by Brittany Talissa King
On August 24, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was falsely accused of “flirtatiously whistling” at Carolyn Bryant; a 21-year old white woman in Mississippi. Four days later, his beaten and mutilated body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till became an iconic symbol for the Civil Rights Movement and contemporary movements like #BlackLivesMatter. This horrific murder still reminds America of its racial violence toward black bodies — and why modern murders like George Floyd reveals the “nation’s heritage.”
Emmett Louis Till, also known as “Bobo,” was born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the only child to his mother, Mamie Till. She worked 12-hour shifts as a clerk for the Air Force where she managed “secret and confidential” files. She was known as a strong “extraordinary woman”for all she accomplished.
At home, Emmett was very helpful — solely taking on the domestic housework. His mother recalls,
He told me if I would work and make the money; he would take care of everything else. He cleaned, and he cooked quite a bit. And he even took over the laundry.”
His father, Louis Till, was a private in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was absent from Emmett’s life due to his service. After Louis Till died, Mamie gave Emmett his father’s signet ring to remember him.When Emmett was five years old, he was diagnosed with severe polio. He recovered but was left with a slight stuttering problem. This disability did not affect his connection with others nor his extroverted personality.
He was often playful and, “He loved to tell jokes,” said his cousin, Wheeler Parker. Emmett was known for being a “happy child,” as described by his mother.
In August of 1955, Emmett went to stay with his relatives Simeon Wright (his younger cousin) and Moses Wright (his uncle), in Money, Mississippi, During that summer, Emmett, Simeon, and a group of neighborhood friends often played together — becoming close like brothers.
On August 24, 1955, they all walked to a local grocery store called Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market. Emmett went inside to purchase bubblegum. He was later accused of flirting, whistling, and making advances to the white female clerk, Carolyn Bryant. She was 21-years-old and co-owned the store along with her husband, Roy Bryant.
Later that day, Carolyn told her husband that Emmett whistled and made sexual advances at her. Four days later, on August 28, Roy and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, traveled to find Emmett. The two men arrived at Moses Wright’s home, broke inside, and abducted Emmett from his bed. They took Emmett to their shed and tortured him. Later, they traveled to the Tallahatchie River and shot him in the head. They wrapped Emmett’s mutilated body in barbed wire to a 75-pound metal fan and discarded him inside the riverbank.
A day later, Emmett Till was later found floating in the river. He was so disfigured that identifying him was nearly impossible. A local sheriff arrived at Moses Wright’s home to see if the body found was Emmett. He showed Moses and Simeon a signet ring discovered on the body, which prompted Simeon to say, “That’s Bobo’s ring!” — -the same ring Emmett’s mother gave him after his father died.
Emmett’s body was returned to his mother in Chicago — and because his murder was racially motivated, Mamie Till wanted the world to see what racism did to her son. She held a public funeral with an open casket exposing Emmett’s face, which horrified all 50,000 guests.
The murder trial for Emmett Till convened on September 19, 1955. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam received much support from local white southerners. Various businesses in Money, Mississippi, raised over 10,000 dollars for the men. Also, every lawyer in town offered to represent them in court for free.
The black community who attended the trial was forced to sit in the back of the courtroom. Every day the Tallahatchie County Sheriff, Clarence Strider, walked by the black attendees and taunted them, “Hello, niggers — wasn’t it just like a nigger, to try and cross the Tallahatchie River with a gin fan around his neck.”
During the trial, the most incriminating evidence against Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam came from a white sharecropper named Willie Reed.
The day Emmett was killed, he heard screams and cries from J.W. Milam’s shed late that night. He was threatened not to testify by white locals, but he did anyway. Even based on this evidence, the two white men were later acquitted by the all-white jury.
The verdict of Emmett Till’s trial traveled worldwide and reshaped the Civil Rights Movement. In November, a Mississippian civil rights activist went to Alabama to speak about Emmett’s death at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s church.
In the sanctuary sat Rosa Parks.
After Rosa’s arrest — protesting with the Montgomery bus boycott — she later revealed Emmett’s death motivated her not to move when the white man demanded her to “get up.”
“I thought of Emmett Till, and I couldn’t go back,” said Rosa.
Today, Emmett Till is still an iconic figure within the black liberation movement, including contemporary organizations like #BlackLivesMatter. His legacy lives on in various ways, such as literary works like Remembering Emmett Till by Dave Tell. And memorials like the Emmett Till Interceptive Center, created by Jerome G. Little in Sumner, Mississippi. And in 2018, the Emmett Louis Till Math and Science Academy was established in Emmett’s hometown to honor his life through education.
In 2015, Emmett’s casket was donated to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC, by Emmett’s cousin, Simeon Wright.
In the museum, a dim-lit room plays gospel music — memorializing a realistic funeral, which continues to haunt attendees emotionally.
On January 27, 2017, Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who accused Emmett of sexual misconduct, recently spoke out about it. Timothy Tyson, a Duke University senior research scholar, interviewed Carolyn on what actually happened the day Emmett walked inside the grocery store.
When asked if Emmett Till whistled or made any sexual advances at her, she confessed,
This article was written by Brittany Talissa King for Nearpod in 2018.