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Emmett Till - Murder, Reaction and Legacy

Emmett Till - Murder, Reaction and Legacy

Emmett Till, a 14-year old African American boy, was murdered in August 1955 in a racist attack that shocked the nation and provided a catalyst for the emerging civil rights movement. A Chicago native, Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, when he was accused of harassing a local white woman. Several days later, relatives of the woman abducted Till, brutally beating and killing him before disposing of his body in a nearby river.

Till’s devastated mother insisted on a public, open-casket funeral for her son to shed light on the violence inflicted on Black people in the South. Till’s murderers were acquitted, but his death galvanized civil rights activists nationwide.

Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of Louis and Mamie Till. Till never knew his father, a private in the United States Army during World War II.

Emmett Till’s mother was by all accounts an extraordinary woman. While raising Emmett Till as a single mother, she worked long hours for the Air Force as a clerk in charge of secret and confidential files.

READ MORE: Emmett Till and 4 Black Americans Whose Killings Provoked Outrage and Activism

With his mother often working more than 12-hour days, Till took on his full share of domestic responsibilities from a very young age. His mother recalls, “Emmett had all the house responsibility. I mean everything was really on his shoulders, and Emmett took it upon himself. He told me if I would work, and make the money, he would take care of everything else. He cleaned, and he cooked quite a bit. And he even took over the laundry.”

In August 1955, Till’s great uncle Moses Wright came up from Mississippi to visit the family in Chicago. At the end of his stay, Wright was planning to take Till’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, back to Mississippi with him to visit relatives down South, and when Till learned of these plans he begged his mother to let him go along.

Three days after arriving in Money, Mississippi, on August 24, 1955, Emmett Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy refreshments after a long day picking cotton in the hot afternoon sun. What exactly transpired inside the grocery store that afternoon will never be known.

Till purchased bubble gum, and some of the kids with him would later report that he either whistled at, flirted with, or touched the hand of the store’s white female clerk—and wife of the owner—Carolyn Bryant.

Four days later, at approximately 2:30 in the morning on August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till from Moses Wright’s home. They then beat the teenager brutally, dragged him to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan and shoved his mutilated body into the water.

Till’s body was shipped to Chicago, where his mother opted to have an open-casket funeral with Till’s body on display for five days. Thousands of people came to the Roberts Temple Church of God to see the evidence of this brutal hate crime.

Till’s mother said that, despite the enormous pain it caused her to see her son’s dead body on display, she opted for an open-casket funeral to “let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like.”

In the weeks that passed between Till’s burial and the murder and kidnapping trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two Black publications, Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, published graphic images of Till’s corpse. By the time the trial commenced on September 19, Emmett Till’s murder had become a source of outrage and indignation throughout much of the country.

Because Black people and women were barred from serving jury duty, Bryant and Milam were tried before an all-white, all-male jury. In an act of extraordinary bravery, Moses Wright took the stand and identified Bryant and Milam as Till’s kidnappers and killers. At the time, it was almost unheard of for Black people to openly accuse whites in court, and by doing so Wright put his own life in grave danger.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the defendants’ guilt and widespread pleas for justice from outside Mississippi, on September 23 the panel of white male jurors acquitted Bryant and Milam of all charges. Their deliberations lasted a mere 67 minutes.

Only a few months later, in January 1956, Bryant and Milam admitted to committing the crime. Protected by double jeopardy laws, they told the whole story of how they kidnapped and killed Emmett Till to Look magazine for $4,000.

Coming only one year after the Supreme Court‘s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of racial segregation in public schools, Till’s death provided an important catalyst for the American civil rights movement.

In 2007, over 50 years after the murder, the woman who claimed Till harassed her recanted parts of her account. Speaking to a historian, then 72-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted Till hadn’t grabbed her. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she told Timothy B. Tyson, who was writing a book about the case. The revelations weren’t made public until 2017, when the book was released.

In 2018, following Donham’s admission, the Justice Department opened a new inquiry into the case.

READ MORE: Same Date, 8 Years Apart: From Emmett Till's Murder to 'I Have a Dream,' in Photos


On This Day: The Murder Of Emmett Till

Throughout America’s sordid history, there have been many children murdered but the Murder in Money, Mississippi is the most infamous. It was this incident, the murder of a black child, fourteen year old Emmett Till that sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement. On August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago supposedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store.

The crime sounded clarion calls for a nation to wake up – just look at the photo. Till’s mutilated corpse circulated around the country mainly because of John Johnson, who published the gruesome photographs in Jet magazine, a predominately African American publication. The photo drew intense public reaction.

