Killed for Whistling at a White Woman
This article was published in Emerge (July/August 1995): 24–32. It marked the 40th anniversary since Emmett Till’s murder and relies on interviews with Mamie Till-Mobley and others. It is significant in that it was a cover story in the popular black magazine. Each section is divided and numbered with the original pagination.
for whistling at a White woman
The 1955 slaying of Emmett Till in Mississippi marked the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Era
By George E. Curry
Mamie Till Bradley was about to experience a mother’s worst nightmare. She had to identify the corpse of her only child, 14-year-old Emmett Till, who had been abducted, beaten, shot in the head and tossed into the Tallahatchie River near Greenwood, Miss., for allegedly whistling at a White woman.
As she approached the cold, metal slab that held the mutilated
body at A. A. Rayner & Sons funeral home in Chicago, the grieving mother thought to herself: "I got a job to do and it's not going to be easy."
Mamie Till wanted to look directly into her son's face, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. Not yet. So she started with the lower extremities and worked her way up.
"Those are his feet," she concluded. The ankles? Yes, those were her son's skinny ankles. Next, she surveyed the knees. Most people have sharp, pointed kneecaps. But the mother and son had flat ones. "Those are the Till knees," she told herself.
Her eyes continued up her son's body and stopped on his genitals. Later, she would be happy that her inspection included that section of her son's body because some people later would say, incorrectly, that Emmett had been castrated. Now, she would know otherwise.
Mrs. Mamie Till Bradley Mobley — who will be called Mrs. Till hereafter to make it easier to follow the cast of characters in this drama — examined Emmett's hands and arms, which provided more confirmation of what she did not want confirmed. Finally, she took a deep breath and looked at her son's decomposed face. This, too, she did piece by piece, separating his face into imaginary compartments, starting with his chin and moving to the top of his head.
"Bo," as he was known, had flashed a perfect set of teeth during his short life. Now, in death, only one or two were visible. "Oh, my God," his mother thought. "Where are the rest of them?"
The bridge of his nose, though all chopped up, was recognizable. She looked for his right eye — it was missing. There was only an empty socket. She looked at the left one and it was detached, dangling from the socket.
"That's his hazel eye," Mrs. Till said. "Where is the other one?"
She searched for one ear and it, too, was missing. Peering through the ear hole, she could see daylight on the other side. The remaining ear protruded from her son's head, just like hers— another family trait. "That's Emmett's ear," she said, softly.
His hair? Yes.
After inspecting the outstretched body inch by inch, Mrs. Till came to the sad but inescapable conclusion that the remains of what remained before her were those of Emmett Louis Till. Still, she turned to Gene Mobley, later to become her third husband, hoping he might have noticed something that she had not, anything that would cast the slightest doubt about whether this was indeed Bo. But Mobley had identified young Till in his mind long before the child's mother had finished her methodical examination. The barber had recognized the haircut he had given Emmett two weeks earlier, just before Bo left for Mississippi.
Mrs. Till had one thought over and over: What kind of person could do this to another human being, especially a 14–year–old boy?
Her second thought was that this was a sight so ghastly, so inhumane that people would have to see it for themselves to believe it.
"Gene, I want you to go home and get some of Bo's pictures," she said. "We'll spread the pictures around."
The undertaker politely asked, "Do you want me to fix him up?" Mrs. Till did not hesitate: "No, you can't fix that. Let the world see what I saw."
This August will mark the 40th anniversary of Emmett Louis Till's death. And anyone who ever saw a photograph of what the mother viewed that day, will never forget its grotesqueness or what the Till case came to represent.
"It represented everything that was wrong with Mississippi and Mississippi justice," says Myrlie Evers–Williams, whose husband, Medgar, a civil rights organizer, was shot to death in front of their Jackson, Miss., home eight years later. "It also spoke loudly to the country, in terms of just how serious the problem of hatred and racism can be to the very fiber of this country."
The death of Emmett Till marked the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Era. It occurred a year after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., school desegregation decision and the same year as Brown II, the follow–up ruling requiring public schools to be desegregated with “all deliberate speed.” It also came three months before the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that launched the career of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and five years before the Greensboro, N.C., Sit–in Movement.
The safety of Bo, a Northern boy unaccustomed to the apartheid of the Deep South, was of paramount concern to Mrs. Till and her doting mother, Alma Spearman, as they were deciding whether to let Bo travel to the Mississippi Delta with his great uncle. Mrs. Till, who was born in Webb, Miss., and had moved to Chicago with her family at the age of 2, grilled her Uncle Mose Wright about Bo's well–being on what was to him foreign soil.
