Jackson Daily News
August 25, 1985
EMMETT TILL: MORE THAN A MURDER
Slain Chicago Youth was a ‘sacrificial lamb’
By JOE ATKINS
Jackson Daily News Staff Writer
SUMNER – For much of the late summer and early fall of 1955, this little Delta town and the rest of Mississippi squirmed under the glare cast by the slaying of a 14-year-old black youth named Emmett Till and the trial and exoneration of the two white men accused of killing him.
It was the first but not the last time the world saw Mississippi as a battleground for black civil rights.
Till, whose bloated corpse was fished out of the Tallahatchie River seven days after he whistled at a white woman in the nearby community of Money, was no civil rights worker. But his death 30 years ago this week and the trial of his alleged killers in Sumner became rallying points for the movement.
“It was the first step of the changes that eventually came to the whole South,” says now-retired new York Times correspondent John Popham, who covered the Till trial. “The stage was set and it gave us the general sense of where things would be in the future.”
Emmett Till died six years before the first “freedom riders” arrived in Mississippi to fight for integration, seven years before James Meredith became the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi, eight years before state NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers was shot to death in Jackson and nine years before three civil rights workers died during the “freedom summer” of 1964.
But only four months after Emmett Till died, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Ala. That act prompted a black boycott of city buses led by a little-known minister named Martin Luther King Jr. and helped launch a nationwide movement.
Events in 1955 that led to the death of Emmett Till
and the trial and acquittal of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant
Aug. 21 – Emmett Till of Chicago arrives in Money for a two-week stay with his great-uncle, Moses Wright.
Aug. 24 – About 8 p.m., Till and his cousins visit Roy Bryant’s store in Money. Till reportedly makes a pass at Roy’s wife, Carolyn, and whistles at her.
Aug. 28 – About 2 a.m., Till is abducted from Wright’s cabin outside Money by two men.
Aug. 29 – J. W. Milam, 36, and Roy Bryant, 24, are arrested on kidnapping charges in Leflore County in connection with Till’s disappearance. They are jailed in Greenwood and held without bond.
Aug. 31 – Till’s body is pulled from the Tallahatchie River near Philipp in Tallahatchie County. He has been badly beaten and shot once in the head. A 70-pound cotton gin fan is tied with barbed-wired [sic.] around his neck.
Sept. 3 – At least 250,000 people turn out to view Till’s body as it lies in state at a Chicago funeral home.
Sept. 6 – A Tallahatchie County grand jury indicts Milam and Bryant on murder and kidnapping charges. On the same day, Till is buried in Chicago.
Sept. 23 – An all-white, all-male jury acquits Milam and Bryant on the murder charges. The kidnapping charges in Tallahatchie County were dropped after testimony showed the abduction occurred in Leflore County.
Nov. 9 – A Leflore County grand jury in Greenwood refuses to indict Milam or Bryant for kidnapping.
Milam died of cancer Dec. 31, 1981. Bryant has divorced Carolyn and remarried. He runs a store in the Mississippi Delta.
Emmett Till’s death wasn’t the reason Rosa Parks took her stand. But the publicity surrounding Till’s slaying and the September 1955 trial did arouse many blacks, says Parks, 72, now and aide to U. S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., in Detroit. “It was a very tragic incident,” she says. “Many such incidents had gone unnoticed in the past.”
For many whites in 1955, Emmett Till’s death showed “for the first time that you couldn’t have a quiet little lynching without getting real attention,” says veteran Mississippi journalist Bill Minor, who covered the Till trial for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Emmett Till’s 77 year-old great-uncle, Crosby Smith, remembers his sister Lizzie and her husband, Moses Wright, coming into the house that early Sunday morning of Aug. 28, 1955, and telling in frightened voices what had happened at their home.
“Lizzie said...they had come and got him,” recalls the ailing black man, his voice rising above the soft droning of a huge fan in the bedroom of his Sumner home. “I drove down there and sat on that porch ‘til 12 noon. Didn’t a chicken cross that yard.”
