Who Killed Emmett Till? Why This Story Matters

14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped and murdered while visiting Mississippi relatives in 1955

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Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago was kidnapped and killed in the early morning hours of August 28 in 1955 while visiting Mississippi relatives. The sight of his brutalized body in an open casket, displayed to thousands of Chicago mourners a week later, was the spark that lit the modern civil rights movement. Among those moved to action was Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama.

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago was kidnapped in the early morning hours of August 28 in 1955 by two, possibly three, white men. The young man was visiting Mississippi relatives in a small cotton hamlet known as Money, a tiny community spread out on a patch of dirt under very old oak trees with several homes, a few businesses and a red brick church house with a humble graveyard near it.

There are several version of what actually took place. The popular story is that Emmett, accused of whistling at a white store-owner’s wife, was taken to a plantation owner’s tool shed several days later at the edge of Drew in Sunflower County where he was tortured and possiby killed. His body was taken by truck to the small town of Glendora, and several miles from town, it was anchored with barbwire to a 75 pound metal, cotton gin fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.

The sight of Till’s brutalized body in an open pine box casket was shown to thousands of mourners in Chicago a week later, after being returned from the Delta. And this display pushed many who had been content to stay on the civil rights sidelines directly into the fight.

Young Emmett Till’s body showed the world the racial problems belonging to the United States, and gave a new voice for victims of racial injustice.

Among those moved to action was civil rights activist Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, who at the age of 42 refused to obey a city bus driver’s order that she give up a forward seat to make room for a white passenger.

Her action came twelve weeks after an all-white Mississippi jury, after sixty-seven minutes of deliberation, acquitted J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant of the murder of Emmett Till. She was not the first activist to make this move. There had been other attempts. But Parks had been planning her personal protest, and along with the NAACP knew the right time had arrived.

* * * * *

Born in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital in 1941 to Louis and Mamie Till, Emmett should never have been allowed to visit relative in Mississippi. The state was a powder keg after the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education ruling; voting rights and school integration were coming to a head.

On May 17, 1954 the US Supreme Court had ordered public schools desegregated and the watershed case overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine. The Warren Court’s unanimous (9–0) decision stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and paved the way for integration and the modern civil rights movement.

The watershed case overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine, which dated back to the 1896 decision in Plessy versus Ferguson and southern segregationists vowed to oppose this ruling, labeling the day of issuance as Black Monday. A white supremacist organization, Citizens Councils, was quickly formed, with its first meeting taking place in the Sunflower County seat of Indianola.

Brown II, issued one year later, on May 31, 1955 decreed that the dismantling of separate school systems for blacks and whites could proceed with “all deliberate speed.”

In early May of 1955, just three weeks before Brown II and almost four months before Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till was killed, Reverend George Lee, a grocery owner and NAACP field worker in Belzoni was shot and killed at point blank range while driving in his car after voting.

A few weeks later in Brookhaven, Lamar Smith, another black man, was shot and killed in front of the county courthouse, in broad daylight and in front of witnesses, after casting his vote. Both men had been active in voter registration drives and no one was ever arrested in connection with either murder.

Till was just a kid, a black kid from Chicago who had limited ideas about racial politics or an old man called Jim Crow with unspoken rules that varied town by town. Till’s mother had given her son some warning, based on her own experiences living in Mississippi as a young girl but her stern talk didn’t sink in.

When she learned her son was dead, Mrs. Till-Mobley and the NAACP decided the whole world should know what happened to Emmett and held an open-casket funeral in Chicago, allowing a photograph of her son’s disfigured face appear in Jet Magazine:

“…for over four days, thousands of people saw Emmett’s body. Many more blacks across the country who might not have otherwise heard of the case were shocked by pictures that appeared in Jet magazine. These pictures moved blacks in a way that nothing else had. When the Cleveland Call and Post polled major black radio preachers around the country, it found that five of every six were preaching about Emmett Till, and half of them were demanding that “something be done in Mississippi now,” wrote Juan Williams  in his classic Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years., 1954-1965.

Mississippi’s largest newspaper, The Jackson Daily News, termed the murder “brutal” and “senseless,” but complained that the NAACP was arousing “hatred and fear” by calling Till’s murder a lynching.

Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama saw the picture in the newspaper and encouraged by the NAACP decided there would never be a better time to take a stand, something she had been planning to do all along but for which she hadn’t set a date. Thus, Emmett Till’s lynching is said to have sparked the modern civil rights movement.

The trial was dramatic, with coverage by national and international reporters — a first for such a crime carried out in the United States.

As the trial ended:

“Defense attorney John C. Whitten told the jurors in his closing statement, ‘Your fathers will turn over in their graves if [Milam and Bryant are found guilty] and I’m sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that [outside] pressure.”

“The jurors listened to him,” wrote Juan Williams. “They deliberated for just over an hour, and then returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict on September 23rd, the 166th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights. The jury foreman later explained, “I feel the state failed to prove the identity of the body.”

After the murder trial of Milam and Bryant ended in September, with an all-white 12-man jury finding both men innocent in just 67 minutes, the two men later confessed their crime to a national magazine reporter.

* * *

In May of 2004, the U.S. Justice Department reopened the Emmett Till case after a young black filmmaker, Keith A. Beauchamp, produced a documentary articulating the madness of racism in the South of the 1950s.

Then three years passed before a Leflore County Grand Jury decided not to prefer charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham and said no others were involved. The black Mississippi prosecutor wasn’t much help, refusing assistance from the FBI.

Once again, the crime is being reconsidered for opening. Meanwhile, few good words are spoken of the prosecutor, Joyce Chiles, by black Delta residents and others who wanted to see resolution. Some believe that she was compromised by local white planters.

It was not until October 7th, 2008 that the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was actually signed into law by President George Bush who seemed to want to leave something positive of his poor civil rights record. This legislation provided the Justice Department with additional money and resources to investigate unsolved murders committed during the Civil Rights era.

While 422 members of Congress voted in favor of the bill, two voted against it, Rep. Ron Paul and Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. In the Senate, it had been blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn who after much public criticism finally ended his opposition. On September 24, 2008, the full Senate passed the Till bill by voice vote after Senator Coburn lifted his hold.

Putting aside that money is finally available to investigate this cold case and others, it still might fall to the former wife of a dead grocer, Carolyn Bryant Donham, to help bring final resolution to the Emmett Till matter.

Was Bryant’s wife involved? Was she with her husband and his friend, and possibly others on that dark night in 1955 outside of Mose Wright’s home? Who else was there? Did she point out young Emmett as the kid who embarrassed her in their small family grocery store?”

Donham was still residing in Greenwood in the fall of 2009. Some who are familiar with Till’s murder believe that Donham was probably sitting inside the truck that early August morning in Money, waiting to identify Emmett Till when her husband shined a light in the young man’s face, asking her if this was the right person, the young man who’d embarrassed her in his store.

She might tell her story some day, but probably she won’t. Unless she finishes writing her own account for an unidentified publishing house as rumor has it. Will Carolyn Bryant Donham’s book will be hitting the shelves in 2010?

 

 

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