Till didn’t understand or knew that he had broken an unwritten law of the Jim Crow South until three days later, when two white men dragged him from his bed in the dead of night, beat him brutally and then shot him in the head. That night the door to his grandfather’s house was thrown open, and Emmett was forced into a truck and driven away never again to be seen alive again. Till’s body was found swollen and disfigured in the Tallahatchie river three days after his abduction and only identified by his ring.

Till’s body was sent back to Chicago, where his mother insisted on leaving the casket open for the funeral and having people take photographs because she wanted people to see how badly Till’s body had been disfigured. This courageous mother was famously quoted as saying, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby” and over 50,000 people came to view the body.

On the day he was buried, two men — the husband of the woman who had been whistled at and his half brother — were indicted of his murder, but the all white male jury from Money (some of whom actually participated in Till’s torture and execution) took only an hour to return ‘not guilty’ verdict. The verdict would have been quicker, remarked the grinning foreman, if the jury hadn’t taken a break for a soft drink on the way to the deliberation room. To add insult to injury, knowing that they would not be retrial, the two accused men sold their stories to LOOK Magazine and gleefully admitted to everything.

Elsewhere in Mississippi at the time things weren’t going terribly well for blacks either. Just before Till was murdered, two activists Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith were shot dead for trying to exercise their rights to vote, and in shocking testimony to the lack of law and order, no one came forward to testify although both murders were committed in broad daylight.

The next year, a former army sergeant, Clyde Kennard, tried to enroll at Mississippi South College in Hattiesburg and was sent away, but came back to ask again. For this ‘audacity’, university officials — not students, or mere citizens, but university officials — planted stolen liquor and a bag of stolen chicken feed in his car and had him arrested. Kennard died halfway into his seven year sentence.

But times were slowly a-changing: Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954. Three months after the Till murder Rosa Parks would refuse to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Sit-ins and marches would follow, and soon the civil rights movement itself would be in full-swing. It’s been over sixty-years since the events of that fateful night, and I simply cannot find the words to describe this heinous crime that has yet to receive justice.

I’ll end by sharing these words by Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…


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1955 Killing Sparked Civil Rights Revolution : Emmett Till: South’s Legend and Legacy

He only whistled. But the woman he whistled at was white. He was black. A few days later, her angry husband roused him from bed, told him to hurry up and dress. Three days later, his terribly battered body surfaced in the muddy Tallahatchie River where it straightens out for a stretch through the cotton-rich flatlands of the delta.

His name was Emmett Till. He was 14 years old.

An all-white jury acquitted the husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, of killing the boy, even though the pair had admitted to the kidnaping. But in that fall of 1955, with the civil rights movement just emerging, headlines carried the trial’s result around the world and prompted a harsher verdict against a South where racial injustice seemed like an accepted way of life.

Today, while most of the world may have forgotten him, Emmett Till is remembered in this region of the delta. His memory has grown strong roots here, both as a legend and a legacy: Grandparents pass his grim tale on to their descendants, and black politicians say it still goads them in their fight to share local power. Even now, his name seems to haunt local whites.

Rosa Parks, a seamstress who started the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott on Dec. 1, 1955, by refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man, has become far more famous. The boycott is widely considered the start of the modern black movement.

But some historians, political figures from the time and veterans of the movement now say the Till case had an impact on the nation far beyond today’s faded memory. They contend that it and the bus boycott belong to the same progression of events. If Rosa Parks showed the potential of defiance, they say, Emmett Till’s death warned of a bleak future without it.

The Sept. 23, 1955, verdict was front-page news in Los Angeles, propaganda in Moscow. In Chicago, where 10,000 mourners had viewed the body, 20,000 protested after the acquittal, along with another 10,000 in Harlem. The NAACP, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters all held demonstrations. Hearing of the trial’s outcome while in Paris, Nobel Prize-winning author and Mississippi native William Faulkner cast a pessimistic glance homeward, speaking of “our desperate culture.”

“I think it was a major incident when it came to showing one part of America the ugly side of another part,” said Robert Fredrick Burk, who wrote a 1984 book entitled “The Eisenhower Administration and Black Civil Rights.”

Burk and others say the case gave civil rights advocates a martyr and ambivalent politicians an impetus to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and laid the foundation for a series of historic voting rights laws.

“It certainly strengthened my hand in the day-to-day effort to get the Administration to speak out and do something on civil rights,” said E. Frederic Morrow, who advised President Dwight D. Eisenhower on black affairs. “I can still see the sacks and sacks of mail the White House received about Emmett Till.”

