The Murder of Emmett Till
"Have you ever sent a loved son on vacation and had
him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that
someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son -- lynched?"
-- Mamie Till Mobley, mother of Emmett Till
In Memory of Mamie Till Mobley November 23, 1921 to Jan 6,
Thank you for pushing forth in the struggle of our people.
Because of you we will never forget.
Emmett Till knew segregation. McCosh Elementary was a public school with
black students only. When Mamie Bradley, (now the late Mamie Till Mobley)
Emmett’s mother, made plans to send him south for the summer on the Illinois
Central, she knew he would have to ride in the train’s colored section. But the
segregation, discrimination and racism Emmett knew in the North was nothing like
the segregation, discrimination and racism he rode into in Mississippi. His only
warning came from his mother, a Mississippi native who had left for Chicago with
her family when she was two years old. She told her boy not to fool with white
people down south. "If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person
goes past, do it willingly."
His cousin, Curtis Jones, recalled that Emmett liked to pull pranks. One
Wednesday evening in August, 1955, Emmett and Curtis drove Mose Wright’s ’41
Ford to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a country store with a big metal
Coca-Cola sign outside.
There the boys met up with some other black children, and Curtis Jones began
a game of checkers with a seventy-year-old black man sitting by the side of the
building. Outside the store, Emmett was showing off a picture of a white girl
who was a friend of his in Chicago. Till bragged to the titillated boys that
this white girl was his girl, and Jones recalls that one of the southern boys
said, "Hey, there’s a white girl in that store there. I bet you won’t go in
there and talk to her." So he went in there to get some candy. When he was
leaving the store, he told her, "Bye, Baby." And that’s when the old man that
was playing checkers started telling us that she would go to her car, get a
pistol, and blow Emmett’s brains out."
The boys jumped in their car as Carolyn Bryant came out the swinging screen
doors. They sped out of the little town.
By the next day the incident had become just a good story to the two northern
boys. But the tale went beyond those in the car. One girl who had heard it
through the grapevine warned, "When that lady’s husband come back there is going
to be trouble. "Roy Bryant was out of town at the time, trucking shrimp from
Louisiana to Texas.
The boys kept the encounter a secret from Mose Wright, hoping it would blow
over. Three days passed, and the boys forgot about Emmett’s "Bye, Baby" to the
pretty white woman. But after midnight on Saturday, a car pulled off the gravel
road and headed through the cotton field to Mose Wright’s unpainted cabin. Roy
Bryant was back from his trucking job. He and his brother-in-law J. W. Milam had
come to Mose Wright’s cabin to get that "boy who done the talkin’," Mose Wright
told the men that the bow was from "up nawth" and didn’t know a thing about how
to act with white folks down south. He told them that the bow was only fourteen
that this was only his second visit to Mississippi. Why not give the boy a good
whipping and leave it at that? As the men dragged Emmett outside, one of them
asked Mose Wright, "How old are you, preacher?" "Sixty-four."
"If you cause any trouble, you’ll never live to be sixty-five," said the man.
They pushed Emmett into the back seat of the car and drove away.
Precisely what happened next is unknown. Two months after the trial, however,
William Bradford Huie, a white Alabama journalist, paid Milam and Bryant $4,000
to tell their story. The two Mississippians attempted to justify the murder by
claiming that they didn’t intend to kill Till when they picked him up at Mose
Wright’s house, that they had only wanted to scare him. But when the young boy
refused to repent or beg for mercy, they said, they had to kill him.
"What else could we do?" Milam told Huie. "He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I
never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers in their place. I know how to
work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice."
Milam drove Emmett to the Tallahatchie River, Huie wrote, and made the boy
carry a seventy-five-pound cotton-gin fan from the back of the truck to the river
bank before ordering him to strip. Milam then shot the boy in the head.
The Milam and Bryant account of the incident left several questions
unanswered. One witness, for example, reported seeing Till and the two accused
with a group of other men, both black and white, before the murder. Who were
they? How and why would Milam and Bryant coerce blacks into helping them? Why
would they need other whites along if they had only wanted to intimidate the
boy? And, would a tongue-tied fourteen-year-old boy really make baiting
comments, as Milam and Bryant allege, to the men who were viciously beating him?
What we do know is that Mose Wright heeded the kidnappers’ order. He did not
call the police. But the next morning, Curtis Jones went to the plantation
owner’s house and asked to use the phone. He told the sheriff Emmett Till was
Till’s body was found three days late. The barbed wire holding the cotton-gin
fan around his neck had become snagged on a tangled river root. There was a
bullet in the boy’s skull, one eye was gouged out, and his forehead was crushed
on one side.
Milam and Bryant hade been charged with kidnapping before the gruesome corpse
was discovered. They were now charged with murder. The speed of the indictment
surprised many. But white Mississippi officials and newspapers said that all
"decent" people were outraged at what had happened and that justice would be
done. Milam and Bryant could not find a local white lawyer to take their case.
