The story of the lynching in 1955 of Emmett Till is both the easiest and the hardest to tell. Easy because so much has been written about it. Hard because it is so absolutely incomprehensible, so tragic, and so heart-breaking. The following comes mainly from two documentaries and Death of Innocence by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, though you cannot read a book about lynching, racism or racial violence without coming upon Emmett’s story.
Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was lynched in Money, Mississippi. He did not grow up in the South. He was raised in Argo, a black community outside Chicago where everyone knew him; indeed everyone was pretty much related to him. Though he suffered from polio as a child, he was well taken care of and survived to grow into a confident young man. Perhaps he had more responsibilities than a lot of children; he helped his single mother do the grocery shopping, cook, clean their Chicago apartment. His mother, Mamie Bradley at the time, was self-admittedly somewhat of a child herself. Her authoritarian mother had dominated her life, and Mamie had grown used to turning to her for most things. This would change in August 1955
Mamie’s first husband, Louis Till, was killed in World War II, not in action, but by the military; more about this later. She divorced her second husband, with whom she lived in Detroit while Emmett stayed behind with his grandmother. She became more independent after that, moving into Chicago proper and securing a responsible government job, but she also began to rely on Emmett’s help more and more.
When the question of Emmett going to visit his great-uncle Mose Wright in MIssissippi came up, Mamie was fearful. She made sure to caution Emmett about what life was still like in the South, where blacks were expected to move off the sidewalk if a white person was advancing toward them, to say “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” and never to contradict or touch a white person, never even to look a white person in the eyes. As a parting present, she gave Emmett a ring of his father’s.
Emmett and a cousin traveled by train to their great-uncle’s cabin. Mose was a sharecropper and also known as “Preacher.” His cabin was isolated. Emmett, by all accounts, started the summer visit with all the anticipation of fun and adventure that 14-year-old boys have. He helped in the cotton fields, he went swimming and fishing, he got into scrapes when his cousins and he took Mose’s car to ride around.
One Wednesday evening, the boys took the car to go to the Bryant store, the only place for miles around where you could get candy or soda. The owner, Roy Bryant, was out of town and his young wife Carolyn was minding the store. There are different accounts of what happened next. In some way, Emmett offended Mrs. Bryant, either by touching her hand when he gave her his money (he should have just put it on the counter) or by intentionally whistling at her or even perhaps by whistling unintentionally (the polio had left him with a stutter and his mother had taught him to whistle before he spoke as a way of relaxing his mouth muscles).
Mrs. Bryant went out to her car and got a gun. The boys skedaddled. They did not tell their uncle what had happened, and Mrs. Bryant did not tell her husband until a few days later because the incident had somehow become public knowledge.
That Saturday evening Bryant and his cousin, JW Milam, went to Mose’s cabin. He testified that they knocked on the door in the middle of the night shouting for the “boy from Chicago” to come out. When he turned on the porch light, he saw guns in their hands. He also saw a third person in the shadows. They entered the cabin and found Emmett in bed and told him to get up and come with them. They took him out to their truck, from which Uncle Mose heard a woman’s voice say, “That’s him.” They put him in the truck and no one ever saw Emmett alive again.
Several days later his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, a cotton gin fan secured by barbed wire around his neck and his face unrecognizable. Though Sheriff HC Strider later testified that there was no way to even tell whether this was a white body or a black body, he immediately called the black funeral director. No autopsy was performed. The body was placed in a sealed casket and shipped to Chicago. The seal of the state of Mississippi said that the casket was not to be opened.
Against the advice and fears of the funeral home in Chicago, Mamie insisted that the casket be opened. And then she spent a horrifying time looking over every inch of Emmett’s naked body. Here’s what she saw: Emmett’s tongue was lolling outside his mouth as if it had been partially cut. One of Emmett’s eyes was missing and the other was lying on his cheek. Emmett’s nose and the top of his head had been cleaved. There was a bullet wound behind his ear. And his father’s ring was on his finger.
Somehow, Mamie Bradley found the strength to demand that Emmett be placed in a coffin with a glass lid so that the world could see what had happened to him. And the world did see. Pictures of his battered body were taken. Thousands of people filed by his coffin before the burial. The story was picked up around the world. Surely justice would be done.
After a travesty of a trial, Bryan and Milam were acquitted. Mose and Willie Reed and others who testified for the prosecution had to leave their homes and move north. A smear campaign directed at Emmett’s family came out, including the fact that Louis Till had been executed by his own side in the war. With no foundation, it was written in newspapers that his offense had been rape. Former fellow soldiers contacted Mamie and told her that Louis had been executed on a trumped-up charge, another lynching.
Not even a year after the trial, journalist William Howard Huie interviewed Milam and Bryant and extracted their confession to the lynching, though they could not now be prosecuted. Indeed, they seemed eager to confess publicly, possibly because the way they told it made 14-year-old Emmett seem like a sexual predator. The confession was published in Life magazine. Milam and Bryant claimed that Emmett had invited Carolyn Bryant to have sex, telling her that he had “had” plenty of white women in Chicago. Their intention, Bryant and Milam said, had been simply to scare him, but the more they beat him, the more defiant he became.
No one will ever know for sure what Emmett’s perceived provocation was. It doesn’t really matter. What happened to him is beyond justification. Though two men who worked to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, the Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith, had been murdered not long before Emmett’s visit, it was his death that brought the eyes of the world to bear on racial violence in the United States. Emmett has passed into the collective conscience of all those who abhor and fight against the evil of racism, and even people who don’t know his story know his name. One would have thought that this could never happen to a child again, until in the next century Trayvon Martin happened to be walking home to his father’s condo while George Zimmerman was on the prowl.