A Look magazine free-lancer named William Bradford Huie wrote that after the verdict, for an undisclosed sum, Bryant and Milam had confessed to him. In the Look story, the men described how they beat and shot the boy, then dumped his body in the river. Huie quoted Milam as saying the killing was his contribution toward keeping blacks “in their place.”

The verdict, which followed the killing by about a month, was returned in an hour. A juror afterward told a reporter it would not have been that long if the jury had not stopped to drink sodas.

The emotions of the case lingered into a time crowded with protests and sacrifices. Bob Dylan wrote an angry ballad in 1963 called “The Death of Emmett Till.”

In Mississippi today, aged former sharecroppers compare the boy’s death to Christ’s return from the dead. They tell their children how he was abducted early on a Sunday morning, how the body bobbed out of the Tallahatchie after three days and how the event struck deep in the national conscience and helped bring them a better life.

They recall how the body came up although the killers sank it with a large, wheel-shaped instrument used to gin seeds from cotton, tied to Till’s neck with barbed wire. (The river’s water level probably had dropped in the dry season, making the corpse appear to rise.)

“The Lord brought him up out of the water after three days, even though they put that thing on his neck,” said Nancy Prunell, 74, a former sharecropper in Greenwood, Miss., who says she has told the story of Emmett Till to her 15 children, 50 grandchildren and some of her 30 great-grandchildren. “God sent that boy for a purpose,” she said. “Just like Jesus. They weighed him down, but he came up. They put barbed wire on ‘im, just like Jesus. This is what I tells the chilruns. He come up and world learned of him, all the peoples. It’s after that things started gettin’ better for us. . . .”

It happened in a year when only 5% of adult blacks in the Mississippi Delta had registered to vote, dissuaded by poll taxes and subjective literacy tests. Laws barred them from parks, restaurants and bathrooms. Blacks did not sit on many juries. To do that, one had to be a registered voter. To this Mississippi, Till traveled that August from his home in Chicago for a visit with his great-uncle and aunt, Moses and Elizabeth Wright. They sharecropped 30 acres of cotton near this hamlet in the northern part of the state, which consisted of little more than a cotton gin, a gas station and a few stores where nearby farmers could buy provisions. Harvest time had come. Green plants spreading from horizon to horizon were ripe with snow-white tufts.

Relatives say that despite a bad stutter, Emmett Till generally was good-natured, an impetuous kidder, sometimes mischievous. Wheeler Parker, one of his best friends in Chicago and a fellow traveler to Money that summer, says that if Till liked a joke, he would pay someone nickels and dimes to tell it repeatedly and would laugh just as loudly each time. He was not schooled in how to behave toward Southern whites.

That August in Money, he spent his days with his three cousins, Parker and another friend who had come along from Chicago, together with several local youths. They fished, swam, picked cotton, lazed around.

On Saturday, Aug. 24, eight of them them piled into Moses Wright’s 1946 Ford sedan and made the five-minute drive to Roy Bryant’s store in Money.

Simeon Wright, now 42, remembers walking inside with his cousin Emmett. “We walked in and Mrs. Bryant was there,” Wright recalled, during an interview in Chicago. “He bought gum. Then we walked out, and when we got outside, he turned around and he whistled. It was a definite wolf-whistle. Two blasts.

“He didn’t know that this was a mistake,” Wright continued. “He didn’t know about, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ Emmett said ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ ”

At Moses Wright’s house, Till and Simeon shared a bed. Simeon remembers that Milam, 36, and Bryant, 24, came for the boy late at night Aug. 28. He doesn’t know which man’s voice asked Moses: “Do you have a fat boy from Chicago?”

He recalls that the boy was quiet as they rushed him out of the house. Elizabeth Wright begged them not to and offered them money. Then, two other voices, a man’s and what sounded to Simeon like a woman’s:


Emmett Till's Death Inspired a Movement

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Mamie Till Mobley family.

The alleged teasing of white store clerk Carolyn Bryant by the 14 year-old African American Emmett Till led to his brutal murder at the hands of Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, forcing the American public to grapple with the menace of violence in the Jim Crow South. According to court documents, Till, who was visiting family for the summer in Money, Mississippi, from Chicago, purchased two-cents worth of bubble gum from the Bryant Grocery store and said, “Bye, baby” over his shoulder to Carolyn Bryant as he exited the store.

