Late last fall, the FBI concluded an 18-month investigation into the case of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy. What have we learned (and not learned) about civil rights in the 50 years since?
In November 2005, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that it had concluded its 18-month investigation into the reopened case of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. The FBI’s report, not yet public, has been forwarded to the Mississippi District Attorney’s Office for the Fourth District for review. It is not yet known whether the DA’s office will take further action. This internationally known case involved a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was abducted from his bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night. Three days later, a boy on a fishing trip in the Tallahatchie River found Till’s corpse—battered, mutilated, shot, and weighed down with a 75-pound cotton gin fan. Based on eyewitness testimony about Till’s abduction and an identification of his body by his uncle and mother, Tallahatchie County tried two local white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, for the murder. After five days of trial, a jury of 12 white men deliberated for 67 minutes and voted to acquit. Shortly thereafter, the freed Bryant and Milam sold their “confession” to the murder—in the form of a detailed, gloating testimonial—to Look magazine for $4,000.
The killers’ admission, published only five months after the slaying, was generally consistent with the theory presented at trial: that they had murdered Emmett Till for flirting with Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, as she worked at the Bryants’ convenience store in Money, Miss. Roy Bryant had been out of town at the time, but when he returned and heard of the story, he enlisted his half-brother, Milam, to exact revenge. In their admission, Bryant and Milam said that their initial intention in kidnapping Till was to “just whip him…and scare some sense into him.” However, Till’s apparent fearlessness, even after severe beatings, irked the men into going further. Milam explained:
“Well, what else could we do? 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. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”
According to Milam and Bryant, they then drove Till to a steep bank of the Tallahatchie River, ordered him to strip, shot him in the head, barb-wired the gin fan to his neck, and rolled him into 20 feet of water.
Given the clear-cut finality of the acquittal and post-acquittal admission, why would federal and state officials decide to reopen the case nearly 50 years later? Bryant and Milam are long gone: Milam died in 1981, and Bryant in 1994. Their culpability is not in question. What motivated the FBI’s and prosecutors’ decisions that something new might or should be accomplished? The answers to these questions are both simple and complex. On a conventional, legalistic level, the prosecutorial decision to reopen is based on newly discovered evidence of additional eyewitnesses and living potential defendants. Two filmmakers, Stanley Nelson (“The Murder of Emmett Till,” produced in 2003) and Keith Beauchamp (“The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” produced in 2004), separately identified new eyewitnesses while making their respective documentaries about the Till case. Beauchamp’s investigative efforts over a nine-year period proved particularly salient in locating individuals whose recollections suggest the involvement of several additional observers or participants; he noted that, at a certain point, “I realized that I wasn’t doing interviews—I was taking depositions.” Beauchamp’s evidence proved to be the ultimate catalyst for the decision to reopen.
A more complex set of reasons for the reopening stems from the emblematic significance of the case itself. In announcing the involvement of federal prosecutors, Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta noted, “The Emmett Till case stands at the heart of the American civil rights movement. This brutal murder and grotesque miscarriage of justice outraged a nation and helped galvanize support for the modern American civil rights movement. We owe it to Emmett Till, and we owe it to ourselves, to see whether after all these years, some additional measure of justice remains possible.” While some have questioned the timing and motivations of the Justice Department’s proclamation, there is no disagreement with its assessment of the historic consequence of the death of Emmett Till. Till’s murder is one of the most infamous acts of racial violence in the history of the United States; it profoundly changed the scope of racial discourse in ways that still resonate throughout American culture. His death and the ensuing trial attracted worldwide attention and outrage. His funeral drew mourners in numbers in the tens of thousands, and his mother’s memorable insistence on an open-casket viewing resulted in widespread circulation of an unforgettable Jet magazine photo of his pulverized face. A generation has grown up with the tragic image of Emmett Till’s defaced corpse etched in its memory. That image and its racial meaning have engendered countless works in politics, history, journalism, and the arts, from the 1950s to the present.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, aided by scores of civil rights leaders, politicians, and artists, devoted the rest of her life to preserving her child’s legacy through public education and lobbying to reopen the case. Till-Mobley died in 2003. By the time her efforts finally proved fruitful in 2004, the case of Emmett Till had become a symbol not only of this nation’s history of brutality against African-Americans, but also of the inadequacies of the American legal system in redressing past racial injustices.
In my recent work on the significance of this and other revived murder investigations from the civil rights era, I explore a number of questions about the meaning and usefulness of such reopenings. What “measure of justice” is possible after so many years? What legal actions could compensate for such grievous wrongs? Could any outcomes be meaningful in light of the passage of time? Are present-day convictions for long-ago racial crimes anachronistic or compellingly relevant in healing racial divides and addressing current injustices?
