This is the story of Emmett Louis Till. He was a young man from Chicago. In August 1955, he travelled to a town called Money, Mississippi, to stay with relatives, including his uncle, Mose Wright. Emmett was only 14 years old. He was, by all accounts, a lively, happy mischievous kid who liked to spend time with friends, and, coming from Chicago, wasn’t fully familiar with the restrictive, racist attitudes towards black people in the South. He left his mother behind, her words of warning to be careful hardly ringing in his ears as he looked forward to his trip. After all, he was only 14 years old.
Money, Mississippi, was a very small community of 400 people, which in 1955 still harboured many of the same prejudices that had existed almost a hundred years earlier during the Civil War. In 1954, the US Supreme Court had ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. This angered many white people, who saw their station in life as already low, yet feared it becoming lower as the very black people they’d pissed on for so long would be, legally and financially at least, their equals. The movement to gain civil rights was gathering pace, and many blacks were preparing to stand up to oppressive policies and racist attitudes. Voter registration was seen by a sizeable proportion of whites in the South as a very real threat to the status quo. In nearby Greenwood an organisation known as White Citizens Councils had been formed in 1954, with the stated and avowed intention to maintain segregation and suppress black progress. In May 1955, a black minister and civil rights leader, George Washington Lee was killed in his car in Belzoni Mississippi, when an assailant with a shotgun drew up alongside and fired through his window. The Sheriff claimed that the lead buckshot found inside the car were Lee’s fillings torn loose by the crash, and tried to declare it as a traffic incident. Only a week before Emmett’s murder, in Brookhaven, Mississippi, black activist Lamar Smith was helping black voters fill absentee ballots on the lawn in front of the County Courthouse, when he was shot at point blank range in front of thirty witnesses including the Sheriff, who refused to make an arrest.
Poor black people struggled to make a living, and were looked down upon by poor white people, who similarly struggled, but who still found a sense of superiority over their black neighbours, along with a sense of resentment that their lot in life wasn’t much better; and who better to burnish their resentment against than black folks?
Into this pressure cooker of tensions stepped Emmett Till. And on the evening of August 24th, he and some local friends went to Bryant’s Store to buy candy. Emmett Till was only 14 years old.
The store was owned by 24 year-old Roy Bryant an his 21 year-old wife Carolyn. Bryant was away fishing for shrimp; his wife was in the store alone, although her sister-in-law was in the rear watching her children. The black kids gathered across the road playing checkers, while Emmett went inside, followed ‘less than a minute’ later by his cousin Simeon Wright. There was a lot of conjecture about what happened; the facts are that after the boys bought candy and left, Carolyn Bryant came out of the store and retrieved a gun from her car outside.
The popular telling of the story at the time had Emmett going into the store, and in various versions, making highly suggestive sexual remarks to Carolyn Bryant; putting his arm around her waist; and calling her ‘baby’. In any case, when the boys saw her come out and get the gun from the car, they thought it best that they should leave.
It was reported that Emmett indicated that he’d like to go back home. In any case, it seems that even Carolyn Bryant wasn’t sufficiently concerned to mention any ‘incident’ to her husband when he returned from his fishing trip on the 27th. It was a hanger-on at the store who decided to stir the pot. Apparently Bryant was angry that she hadn’t told him; she testified to the FBI that she was afraid if she did, he’d beat up Till. Maybe she was afraid he’d beat her up, who knows? Either way, it seems she knew of her husband’s propensity for violent reaction.
In any case, around 3.00 a.m. on the morning of the 28th August, Bryant and his 36 year old half-brother, John William Milam went to Mose Wright’s home and threatened the family until they found Emmett. They dragged him into their pickup and drove him away. Witnesses said they saw the vehicle with two white men in front, and two black men in the rear seat. The next time anyone saw Emmett, he would be unrecognisable.
Moses Wright and a friend searched for Emmett, without success. Bryant and Milam were questioned by the Sheriff, but claimed they’d only driven him around then released him in front of the store. Strange, because three days later his body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River.
The remains of Emmett Till were horrific. His head had been beaten into mutilation. He’d been shot above his right ear, and one eye had been dislodged from it’s socket. He’d also been badly beaten on his back and hips. His body was weighted down with a large, 35 kilogram fan that the murderers had taken from a cotton gin; it was tied to his neck with barbed wire.
Later that day, Bryant and Milam would be arrested, not for murder, but for kidnapping.
Emmett’s mother brought her boy’s body back to Chicago, where she insisted that the coffin be left open for viewing , so that ‘the world could see’. Public opinion, certainly in the North, was outraged, with media outlets demanding action, and black activists groups claiming justification for their campaigns. The attention, however, proved counter-productive in the South. Many people who were otherwise appalled at the murder rallied around against what they saw as outside interference.
Emmett was buried on the 6th September. Milam and Bryant would be indicted for murder and kidnapping on the 7th.
The trial was something of a farce, but inevitably became a cause célèbre for both sides. One one side were those wishing to show that the murder demonstrated the morally corrupt attitudes of a racist, backward South; they were up against those in the South who railed at what they saw as outside interference in their business which struck a chord going back almost a hundred years. In many ways, the attitudes of the Civil War were being played out once again. And as usual, the truth was somewhere between the two political extremes.
As for the Court proceedings, they played out like something from a novel or stage play. The two accused, proudly white and stridently unrepentant, even wearing white shirts as if to prove a point, were to be tried by an all-white, all male jury. Naturally.
The County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi was the sweltering setting for this so-called trial, on a 19th September 1955. The 200 seats inside were all taken; thousands more had to gather outside.
Emmett’s uncle, Moses Wright, did a remarkable thing for a black man in 1955 Mississippi. Called first to the stand, he clearly identified the two accused as the men who’d come to his house and abducted Emmett, standing up and saying ‘There they are’. For a man in his position, to do this in a courtroom full of whites, and before a white jury, was brave in a way we have to admire today.