That night Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam ran into Emmett’s uncle’s home where he was staying, dragged Till from his bed, beat him to the point of disfigurement, and shot him before tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton-gin fan attached with barbed wire laced to his neck to weigh him down. Bryant and Milam maintained their innocence and would eventually be acquitted of the murder by an all-white, all male jury. They later sold their story for $4,000 to Look magazine– bragging about the murder as a form of Southern justice implemented to protect white womanhood.

For African Americans, the murder of Till was evidenceof the decades-old codes of violence exacted upon Black men and women for breaking the rules of white supremacy in the Deep South. Particularly for Black males, who found themselves under constant threat of attack or death for sexual advances towards white women – mostly imagined – Till’s murder reverberated a need for immediate change. Carolyn Bryant testified in court that Till had grabbed her hand, and after she pulled away, he followed her behind the counter, clasped her waist, and using vulgur language, told her that he had been with white women before. At 82, some 60 years later, Bryant, confessed to Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson that she had lied about this entire event.

Token for membership in the Ku Klux Klan, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Anonymous Gift.

Members of Citizens’ Councils (white supremacist civic organizations that used public policy and electoral power to reinforce Jim Crow), celebrated the acquittal, further threatening those who had testified against Bryant and Milam and members of the local NAACP. But rather than bending to the intimidation and psychic horror caused by the savage murder, Till’s family, along with national newspapers and civil rights organizations – including the NAACP used his death to strike a blow against racial injustice and terrorism.

A boycott of the Bryant Grocery caused its closure shortly after the trial , and the the Bryants and Milam moved to Texas. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley insisted on an open-casket at his funeral services – which were attended by more than 50,000 people and chronicled by Jet magazine. The photo of Till with his mother earlier that year alongside Jet’s photo of his mutilated corpse horrified the nation and became a catalyst for the bourgeoning civil rights movement.

One hundred days after Till’s murder, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus and was arrested for violating Alabama's bus segregation laws. Reverend Jesse Jackson told Vanity Fair (1988) that “Rosa said she thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till and she couldn’t do it.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks at 16 St. Baptist Church, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Estate of James Karales.

The Women's Democratic Council, under Jo Ann Robinson, called for a citywide bus boycott and asked a young, 26-year-old minister to help. His name was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. King, was deeply impacted by Till’s abduction and murder, delivering a sermon just days after Bryant and Milam’s acquittal (“Pride Versus Humility: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican,” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church), in which he lamented Till and the lack of moral piety among violent segregationists.

“The white men who lynch Negroes worship Christ. That jury in Mississippi, which a few days ago in the Emmett Till case, freed two white men from what might be considered one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of the twentieth century, worships Christ. The perpetrators of many of the greatest evils in our society worship Christ. This trouble is that all people, like the Pharisee, go to church regularly, they pay their tithes and offerings, and observe religiously the various ceremonial requirements. The trouble with these people, however, is that they worship Christ emotionally and not morally. They cast his ethical and moral insights behind the gushing smoke of emotional adoration and ceremonial piety,” King said.

March on Washington--Marchers Gathering at the Lincoln Memorial After Walking from Washington Monument Grounds, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of James H. Wallace Jr., © Jim Wallace.

Dr. King would use the momentum of outrage to galvanize the nation against social and racial injustice, invoking Till’s murder when talking about “the evil of racial injustice” in several speeches, as well as “the crying voice of a little Emmett C. Till, screaming from the rushing waters in Mississippi” in a 1963 Mother’s Day sermon. Eight years later, on the anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, Dr. King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

Learn more about Till and the African American struggle for equal rights in our Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968 exhibition.


What the Face of Emmett Till Says About Every Brutalized Black Body—Then and Now

We are living through the catastrophe of our history.

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To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

White supremacy exists as one of the most malleable and persistent elements at work in American society. The continuing power of whiteness to inflict harm lives on in this country like the crazy aunt we like to pretend doesn’t exist. Yet she insists on announcing her presence to all, and won’t stay hidden in old Uncle Sam’s attic. For nearly 250 years the force of weaponized whiteness in American culture has transformed itself into numerous forms and guises, whether it is the caricatures of minstrelsy stage, the menacing African American men portrayed as beasts in blackface in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the continued pursuit of the “Southern strategy” by the Republican Party to gain white voters by capitalizing on racial fears, or simply driving and walking while black and being stopped and frisked. In whatever form white supremacy reveals itself, inevitably there is harm to black bodies.

The contemporary language of racial hierarchy has its origins in the 19th century—during the Civil War and Reconstruction—but over time the ways we have made blackness hyper-visible and whiteness largely invisible has consistently been wrapped inside ideas of power and social order. It is in moments of pushing against this power and the social structures that created it that we begin to see cracks in white supremacy. We are all living through one of those moments now.

