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The Murder of Emmett Till

Article by Cody PenningtonJune 4, 2020

14-year-old African American Emmett Till was brutally murdered on 28 August 1955. The details of his murder are infuriating, as are the reasons why it occurred. But even more infuriating were the punishments handed out to the child's murderers.

Article by Cody PenningtonJune 4, 2020

14-year-old African American Emmett Till was brutally murdered on 28 August 1955. The details of his murder are infuriating, as are the reasons why it occurred. But even more infuriating were the punishments handed out to the child's murderers.

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As anyone would know, the beginnings of America were fraught with violence, death, and pure murder. All of which we’ll be discussing today. The details to follow are difficult to hear, but they were and still are important. They were so important at the time, in fact, that Emmett’s mother made every effort to make sure that everyone in the country and around the world knew the awful details of her son’s murder, which truly sparked the beginning of the civil rights movement.


Early Life

Emmett Till was born 25 July 1941 in Chicago, Illinois to mother and father Mamie and Louis Till, respectively. We will not be discussing Louis Till today, but we might in a future article due to the odd and unfortunate facts surrounding his death. But it is fair to say that he was not a nice man. He and Mamie separated 1 year after Emmett was born.


Emmett’s mother Mamie had been born in Mississippi before relocating to Illinois, and we’ll get to why in a moment. Emmett was mostly raised in Chicago, and he did enjoy his life there. As a further bit of detail to Emmett, at the age of six, he actually ended up contracting polio, which gave him a persistent stutter, which could come into play in a few moments.




After Mamie’s separation from Louis, she had married a man named “Pink” Bradley. After their separation, Bradley became very violent and visited Mamie to threaten her, but Emmett forced him to leave the family home by threatening him with a butcher knife. This shows a bit of how much Emmett cared for his mother.


Differences in Chicago and Mississippi

Now we mentioned earlier that Mamie had relocated from Mississippi to Illinois, and there was a great reason for this. The history of Mississippi and racism is a very familiar one. Mississippi is reportedly the state with the largest number of lynchings between 1882-1968 with 581 lynchings according to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). These statistics were not kept prior to 1882, so there were no records showing the number of lynchings prior to this, although we can assume there were many. Also, for the sake of accuracy, I want to mention that lynchings did not only occur against African Americans, although they were absolutely the largest majority of victims at 72.7% of all recorded lynchings.


The awful number of lynchings in Mississippi was also similar to many other southern states, where the largest majority of lynchings occurred. Because of this, African American’s decided to move north or towards the midwest to escape the violence. This was referred to as the “Great Migration” and involved the movement of 6 million African American’s out of the southern United States. Of these 6 million was Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, although not all of Mamie’s family had followed her lead.




One summer, Mamie’s great uncle Mose Wright visited Mamie and Emmett in Chicago and shared stories of living in the Mississippi Delta (northwest part of Mississippi). Emmett decided that he would like to see the state for himself. Mamie had been planning a trip to Nebraska to see other family members but decided to allow Emmett to visit with Mose Wright in Mississippi, not knowing that she would never see her child alive again.


Store Incident

The racial differences between Chicago and Mississippi still persisted after the Great Migration. Chicago was seen as slightly more progressive than Mississippi. So Emmett, growing up in an environment much less dangerous for him, was very likely not familiar with the racist customs of the natives in Mississippi. Mamie did warn Emmett that he should be careful whenever interacting with white people while he visited because they were not as accepting of African Americans.


Well, Emmett arrived in Mississippi and on August 24th he and his cousin met some local children to play in town. They decided they would like some bubble gum, so they went to a well-known shop which was owned by a white couple: 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his wife Carolyn. What happened in this shop has been a cause for debate since the incident occurred. We will be mainly focusing on Carolyn Bryant’s description of events from the trial that came later.




Carolyn Bryant, who was the only person working the front of the store at the time because Roy was out of town, stated that Emmett entered the shop and assaulted her. She says the 14-year-old grabbed her hand while she was trying to collect money from him and asked her for a date. She then said she got free from him and walked around the counter, but Emmett followed her and grabbed her waist. Emmett then allegedly told her he had been with white women before. She claimed that one of the boys then came inside, grabbed Emmett by the arm and said they had to leave immediately. One of the boys denied Carolyn’s claims, stating that Emmett had only been in the shop about a minute before he had entered. They then paid for the candy and left. But as I said, the details are highly disputed.


