lied’?” Soledad O’Brien asked the Duke University Historian.
“She didn’t use that word,” he responded. “She sort of painted that piece of her testimony, and said ‘That part’s not true’. So, I asked her what was true, and she said ‘I would like to tell you, honestly, but I can’t remember. She said ‘You tell these stories until they seem true, but that part’s not true.’ And then she said, ‘Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.’”
Emmett Till’s torturers and murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan, are both dead. Bryant died in 1994 and Milan back in 1981, but they are widely known as the killers who truly got away with pure murder. They didn’t even take the trial that they had in Mississippi for Emmett’s murder seriously, and an all-white jury found them not guilty in under an hour for Emmett Till’s death.
A few months later, the Black boy’s killers, knowing that they were protected by double jeopardy, took a $4,000 payment from Look Magazine and confessed publicly that they had indeed killed Emmett. The article was entitled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi”, and neither of the men had any charges brought up against them for Emmett Till’s death, ever.
The Relevance of Emmett Till’s Murder Today
With the recent police shootings of Black people in America, the fact that so many of today’s officers have not been punished for murder mirrors the fact that the same type of thinking is still going on in this country as it did when the killers who murdered Emmett Till got off free.
His death will never be forgotten and organizations such as the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation (supported by actor Taye Diggs) will ensure that his death will be always remembered as a pivotal and majorly significant part of American history forever.