One of the times Americans witnessed a similar fracturing of the facade of white supremacy occurred in August of 1955, with the murder of Emmett Till. In today’s era of rampant police brutality against black men and women, the case of Emmett Till is worth examining for parallels with the present, for how that moment might guide us through these perilous times. There is a long bright line that connects Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision to let the world see her son’s battered body in the casket—images of which Jet magazine published—to the videos of police brutality we have been seeing on our screens, like the one of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd. Throughout history, visual evidence of the harms of white supremacy has been used as a tool to weaken its hold on society, whether that evidence is photographs of lynchings or television images of dogs attacking civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. At the same time, there has been a determined resistance to connect these images from the past with the present, perhaps because of our cultural impulse to remain in a limbo somewhere between remembering and forgetting.

By looking at America through a historical viewfinder, we cannot simply ignore the discomfort of right now. We can’t push to the side the fact that Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and shot to death in Georgia by the same manner of zealous vigilantism as Till. And we can’t also overlook the narrative of the black beast as menace to white women—the same lie that Carolyn Bryant concocted about Emmett Till, directly leading to his murder—that revealed itself in Central Park this month, when Amy Cooper invented a claim against black bird-watcher Christian Cooper. We may be living 65 years after Till’s brutal death, but the historical lines that connect the ruthless indifference of some white Americans in 1955 to black lives and those same issues today might be a way for us to understand the moment our country finds itself in as we wander through a barrage of rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, and inflammatory tweets from a president who postures as a white supremacist.

The murder of Till is the pre-history of the Black Lives Matter movement. “The story of Emmett Till is like a pair of glasses you take on and off, and as you do, the world looks one way with the image of Till present and another way without it,” says Dave Tell, a professor at the University of Kansas whose work focuses on race and memory. The reason we keep putting the glasses on is that the lenses allow us to see these contemporary events with greater clarity through the context of history rather than pure emotion.

Tell likes to remind those looking for historical parallels that there is a common impunity of white law enforcement that also connects the experience of Emmett Till to the contemporary victims of police violence, from Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to the present. According to Tell, the families of Till and Martin have even shared time together on the respective anniversaries of the deaths of these young men, bound by the innocence of which they were robbed. While today we think of Emmett Till as a pure Jesus-like martyr, Till’s saintly innocence only came into existence as he became a symbol rather than a real person. Just as Trayvon Martin’s innocence was questioned after his death, so was Till’s, since he broached one of the most sacred demarcations of the Jim Crow era by engaging in sexual flirtation across racial lines, as Tell put it.

Although the emotions connecting Till to the present are similar, the scale and intensity is different. Timothy Tyson, the author of The Blood of Emmett Till (in which Carolyn Bryant confessed that the story that led to Emmett Till’s murder was a fabrication), is familiar with the range of feelings and rage that are associated with the murder of Emmett Till. He believes the image of Till represents every brutalized black body that came before him and every one that comes after. “We have been chewing up generations of black kids for as long as we can remember, and it can’t continue. If we could experience this history on a deep enough level, we’d understand the trajectory that put us here and try to go in another direction. We are heading into the future. But the question is, what kind of country do you want to give to future generations? And what should we do to get there?”

One way is to learn from the past. Yet as a culture we continue to deny or ignore the historical ties to that past, which simply keeps vestiges of it living inside the very structure of American society. It is the push against those ingrained structures of the past that has led people to protest in the streets in cities across this country.

We tend to bind up our history in monuments, memorials, and narratives—we make our history look like it’s over—which makes us comfortable, less likely to confront hard truths. “History is contested because there is a lot at stake. People don’t want to hear about it, or they want to make it clear that they are innocent,” Tyson told me as we discussed the lessons and legacy from the story of Emmett Till. “I understand the impulse. If history proves anything, it is that neither ignorance nor innocence of history will protect you from its consequences. The innocent suffer because of mistakes from the past that have become catastrophes of the moment.” Right now we are all living through the catastrophe.

From the tragedy of Emmett Till, the civil rights movement grew and came to transform a nation, not entirely but certainly in a way that was meaningful. Mamie Till-Mobley took the tragedy of her son’s death as an impetus to form political alliances in the city of Chicago that still have national influence. Once again, this country finds itself in another transitional and potentially transformative moment. The scale of the moment may be larger, but it will take the same type of strategic organizing that came after the death of Emmett Till—with alliances made from steelworkers to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—to create the necessary changes.