Either way, when the boys went outside, they saw Bryant also leave the store, walk to her car, and retrieve a pistol from under her car seat. Upon seeing the gun, the boys ran away, and it was at this moment that it was claimed that Emmett allegedly whistled at Carolyn. This was described as a catcall of sorts, but it wasn’t clear if Emmett was whistling at Carolyn or the other boys that were nearby. Emmett’s mother also stated that Emmett had developed a whistle to help cope with his stutter, as you may remember from earlier. Emmett had particular issues with pronouncing ‘B’s, and Mamie believes that Emmett could have had issues asking Carolyne for “bubble gum”, which she may have confused for a catcall inside the shop. But again, all accounts inside the store are debated. Apparently, the main thing that is agreed is Carolyne leaving the store to get a gun, the boys running away, and Emmett whistling outside.




Kidnapping and Murder

After the incident in the store, Emmett went back to his great uncle’s house. Carolyne Bryant, allegedly, did not tell her husband Roy Bryant because she was afraid he would beat up Till for the alleged transgression. After returning to town, Roy eventually heard about the incident from someone who regularly loitered around the Bryants’ store.


After hearing about this, Roy aggressively interviewed several African American boys who entered the store. He was eventually told that Emmett was a nephew of Mose Wright, and was visiting from Chicago. Roy, along with his brother, John Milam, were then overhead discussing how they would take Emmett from Mose’s house. Between 2:00 and 3:30 am four days after the incident at the store, the two men approached Mose’s house armed with a pistol and a flashlight. They knocked on the door and asked Mose where the young boy was.




They were led inside the home and to a room where four children were sleeping. Emmett stood up and one of the men asked, “Are you the N-word who did the talking?” Emmett said yes, and the men told him to get dressed. He went to grab his socks, but was told to just put on his shoes. Emmett told the men that he didn’t wear shoes without socks, and made them wait until he had them on. Emmett’s aunt and uncle both offered the men money and anything else, but the men threatened them to stay quiet. The men then walked Emmett outside, and told him to lay in the bed of the truck, and then drove off.


According to some witnesses, the two men stopped at the store to pick up two African American men. It was claimed that they forced them to participate in the later murder, but Bryant and Milam denied this. Now please be warned that the next bit of information is difficult to hear.


The men attempted to drive to a cliff and threaten Emmett with being thrown off it. However, it was too dark to find. So, they then drove Emmett to a nearby barn. Now, I’m unsure of Bryant, but apparently his brother Milam was a very large man. He had served in the military and stood 6’2” and weighed 235lbs. He was a giant of a man, especially compared to a teenager. The two men (or four, depending on the account) then proceeded to mercilessly beat the 14-year-old, punching him and pistol-whipping him in the face. Some people walked by and stated that they could hear the beating and crying coming from the barn. (Although it was also claimed that Emmett didn’t call out or cry throughout the attack.)




Both Bryant and Milam claimed that their intention was to beat Emmett and toss him in the river to scare him. But during the beating, Emmett called them bastards. He claimed that he was just as good as them. And he also claimed he had already had sex with white women. This infuriated the brothers more. They continued the severe beating and then told Emmett to get back in the truck, although he was severely bruised and battered. They drove Emmett to a nearby cotton farm to find a metal fan that Milam had seen being discarded.


They ordered the beaten 14-year-old to lift the 75lb fan into the truck. They then drove to a bridge near the Tallahatchie River. Milam told Emmett to take his clothes off. Once he was naked, Milam asked Emmett if he still thought they were equal. Emmett said yes, and then Milam took his pistol and fired a single shot into Emmett’s head, just behind his right ear. They then tied his neck to the fan with barbed wire, and dumped it and his body into the Tallahatchie River. Emmett’s body was found three days later by two young white boys fishing in the river. His head and face were severely mutilated, one of his eyes was hanging from its socket; he was only recognisable by his uncle because of a ring he wore regularly.