And there was good reason to be concerned. At the time, Mississippi led the nation in the number of lynchings. By 1952, according to records compiled by the Chicago Tribune, 534
African–Americans were known to have been lynched there; 40 Whites had suffered that fate. And nothing would get an African–American killed quicker in the Deep South than violating the sacred racial divide. Herman E. Talmadge, a U.S. senator from Georgia, published a book the year Bo went South, arguing that, "God advocates segregation."
He wrote, "Ethnology teaches that there are five different races: white, black, yellow, brown, and red. God created them all different. He set them in families and appointed bounds of habitation. He did not intend them to be mixed or He would not have separated or segregated them.
With such fear of "mongrelization" rampant in the Deep South, Mrs. Till and her mother wanted to be as certain as they could that they were not risking Bo's life. When they gained personal assurances that Bo would not be allowed to wander around Southern Whites unaccompanied by an adult, they reluctantly agreed to let the youth visit Money, Miss., a hamlet of less than 100 people.
The Saturday morning, Aug. 20, that Bo was to leave, Mrs. Till had planned to meet Uncle Mose and his crew at the 12th Street train station. But she was running late and said she'd bring Bo to 63rd Street, the train's first stop after downtown.
After purchasing the ticket, they could hear the train fast approaching. Bo started up the steps, ran back down and told his mother, "Take my watch, I might lose it." Then, he ran back to the top of the steps.
"Bo, you didn't kiss me," his mother reminded him. "How do you know I'll never see you again?"
Emmett frowned and said, "Oh, Mama," before dashing down the steps a second time, dutifully kissing his mother. Then he ran back up and boarded the train.
Mrs. Till cried at the sight of her only child leaving, heading for Mississippi with her Uncle Mose, a 64–year–old tenant farmer, and two of her son's cousins, Curtis Jones and Wheeler Parker. But Bo, who had campaigned for the trip, was delighted, looking forward to romping the fields and playing with relatives.
On Wednesday, Aug. 24, Mose, who was also a preacher, piled everyone into his old Ford and took them to church. While Preacher Mose was in the pulpit, the youngsters decided to slip out, drive to Money, Miss., and return by the time the sermon was over. In an interview for the television documentary, Eyes on the Prize, Jones recalled: "We went into this store to buy some candy. Before Emmett went in, he had shown the boys 'round his age some pictures of some White kids that he had graduated from school with, female and male.
"He told the boys who had gathered 'round the store — there must have been maybe 10 to 12 youngsters there — that one of the girls was his girlfriend. So one of the local 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 Emmett went in there. When he was leaving out the store, after buying some candy, he told her, ‘Bye, baby’.”
Jones remembered, “It was kind of funny to us. We hopped in the car and drove back to the church. My grandfather was just about completing his sermon.”
Accounts differ about what transpired in the grocery store owned by the Bryant family, which had a mostly African-American clientele. The woman behind the counter, Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old brunette, later testified in court that young Till asked her for a date. She contended that Till placed both of his arms around her waist and said, “You needn’t be afraid of me....I’ve been with White women before.” Bryant said that Till whistled at her.
But in a little–known interview with David A. Shostak, which appeared in the December 1974 issue of the Negro History Bulletin, Crosby Smith, whose sister was married to Mose Wright, gave a considerably different version of events, an account that contradicts what the public believes it knows about the famous case.
"Mose Wright believes that story [about Carolyn Bryant], and, I guess practically everyone else around here does, too," said Smith, who is now deceased. "But one of Mose's children who was with Emmett that night told me a different story, and I know that boy's honest. I believe him. He said that Emmett went into Bryant's store and bought two pieces of Double–Bubble Gum. Now, this woman goes and gets his gum, and when she hands it to him, he used these words. He said, `Gee. You look like a movie star.' Mrs. Bryant was a pretty young lady, that's what she was, but I believe that's all Emmett said, and that's all that was said then."
By all accounts, Carolyn Bryant did not relay whatever was said Wednesday night to her husband, Roy, who at the time was working out of town with his half–brother, J.W. Milam. They were hauling shrimp from New Orleans to Brownsville, Texas.