The Mississippi establishment seemed to be turning its back on them.
Meanwhile, the tortured, distended body pulled from the river became the
focus of attention. It was so badly mangled that Moses Wright could identify the
boy only by an initialed ring. The sheriff wanted to bury the decomposing body
quickly. But Curtis Jones called Chicago, passing word to Till’s mother first of
Emmett’s death and then of the imminent burial. She demanded that the corpse be
sent back to Chicago. The sheriff’s office reluctantly agreed, but had the
mortician sign an order that the casket was not to be opened.
As soon as the casket arrived in Chicago, however, Mrs. Bradley did open it.
She had to be sure, she said, that it was really her son, that he was not still
alive and hiding in Mississippi. She studied the hairline, the teeth, and in
vengeance declared that the world must see what had been done to her only child.
There would be an open-casket funeral.
The thirty-three-year-old mother collapsed to the concrete train platform
crying, "Lord, take my soul." She had to be taken from the station in a
"Have you ever sent a loved son on vacation and had him returned to you in a
pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that someone needs to tell you
this sickening sight is your son – lynched?" Mamie Bradley (Mamie Till Mobley)
asked reporters afterwards.
Emmett Till’s horribly battered, water-logged corpse would shock and disgust
the city of Chicago, and after a picture of it was published in the black weekly
magazine, Jet, all of Black America saw the mutilated corpse.
On the first day that the casket was open for viewing, thousands and
thousands of people lined the streets outside the Rainer Funeral Home. The
funeral was held on Saturday September 3, 1955, two thousand (2000) people gathered outside the
church on State Street. Mamie Bradley (Mamie Till Mobley) delayed burial for
four days to let "the world see what they did to my boy."
It is difficult to measure just how profound an effected the public viewing
of Till’s body created. But without question it moved black America in a way the
Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation could not match. Contributions to
the NAACP’s "Fight Fund," the war chest to help victims of racial attacks,
reached record levels. Only weeks before, the NAACP had been begging for support
to pay its debts in the aftermath of its Supreme court triumph.
The Cleveland Call and Post, a Black newspaper, polled the nation’s major
Black radio preachers and found five of every six preaching on the Till case.
Half of them were demanding that "something be done in Mississippi now,"
according to the paper.
White Mississippians responded differently as the case became a national
cause. As northerners denounced the barbarity of segregation in Mississippi, the
state’s white press angrily objected to the NAACP’s labeling of the killing as a
lynching. Jackson Clarion Ledger writer Tom Ethridge called the condemnation of
Mississippi a "Communist plot" to destroy southern society. Civil rights
activists were frequently accused of being Communists of Communist sympathizers.
Public opinion in Mississippi galvanized in reaction to the North’s scorn.
Five prominent Delta attorneys now agreed to represent Milam and Bryant. A
defense fund raised $10,000. Signs of support suddenly appeared from the same
local officials who had at first put distance between themselves and the men
charged with the boy’s brutal murder. The sheriff, declaring that the body was
too badly decomposed to be positively identified as Till’s did no investigative
work to help the prosecution prepare its case. A special prosecutor had to be
appointed by the state, but he was given no budget or personnel with which to
conduct a probe.
On September 19, 1955 less than two weeks after Emmett Till was buried in
Chicago, Milam and Bryant went on trial in a segregated courthouse in Sumner,
Mississippi. The press, particularly the black press, was in the courtroom.
Reporters from desegregation, this could make a good story—a telling example of
how the South was reacting to the changing status of Black people.
No one knew if any Black witnesses would dare testify against the white men.
Curtis Jones, who in later years became a Chicago Policeman, recalls that his
mother forbade him to return to Mississippi to testify at the trial of his
cousin’s accused murderers. "My mother was afraid something would happen to me
like something happened to Emmett Till."
Without a witness, there would be no case. But in 1955, for a black man to
accuse a white man of murder in Mississippi was to sign his own death warrant.
Violence had long been used in the South as a means of intimidating Black People
into passivity, but this murder was particularly brutal and all the more
threatening. White Mississippi, angry at the northern press’ interest in the
case, was closing ranks. The word spread throughout the Black community: Keep
your mouth shut.
Mose Wright had not slept at his home since the kidnapping. He feared the men
might return. His wife, Elizabeth Wright, never went back to the cabin after
that night. "Tll Simmie (her son) to get any corset and one or two slips or a
dress or two and bring them to me," she wrote in a note to her husband from her
hiding place. After the indictment, Wright received anonymous warnings to leave
the state before the trial began. He was told to take his family and "get out of
town before they all get killed.
But Wright didn’t leave the state. Although he had been intimidated by the
kidnappers the night they took Emmett, he was now going to be a witness for the
prosecution. A Black man was going to testify.
