Emmett Till was brutally beaten and murdered in Mississippi in August 1955. He was fourteen years old. He was black. He had made a pass at a white woman. Two men were brought to trial and charged with kidnapping and murdering the boy, but were not convicted; some months later, protected from further prosecution for the same crimes, they confessed their guilt to a reporter. The horrifying racially-motivated murder of this boy helped mobilize the civil rights movement in the segregated United States.
Emmett's mother, Mamie Carthan, was born in Mississippi. Her parents, determined to escape the poverty and racism that characterized the deep south, moved north to Argo, near Chicago, when their only child Mamie was just two. She spent her summers in Mississippi with relatives and her winters working hard in Chicago: she was the first black student to make her high school's honor roll, and the first black girl to graduate. She married Louis Till, a charismatic factory worker and amateur pugilist, when both were 18, over her parents' protests that he was "too sophisticated" for her.
Nine months later their only child, Emmett "Bobo" Till, was born. He was a lively healthy boy, surviving a childhood bout of polio with only a mild stutter to show for it. He was the apple of his mother's eye, but he didn't know his father, who separated from his mother and shipped out with the army when Emmett was just a baby. In 1945 Mamie received a letter from the Department of Defense saying he had been killed because of "woeful misconduct", giving no details; they sent her his signet ring.
A tall and heavy boy - about 5'4" and 160 lbs at the time of his death - Emmett was not shy. School chums recall that he was always joking around and liked to be the centre of attention. He grew up in a solidly middle class Chicago neighbourhood which, though segregated, was a thriving centre for black businesses and culture, quite different from the sharecropping and cotton picking that dominated the south. In Chicago in 1955 the black kids were dancing to a new music, rock and roll; Emmett and his friends were proud of their polyester pants and crepe-soled shoes, just as the girls loved their crinoline-puffed skirts.
That summer Emmett's great uncle Moses "Preacher" Wright came up for a visit. He planned to take Emmett's cousin Wheeler Parker back with him for a visit to the Mississippi relatives, and Emmett wanted to go too. Mamie already had plans to visit relatives in Omaha, Nebraska; she tried to coax Emmett to come with her, promising him he could drive, but he wanted Mississippi. She gave in, but gave her son and his cousin lectures on southern etiquette, afraid that they would get into trouble if they didn't get off the sidewalk to allow a white man to walk by or keep their eyes on the ground when a white woman was around. They thought she was exaggerating. The night before Emmett left for Mississippi, Mamie gave him his father's signet ring. The next day she put him on the train. She would never see him alive again.
Emmett and Wheeler stayed with Moses and his wife Elizabeth in their little cabin near the whistle-stop town of Money. Three days after he arrived, Emmett and a group of five teenagers took a break from picking cotton in the intense afternoon heat; they piled into a car and headed into Money. They went to Bryant's grocery, owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant, a white couple who made their living selling refreshments to black sharecroppers. The young people played checkers and gossiped in the shade of the porch while they headed in, in ones and twos, to buy soda and candy. Emmett started boasting to his friends that in Chicago he had a white girlfriend, and he pulled a photo out of his wallet to prove it. His friends called his bluff, and Emmett realized he'd either have to "prove" it or back down. He went into the store by himself, and Carolyn, who was working the store alone, would later say that he touched her, asked her for a date, called her "baby", and whistled at her. Some of Emmett's friends said they heard a whistle. Whatever it was he said or did, it was obvious that Carolyn was offended; she headed out the front door and made for her sister-in-law's car, parked in front; it had a gun on the front seat. Frightened, Emmett's friends hustled him into the car and took off before Carolyn could reach the weapon.
Carolyn and her sister-in-law Juanita Milam apparently decided not to tell their husbands - Roy and his step-brother J.W. "Big" Milam - what had happened. But Money was a very small town, and word soon got out. This was a south steeped in Jim Crow laws, where blacks and whites were expected to remain separate but equal - a philosphy threatened the year before when Brown v. Board of Education had legislated that segregated education was unconstitutional. Many southern white men felt it was their duty to protect white women from black men who would rape white women if they got the chance, and many saw the drive for voting rights and desegregated education as thinly veiled attempts by black men to gain sexual access to white women. In such an environment, for Roy to ignore the insult to his wife would be to become emasculated in the eyes of the white community, and Roy and J.W. were not going to allow that to happen. They decided to find the boy and "whip him... and scare some sense into him."
Emmett had told Moses what had happened, and had received a lecture; he was scared, and wanted to go home to Chicago, but Elizabeth believed the incident would blow over. But on Sunday morning, two days later, J.W. and Roy drove out to Moses' house at 2 AM and pounded on the door, asking for the boy from Chicago. Moses, southern-raised, knew better than to argue; he called the armed men "sir" and led them to the bed where his nephew was sleeping. The house had no electric lights, and the men shone flashlights around the house and on Emmett. They told him to get up, get dressed, and come with them; to hurry him, they tried to get him not to wear socks, but he insisted on putting on his socks before his shoes. Moses pleaded with them that Emmett was just a boy and didn't know what he was doing; they threatened him: "How old are you, Preacher?" "64." "If you make any trouble, you'll never live to be 65." Elizabeth offered them money, but they just told her to go back to bed. In the dark outside Moses heard them ask another man, "This him?" and, receiving assent, tell Emmett to lie down under a tarpaulin in the back of the truck.