There is a deep ambivalence about the revival of long-dormant racial justice claims. On the one hand, these reopenings can be seen as long-delayed opportunities for truth, justice, and closure. But legal aspirations to repair the past must always be tempered by the knowledge that some injuries are irreparable. Moreover, it would be unfortunate if the cathartic effects of convicting elderly white supremacists obscured our ability to see that much hard work lies ahead in the struggle for racial justice.
In this excerpt from my work, I discuss the recently reopened Till case and its significance in American legal history.
Emmett Till (1941-1955)
For most Americans of a certain age (i.e., for those born before 1950), the memory of Emmett Till can be distilled into a single, searing image: the photograph of his macerated face and upper torso as he lay in his casket. For African-Americans of that same certain age,the image of his bloated, decomposed body was more than disturbing; it was profoundly frightening, even life-changing. The fact that Jet, at Mamie Till’s request, featured the photographs in its Sept. 15, 1955, issue was enormously significant to African-Americans. Jet, along with Ebony, were the trusted national magazines “of record” for black America. They were black-owned periodicals that took the time to cover matters that mainstream (white) magazines would not: blacks’ achievements and activities in education, entertainment, politics, religion, sports, society, fashion, and the professions. With their glossy, photo-filled pages, these magazines were in some respects a shared family album for the extended family of black middle-class America. In publishing the Till photographs, Jet opened its album to show the world a painful family history.
The state of Mississippi had planned to keep Emmett’s visage hidden. When his casket arrived in Chicago for the funeral, Mamie Till noticed that its lid had been screwed down, padlocked, and marked with a state seal. She insisted that it be opened so that she could examine her son’s body:
“I kept on up until I got to his chin and then I—I was forced to deal with his face. I saw that his tongue was choked out. I noticed that the right eye was on midway his cheek, I noticed that his nose had been broken like somebody took a meat chopper and chopped his nose in several places. As I kept looking, I saw a hole, which I presumed, was a bullet hole and I could look through that hole and see daylight on the other side. And I wondered was it necessary to shoot him?”
Mamie Till’s decision to let the world see the brutality wrought upon her son’s corpse was a radical act. Whereas white supremacists traditionally used photographs and other public displays of lynching as emblems of terror, her insistence that “the whole world see” subversively used a graphic display as a tool of confrontation and resistance.
Life and Death: From Chicago, Illinois to Money, Mississippi
Before Emmett Till’s life became a symbol of the horrors of racial hatred, it was unconnected to civil rights, white supremacy, or the South itself. Born in Chicago in 1941 to Mamie Carthan and Louis Till, Emmett Louis Till never got to know his father, an Army private who was shipped to Europe in 1943 and died two years later. In the summer of 1955, Mamie Till, a Chicago civil service employee, planned to take Emmett on a summer vacation to Nebraska to visit relatives. Emmett asked if he could instead join his young cousins in Money, Miss. On Aug. 20, Mamie Till put her son on a train from Chicago to Money to stay with his cousins at the home of his great-uncle, Moses Wright. As a going-away present, she gave Emmett his father’s old ring, which was inscribed with his initials “L.T.”
Information about exactly what happened Aug. 24 through Aug. 28—the end of Emmett’s life—is spotty. However, facts gathered through contemporaneous documents, the aforementioned documentaries, and other sources piece together the following story: On Aug. 24, Emmett and a group of teenagers (seven boys and one girl) ended a day of picking cotton by going to a local convenience store in Money to buy candy, gum, and drinks. Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market was owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant, a young white couple who lived on the premises with their two small children. The grocery’s clientele consisted primarily of black sharecroppers and their families; it was not unusual for a group of black children to enter the store. Wheeler Parker, a cousin who did not testify at trial but who is interviewed extensively in the 2002 Nelson documentary, recalled that Emmett entered the store to buy bubble gum, and that he talked to and whistled at Carolyn Bryant. Parker recounted:
“We all got a-scared and someone said, ‘She’s going to get a pistol.’ That’s when we became afraid. Said, ‘She’s going to the car to get a pistol.’ And as she went to the car, we all jumped in my uncle’s car… And, of course, Emmett Till begged us not to tell my grandfather [Moses Wright] what had took place. And we didn’t. This was on a Wednesday. And we didn’t tell him what had taken place. Ah, so Wednesday went by, Thursday went by, nothin’. Friday. We forgot about it.”
The Nelson documentary also features an interview with Moses Wright, Emmett’s great-uncle, who did testify at trial. He recalled that on Sunday, Aug. 28, at about 2:30 a.m., he heard a voice at the door:
And it said this is Mr. Bryant. And said they wanted the boy that did the talk at Money. And when I opened the door there was a man standing with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other.
