Long before the world had ever heard of the regrettable killings of James Byrd, Ahmadou Diallo, Martin Lee Anderson, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Jonathan Ferrell, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, or Tamir Rice–there was Emmett Till.
Till’s lynching in 1955, and the subsequent picture of his grotesque remains that his mother Mamie Till insisted be published in Jet Magazine and other willing media outlets to highlight the vicious nature of Jim Crow proponents during the 1950’s, is considered one of the seminal events that led to the eventual mass protest action that has since become known as the Civil Rights Movement.
During the summer of 1955, Emmett Till traveled south from Chicago to spend the summer at his grandfather Mose Wright’s home in Money, Mississippi. Young Till’s alleged capital crime that summer was “being uppity,” an offense usually characterized by the perceived disrespect by a black to a white man or sexual advance to a white woman.
On August 28, 1955, four days after allegedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year old white store clerk, Till, 14, was roused from sleep at his grandfather’s home by Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam (pictured below). The pair were accompanied by a cowardly, quisling black man who was charged with pointing Till out from among his other young cousins. Bryant and Milam then drove Till to an undisclosed location where they whipped him, gouged out one of his eyes and shot him in the head. They subsequently tied a cotton gin fan around Till’s lifeless corpse and dumped him into the Tallahatchie River.
When Till’s grossly disfigured body washed ashore, some local whites immediately began the typical damage control of suggesting that the killing was the work of “communists” or the NAACP who were seeking to demonize the good white “Christian” citizens of the South. Courageously, Mose Wright would have none of this outrageous lie as he summoned the strength to point out his grandson’s attackers–a move that led to the arrest of Bryant and Milam.
In September of 1955, a five day trial ended in an 67 minute deliberation and the acquittal of both Bryant and Milam. An issue was whether the deceased was, in fact, Till, as his face was so badly damaged that the only identifying factor was a ring with the initials “L.T.” that his grandfather identified as belonging to Till. One juror infamously said afterwards that “if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
As for Bryant and Milam, the pair later admitted to their murderous act in a “Look” magazine article in 1956, but double jeopardy prevented their being tried for murder.
In 2004, the US Department of Justice reopened the case, a move that led to Till’s body being exhumed and tested to determine whether it was, in fact, him. The conclusion was that it was Till, and while Bryant and Milam had long since died, Carolyn Bryant lives on and has yet to be prosecuted for her part in this despicable crime.
Lest we forget…