Now, I know that information was hard to hear. It’s hard to say. But like I said at the beginning, this information is important. It’s important to know that this used to happen to African Americans, and it’s even more important to know that the racism and brutality against African Americans STILL persists to this day. George Floyd is a single example of many. And it’s also important to remember that this murder happened only about 65 years ago. As a reference, Coca-Cola has been around twice that long. So, if you have ever claimed that African Americans need to get over slavery because it happened so long ago, you need to remember just how recent it was that 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and shot by two grown men, because it’s likely that some of your grandparents still remember it happening.





Following his death, there was apparently an effort in Mississippi to have an immediate burial, we’re not sure if this was to hide the fact that Emmett had been lynched or not, but it seems likely. Further to that, no doctor had even done a post-mortem examination on Emmett’s body. Emmett’s mother Mamie states that she had to fight to have the body sent back to Chicago for a proper funeral. To me, this seems like the local government was trying to hide the murder from the public.


When the body arrived in Chicago, Mamie demanded to be able to identify the body herself. She stated, “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” So, she decided to allow public viewings of her son’s dead body within the funeral home days before the funeral. She wanted the public to come and see what those two men had done to Emmett, and 10s of thousands of people came to the funeral home to see for themselves. Reporters were even allowed to take photos of Emmett’s body and distribute them in papers throughout the country. You can actually Google them to this day, and I seriously suggest you do so, so that you can understand the severity of these men’s actions. Mamie’s choice to allow these viewings and photos caused an enormous amount of support for the civil rights movement, and forced the public to no longer ignore what was happening to African Americans.


This then led to the trial of Emmett’s murderers, Roy and Milam. But, listeners, if you’re not already sitting down, I would suggest you find a seat.




Trial and Afterwards

About a week following the murder, the two men were indicted on murder and kidnapping charges. Initially, it seemed that there was a lot of hope for the case to serve justice. Mamie’s decision to publicly display her son’s body had garnered so much attention and support that many spoke in favour of a guilty verdict. Even the population of Mississippi claimed that the actions of Roy and Milam were inexcusable.


However, everything seemed to change overnight. Roy Wilkins, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, spoke out and called the murder a lynching and stated that “Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children." Apparently, Mississippians didn’t take too kindly to a black man, as well as other Northerners, speaking out like they were, and they became deeply offended and angered. The local Mississippi power structure began to heighten their support for the killers. All of the defense attorneys in the area wanted to represent the men. One of the lawyers even said afterwards that he only wanted to represent the men because people were speaking badly of Mississippi.


Now, if you believe that systemic racism is not a thing, you should take a look at this case’s jury selection. To be selected for jury service, you need to be a registered voter. Mississippi state history is full of white people working to enact laws that helped exclude black people from voting. Because this was unconstitutional, they had to do this in less obvious ways. One particular way was by initiating a ‘poll tax’ that needed to be paid for two years before you would be allowed to vote. This was a huge economic burden for the black community because they were the most poor of the population. Most couldn’t pay and the whites knew it.




Another way white Mississippians kept the black community from voting is through a literacy test. All voters were required to read a section of the state constitution and explain the section to a clerk, who would then decide if the person was literate or not. The clerks were, as you can probably imagine, always white. This test excluded about 60% of voting-age black men because many were ex-slaves and unable to read; but it also excluded the remaining percentage because the white clerks would purposefully pick sections of the constitution that were particularly difficult when testing the black community. All of these rules meant that by the time Roy and Milam’s trial came about, none of the black community could be on the jury, since none were registered voters. THAT is institutional racism.


Further to this, a local sheriff also began working with the defense attorneys during jury selection and coached them on which white men would be the most likely to find the men not guilty. By the time the jury selection was finished, it was stated that a first year law student could have won the case.


During the case, the prosecution gave an incredibly strong case that the two men had absolutely kidnapped and murdered Emmett. It was stated by people in the courtroom that it was beyond a doubt the men were guilty. The defense provided multiple witnesses that stated they heard whipping and crying coming from the shed that night, other witnesses that state they overheard the men talking about kidnapping Emmett, and the body of the child was also identified in court by his own mother.


The defense argued that the men had only kidnapped Emmett but had released him that evening. The sheriff of the town, H.C. Stryder, was brought up to testify and stated that, in his experience, the body pulled from the river had been there at least 10-15 days and couldn’t be the body of Emmett Till. Even before the trial had begun, sheriff Stryder was on the defense’s side.




