While visiting his family in Money, Mississippi, Emmett Till, 14, an African American from Chicago, is brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman four days earlier.
His assailants – the white woman’s husband and brother – forced Emmett to carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the bank of the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to remove his clothes. The two men then almost beat him to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, then threw his body, tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, in the river.
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Who was Emmett Till?
Till grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, and although he attended a segregated elementary school, he was unprepared for the level of segregation he encountered in Mississippi. His mother warned him to be careful because of his race, but Emmett liked to play pranks.
On August 24, as he stood with his cousins and a few friends outside a country store in Money, Emmett was bragging that his girlfriend at home was white. Emmett’s African-American companions, not believing him, dared Emmett to ask the white woman sitting behind the counter in the store on a date.
He came in, bought some candy, and as he came out he said, “Goodbye, baby” to the woman. There were no witnesses in the store, but Carolyn Bryant – the woman behind the counter – later claimed he grabbed her, made lewd advances and hissed wolf at her on the way out.
Emmett Till Murder
Roy Bryant, the store owner and the wife’s husband, returned from a business trip a few days later and overheard how Emmett allegedly spoke to his wife. Enraged, he went to Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, with his half-brother JW Milam in the wee hours of August 28.
The couple demanded to see the boy. Despite Wright’s calls, they forced Emmett into their car. After driving through the night, and possibly beating Till in a workshop behind Milam’s residence, they drove him to the Tallahatchie River.
Three days later his body was found but was so disfigured that Mose Wright could only identify it with an initialed ring. Authorities wanted to bury the body quickly, but Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, demanded that he be returned to Chicago.
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Open casket funeral
After seeing the mutilated remains, she decided to hold an open-air funeral so the whole world could see what racist murderers had done to her only son. Jet, an African-American weekly published a photo of Emmett’s corpse, and soon the mainstream media picked up the story.
Less than two weeks after Emmett’s body was buried, Milam and Bryant were tried in a separate courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. There were few witnesses besides Mose Wright, who positively identified the defendants as Emmett’s killers.
On September 23, the all-white jury deliberated for less than an hour before returning a verdict of “not guilty”, explaining that they believed the state had failed to prove the identity of the body. Many people across the country were outraged by the decision and also by the state’s decision not to indict Milam and Bryant on the separate kidnapping charge.
Carolyn Bryant confesses
The Emmett Till murder trial shed light on the brutality of Jim Crow’s segregation in the South and was an early impetus for the civil rights movement.
In 2017, Tim Tyson, author of the book Emmett Till’s blood, revealed that Carolyn Bryant retracted her testimony, admitting that Till had never touched, threatened or harassed her. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she said.
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