Emmett Louis Till was born on the 25th July 1941 in Chicago Illinois. When he was only a year old his mother and father separated after his mother Mamie discovered that her husband had been unfaithful. He was an abusive and violent man and had previously choked her unconscious. Shortly before Emmett’s fourth birthday his father was executed for the rape and murder of a woman and Emmett was raised solely by Mamie. Emmett was described as industrious however could be easily distracted and was known to pull pranks and often be the centre of attention amongst his peers. In 1955 Emmett’s uncle Mose Wright visited the family in Chicago. He was from Mississippi and would tell Emmett stories about his life down south. Emmett was excited and wanted to see it for himself. Later on it was then planned that Emmett would travel to the small town of Money, Mississippi with his cousin Curtis and uncle Mose. Before he left his mother cautioned him that Chicago and Mississippi were two very different worlds and he should be careful in the way he behaved in front of the whites.
By the 1950’s it was on record that more than 500 African Americans had been killed by lynching and extrajudicial violence in the state of Mississippi. Although less common by the time of Emmett’s trip racially motivated murders were still known to occur. Throughout the south interracial couples were prohibited and many white people publicly fought against this to maintain white supremacy. Even a suggestion of sexual contact within an interracial setting would carry severe penalties for African American men. Racial tensions also increased after the end of segregation in public education in 1954. Many whites strongly and publicly resisted the ruling believing it would lead to interracial dating and marriage. Just a week before Emmett arrived in Mississippi an African American activist Lamar Smith was shot and killed in front of a court for the act of political organising.
14 year old Emmett arrived in Money, Mississippi on the 21st August with his cousin Curtis. They joined a group of local boys and went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy. The store was owned by a white couple called Roy and Carolyn Bryant and Carolyn was running the store alone that day. Curtis left the group of boys to play checkers across the street and Emmett stayed with the group of local teenagers in the store. The facts of the altercation that happened that day are still disputed. Curtis initially claimed that Emmett was showing off a photograph of an integrated class he attended in Chicago. He was said to be bragging to the boys about a white girl in his class that he called his girlfriend. He then said the boys dared Emmett to flirt with the white service attendant Carolyn. Emmett’s other cousin Simeon Wright who was also present had a different account and denied the photo ever existed. Simeon said, “We didn’t dare him to go to the store, that white folk said that. They said he had pictures of his white girlfriend. There were no pictures. They never talked to me.” Curtis many years later recanted his accounts stating they were untrue and apologised to Emmett’s mother. Simeon as well as some of the other children who were outside the store said that Emmett could have wolf whistled at Carolyn. “I think Emmet wanted to get a laugh out of us or something. He was joking around. It scared us half to death.” Also stating,” The Ku Klux Klan and night riders were part of our daily lives.” His mother confirmed after the incident that Emmett often whistled to help alleviate his stuttering that he developed from a case of polio as a young child. She said to help him with his pronunciation of letters she taught him to whistle softly to himself before articulating his words. It is still disputed whether Emmett whistled at Carolyn, at the checkers game across the street or if he did it in order to alleviate his stutter.
Carolyn’s version of events that day were vastly different. She testified that Emmett grabbed her hand while she was stocking the shelves and said to her, “How about a date baby?” After freeing herself from his grasp she stated Emmett followed her then grabbed her by the waist harassing her again saying, “What’s the matter baby, can’t you take it? You needn’t be afraid of me baby,” and saying, “I’ve been with one white woman before.” She then stated that one of his friends ran into the store grabbed him by the arm and then ordered him to leave. One of the older men who was playing checkers across the street urged the young boys to leave quickly knowing the scene could turn violent. The boys immediately left. Carolyn told many people her story of events from that day however never told her husband who was away on a fishing trip at the time. Eventually when he returned word came back to Roy Bryant and he was furious about the encounter as well as not being told by his wife. It’s known that Roy then began obsessing over the situation and would aggressively question African American teenagers who entered his store. Through his questioning Bryant found out that the boy was from Chicago and staying with Pastor Wright. He was overheard from witnesses discussing taking the boy from his house. Decades later in an interview Carolyn admitted that the verbal and physical advances of her story weren’t true and that Emmett did not grab her by the waist or utter obscenities to her. She also stated she couldn’t remember the rest of what happened that day.