No one ever went to jail for the murder of Emmett Till, nor did the family ever receive any sort of settlement to compensate for their loss. Two years ago, on the news of Bryant’s confession, the FBI reopened an investigation into Till’s death, but it is unlikely that anyone will be charged, given that so many witnesses are now dead. “My perception is that the agents working on this are earnestly devoted to finding any kind of justice that can be squeezed out of this case,” says Tyson. “The FBI has been very responsive to the Till family throughout this process.” In April, The Guardian reported that the investigation would likely be wrapped up “in weeks,” but one source connected to past litigation over the case says he suspects the final report is just sitting in the Justice Department, untouched. (The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment.) The message from the protests of the past week is that this country should not have a similar legacy, with more black lives lost and their killers never held to account.

In 1955 and throughout the civil rights movement, the Till murder was processed as the last gasp of white supremacy. There was a hopefulness then, but as we all know, white supremacy is mutable. An election alone cannot change the structures Americans have taken to the streets to stand up against. This is a moment to build social structures free of the forces of white supremacy. It is going to take soul-searching and a deep look into our past to make sure we can bring the country to the other side without the continuing death of innocent black men and women. As Tyson reminds us in The Blood of Emmett Till, “The bloody and unjust arc of our history will not bend upward if we merely pretend that history did not happen here. We cannot transcend our past without confronting it.”

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The Legacy of Emmett Till

Emmett Till’s death was an extreme example of the logic of America’s national racial caste system. To look beneath the surface of these facts is to ask ourselves what our relationship is today to the legacies of that caste system – legacies that still end the lives of young African Americans for no reason other than the color of their American skin and the content of our national character. Recall that Faulkner, asked to comment on the Till case when he was sober, responded, ‘If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture where we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.’ Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is really so different now.

– Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till

Recently in Brooklyn, New York, a white woman, Teresa Klein, accused a 9 year old black boy of “groping” her in a deli. She called the police, but surveillance video proved this claim to be false. The boy, Jeremiah Harvey, was left shattered and in tears by the incident. I couldn’t help but be reminded of another instance like this that proved far more tragic. In 1955, a false accusation of sexual assault led to the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy in Mississippi.

It was the Jim Crow south and his accuser was a white woman who claimed Emmett whistled at her, grabbed her hand, made sexual innuendos and shouted obscenities. The boy had a speech impediment, and he was undoubtedly schooled by his family on how to “behave” in the oppressively hostile environment of a racist white America. It is highly doubtful he would have even approached this woman. But it was of no consequence. He was dragged from his bed by a mob of white men, tortured, mutilated, tied with barbed wire and thrown over a bridge. His tragically horrendous fate was linked to hundreds of years of racist oppression. But this was just a little over 60 years ago and his accuser is still alive.

The lynch mobs of the post-Civil War era in the US were a form of organized terror, not too unlike the genocidal gangs of colonial settlers who exterminated or ethnically cleansed much America’s indigenous population. But the phenomenon differed in that most cases involved a white woman accusing a black male of sexual assault or rape. For centuries racial stereotypes permeated the American consciousness. But following Reconstruction, ever more insidious myths were circulated among a demoralized white majority. They conditioned an entire society to view black people as devious and savage. Black males, in particular, were cast as threats to the so-called purity of white women. This was exemplified in the notorious film “Birth of a Nation,” which was shown in Woodrow Wilson’s White House to much praise. The “brute” moniker was a pejorative term that dehumanized black men as threats and was common over a century ago. It has evolved into the use of the word “thug.”

Today the legacy of America’s racist beginnings can be seen in its institutions that carry out a modern day version of lynching in the form of harassment, incarceration and police brutality. Children like Tamir Rice are among the victims of a system that justifies this continued violence in the name of public safety. It should come as no surprise, then, that Teresa Klein called the police after her spurious claim in a New York deli. She was confident of her social position and, after all, why shouldn’t she be? We have seen several instances of this recently in viral videos capturing white people claiming to be victims while making frantic 911 calls on others for the crime of existing while black. Seldom, if ever, do these people face real consequences save being called out on social media, despite the fact that they are literally putting more black or brown bodies in harms way for nothing. Consciously or not, these individuals are maintaining a caste system built through violence that has existed long before the formation of the republic itself.

Noting that American policing was, at least in part, rooted in the legacy of slave patrols, it is worth reflecting on how it has evolved since. Under a capitalist system the police function primarily as the protectors of private property. As the dispossession of Native Americans from their ancestral lands and the African Slave Trade were both key factors in the economic growth of the United States, it is important to understand that throughout its 242 year history, and long before, the ruling class in America enshrined white supremacy into its governance. Prior to 1856 only landowning, white men could vote, approximately 6% of the population at the time. So it is easy to understand how this history has informed the culture to this day.