The following day, Thursday, was uneventful. But on Friday, Maurice Wright, the oldest of the cousins who had been with Till in the store, made a deadly mistake. According to Crosby Smith, "Maurice told [Roy] Bryant how Emmett had told his wife what a good–looking woman she was. But he also added a whole lot more to it than there actually was." Smith said Maurice, a Southerner, "had been living down here long enough to know that was a dangerous thing to do."
In addition to getting 50 cents in store credit for telling Roy Bryant the story, Crosby Smith suggested Maurice had an additional motive. "You see, here was this Chicago boy, dressed in fine clothes and carrying a little money in his pocket. I don't think Maurice liked Emmett much, but I don't guess he figured what was going to happen to him, either."
Mrs. Till said Maurice, who died about five years ago, was haunted by Bo's death. "I asked Wheeler [Parker, a cousin], `What is wrong with Maurice? It looks like he can't hold himself together.' He told me these words. He said, `Maurice said Bo just won't let him alone'."
She explains, “I had never made the connection [between Maurice and her son’s death]. Within the past four or five years, I began to hear this rumor and I began to reflect upon the way that boy lived and finally died. I said, ‘Yes, the reason Bo wouldn’t leave him alone was because he had provoked Bo’s death.’” Mrs. Till says, “It was like he lost him mind.”
As to whether Bo whistled at Carolyn Bryant, Mrs. Till acknowledges, “I’m not saying that Bo didn’t whistle, but somebody asked Bo, ‘What did you buy?’ And Bo was trying to tell them bubble gum.”
She said her son had a speech defect that caused him to stutter. “I had taught Bo that when you get hooked on a word, just whistle and go ahead and say it,” Mrs. Till recounts. “I can just see that that was the reaction he had because he was at the door – he was not even facing Mrs. Bryant then – stepping out when the boys asked him that. He was trying to say bubble gum and he whistled. I’m sure that is why he whistled.”
But White Southerners weren’t interested in explanations.
Nothing incensed Southern White men more than even the hint of a liaison between a White female and a Black male. As Gunnar Myrdal observed in his landmark study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, sex became “the principal around which the whole structure of segregation of the Negroes...is organized.”
Myrdal correctly noted that White men have been taking advantage of African-American women, whether they wanted to cooperate or not, since slavery. Therefore, White men were not against interracial sex per se. Rather, they were against the union when it did not fit a certain pattern.
“The loveliest and the purest of God’s creatures, the nearest thing to an angelic being that treads this terrestrial ball is a well-bred Southern woman or her blue-eyed, golden-haired little girl,” Tom Brady, a Yale-educated circuit judge in Greenwood, Miss., said in a widely quoted 1954 speech. “The maintenance of peaceful and harmonious relationships, which have been conducive to the well-being of both the White and Negro races of the South, has been possible because of the inviolability of Southern womanhood.”
Ben Tillman, a legendary South Carolina racist, was even more graphic. Speaking on the floor of the U. S. Senate in 1907, he said: “I have three daughters, but so help me God, I had rather find either one of them killed by a tiger or a bear...in the purity of her maidenhood, than to have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed or the jewel of her womanhood by a Black fiend.”
These were alien concepts to young Bo Till, who had attended school with Whites in Illinois. He didn’t know that an African-American who violated the cherished Southern way of life could pay for that “transgression” with his life.
J. W. Milam, 36, and Roy Bryant, 24, by their own admission, decided it was time to teach the Northern boy a lesson in racial etiquette. When the two were tried the following month on murder charges, Mose Wright testified that the men had appeared at his door about 2 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28, demanding to see the Chicago boy who had insulted Carolyn Bryant.
According to court testimony and a paid interview the defendants gave author William Bradford Huie after the trial had concluded, Milam and Bryant rode in a green 1955 Chevrolet pickup truck, parked it under the cedar and persimmon trees in front of Wright’s house before walking up to the wooden shack. There, the following exchange ensued:
Bryant: “Preacher, Preacher.”
Wright: “Who is it?”
Bryant: “This is Mr. Bryant. I want to talk to you about that boy.”
` Wright (after coming to the door): Yes, sir.”
Bryant: “You got two boys here from Chicago?”
Wright: “Yes, sir.”
Bryant: “I want that boy who did the talking down at Money.”
Milam walked into the dark room where the four youngsters were sleeping and shined a flashlight in Bo’s face.
Milam: “You the niggah that did the talking down at Money?
Milam: “Don’t say, ‘yeah’ to me, niggah. I’ll blow your head off. Get your clothes on.”