Moses and Elizabeth went to her brother's house, who went to see the sheriff the next day; they also called Mamie in Chicago. Emmett, meanwhile, was being savagely beaten in a tool shed at the back of Milam's house. J.W. would later tell the "Look" reporter that they had just wanted to scare him, but no matter how hard they pistol whipped him with their .45s, they couldn't. They said that in spite of all the beatings, he just said, "You bastards, I'm not afraid of you. I'm as good as you are. I've 'had' white women. My grandmother was a white woman." J.W. was incensed: "They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless." But later sharecropper Willie Reed would testify that he had walked by the shed several times that day and heard screaming that didn't stop, though when J.W. saw him and asked him if he had heard anything, he had said "No, sir".
J.W. had justified the murder of Emmett in his own mind. To the reporter, he explained:
Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers - in their place - 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, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you - just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'
J.W. then related how they ordered Emmett - not bleeding much, he claimed, for pistol-whipping bruises more than it cuts - back in the truck while they went to a cotton gin, where they made him pick up a 75 lb metal fan. They drove him down to the Tallahatchie River and forced him to strip; J.W. shot him through the head, then the two men tied the fan around his neck with barbed wire and threw him in the river. It took them three hours to burn his crepe-soled shoes.
The next day Roy and J.W. were arrested and held without bail; three days later Emmett's bloated corpse was found by two boys who were fishing. Moses identified the body by its signet ring. The sheriff wanted to bury the boy as soon as possible, but Mamie insisted on having his body shipped up to her.
In Chicago, a grief-stricken but defiant Mamie Till cleaned her only son's body, cataloguing its horrendous injuries but noting with relief that he hadn't been castrated, as was common in lynchings. Bravely, she decided to hold an open casket funeral, denying the undertaker's request to "clean up" Emmett's face for public viewing. Over the next three days thousands of Chicagans saw his battered visage for themselves, and horrific photos of the mutilated body appeared in newspapers around the world. International outrage was aimed at Mississippi.
The trial of Roy and J.W. opened in Sumner, Mississippi a month later; the town's slogan, emblazoned on a large sign, was "A good place to raise a boy". Blacks and women were banned from the jury, so it was comprised entirely of white men. In the courtroom, black people stood in the balconies while white people sat on benches below. Media interest was enormous, and over 50 reporters, black and white, descended on the town. The sheriff at first refused to allow black reporters into the courtroom, but when overruled by the judge, segregated them off to the side. (When black congressman Charles Diggs arrived from Detroit, sheriff Strider was incredulous: "A nigger congressman?")
Mamie Till travelled from Chicago for the trial and was cross-examined by the defense, who tried to get her to admit that the body she had seen had not been that of Emmett, who was living with his grandfather in Boston. They tried to make her say that the NAACP had put her up to claiming the body was Emmett's. She did not accept their slander.
Moses Wright stood up in court and when asked who had taken the boy, bravely pointed his finger at J.W. Malim and said simply, "Thar he." It is thought to have been the first time a black man accused a white man in an open court in the south. Immediately afterward he got on a train to Chicago, leaving his cotton ripe in the fields and his car parked in front of his house. He returned once more for the kidnapping trial, but left immediately afterward; he never lived in Mississippi again.
In his summation, defense attorney Sidney Carlton warned the jury that if they didn't free J.W. and Roy: "Your ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I'm sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men." Sadly, he was right: the jury deliberated for 67 minutes, then declared Roy and J.W. not guilty of murder. One juror told reporters they would have decided quicker if they hadn't stopped to drink a pop.
The kidnapping trial did not happen till the next month. In the meantime, a senator found out, and leaked to the press, what Mamie had never been told: that her husband had been executed for raping two Italian women and threatening to kill a third. Mamie publicly asked why a senator could ferret out information that a wife wasn't privy to. She wrote to the president asking for justice, and received no reply. J.W. and Roy were tried for kidnapping; again, they were not indicted, and went free.
Many questions were left unanswered, including what actually happened in the store that fateful day, and who else was with J.W. and Roy the night of Emmett's murder. There were even rumours that some black men were there the night of the killing. During the proceedings black reporter James Hicks charged in a series of articles that black men who knew too much about what had happened had been killed; his accusations caused a recess during the trial as more witnesses were sought. In the end, however, all his efforts did not see justice served: no one ever did time for the murder of Emmett Till.
One hundred days after Emmett's murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat on a segregated bus, launching the Montgomery bus boycott and sparking the civil rights movement in earnest. Soon after, J.W. and Roy sold their story to "Look" magazine for $4000. J.W. was the main narrator of the story of the beating and death of Emmett Till. Those white bigots probably needed the money: blacks boycotted their store, forcing them out of business, and whites ostracized them. Both eventually moved away from Mississippi.
I saw a documentary on PBS last night about this horrifying chapter in American history, and this information was gleaned from that film and from the excellent background information at www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/index.html.
Sad to say, Mamie Till, who was interviewed for the movie, died three weeks before it was broadcast, last night. Till the end of her life she spoke out against the injustice that took her only son's life.