Today’s spate of viral videos showing, in many cases, unhinged white fragility at the mere existence of free black people in their presence is a reflection of a broader and generalized angst over a perceived loss of power, privilege and social control. And with a president who has employed racist canards, demonized immigrants, transgender people and Muslims, and has routinely dehumanized people of color, it isn’t too difficult to understand how this persistent strain within American society has been emboldened once again.

Emmett Till still haunts the American consciousness. His torn face is emblematic of the racist strain that still runs deep in the culture. The photographs of his mutilated body show a boy chewed up by a violent culture of entrenched privilege, class repression and virulent social hatred. He was photographed in the coffin that he was laid to rest in at his mother’s request, and we should be forever grateful to her for what must have been the most difficult decision of her life. Because with that one act, she showed the country what it truly was.


How Emmett Till's Murder Changed the World

I n 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett Till traveled from his home in Chicago to stay with a great-uncle in Tallahatchie County, Miss., his mother was nervous. Though the world was changing &mdash the Brown v. Board of Education decision had come the year before &mdash the Deep South was still a dangerous place to be black. Till&rsquos mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who had grown up in the rural county (a &ldquosnake-infested swamp,&rdquo as TIME described it that year), warned him of the risks. She told him “to be very careful&hellip to humble himself to the extent of getting down on his knees,” per TIME.

&ldquoLiving in Chicago,&rdquo she explained at the trial of his murderers, &ldquohe didn’t know.&rdquo

The teenager was abducted at gunpoint from his great-uncle&rsquos home on this day, Aug. 28, 60 years ago, by two white men who accused him of having whistled at a white woman in a grocery store. His body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days later. He had been brutally beaten and shot in the head.

An all-white jury acquitted the defendants (the husband and brother-in-law of the woman who complained about Till), who later confessed to the killing in a raw, unremorseful interview with Look magazine. One said that they had intended only to beat the teen, but decided to kill him when he showed no fear &mdash and refused to grovel.

&ldquoWell, what else could we do? He was hopeless,&rdquo J.W. Milam, the woman&rsquos brother-in-law, is quoted as saying. &ldquoI’m no bully I never hurt a [n—–] in my life. I like [n—–s] &mdash in their place &mdash I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, [n—–s] are gonna stay in their place.&rdquo

Because Milam and his accomplice had already been tried once for Till&rsquos murder, the public confession did not yield more charges. But it provoked national outrage and became as powerful a catalyst in the civil rights movement as Rosa Parks&rsquo refusal to give up her bus seat just a few months later. As the Los Angeles Times later put it: &ldquoIf Rosa Parks showed the potential of defiance, [some historians] say, Emmett Till’s death warned of a bleak future without it.&rdquo

Sixty years later, at a time when race relations are once more at the front of the American mind, Till&rsquos name is still invoked as a reminder of the worst consequences of ignoring the problem. Not coincidentally, his story has inspired a resurgence of interest from historians and scholars as well as from TV and movie producers. Jay Z and Will Smith recently announced that they are collaborating on an HBO miniseries about him Whoopie Goldberg is working on a film called Till, scheduled to begin production next year and two more films are in the works, based on the book Death Of Innocence: The Story Of The Hate Crime That Changed America and the play The Face of Emmett Till, respectively.

Both the book and the play were co-written by Till&rsquos late mother, who became a prominent civil-rights figure following her son&rsquos funeral, when she insisted on an open casket so the world could see what had been done to him.

Read TIME’s original 1955 coverage of the Emmett Till case, here in the archives: Trial by Jury


Walking with Emmett Till’s Legacy

Whereas other nearby historical sites teach the story of Emmett Till’s murder, this park in Glendora, Mississippi, located along the Black Bayou provides a peaceful and scenic space for visitors to reflect on the legacy of that tragedy. 14 signs dot the paved walking trail and exhibit quotes from a wide range of people on the Till murder. These signs help the visitor make sense of this horrific murder and even reflect on how to help push race relations forward today.

The fact the park rests along the banks of the bayou where along with Till, Clinton Melton was murdered and his wife Beulah Melton died in a car accident makes this a very emotional experience. The Black Bayou Bridge from which Till’s murdered body was allegedly tossed into the Black Bayou below is adjacent to the park and well worth a visit. It is amazing that what was once an overgrown, preferred location to dump the bodies of these victims now helps teach understanding, tolerance and hope.

