the first thing i thought about when i read the verdict news today was emmitt till
Emmett Till was the son of Mamie Till and Louis Till. Emmett's mother was born to John and Alma Carthan in the small Delta town of Webb, Mississippi ("the Delta" being the traditional name for the area of northwestern Mississippi at the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers). When she was two years old, her family moved to Illinois. Emmett's mother largely raised him on her own; she and Louis Till had separated in 1942.
Emmett's father, Louis Till, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. While serving in Italy, he was convicted of raping two women and killing a third. He was executed by the Army by hanging near Pisa in July 1945. Before Emmett Till's killing, the Till family knew none of this, having been told only that Louis had been killed due to "willful misconduct". The facts of Louis Till's execution were made widely known after Emmett Till's death by segregationist senator James Eastland in an apparent attempt to turn public support away from Mrs. Till just weeks before the trials of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the implication being that criminal behavior ran in the Till family.
In 1955, Till and his cousin were sent to stay for the summer with Till's uncle, Moses Wright, who lived in Money, Mississippi (another small town in the Delta, eight miles north of Greenwood).
Before his departure for the Delta, Till's mother cautioned him to "mind his manners" with white people.
Till's mother understood that race relations in Mississippi were very different from those in Chicago. Mississippi had seen many lynchings during the South's lynching era (ca. 1876-1930), and racially motivated murders were still not unfamiliar, especially in the Delta region where Till was going for a visit. Racial tensions were also on the rise after the United States Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in public education.
Till arrived on August 21. On August 24, he joined other young teenagers as they went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to get some candy and soda. The teens were children of sharecroppers and had been picking cotton all day. The market was owned by a husband and wife, Roy Bryant and Carolyn Bryant, and mostly catered to the local sharecropper population. Till's cousin and several black youths, all under 16, were with Till in the store. Till had shown them photos of his life back home, including one of him with his friends and girlfriend, a white girl. The boys didn't believe that he had a white girlfriend and dared him to talk to a white woman in the shop.
Till whistled at storekeeper Carolyn Bryant, a married white woman. She stood up and rushed to her car. The boys were terrified, thinking she might return with a pistol, and ran away.
Bryant's Store in Money, Mississippi. This picture was taken in 2005
Carolyn Bryant told others of the events at the store, and the news spread quickly. When Bryant's husband returned from a road trip a few days later and was told the news, he was greatly angered. By that point, it seemed that everyone in Tallahatchie County had heard about the incident, which had several days to percolate. Different versions were disseminated. Till's cousin, Wheeler Parker, Jr., who was with him at the store, claims Till did nothing but whistle at the woman. "He loved pranks, he loved fun, he loved jokes... in Mississippi, people didn't think the same jokes were funny." Carolyn Bryant later asserted that Till had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date. She said the young man also used "unprintable" words. He had a slight stutter and some have conjectured that Bryant might have misinterpreted what Till said. Bryant decided that he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, 36, would meet at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday to "teach the boy a lesson."
At about 12:33 a.m. on August 28, Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, came in a car with two people in the back whose identities have still not been confirmed, and kidnapped Emmett Till from his great-uncle's house in the middle of the night. According to witnesses, they drove him to a weathered shed on a plantation in neighboring Sunflower County, where they brutally beat and then shot him. A fan was tied around his neck with barbed wire in order to weigh down his body, which they dropped into the Tallahatchie River near Glendora, Mississippi, another small cotton town north of Money.
Afterwards, with Till missing, Bryant and Milam admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle's yard but claimed they turned him loose the same night. Some supposed that relatives of Till were hiding him out of fear for the youth’s safety or that he had been sent back to Chicago where he would be safe. Word got out that Till was missing and soon NAACP civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the state field secretary, and Amzie Moore, head of the Bolivar County chapter, became involved, disguising themselves as cotton pickers and going into the cotton fields in search of any information that would help find the young visitor from Chicago.
After Till's body was recovered, the brothers and the police tried to convince people that it wasn't Till; that Till was in Chicago and that the beaten boy was someone else. Till's features were too distorted by the beatings to easily identify him, but he was positively identified thanks to a ring he wore on his finger that had been his father's. His mother had given it to him the day before he left for Money. The brothers were soon under official suspicion for the boy's disappearance and were arrested August 29 after spending the night with relatives in Ruleville, just miles from the scene of the crime.
Moses Wright, a witness to Till's abduction, told the Sheriff that a person who sounded like a woman had identified Till as "the one," after which Bryant and Milam had driven away with him. Bryant and Milam claimed they later found out Till was not "the one" who had allegedly "insulted" Mrs. Bryant, and swore to Sheriff George Smith they had released him. They would later recant and confess after their acquittal.
