By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

A 14-year-old from Chicago was lynched on August 28, 1955, in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a White woman. While Emmett Till’s brutalized body and unrecognizable features became the face of the Civil Rights Movement, 65 years after his death, his murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam served no time in prison and died with the blood of the teen on their hands. There’s been no justice, and 65 years later, no peace.

Till was visiting family in Money, Mississippi when he visited Bryant’s Grocery Store, owned by Carolyn and Roy. Carolyn was working in the front of the store as Roy and his half-brother Milam were on the road for work.

This undated photo shows Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black Chicago boy, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. (AP Photo, File)

Reports vary in terms of how Till flirted with the White woman- from whistling to touching her hand and waist- however after the brief encounter with the teen on August 24, Bryant was said to have grabbed a shotgun and made a vow with her sister-in-law to never share news of the incident with their husbands.  According to reports, a child in front of the grocery store told Bryant and Milam of the incident, enraging them.

Days later, in the early morning hours of Aug. 28, Bryant and Milam were said to have gone to the home of Moses Wright, Till’s great uncle and taken the teen. Wright testified that a third White person, suspected to be Carolyn Bryant, was in the car and identified Till. He was never seen alive again.  

The men proceeded to brutalize Till in heinous ways.  They made Till take off his clothes and tied him to a 75-pound cotton gin fan. Then, Bryant and Milam beat him, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, and threw Till’s body, tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, into the Tallahatchie River. 

Three days later, Till’s body was discovered so badly brutalized and disfigured he was only recognizable by the ring on his finger bearing his father, Louis Till’s, initials.

Before, Till, countless young (and old) Black men had been lynched with no impunity or major headlines.  However, Till’s lynching, disfigurement and funeral served as the catalyst of the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement. 

Despite his disfigured corpse, his mother, Mamie Till (later Till-Mobley) insisted her son have an open casket, which led to thousands viewing the body at the funeral in Chicago and national publications publishing photos of the mutilated teen.

“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” the mourning mother famously said.  Her words reverberated and became a sentence that carried the Civil Rights Movement, as her murdered son’s story kept activists pushing for justice, despite a racist system.

A month after Till was murdered, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-White jury and became celebrities – even selling their interview for $4,000 to a reporter who published their story in Look magazine in January 1956.

Although Bryant and Milam did ultimately fall from grace, and people stopped supporting Bryant’s Grocery Store until it eventually closed its doors, the two White men and woman accuser never served time in prison for their contributions to Till’s lynching.  Further, in 2007, a 72-year-old Carolyn Bryant admitted in an interview that she lied in her original testimony, given under oath, where she testified that Till said inappropriate words, whistled and touched her.  

“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she was quoted saying in Timothy Tyson’s book The Blood of Emmett Till.

The lynching, highly publicized funeral, and the outcry after Bryant and Milam’s acquittal, many activists say was the push needed for the Civil Rights Movement. Months after Till was killed, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, starting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “Rosa said she thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till and she couldn’t do it,” Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson told Vanity Fair in 1988.

The Civil Rights Movement helped make a lot of strides, and certainly Till did not die in vain, as his legacy continues more than six decades after his lynching. However, with no justice served to his murderers, there are still White, racist vigilantes who, like Bryant and Milam, get away with murdering young, Black men, such as 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman.  In fact, Martin’s 2012 murder has been likened to that of Till’s- they were both teens, their murderers were acquitted and their deaths woke up a nation to the horrors of racism while igniting movements (the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter Movements).

Despite the advances since Till’s murder, with recent police killings of Black bodies, systemic racism embedded into the fabric of this country and White people continuing to get away with murdering Black people, protestors are still marching and yelling “No Justice. No Peace.” 

 

Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor