Emmett Till 60 years later: the Untold Story


By Ryan Jones,


Museum Historian


Before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a dream, before Rosa Parks stood up by continuing to sit, before Bloody Sunday, there was a brutal murder in the Mississippi Delta in 1955 that awakened the hearts and minds of an entire generation. The story of Emmett Till is no secret to the Civil Rights Movement. It is even possible now that his story is mentioned in curriculums across the world. But do we really know what occurred in the one-month period in which Emmett Till came to Mississippi and the trial and aftermath of his killers. Why is it relevant today?


Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till visited relatives in the Mississippi Delta months after the landmark 1954 Brown V. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling was made. The climate was boiling with racial tension. Two black men had already been killed for organizing voter registration prior to Till’s vacation. On August 24, Emmett Till went to Bryant Grocery in Money, Mississippi and encountered Carolyn Bryant, the storeowner’s wife. Emmett Till made a purchase, but outside the store, he “whistled” at Mrs. Bryant.


On August 28, Carolyn’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from the home of Mose Wright, his great-uncle. As Till was wrestled outdoors, a woman’s voice identified him as “the one.” Three days later, his body was floating in the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. Grossly deteriorated, Till’s body was identified by Mose Wright because of a ring on his finger.


11935005_10153532133064417_4569171995946145811_nTill’s mother ordered his remains to be shipped home to Chicago. After viewing the horrific condition of her son, Mamie Till opted to have an open-casket funeral so the world could see what racism did to her son. Over 50,000 people viewed the teenager’s corpse during a three-day visitation. Photos of his body were printed in the national weekly reader Jet Magazine and circulated globally to highlight the racial atrocities in the U.S.


In Sumner, Mississippi, the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam began on September 19. From Mose Wright pointing out Bryant and Milam as the two men who kidnapped Emmett Till to Carolyn Bryant’s concocted version of the events at the store, the trial lasted five days. To preserve the racially divided Southern system, an all-male, all-white jury acquitted both men after deliberating for one hour.


The injustice didn’t end there. Knowing double jeopardy protected them legally, the accused Bryant and Milam sold their story to journalist William Bradford Huie of Look Magazine for $3,150. Their public confession led the public to believe they were the only two involved in the murder.


When the FBI reopened the case in 2004, it was discovered that up to three more white men participated in the crime as well as two black men who were forced to participate. The FBI’s investigation was centered on the potential indictment of Carolyn Bryant for involuntary manslaughter. Because leads were cold and witnesses were deceased, there was not enough evidence for an indictment in the FBI’s case. The lynching of Emmett Till is one of the few civil rights cases of this notoriety where there is still no conviction.


11889458_10153527628614417_8808597415925305516_nToday, the deaths of unarmed black teenagers such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have galvanized communities to protest injustice and lack of convictions. Their tragic deaths have forced a nation to talk about the written and unwritten code of racism that still exists. Just as in the 1950s when Emmett Till was killed, a system of injustice is exposed worldwide. There is new vigilance that reveals the victim’s case through ubiquitous video posts. There is a new grassroots activism with the court of public opinion as its platform. Will you join the movement? How can you affect change?

Posted by Connie Dyson at 5:47 PM