Two men then entered the house and insisted that Wright take them to Emmett. Wright begged the two men to relent, explaining that Emmett was only 14 and was “from up north.” “Why not give the boy a whipping, and leave it at that?” The men forced Wright to take them to Emmett; when they found him, they woke him up and told him to put on his clothes. According to Wright, one of the men (whom he identified at trial as J.W. Milam) turned to him and asked, “How old are you, preacher?” Wright replied, “Sixty-four.” Milam said, “You make any trouble, you’ll never live to be sixty-five.”
Wright then recalled: “Near to the car they asked a question, ‘Is this the right one?’ And I heard a voice say, ‘Yes,’ and they drove off toward Money with him.”
That same day, Mamie Till learned of her son’s kidnapping from her family in Miss. The family contacted authorities, who began to search for Emmett near riverbanks and bridges—“where black folks always look when something like this happens,” said Moses Wright. On Aug. 29, Milam and Bryant were arrested and charged with the kidnapping in Greenwood, Miss. On Aug. 31, a boy fishing in the Tallahatchie River found a decomposed body caught on a twisted root; it was weighed down with a cotton gin fan and badly disfigured. Moses Wright identified the corpse as Emmett Till based on the initials “L.T.” on the boy’s ring. On Sept. 2, Emmett Till’s casket arrived in Chicago to be received by his mother, who insisted that it be opened and displayed at the Sept. 3 funeral. The public funeral drew worldwide attention and tens of thousands of mourners. Emmett Till was buried on Sept. 6, at the end of the summer of his 14th year.
Trial and Acquittal: “[I]t was almost like a fourth of July celebration.”
“I want the whole world to see what they did to my boy.”
— MAMMIE TILL, 1955
On the day of Emmett Till’s burial, a Mississippi grand jury indicted Milam and Bryant for his kidnapping and murder. The two men admitted that they had taken Till but insisted that they had let him go. By the time the trial began in the small town of Sumner on Sept. 19, more than 70 reporters and 30 photographers were in attendance. Journalist David Halberstam noted, “The murder of Emmett Till and the trial of the two men accused of murdering him became the first great media event of the civil rights movement.” Milam and Bryant enjoyed broad local support; every lawyer in the county offered support to their defense team, and local stores raised ten thousand dollars for their legal fees. Contemporaneous accounts describe the courtroom as humid, crowded, and rigidly segregated. All blacks involved in the trial and trial coverage (Mamie Till, journalists, counsel, and a U.S. Congressman) sat at a small card table at the side of the courtroom; every morning, the local sheriff greeted the table by saying, “Good morning, niggers!”
The jury consisted of 12 white men. Outside of the jury’s presence, Carolyn Bryant testified that Emmett Till had entered the store, bought two cents’ worth of bubble gum, made “ugly remarks” to her, and whistled at her. Milam and Bryant did not take the stand. Remarkably, given the intimidating courtroom atmosphere, several blacks testified, including Mamie Till, Moses Wright, a teenager named Willie Reed, and Reed’s grandfather Ed (Add) Reed. Mamie Till testified that the corpse that she had examined was her son; on cross-examination, the defense attorneys suggested that she and the NAACP were lying as part of a northern conspiracy. In the Nelson documentary, Mamie Till recalled: “They summed up by saying, ‘Isn’t it true that you and the NAACP got your heads together and you came down here and with their help, you all dug up a body and you have claimed that body to be your son? Isn’t it true that your son is in Detroit, Michigan with his grandfather right now?’” This outlandish strategy laid the foundation for Milam and Bryant’s defense: that the corpse in question was not Till.
The prosecution presented two witnesses who testified that they had seen Milam and/or Bryant with Till on Aug. 28. Willie Reed testified that he had seen Bryant, Milam, and one other white man with Till, and had heard the sounds of a beating coming from Milam’s barn. It was rare for a black man at that time to testify against whites. After testifying, Reed quietly slipped out of town to Chicago, where he was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Moses Wright, Till’s uncle, endured death threats for his role as the key prosecution witness, literally standing up in open court to point his finger in identification of Milam and Bryant as the men who had kidnapped Till from his house. He too had to be smuggled out of the state after his testimony.
The defense’s summation consisted of openly inflammatory supremacist rhetoric. The lead defense attorney warned that if the jury did not free Milam and Bryant, “Your ancestors will turn over in their graves,” and exhorted, “Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.” After 67 minutes of deliberations, the jury acquitted the men on Sept. 23. One juror later commented that the jury had waited that long to “make it look good,” and had paused to drink soda pop before returning with its verdict. The jury foreman explained that the state had failed to prove that the murder victim found was indeed Emmett Till.
Contemporaneous news footage shows Milam and Bryant reacting to the verdict by lighting up cigars, kissing their wives, and grinning for news photographers. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the courthouse. Mamie Till recalled: “…You could hear guns firing. I mean it was almost like a Fourth of July celebration, or it was almost as if the White Sox had won the pennant in the city of Chicago.”