Till, a Chicago youth in Mississippi for a visit with relatives, had been taken away by two white men – apparently because he had taken a dare four days earlier outside Roy Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in the tiny Leflore County community of Money.
About 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 1955, Till reportedly waked inside the store and flirted with Bryant’s pretty 21-year-old wife, Carolyn.
She later testified in court that a black man came in the store, asked her for a date and put his hands on her waist before a friend hustled the man outside. When she went outside the store to get a pistol out of her sister-in-law’s car, the man whistled at her and was quickly whisked away by his friends.
Roy Bryant learned of the incident after returning from a trip to Texas two days later.
“A white woman in those days was mighty untouchable,” says 62-year-old Harold Terry, a white federal crop agent who lives a few yards from the site of Moses Wright’s cabin near Money. “A white woman was on a pedestal.
“Bryant’s wife was a pretty woman. A real pretty woman.”
So it happened that on Aug. 28, at about 2 a.m., as Till was sleeping in the back bedroom of his great-uncle Moses’ and great-aunt Lizzie Wright’s cabin, “Uncle Mose” heard shouting outside. The cabin was near Money, 25 miles southeast of Sumner.
When the 64-year-old sharecropper opened the door, he testified during the trial in September 1955, he saw a tall, heavyset white man carrying a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other. Another man stood in the darkness behind him.
“I want that boy who dirty-talked at Money,” said the man holding the pistol. Within a few minutes, the two men had the boy in the back of a pickup truck and were riding off into the night.
The next day, after waiting until noon, Crosby Smith notified the Leflore County Sheriff’s Department of Till’s disappearance. That afternoon, two white men – J. W. Milam, 36, and his 24-year-old half brother, Bryant – were arrested on kidnapping charges in Leflore County and jailed without bond in Greenwood.
On Aug. 31, about 9 miles from Money near Philipp in Tallahatchie County, Till’s corpse was dragged out of the Tallahatchie River.
His face had been bludgeoned and he had a bullet hole in his head. A 70-pound cotton gin fan was tied to his neck with barged wire.
“It was a sad thing. I happened to be down there fishin,’” recalls 65-year-old Roosevelt Sutton of Webb, a black man who saw Till’s body pulled from the river. “All I know is the body. It was ruined. He had a graduation ring on his finger.”
On the day the boy’s body was found, Smith accompanied a deputy sheriff to a black graveyard near Wright’s cabin.
“They had got the body out to the cemetery and dug the grave,” Smith says. “I got there and had the deputy sheriff with me. He told them that whatever I said, went. Everybody was standing around with a look on their face. I said, ‘No, the body ain’t going in the ground.’”
The body was sent to Chicago, where Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, forbade any cosmetic work to alter its mangled appearance. The body lay in state three days until the burial on Sept. 6, the same day an all-white Tallahatchie County grand jury indicted Milam and Bryant on murder and kidnapping charges.
An estimated 250,000 people – most of them black – filed past the body in Chicago before the funeral.
Meanwhile in Tallahatchie County, Sheriff H. C. Strider publicly expressed doubt that the body was Emmett Till’s. Mamie Till Mobley knew better.
“I started at Emmett’s toes and inched my way up to Emmett’s head,” she said in a recent interview, describing the day she identified the body. “When I got through, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was Emmett.”
On Sept. 19, the trial of Milam and Bryant began in the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner.
Five days later, 12 white, male jurors found the two men innocent, basing their verdict largely on medical testimony disputing the body’s identity.
“I’m glad to get loose,” Bryant told reporters afterward.
In November, a Leflore County grand jury did not return an indictment against the two on kidnapping charges.
Hundreds of curious onlookers, including black Michigan congressman Charles C. Diggs and more than 70 American and foreign correspondents, converged on Sumner before and during the trial of Milam, who died in December 1981, and Bryant, who today runs a small store in the Delta area.
For blacks and many whites across the nation and the world, the news reports journalists wired to their editors must have confirmed the NAACP’s indictment of Mississippi as a place ruled by “a state of jungle fury.”
