Emmett Till was a 14 year old young man accused of flirting with a Mississippi white woman and was brutally murdered for this alleged “indiscretion”. His killers were racist white men conditioned to believe every Afrikan person living in America as sub-human and worthy of ill-treatment. This attitude was pervasive throughout the U.S., reached a crescendo in 1955, and was indicative of the mindset of most white Americans and their stooges across the country.
The practice of treating Afrikan people as less than human continues to this day in much subtler forms. However, we will stick to the subject at hand because chronicling the countless “Emmett Till's”, and their female equivalents, whose blood continues to cry out for justice from the depths of this nation is out of the scope of this article. Instead, the details of the life and assassination of this young innocent is given voice in the words below.
Mamie Carthan knew all too well the type of environment Afrikans lived under in Mississippi. It was the poorest state in the nation with few opportunities for people of color to advance under the conditions of white supremacy. There were certainly no legal rights to protect them from any accusations, true or otherwise, of white supremacists who used the injustice system in their favor. To combat this ill-treatment, her family became part of the great migration that chose to escape this tyranny for decent jobs and more humane living standards. Later on, Mamie met and married Louis Till.
Birth and Childhood
After a difficult breech pregnancy, Mamie Till gave birth to her only child, Emmett Louis Till, on July 25, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois. Louis Till later passed away when Emmett was four. Not wanting to raise the child alone, the two lived with his grandmother, Alma Carthan, who took care of Emmett while his mom worked. Finding a better paying job with the government enabled Mamie and Emmett to move into a place of their own on the southside of Chicago where extended family members also lived nearby.
At the age of six, he contracted polio, which produced a pronounced speech impediment. Despite this ailment, Emmett was otherwise a healthy, happy, playful, sometimes mischievous boy who enjoyed playing pranks on his cousins and friends. His educational interests were the arts and he was a wiz in the sciences. Growing up, he had no concept of the oppressive, impoverished living standards of Afrikans living in the south. By all accounts, he was carefree with no sense of danger. And why should he? Chicago, during the Jim Crow era, was the lesser of two evils compared to the delta of Mississippi.
Facing Racism's Underbelly
In 1955, Emmett wanted to vacation near his mother’s birthplace after a visit from his great uncle, Moses Wright, who entertained the child with stories about life there. Arrangements were made for Mr. Wright to accompany Emmett and his cousin, Wheeler Parker, Jr. to Money, Mississippi where Mr. Wright lived. Another cousin, Curtis Jones, would join them later. Mamie prepped her son about the racist attitudes and customs and warned him to act accordingly in front of whites. Although he wanted to please his mother, he had no idea of the type of people he would be dealing with during his vacation. Nor was he equipped to deal with facing racism's underbelly which was prevalent in this area of the country.
They arrived at their destination on August 21. It was the time of year when cotton was harvested so the boys and their friends, not conditioned to work in such a manner, played in the area until it was time to go home for the day. According to an account by several witnesses who were with Emmett, the boys left for a local country store, then drove to Money to play checkers with some boys there and to make some purchases at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market. In some white owned stores in the South it was customary for only one Afrikan to enter the establishment at a time. This may have been true in the case of this particular store. Emmett entered the store as another boy was leaving and was apparently there for no more than a minute or so to make his purchases. Carolyn Bryant was working the register that day. No one knows what occurred or what was said between the two, we can only speculate.
Emmett went in to buy a dime’s worth of candy and placed the money in Carolyn Bryant’s hand. He apparently touched her hand while attempting to finalize the purchase and she jerked it away as if he had done something inappropriate. In her sick, twisted mind he did. Thinking nothing of his supposed impropriety, Emmett went outside to join the other boys, saw Carolyn Bryant as she headed for her car, and wolf whistled at her. Emmett may have been trying to show off in front of his friends as he was known as a notorious jokester. Mrs. Bryant's account was much different. According to her, during the course of his purchase, Emmet grabbed her wrist, asked her for a date, and said other inappropriate things before finalizing the transaction and leaving the store. She then left the store herself to go to her car to get her gun.