The defense also brought in Carolyn Bryant to testify to Emmett Till’s alleged assault on her. She testified that Till strongly gripped her hand as she held in out on the candy counter to collect money.  She said she jerked her hand loose "with much difficulty" as Till asked her, "How about a date, baby?" When she tried to walk away, she stated, Till grabbed her by the waist and said, "You needn't be afraid of me. I've"--and here Bryant says Till used an "unprintable word"--"white women before."  Bryant testified, "I was just scared to death."  After listening to Bryant's testimony, Judge Curtis Swango ruled it inadmissible though, as people in the courtroom noted, every juror undoubtedly had heard Bryant's story already anyway.


After both parties rested, the jury was sent out to deliberate. When they were led to the room by the sheriff who had assisted in the jury selection, he allegedly told them to wait awhile before coming out, “to make it look good.” They deliberated for 68 minutes. Then the jury, full of mostly middle-aged white Mississippians, found both Milam and Roy not guilty and acquitted the men of all charges.


Now you may find that infuriating. I know I do.


Well, stay seated.




In 1956, a year following the murder, the men sold their story to Look magazine for $3,500. In this article, they confessed to the murder. The men gave details of why they decided to murder Emmett. I’m going to quote Milam from the article, and just know that every single time I say “black person” or “black people'', Milam is actually using the N-Word. Now, Milam stated this after Emmett had called them bastards in the barn.


Milam: "Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a black person in my life. I like black people -- 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, black people are gonna stay in their place. black people 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 black person 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 black person 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. Goddamn you, I'm going to make an example of you -- just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'"


And because the trial had ended and because of the legal principle of double jeopardy, the two men would not be tried again for the murder, and they both remained free until their deaths. Even with this printed confession. This, too, is incredibly infuriating. Justice was not served for this child, at least not in court. But, again, I need you listeners to remain seated, because this story isn’t over.




Late Confession

Firstly, I’ll say what happened to the two killers, Milam and Roy. Milam lost all of his black employees that worked his plantation, and had to pay more money to white farmers. He ended up losing his farm, and then spent a long time moving throughout the U.S. looking for work. Three years after the trial, he was reportedly seen at a bread line trying to get food from the Welfare System, although he denied this. He was then arrested for multiple offenses that included writing bad checks and using a stolen credit card. Eventually he suffered a long and painful battle of cancer and died at 61.


Roy lost his store after it was boycotted by local people. He worked for .75 an hour for a lot of his life. He also got a job as a welder but began to lose his eyesight due to the work. He actually suffered an injury when a piece of steel went into one of his eyes. Which is a missed opportunity, because it should have went through his fucking skull. But before his welding days, Roy actually tried to enter another career. Roy attempted to become a police officer. Although he was never successful. He also had multiple run ins with the law and ended up being divorced by his wife Carolyn. Roy also, thankfully, died of cancer in 1994.


Roy’s wife is who we’ll be ending with. Following the trial, Carolyn Bryant pretty much disappeared into history. There are a few things known about her, but nothing really surfaced until 2007. When she was 72, Carolyn spoke to Timothy Tyson, a senior research scholar at Duke University. Tyson was researching the murder for a new book. In his interview with Carolyn, she stated that the story she told to her husband, the police, and testified to in court was false. She stated that what she had said was not true, and went on to say, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Her lies led to the brutal murder of a 14-year-old child and it’s absolutely unforgivable.





As you listeners can imagine, all of this, the murder, the joke of a trial, the magazine article, it all helped stir up emotions worldwide. In very similar fashion to how things are happening today with George Floyd’s death, the world is watching and it’s demanding change.


Months after Emmett Till’s death, a young woman climbed aboard a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, another racist epicentre of the South. With the thought of Emmett’s death in her mind, she decided to take a seat at the front of the bus, as opposed to the seats meant for black people at the back of the bus. She was arrested, but this pushed for even more reform. A black preacher began speaking about Emmett Till during sermons and speeches, and through a series of further events, he became the face of the civil rights movement that swept the nation.


Many people claim today that laws don’t need to be broken for people to be heard, but we’ve seen from history that sometimes they do. The death of this 14-year-old boy spurred a nation into action, and forced change upon the country, including the changing of laws. And right now, it’s happening again, and it’s the statement of the Unfortunate History podcast that we should all face this head-on, together, and work with each other to make the future a little less unfortunate.


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