“By his death, Emmett Till took racism out of the textbooks and editorials and showed it to the world in its true dimensions,” editorialized The Commonweal magazine on Sept. 23, 1955 – the same day Milam and Bryant were acquitted.
Wrote Mississippi author William Faulkner in a dispatch from Rome, Italy: “If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or for what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.”
Emmett Till wasn’t the first or the last black to die after disobeying the white man’s rules.
Before Till ever arrived in Mississippi, tensions had been building here and elsewhere across the South as a result of the U. S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, which declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional.
In May 1955, the Rev. George W. Lee, a black minister from Belzoni, was shot to death after trying to register black voters in Humphreys County.
On May 31, 1955, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled again and demanded that officials start a “prompt and reasonable” effort to desegregate schools. Five days later, state NAACP leaders directed their branches to file petitions in Jackson and four other Mississippi cities to open public schools to blacks.
Meanwhile, other whites already had begun mobilizing white Citizens Councils across Mississippi to fight the high court’s decision.
On Aug. 13, Lamar Smith, a black activist who tried to register blacks to vote, was gunned down in broad daylight on the lawn of the Lincoln County Courthouse in Brookhaven.
“Whites had been killing blacks for years and there was not any real outcry about it, “ says state Rep. Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, who was state secretary of the NAACP in 1955. Emmett Till’s slaying “came simultaneously with the advent of television nationwide. It carried nationwide in that manner.”
Sensitive about Mississippi’s national image, Gov. Hugh White and other state leaders vowed that Till’s killing would be avenged. Major newspapers expressed horror at the crime.
“Initial reaction across the state to the killing of Emmett Till was generally outrage and indignation,” wrote William Simpson, a white Sumner native and professor of history at Louisiana College in Pineville, La., in a 1981 essay on the case.
However, once the Northern press and the NAACP began giving the incident widespread publicity, the state became defensive. “The more outside criticism, the more sympathy that was given the accused,” Simpson says.
Clarksdale Press Register Editor Joe Ellis, whose newspaper adamantly demanded justice in the Emmett Till killing, says local feelings became particularly defensive. “Tallahatchie County always had that circle-the-wagons attitude anyway,” Ellis says.
Frank E. Smith, 67, the Mississippi congressman from 1951 to 1962 whose district included Leflore County, says, “It was one of those tragedies that our people could commit such an outrageous act. What was even more tragic in the long view was the fact that they won respectability with the majority of citizens. That is what brought Mississippi in disrepute.”
But as white Mississippi dug in its heels, a new consciousness began to take hold among blacks and whites elsewhere in the nation.
“All of us realized a change was coming,” recalls Newsday columnist Murray Kempton, who covered the till trial for the New York Post. “We all assumed that the South would be integrated, but the trial dramatized the difficulties that lay ahead.”
Today, many have forgotten Emmett Till and what his death meant to the civil rights movement.
The only statue ever erected in his memory is in a Denver park, where a sculpture dedicated Sept. 5, 1976, portrays Martin Luther King Jr. with his arm around Till’s shoulders.
“We wanted to portray...the struggle that black people had at that time for justice and freedom,” said Denver Councilman Bill Roberts, who was instrumental in bringing the sculpture to Denver.
“We concluded that a statue of Dr. King with his arm hovering over Emmett Till would portray that kind of mission.”
Emmett Till also is being remembered today in his hometown of Chicago with a proclamation from Mayor Harold Washington designating today as Emmett Till Day. “Since Emmett Till was from Chicago, he (Washington) felt that it was an especially important thing for him to do,” said Washington’s deputy press secretary, Laura Washington.
For people like David Jordan, 52, one of three blacks who recently was elected to the once all-white Greenwood City Council, Till’s death and the subsequent trial were a significant key to achieving civil rights for blacks.
“There was no way for progress to be made without someone dying,” Jordan says. “There had to be sacrificial lambs and that is what Emmett Till was.”
Clarion-Ledger staff writers Tom Brennon and Eric Stringfellow contributed to this report.