In an editorial on Friday, September 2, Greenville journalist Hodding Carter, Jr. asserted that "people who are guilty of this savage crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," a brave suggestion for any Mississippi newspaper editor to make at the time.
After Till's disfigured body was found, he was put into a pine box and nearly buried, but Mamie Till wanted the body to come back to Chicago. A Tutwiler mortuary assistant worked all night to prepare the body as best he could so that Mamie Till could bring Emmett's body back to Chicago.
The Chicago funeral home had agreed not to open the casket, but Mamie Till fought their decision. The state of Mississippi insisted it would not allow the funeral home to open it, so Mamie threatened to open it herself, insisting she had a right to see her son. After viewing the body, she also insisted on leaving the casket open for the funeral and allowing people to take photographs because she wanted people to see how badly Till's body had been disfigured. News photographs of Till's mutilated corpse circulated around the country, notably appearing in Jet magazine, and drew intense public reaction. Some reports said that up to 50,000 people viewed the body.
Emmett Till was buried September 6 in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. The same day, Bryant and Milam were indicted by a grand jury.
When Mamie Till came to the state of Mississippi to testify at the trial, she stayed in the home of Dr. T.R.M. Howard in the all-black town of Mound Bayou. Others staying in Howard's home were black reporters, such as Cloyte Murdock of Ebony Magazine, key witnesses, and Congressman Charles Diggs of Michigan, later the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Howard was a major civil rights leader and fraternal organization official in Mississippi, the head of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), and one of the wealthiest blacks in the state.
The day before the trial, Frank Young, a black farm worker, came to Howard's home. He said that he had information indicating that Milam and Bryant had help in their crime. Young's allegations sparked an investigation that led to unprecedented cooperation between local law enforcement, the NAACP, the RCNL, black journalists, and local reporters. The trial began on September 19. Moses "Mose" Wright, Emmett's great-uncle, was one of the main witnesses called up to speak. Pointing to one of the suspected killers, he said "Dar he," to refer to the man who had killed his nephew.
Another key witness for the prosecution was Willie Reed, an 18-year-old high school student who lived on a plantation near Drew, Mississippi in Sunflower County. The prosecution had located him thanks to the investigation sparked by Young's information. Reed testified that he had seen a pickup truck outside of an equipment shed on a plantation near Drew managed by Leslie Milam, a brother of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. He said that four whites, including J.W. Milam, were in the cab and three blacks were in the back, one of them Till. When the truck pulled into the shed, he heard human cries that sounded like a beating was underway. He did not identify the other blacks on the truck.
On September 23 the all-white jury, made up of 12 males, acquitted both defendants. Deliberations took just 67 minutes; one juror said, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long." The hasty acquittal outraged people throughout the United States and Europe and energized the nascent Civil Rights Movement.
Aftermath of the trial
Even by the time of the trial, Howard and black journalists such as James Hicks of the Baltimore Afro-American named several blacks who had allegedly been on the truck near Drew, including three employees of J.W. Milam: Henry Lee Loggins, Levi "Too-Tight" Collins, and Joe Willie Hubbard. They were never called to testify. In the months after the trial, both Hicks and Howard called for a federal investigation into charges that Sheriff H.C. Strider had locked Collins and Loggins in jail to keep them from testifying.
Following the trial, Look Magazine paid J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant $4,000 to tell their story. Safe from any further charges for their crime due to double jeopardy protection, Bryant admitted to journalist William Bradford Huie that he and his brother had killed Till. Milam claimed that initially their intention was to scare Till into line by pistol-whipping him and threatening to throw him off a cliff. Milam explained that contrary to expectations, regardless of what they did to Till, he never showed any fear, never seemed to believe they would really kill him, and maintained a completely unrepentant, insolent, and defiant attitude towards them concerning his actions. Thus the brothers said they felt they were left with no choice but to fully make an example of Till, and they killed him. The story focused exclusively on the role of Milam and Bryant in the crime and did not mention any possible part played by others in the crime. The article was published in Look in January 1956. While some found it repugnant that Look had paid these men $4,000, the editorial position was that the good of getting the public to know the truth outweighed the bad of these men being paid a lot of money.
In February 1956 Howard's version of the events of the kidnapping and murder, which stressed the possible involvement of Hubbard and Loggins, appeared in the booklet Time Bomb: Mississippi Exposed and the Full Story of Emmett Till by Olive Arnold Adams. At the same time a still unidentified white reporter using the pseudonym Amos Dixon wrote a series of articles in the California Eagle. The series put forward essentially the same thesis as Time Bomb but offered a more detailed description of the possible role of Loggins, Hubbard, Collins, and Leslie Milam. Time Bomb and Dixon's articles had no lasting impact in the shaping of public opinion. Huie's article in the far more widely circulated Look became the most commonly accepted version of events.