Emmett's wolf whistle alarmed his cousins and friends tremendously because they realized protocol, no matter how innocent, had been broken. If they had known Emmett would whistle at her they would have warned him of the consequences. In any case, it was too late. According to the boys, Carolyn Bryant continued to her car. They thought she may have been headed for the car to get a gun in order to shoot them. They panicked, got into their vehicle, and left for home. According to his cousin, Wheeler Parker, Emmett begged them not to tell their grandfather what happened. The boys promised not to tell.
But everyone was talking about what they think occurred at the store. After returning from a trip to Texas, Roy Bryant wondered what all the talk was about and heard an account of what happened on that infamous day. He was told by a young patron that a "fat black boy from Chicago living with Moses Wright" was the one he was looking for. He went home and questioned Carolyn. She tried to deny it but possibly, fear of being accused of encouraging Emmett's supposed sexual advances, she told her husband her side of the story. Upon hearing his wife’s version, the bloodthirsty Roy Bryant prepared to go on the hunt for his prey.
Simeon & Moses Wright, Emmett's Cousin and Uncle in 1955
Hunted and Kidnapped
In the meantime, Emmett’s cousins heard from their neighbors that they were in trouble for what happened in Money and that Bryant’s husband was overheard saying he would take Emmett from his great uncle’s home to teach him a lesson. Because Emmett's cousins and friends decided not to break their silence and tell Mr. Wright about the incident, by the time he found out it was too late to protect Emmett from the coming firestorm by sending him back to Chicago. It's a decision that still haunts them. When the youths didn't hear anymore about the incident for the next couple of days, they forgot about it.
Around 2:30 in the morning, Bryant, his cousin John William Milam, Carolyn and possibly an Afrikan youth, forced to ride in the truck for the purpose of restraining Emmett, arrived on the Wright's doorstep. According to Mr. Wright, Bryant and Milam went to the door with a gun and a flashlight demanding to speak to Wright and Emmett. Wright opened the door. Bryant asked him if there were two boys in his home from Chicago, Wright confirmed this inquiry.
These two terrorists went to the boys room and began interrogating Emmett. His lack of answering their questions in a way they were accustomed by those they considered sub-human made the goons irate. They decided to kidnap Emmett despite his great aunt offering them money not to take the boy. Milam hesitated and considered her offer but Bryant, who was armed and out for blood, decided against it and placed him in the truck. Before leaving, Bryant told the Wright’s he would only rough the boy up and bring him back home.
Emmett: Before and After
Tortured, Beaten, and Murdered
Not long after that, the distraught Mr. Wright decided to take his friend, John Crawford, with him to go look for Emmett, but they couldn’t find him. Mr. Wright stayed up all night waiting for his nephew’s return. As dawn approached, he knew he would never see Emmett again. Curtis Jones, Emmett’s cousin who later joined him in Money, overheard Mr. Wright say he was afraid for his life to call the Sheriff. So he took it upon himself to contact the authorities and his own mother in Chicago. Hysterical with the news of her nephew’s murder, she contacted Mamie about the tragedy. Other relatives in neighboring counties near Money also contacted the Sheriff.
The cowards, Bryant and Milam, took Emmett to Sheridan’s Plantation located behind Milam’s home where they beat, tortured, mutilated his body, and killed him. Several key witnesses heard someone being beaten at the site of the murder scene. He was shot several times in the head, but no one can confirm if that occurred at the plantation or the site where his body was disposed. Also, several witnesses saw the terrorists with either two to four other white men and two to four other Afrikan men with Emmet before his murder in different locations during the night.