Just before the trial began, Black reporters had gotten word that Wright
would be a witness. Twenty years earlier, in another Mississippi courthouse,
when a Black boy accused of raping a white woman got up to testify, a white man
in the courtroom pulled out a revolver and started shooting. Anticipating the
fury that Mose Wright’s testimony would prompt, the Black reporters made plans
for the moment, just in case the whites in the courtroom turned on the few
Blacks. James Hicks, a reporter covering the trial for the Amsterdam News,
described their plan this way. "We had worked it out where I was going to get
the gun (from a bailiff) seated in front of the Black reporters, somebody else
was going to take this girl (Cloyte Murdock Larsson, a reporter for Jet) to the
window, she was going to go out the window two floors down…. Then we were just
going to grab the chairs ….. and fight our way out – if we could."
A packed courtroom watched
intently as sixty-four-year-old Mose Wright took the witness
stand. The prosecuting attorney asked him to identify the men
who had come to his home and taken young Till away with them.
Before a white judge, an all-white jury, and armed white
guards, Mose Wright pointed to J.W. Milam. "Dar he" said
Wright, identifying Milam as one of the men. He then pointed
to the other defendant, Roy Bryant, as the second man.
was the first time in the history of Mississippi that a Negro
had stood in court and pointed his finger at a white man as a
killer of a Negro," said Michigan congressman Charles Diggs,
who attended the trial. Actually, Wright’s testimony was not
literally the first such instance, but it was indeed a rare
and courageous act for that time and place.
Afterwards, recalling that moment, Wright said he could "feel the blood boil
in hundreds of white people as they sat glaring in the courtroom. It was the
first time in my life I had the courage to accuse a white man of a crime, let
alone something terrible as killing a boy. I wasn’t exactly brave and I wasn’t
scared. I just wanted to see justice done."
After Mose Wright testified, other blacks came forward. Willie Reed, the son
of a sharecropper, told the court that around six o’clock that morning he was on
his way to buy meat for breakfast when he saw Emmett sitting in the back of a
passing pickup truck. Two other blacks and four white men were also in the
truck, but Reed recognized only Till and J.W. Milam. The truck drove to a shed
on the plantation, and Reed said he then heard cries coming from inside. He ran
to the home of his aunt, Amanda Bradley. The cries became wails and pained
grunts, and then a chant of "Mama, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy."
Who are they beating to death down at the barn, Aunt Mandy? Reed asked Mrs.
Bradley. Then he saw Milam, with a gun in his holster, come out of the shed to
get water from the well. Three other white men came out and joined him.
Eventually, the truck was backed up to the shed, Reed said, and three black men
helped the others roll something wrapped in a tarpaulin into the back of the
pickup. Later he saw the blacks washing out the back of the truck, the blood-red
water soaking into the Mississippi soil.
Amanda Bradley testified to hearing the sound of a beating coming from the
Emmett’s mother identified the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River as her
After they testified, the witnesses were hurried out of town by sympathetic
observers. Congressman Diggs took Willie Reed; other blacks escorted the
Bradleys. Mississippi’s NAACP field secretary, Medgar Evers, and reporter James
Hicks worked together to get Mose Wright out of the state shortly after he
The two defendants never took the stand. The defense consisted of half a
dozen character witnesses. At the end of the five-day trial, John C. Whitten,
one of the five defense attorneys, made his simple pitch to the all-white,
all-male jurors. "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 prosecutor, District Attorney Gerald Chatham, countered that the killing
was a "cowardly act—it was a brutal, unnecessary killing of a human being.’
The jury deliberated a little more than an hour. It was September 23, 1955,
the 166th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights. When the
jurors returned to the court at 5:43pm, Judge Curtis Swango asked for the
"Not guilty," sad J.W. Shaw, the jury foreman. Later, Shaw would assert, "I
feel the state failed to prove the identity of the body."
Reaction was swift. Blacks staged major rallies in Baltimore, Chicago,
Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Youngstown, and Los Angeles. Roy Wilkins of the
NAACP told a crowd in Harlem, "Mississippi has decided to maintain white
supremacy by murdering children. The killer of the boy felt free to lynch
because there is in the entire state no restraining influence of decency, not in
the state capital, among the daily newspapers, the clergy, not among any segment
of the so-called lettered citizens."
Dr. Archibald J. Carey, a former delegate to the United Nations, said the
"shattering damage done to our nation’s prestige in world affairs by the
Mississippi jury rates each of them as America’s public enemy number one."
Around the country, major white dailies editorialized bitterly against the
verdict. Some compared events in Mississippi to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany;
one writer called Till America’s Anne Frank. The uproar was fueled further when
a grand jury refused to indict Milam and Bryant on separate charges of
Through the extensive press coverage, all America saw the injustice that had
taken place. But Black Americans, particularly in the South, saw something else
as well—something that in retrospect is easily overlooked. They saw Black people
stand in a court of law and testify against white people.
THE TILL TRIAL DEFENDANTS IN GREENWOOD, MISS.,
ON SEPT. 30, 1955. THEY WERE ACQUITTED OF MURDERING 14-YEAR-OLD