The Immediate Aftermath
In the United States and abroad, the trial and acquittal garnered much scrutiny and controversy. Leading Mississippi newspapers strongly criticized the NAACP and its “sympathizers” for their presence in Sumner, and blamed them for the worldwide condemnation of Mississippians and their justice system. On the other hand, the acquittal galvanized those who viewed it as both a failure of the American legal system and a pivotal event in race relations. The African-American press, northern press organizations, and many other groups denounced the verdict and called for nationwide protests and boycotts.
International criticism of the verdict was ample and harsh. As legal historian Mary Dudziak notes, European public opinion was acutely critical of United States domestic race relations in the Cold War era; the European press pointed out the dissonance between U.S. proclamations of liberty in the international sphere and its own shameful record of racial injustice at home. Headlines characterized the verdict as the “Judicial Scandal” (Le Peuple), the “Scandalous Acquittal in Sumner” (L’Aurore), the “Shame of the Sumner Jury” (Le Figaro), and the “Mockery of Justice in Mississippi” (L’Humanite). In an October 1955 memorandum summarizing European reaction, the Paris Office of the American Jewish Committee reported: “Europe’s condemnation came from all sections of public opinion, all political directions, and was expressed immediately and spontaneously. …These protestations were expressed in hundreds of newspaper editorials, statements by public leaders in every country of Western Europe, and by men in the street.”
In January 1956, Look, a top-selling weekly periodical, published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” Milam and Bryant’s first-person account of how they had murdered Emmett Till. In exchange for $4,000, Milam and Bryant had consented to an interview with journalist William Bradford Huie.
The admission and accompanying story by Huie are startling historical artifacts in several respects. Most important, of course, is that the admission exists at all. Lured by money and publicity, Milam and Bryant provided minute details of their thoughts, motivations, and actions during the kidnapping, killing, and disposal of the body. They offer extended recreations of their confrontations with Moses Wright, Wright’s wife, Elizabeth, and especially Emmett Till. Whether or not their statements are entirely true or embellished with self-serving braggadocio, they are shocking in their hubris and lurid detail. The juxtaposition of their remorseless tale with their acquittal only months before was a mockery of the justice system, a confirmation of blacks’ worst fears about white supremacist lawlessness.
Emmett Till and the Growth of the Civil Rights Movement
Many scholars of the civil rights movement of the late 1950s view the Emmett Till case as a crucial moment in the struggle for black freedom. The murder of a 14-year-old boy for a single cavalier act was hardly an isolated event; it occurred in a context that bridged the history of Southern lynching with the emerging civil rights revolution. Fifteen months before Till’s murder, the U.S. Supreme Court had decided Brown v. Board of Education, which was met with staunch opposition from Southern segregationists. Mississippi in particular emerged as a cauldron of race hatred; two months after the Brown decision, Mississippi supremacists founded the Citizens’ Council to “preserve” the white race from the “mongrelization” of desegregation. In May 1955, two African-American men active in voter registration drives were shot and killed in two separate incidents in Mississippi; no one was arrested in connection with either murder.
Even though Emmett Till’s actions in Bryant’s Grocery were hardly political in an overt sense, Milam and Bryant saw them as the integrationist, rabble-rousing “poison” of an impudent northerner. The fact that Till was a visitor from Chicago only underscored their anger; his actions became “political” the moment he stepped off the train in Money, Miss. It mattered little to Milam and Bryant that he was a 14-year-old boy trying to buy bubble gum; to them, he was a black predator who threatened their way of life.
The year 1955 marked a turning point for the Southern way of life for several important and interlocking reasons. As the first post-Brown year, it fueled not only segregationist backlash, but also further integrationist resistance to Jim Crow laws and institutions. As the year of Till’s murder and his killers’ acquittal, it awakened in many Americans a sense that the whole world had seen not only the death of Emmett Till, but also the brutality of lynching and the disintegration of Jim Crow’s legal and political legitimacy. As the year ended, the unraveling continued: In December 1955, less than four months after Till’s murder, the Montgomery bus boycott was born when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man.
Fifty years after the tragedy of the Emmett Till’s murder, his death and the acquittal of his murderers continue to haunt us. Racial violence continues to proliferate in our society, with scarce remedy emerging from the American legal system. Moreover, as contemporary scholar Michael Eric Dyson notes, there are “young black Emmett Tills who are killed by other young black Emmett Tills in a culture of crime and violence.” But Emmett Till’s legacy is not only wrenching, it is inspiring in its catalytic effect on the modern civil rights movement. Whatever its outcome, the reopening of the Till case reminds us of the transcendent value of looking back. As one famous son of the South, William Faulkner, wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”