“Ground Zero for Civil Rights”:

Glendora’s connection to the Till murder makes it “Ground zero for civil rights” according to Johnny B. Thomas, the town’s mayor since 1986. Mr. Thomas started the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center in 2005 and also provides the Till Trail of Terror tour to many of the historic sites associated with Till’s murder in Tallahatchie County.

Group Effort Builds Park:

The park was created in 2010 by Glendora residents, Prairie View A&M University and Dr. Mildred Clark of the Calvary Baptist Church. Members from each of these organizations, including residents from New York, provided the signage quotes. The quote from Simeon Wright, Till’s cousin who bore witness to much of the Till events, were initiated by Prairie View which helped seek out the family.

Brings Glendora Together:

Glendora residents use the park and stage for 4th of July celebrations, Annual Glendora Day, Gospel festivals, Hip Hop concerts, Blues concerts and family/school reunions.


The family of Emmett Till remembers his life and legacy on the 65th anniversary of his death

August 28 marked the 65th anniversary of the kidnapping, beating and murder of 14 year old Emmett Louis Till. The family of Emmett Till held events August 27 through August 30 to remember the life and legacy of Emmett.

In 1955, Emmett Louis Till came to Mississippi from Chicago to visit his family and never returned home. Emmett was kidnapped, tortured, lynched and murdered in Money, Mississippi for whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, at Bryant’s Grocery. Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant and his half brother J.W. Milam, confessed to Emmett’s murder to Look Magazine for $4,000 after being acquitted by an all white jury in Sumner, MS.

During the trail, Carolyn Bryant testified that Till grabbed her and verbally threatened her. Five decades later, Bryant confessed, “That’s part not true,” according to author Timothy Tyson. In his book, The Blood of Emmett Till, Tyson writes that she told him, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and cousin of Emmett, said the 65th anniversary weekend is to make sure that the public remembers the significance of Till’s life. “There is still a thick line that connects from Emmett Till to those deaths that are happening today,” said Watts. “We are concerned about the lack of respect for our humanity, the lack of respect for our dignity and our lives. We truly believe that black lives matter.”

Edelia “Dr. Jay” Carthan, a cousin of Till, pointed out that August 28 is also the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which Till’s death inspired.

“Tensions in the south were high after the historic Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education ending segregation in public schools. Emmett’s death galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and changed the course of history forever. When Jet magazine printed that photo of Emmett’s disfigured face, people from all around the world were shocked and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement,” said Carthan. “People, white and black came from all around the world to fight in the Civil Rights Movement.”

The weekend of events kicked off Thursday. College students hosted a virtual Generation Z panel discussion titled Hear My Voice with the following panelist: Activists Maisie Brown, Marquise Hunt, Brianna Reaves and Grace Stanley. A candidate forum was also held virtually and was hosted by Mississippi Freeman Democratic Party President Cardell Wright and Public Policy Analyst Shalonda Spence, which included candidates from around the nation.

On Friday, the anniversary of Till’s murder, the family requested everyone to wear black and white to represent unity. Councilman Kenneth Stokes held a luncheon for family and friends of Till at Picadilly’s in the Medial Mall. The family also held a prayer vigil for Till at City Hall and hosted a virtual panel discussion focused on will there ever be justice for Emmett Till. Some of the panelists included filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, who produced the documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, civil rights veteran Flonzie Brown Wright, civil rights attorney Jaribu Hill, former FBI agent Dale Killinger and exonerated Central Park Five survivor, Yusef Salaam.

A March for Peace and Justice for Emmett Till was held Saturday. About 50 participants marched around the state Capitol and then headed to the delta for the Emmett Till Trail of Tears and Terror Tour. The weekend of events ended Sunday with virtual worship services.

“It is important that we recognize and remember the bravery of Mamie Carthan Till Mobley who changed history by letting the world see what they did to her baby in Money, MS after the sheriff sent orders not to open Emmett’s casket,” Beauchamp said.

“When people saw Emmett’s unrecognizable picture, people from around the world got involved in the Civil Rights Movement.” One hundred days later, the Montgomery Bus Boycott started. Rosa Parks said she thought about Emmett Till when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.

The family is still seeking justice for Till. “What does justice look like for black and brown people?” Marquise Hunt, a social activist and an Emmett Till Ambassador, asked. Six-five years late and the family has yet to receive justice.”

The Justice Department announced the closing of the Till case on the 65th anniversary of his death. This racially-motivated hate crime that ultimately helped launch the modern day civil rights movement.


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