It's my opinion and pure speculation on my part that given the state of affairs in Mississippi in 1955, the Afrikan men or boys accompanying Bryant and Milam were most assuredly forced into the scheme at the threat of losing their own lives. The white men were more than likely willing participants and joined in for just for the "fun" of it. I mean, what's the death of an innocent child among friends, right? As if it wasn’t enough that Bryant and Milam easily overpowered Emmett, these lowlifes had to bring in a few more scumbags and possible unwilling participants to help them do their dirty work.
After murdering him, they burned his clothes, placed the body in the bed of the truck, covered it with tarp, and headed back to Bryant’s store. Several witnesses said they saw blood pooling in the back of the truck. The terrorists explained it away by saying they shot a deer. When they arrived at the spot they chose to dispose of Emmett’s remains, his body was wrapped in barbed wire with a 70-lb. cotton gin fan tied around his neck and was thrown in the Tallahatchie River.
Bryant & Milam During Their Trial
Travesty of Justice
When questioned by Sheriff Strider of Emmett’s whereabouts, Bryant and Milam admitted to kidnapping the boy but said they took him back home. The thugs were arrested for kidnapping and were later charged for the murder of Emmett Louis Till. Like many cases of this kind during the dark days of Jim Crow, the trial was a farce. Despite Mr. Wright's courageous testimony and dramatic identification of the killers and the testimony of key prosecution witnesses, the white supremacists serving on the jury came back with a not guilty verdict in an hour. Why did it take only 60 minutes? According to witnesses, the foreman had to make it appear as if the jury was actually deliberating the case so an hour seemed like a nice round number. In actuality, they were sitting around drinking soft drinks and shooting the breeze. To add insult to injury, the kidnapping charges were also dropped six weeks after the murder trial by a grand jury in LeFlore County.
There was a measure of justice that was meted out to the two cowards and some of their cohorts, however. Both of their grocery stores, catering to the majority Afrikan population in the area, were boycotted and had to be shut down or sold. Afrikans working on Milam's farm refused to do so anymore, forcing Milam to turn to bootlegging. Rumor has it that Carolyn Bryant is still alive and living under an assumed name. Years later, Bryant and Milam both died of cancer with the unknown identities of the accomplices going to the grave with them.
Will their accomplices ever be brought to account for their heinous actions? I think you know the answer to that question. Even with the Department of Justice reopening the case and investigating it in 2004, these men remain a mystery. Retribution was forthcoming even for Sherriff Strider who found himself under intense scrutiny after the trial from the outcry in the national and local press. His idiotic statements before the trial helped lay the groundwork for the defense's success in getting a not guilty verdict. He barely escaped an assassination attempt on his life shortly thereafter. Afrikans working on his plantation were incensed by his actions throughout the case and left his employ to work elsewhere.
Mrs. Mamie Till-Mobley Before Her Death in 2003
The Wright family left Mississippi for good and moved to a surburban neighborhood in Chicago. Simeon Wright, now 67, wrote a book chronicaling the events of what happened that fateful day titled, Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till. In it, he also clears up some misconceptions, misinformation, and myths that have been circulating for years. Wright turned his life over to Christ and is now a deacon in the church his grandmother, Alma Carthan, founded. The church is pastored by his cousin Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr.
Mrs. Mamie Till-Mobley passed away in 2003 without ever seeing justice for her son’s murder. However, his death was not in vain. Most notably, a just reward has been served as the two with the most blood on their hands were eaten alive by a deadly disease. Because of Mrs. Till-Mobley's bravery in the face of death threats, she sought the help of local, state, and federal leaders in fighting to bring her son’s killers to justice. Not only that, she called for their execution. She continued to speak out for her son and the brutality he suffered until her last breath.
Her courage in allowing Emmett's remains to be displayed at his funeral may have saved many lives, as well. This decision alone definitely served as a cautionary tale for young Afrikan people in how to navigate the shark infested waters of racism and white supremacy in America in the mid-20th century. It's not an exaggeration to say that her courageous actions sparked a revolution that resonated, not only in this country, but around the world.