Another witness, Willie Reed, gave testimony that he’d seen the pickup pass by with several men in, both black and white, and someone who may have been Emmett in the truck bed. He told the court how he’d seen it parked outside the barn belonging to J W Milam’s brother Leslie. For the other side, the Sheriff testified that he didn’t believe the body recovered from the river was Emmett Till, and that he thought Emmett was still alive. But testimony was really of little impact – in 1955 two white men were not going to be convicted in a white courthouse, by a white jury, for the murder of a black person. Not when it was really Mississippi and its morals, its principles, its very way of life, that was on trial.
So, after a short wait, Milam and Bryant were acquitted by that jury of their peers. It took them 68 minutes. They were told by a Sheriff to wait a while to make it look good. One juror said that if they hadn’t paused to enjoy Coca-Cola in the stifling heat, ‘it wouldn’t have taken that long’. Makes you wonder why they bothered to have a trial. Emmett’s life was nothing to these people; his death even less.
But the real value of the outcome was the impetus it gave across to the fight for civil rights, and the spur it gave to those in the South who had a sense of decency, fairness, and justice, (and there were many of them) who felt that the South’s attitudes had once again been highlighted, and once again, found wanting. For instance, the writer William Faulkner, a Missippian himself, wrote ‘If the facts as stated in the Look magazine account of the Till affair are correct, this remains: two adults, armed, in the dark, kidnap a fourteen-year-old boy and take him away to frighten him. Instead of which, the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone, in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him … What are we Mississippians afraid of?’
The article Faulkner refers to is the January 1956 interview for which the two killers were paid around $4000. By now, acquitted in Court, they could hide behind the ‘double jeopardy’ rule. So they happily gave the account of how Carolyn Bryant had eventually reported that Emmett Till had grabbed her hand and asked for a date; how he’d said, ‘don’t be afraid baby, I’ve been with white women before’; and how he’d ‘wolf-whistled’ at her when she followed them outside to get a gun from the car. They told Look how they’d taken him from Moses Wright’s home, intending to threaten and scare him. But Emmett had refused to be cowed, and had cursed and defied them. Of course, they were so full of machismo that at this slight from a black boy they gave up on any self control they may have had.
At first, intending to take him to a high spot 100 feet over the Tallahatchie River and scare him by thinking they’d throw him in, they’d drove around for ages but couldn’t find the place. So they changed tack.
After taking him to a toolshed behind Milam’s house, they said (it was actually Leslie Milam’s barn, but they were protecting him) they beat Emmett. Bryant ‘pistol-whipped’ him with the heavy .45 that he’d brought home from the army, and which he’d used in the past against German prisoners. But Emmett was tougher than they’d expected. He told them, ‘You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are’. So they put him back in the truck and drove around looking for something very heavy, perhaps they’d find an anvil. Then Milam remembered a huge fan he’d seen discarded outside a cotton gin, so they drove over there and loaded into the pickup. Milam claimed this was the only time he was worried, in case they were seen stealing an old fan. Wow.
They took Emmett to a place on the riverbank, and parked thirty yards away. They made Emmett strip naked, and carry the fan to the bank. When he still defied them, Milam shot him in the head with the .45. Then they fastened the fan around his neck with barbed wire, and rolled his young body down into the cold, unwelcoming water. He was, remember, only 14 years old.
Milam also displayed his real character, or more accurately his lack of it. ‘Well, what else could we do?‘ he told Look. ‘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.’
However, having actually got away with murder wouldn’t pay them dividends. In the weeks following the trial, the local black folks boycotted the Bryants’ store, very quickly forcing them out of business. Over the next few years, his prospects didn’t improve. By 1957, the only job he was able to get was as a welder; by 1985 it was aid to have caused him to go blind. A daughter born to him and Carolyn in 1957 was born deaf. His wife divorced him in 1978, taking custody of their children. The next years saw him in trouble for a series of petty fraud crimes, seeing him serve some jail time. By the 1990’s he was suffering from cancer and diabetes, and he died in 1994. He was 63.
His half-brother and co-defendant, J W Milam, struggled to get someone to rent him farming land; he didn’t own any himself. He eventually managed to rent enough acres to plant a cotton crop, but black workers refused to work for him, so he was forced to pay higher wages to whites. He worked at a number of menial plantation jobs. 1969 would see him convicted of writing bad checks, followed by convictions for using a stolen credit card, and later for assault and battery. Another class act. Like Bryant, he too suffered from cancer, and died at the age of 61 on New Year’s Eve 1980. It may be said that these two scumbags lived too long. Emmet Till certainly didn’t live long enough.
As for Emmett, perhaps he did make a suggestive remark. Perhaps he did act cocky and show off a little. Perhaps he did call her ‘baby’. Perhaps he did wolf-whistle. Or perhaps he didn’t. In an interview any years later, Carolyn Bryant was reported to have said that he hadn’t done most of things she’d suggested, and added ‘nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him’. Well, she got that right. But who knows how his life would have turned out? Maybe he would have grown up to be a musician, working in the clubs and bars in Chicago. Or maybe he’d have been knocked down crossing the road. Maybe he’d have joined the Army like his father, and maybe he’d have been killed fighting in Vietnam. Maybe he’d have married and had children of his own, and now be an ordinary old guy of 79, spending time with his great-grandchildren and, sometimes, reflecting on what it was like the time he visited his relatives down in Mississippi, and thinking how not enough has changed in the years since.
Maybe none of those things would have happened. But one thing is certain – Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant, J W Milam, and all the rest of them didn’t have the right to deny Emmett Till the opportunity to find out.
After all, Emmett Till was only 14 years old.