Childhood & Early Life
Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois, USA, to Mamie Carthan and Louis Till. His parents separated when Emmett was very young and he was raised by his mother and grandmother.
He contracted polio as a young boy because of which he developed a persistent stutter. He grew up to be a happy child who loved playing pranks on others.
His mother went on to marry a man named “Pink” Bradley. However, this marriage too did not last long.
For several years, Emmett and his mother lived in Chicago's South Side, near extended relatives. His mother was a very brave woman who managed to land a job as a civilian clerk for the U.S. Air Force. Thanks to her job, she was able to provide a fairly comfortable life for her only son.
Emmett was a well-built boy. Stocky and muscular at the age of 14, he was already beginning to look like an adult.
In August 1955, Emmett’s great uncle Mose Wright came to visit them from Mississippi. He told many interesting tales about life in Mississippi which captured the imagination of the young teenager. Curious to know more about Mississippi, he decided to visit the place himself.
Emmett asked his mother to allow him to go to Mississippi with his uncle. His mother Mamie, who was aware of the racial violence in Mississippi, hesitated to grant him permission to visit the place. But the teenager was persistent and finally convinced his mother to let him go.
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Murder & Aftermath
Emmett arrived at Mississippi on August 21, 1955. His uncle Mose Wright was a sharecropper and part-time minister. While he was busy with his work, Emmett would play with his cousins and other black boys in the neighborhood.
On August 24, 1955, Emmett and some of the other teenagers went to buy some refreshments from ‘Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market,’ which was owned by a young white couple, 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his 21-year-old wife Carolyn Bryant.
According to one of the boys whom Emmett had befriended, Emmett had boasted to his playmates that he once had a white girlfriend back at home. The other boys did not believe him and dared him to go and speak to the white lady at the shop. Emmett accepted the challenge and walked inside the shop to speak to the white woman.
What happened inside the shop is disputed. Different sources give different accounts of what transpired. While the white woman in question, Carolyn Bryant, stated that the boy flirted with her, touched her hand, and even grabbed her by the waist, Emmett Till's cousin Simeon Wright challenged her story. Simeon Wright said that he followed Emmett into the store, less than a minute after Emmett had entered, and saw no inappropriate behavior by his cousin. It was also alleged that the black boy whistled as he left the store, though it is not known whether he whistled at the woman or at his playmates.
A few days later, in the early morning of August 28, 1955, the woman’s husband Roy Bryant, accompanied by his half-brother John William "J. W." Milam, arrived at Mose Wright’s house and forcibly kidnapped Emmett Till.
The men brutally assaulted the boy, tortured him, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Meanwhile, Emmett’s relatives had contacted Leflore County sheriff George Smith who questioned Bryant and Milam in connection with Emmett’s disappearance. The men admitted that they had held the boy captive but claimed that they had released him the same day.
Things took a shocking turn when Emmett’s naked, badly mutilated, and bloated body was retrieved from the river three days after his abduction. There was evidence of severe injuries on the body which suggested that the teenager had been tortured and shot to death.
The murder sent shock waves throughout the nation. Even though racially motivated murders were not uncommon in the region, the brutality of the crime and the circumstances surrounding it forced people to reconsider racial segregation, discrimination, and law enforcement.
Devastated by the shocking murder of her only son, Mamie insisted on an open casket funeral. Thousands of people came to see the teenager’s bloated and mutilated body. Publications like ‘The Chicago Defender’ and ‘Jet’ magazine published pictures of the body which caught the attention of the international media and forced people to reconsider the rights of the blacks in the U.S. South.
The trial of Roy Bryant and Milam began in September 1955. The men were tried before an all-white, all-male jury. In a display of great courage, Mose Wright identified Roy Bryant and Milam as Emmett Till's kidnappers and killers. This was a very brave move; it was not common for blacks to openly accuse whites in courts at the time.
Emmett Till’s family and supporters fought hard for justice. However, in spite of the overwhelming evidence against Bryant and Milam, both the men were acquitted of all charges. Hardly a few months after their acquittal, Bryant and Milam admitted to committing the crime to ‘Look’ magazine. However, they were protected by double jeopardy laws, a procedural defense that forbids a defendant from being tried again on the same (or similar) charges following a legitimate acquittal or conviction.
The black community and the civil rights activists, both black and white, were enraged after Bryant and Milam’s admission to the crime and pushed the federal government to investigate the case. Emmett Till’s murder served as a catalyst in the African-American Civil Rights Movement and played a pivotal role in the passage of the ‘Civil Rights Act of 1957.’
In 2017, more than 60 years after young Till’s death, Timothy Tyson released crucial details from a 2008 interview of Carolyn Bryant. In the interview, she had admitted to making up the story that Emmett had hurled obscenities at her. She also said that she had lied about the boy grabbing her waist.
‘The U.S. Department of Justice,’ in its report to Congress in 2018, stated that it was reopening the investigation due to unspecified new information.