In 1957 Huie returned to the story for Look in an article that indicated that local residents were shunning Milam and Bryant and that their stores were closed due to a lack of business.
Milam died of cancer in 1980 and Bryant died of cancer in 1994. The men never expressed any remorse for Till's death and seemed to feel that they had done no wrong. In fact, a few months before he died, Bryant complained bitterly in an interview that he had never made as much money off Till's death as he deserved and that it had ruined his life. Emmett's mother Mamie (as Mamie Till Mobley) outlived both men, dying at the age of 81 on January 6, 2003. That same year her autobiography Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (One World Books, co-written with Christopher Benson) was published.
In 1991, a seven-mile stretch of 71st street in Chicago was renamed "Emmett Till Memorial Highway," after the slain child. In 2006 a Mississippi historical marker marking the place of Till's death was defaced, and in August 2007 it went missing. Less than a week later a replica was put up in its place.
In 2005 the "James McCosh Math and Science Academy," where Till had been a student, was renamed the "Emmett Louis Till Math And Science Academy." It is the first Chicago school to be named after a child.
In 2001, David T. Beito, associate professor at the University of Alabama and Linda Royster Beito, chair of the department of social sciences at Stillman College, were the first investigators in many decades to track down and interview on tape two key principals in the case: Henry Lee Loggins and Willie Reed. They were doing research for their biography of T.R.M. Howard. In his interview with the Beitos, Loggins denied that he had any knowledge of the crime or that he was one of the black men on the truck outside of the equipment shed near Drew. Reed repeated the testimony that he had given at the trial, that he had seen three black men and four white men (including J.W. Milam) on the truck. When asked to identify the black men, however, he did not name Loggins as one of them. The Beitos also confirmed that Levi "Too-Tight" Collins, another black man allegedly on this car, had died in 1993.
In 1996, Keith Beauchamp started background research for a feature film he planned to make about Till's murder, and asserted that as many as 14 individuals may have been involved. While conducting interviews he also encountered eyewitnesses who had never spoken out publicly before. As a result he decided to produce a documentary instead, and spent the next nine years creating The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. The film led to calls by the NAACP and others for the case to be reopened. The documentary included lengthy interviews with Loggins and Reed, both of whom the Beitos had first tracked down and interviewed in 2001. Loggins repeated his denial of any knowledge of the crime. Beauchamp has consistently refused to name the fourteen individuals who he asserts took part in the crime, including the five who he claims are still alive.
On May 10, 2004, the United States Department of Justice announced that it was reopening the case to determine whether anyone other than Milam and Bryant was involved. Although the statute of limitations prevented charges being pursued under federal law, they could be pursued before the state court, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and officials in Mississippi worked jointly on the investigation. As no autopsy had been performed on Till's body, it was exhumed on May 31, 2005 from the suburban Chicago cemetery where it was buried, and the Cook County coroner then conducted the autopsy. The body was reburied by relatives on June 4. It has been positively identified as that of Emmett Till.
In February 2007, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that both the FBI and a Leflore County Grand Jury, which was empaneled by Joyce Chiles, a black prosecutor, had found no credible basis for Keith Beauchamp's claim that 14 individuals took part in Till's abduction and murder or that any are still alive. The Grand Jury also decided not to pursue charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham, Roy Bryant's ex-wife. Neither the FBI nor the Grand Jury found any credible evidence that Henry Lee Loggins, now living in an Ohio nursing home, and identified by Beauchamp as a suspect who could be charged, had any role in the crime. Other than Loggins, Beauchamp still refuses to name the 14 people who he says were involved although the FBI and District Attorney have completed their investigations of his charges and he is free to go on the record. A story by Jerry Mitchell in the Clarion-Ledger on February 18 describes Beauchamp's allegation that 14 or more were involved as a legend.
The same article also labels as legend a rumor that Till had endured castration at the hands of his victimizers. The castration theory was first put forward uncritically in Beauchamp's "Untold Story" although Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett's mother) had said in an earlier documentary directed by Stanley Nelson, "The Murder of Emmett Till," (2003) that her son's genitals were intact when she examined the corpse. The recent autopsy, as reported by Mitchell, confirmed Mobley-Till's original account and showed no evidence of castration.
In March 2007, Till's family was briefed by the FBI on the contents of its investigation. The FBI report released on March 29, 2007 found that Till had died of a gunshot wound to the head and that he had broken wrist bones and skull and leg fractures.