On August 28, 1955 at around 2:00am Bryant and his friend Milam drove to Mose Wright’s house armed a with a pistol. They stormed the house demanding for the boy from Chicago. Emmett’s great aunt offered the men money and Mose tried to explain that the boy was from up north and didn’t know any better. They continued to threatened Mose and forced Emmett to put on his clothes while pulling him out of the house. They tied him up in the back of their green pick up truck and drove away. Mose and another man then spent the night driving around the streets of Money trying to find the boy. They returned at 8:00am that morning unsuccessful after some 6 hours of searching. Curtis Jones then called the sheriff’s office to report the crime and called Emmett’s mother to let her know what had happened. Both Bryant and Milam were then questioned by the sheriff. They admitted to taking the boy from the home but claimed they released him in front of Bryant’s store later that night.
Three days after his abduction Emmett’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River by two young boys. His body was swollen and his head and face badly mutilated from being in the body of water and from being severely beaten. It was confirmed he had been shot above his right ear, his eye was dislodged from it’s socket and his body was weighed down in the river by a heavy fan blade that had been fastened around his neck with barbed wire. He was found naked only wearing a silver ring with the initials L.T on it which was confirmed to be worn by Emmett.
The two men were charged with kidnapping and murder. The trial was held in September that same year. The courtroom in the town of Sumner was filled to capacity with 280 spectators who were all segregated in seating areas by race. On the 5th day of the trial the all white and all male jury acquitted both defendants after only 1 hour and 7 minutes of deliberation. After the trial the two men publicly confessed to the murder of Emmett and explained their story of shooting the young boy however due to double jeopardy even after the statements were released the men could not be retried for the case. After this confession the men’s supporters and friends had cut them off completely many of whom had actually given them money to help in their defence trials. The town boycotted both their stores and they were quickly closed and bankrupt. Roy and Carolyn divorced and the two men eventually moved to Texas for a more private life away from Money Mississippi. Both men died in their early 60’s from natural causes.
The timing and circumstances around Emmett’s murder attracted national attention to the case. Although segregation was still well and truly apparent in the south at this time people of all races were outraged that a young boy had been violently killed due to a racial social situation and justice hadn’t been served in punishing those responsible. One letter to the editor published in the Jackson Daily News stated, “Now is the time for every citizen who loves the state of Mississippi to stand up and be counted before hoodlum white trash brings us to destruction.” NAACP operative Amzie Moore considers Emmett’s murder to be the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi or even possibly the entire country. In Montgomery there was a rally for Emmett Till led by Martin Luther King Jr. Not long after this rally a very well known moment in history happened when an African American woman by the name of Rosa Parks was on a segregated bus and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The occurrence sparked the boycott of the public bus system which was intended to force the city to change it’s segregation policies. Rosa has been on record remembering the moment she refused to get up, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back,” she said.
In the last 60 years although admittedly with miles to go equality has come an incredibly long way and these instances of the past which were once considered the normal way of life today is so abhorrently shocking and unbelievable. Although unable to make up for the tragedy, being the catalyst for large scale change in equality Emmett’s legacy has been remembered all around the world and as an important part of history. Some of the ways he has been remembered includes a statue in Denver which was erected in 1976 featuring both Emmett and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1984 a road in Chicago was renamed Emmett Till Road. In 1989 his name was included in the list of forty names of people who had died in the Civil Rights Movement. In 2005 the school in which Emmett attended was renamed the Emmett Louis Till Math and Science Academy. In 2006 the Emmett Till Memorial Commission was founded by the Tallahatchie Board of Supervisors and a year later they issued a formal apology to the Till family. In 2000 in the town of Selma Alabama they held a demonstration for Till on the 35th anniversary of the march over Edmund Pettis Bridge. His mother Mamie who attended later wrote, “I realised that Emmett had achieved the significant impact in death that he had been denied in life. Even so, I had never wanted Emmett to be a martyr. I only wanted him to be a good son. Although I realised all the great things that had been accomplished largely because of the sacrifices made by so many people, I found myself wishing that somehow we could have done it another way.” In 2003 at the age of 81 Mamie passed away due to natural causes. She was buried near her son Emmett where her monument reads, “Her pain united a nation.”