Wright’s wife begged the men not to harm Bo, offering to pay them money if they would return him unhurt, but they ignored her plea.
Milam (to Mose Wright): “How old are you?”
Milam: “Well, if you know any of us here tonight, then you will never live to get to be 65.”
Once outside, they ordered Till to lie down in the bed of the truck and drove off with their headlights still off.
Mose Wright and his wife, who had been instructed not to contact police, rushed over to Crosby Smith’s house at about 3:30 that morning. After several hours, the three returned to Wright’s porch, hoping Bo would be returned alive. “I guess we was out there from around 8 in the morning till way past noon, and not even a dog walked past that house,” Smith recounted.
That afternoon, Smith drove into nearby Greenwood to seek the help of Leflore County Sheriff George Smith who, immediately fingered Bryant and Milam as potential suspects. The sheriff assigned a deputy to ride around with Crosby Smith to search for the body, but the pair found no trace of Bo.
Back in Chicago, Mrs. Till received a frantic local telephone call from Willie Mae Jones, Mose Wright’s oldest daughter. She was so distraught that Mrs. Till could hardly make sense of what she was saying. As Mamie Till had done in all family crises, she telephoned her mother and asked her to find out what had happened. A short while later, her mother called back, reporting that Bo had been abducted from Mose’s house and that she should get in her car and drive over.
Upon arrival, Mamie Till started calling everyone who came to mind – relatives, newspaper reporters, public officials, law enforcement officials in Mississippi. It was three days later – Wednesday, Aug. 31 – that Robert Hodges, a 17-year-old White fisherman, spotted Bo’s disfigured body floating in the Tallahatchie River, less than 15 miles from where Mamie Till had been born.
The feet were sticking out of the water and the rest of Bo’s body had been submerged by a cotton gin exhaust fan weighing nearly 100 pounds. When Emmett Till’s body was brought to shore, it was discovered that several feet of barbed wire had been wrapped around his neck. He had been shot once in the head. Mose Wright was able to identify Bo by a silver ring he wore that was inscribed with his father’s initials, L. T., for Louis Till.
William Bradford Huie, who sold an interview with the defendants to Look magazine, said J. W. Milam told him: “Well, when he [Emmett] told me about this White girl he had, my friend, that’s what this war’s about down here now. That’s what we got to fight to protect. I just looked at him and I said, ‘Boy, you ain’t never going to see the sun come up again.’”
And Bo didn’t.
“They ordered Papa Mose to bury him as quickly as possible: ‘Don’t let the sun go down and that body is out of the ground,’” Mrs. Till recalls. Just three hours after the body was found, a hole was being dug for it in the graveyard of East Money Church of God in Christ. “The were getting ready to spill that boy into that,” Smith said. “He hadn’t even been embalmed.”
When a call was placed to Chicago, one of Mrs. Till’s aunts told them to forgo the hasty burial and to ship the body back to Illinois. The body was then taken to a local undertaker, embalmed, placed in a cottonwood box and loaded on a train.
“Crosby [Smith] told them that the body was coming to Chicago if he had to pack it in ice and bring it on his truck,” Bo’s mother says. “So Crosby came with the body on the train.”
More than 100,000 people – some estimates say as many as 600,000 – marched passed Bo Till’s open casket in Chicago, first at A. A. Rayner & Sons funeral home at 41st Street and Cottage Grove, and later at Roberts Temple of the Church of God in Christ, 4021 South State St.
Mamie Till wanted the world to see her Bo, a body that was so badly destroyed that it looked like it had landed from “outer space.”
But her ordeal didn’t stop there. In September, she returned to Mississippi to testify against Bryant and Milam.
“The main thing I remember is now careful I was to say, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir,’” she recalls. “I remember how they tried to link me to the NAACP.”
Prosecutors played up a wild charge by Tallahatchie County Sheriff H. C. Strider, in whose jurisdiction Bo’s body was found after being abducted in neighboring Leflore County, that he was investigating reports the NAACP and Mrs. Till had concocted the whole story.
Strider had said earlier, “I’m chasing down some evidence that now looks like the killing might have been planned and plotted by the NAACP.”
Roy Wilkins, the NAACP executive secretary, retorted: “Sheriff Strider is a little confused. It is not we who murder Negroes in order to maintain our point of view. The Till boy was the second killed in the space of 16 days, and the third since May 7. Strider’s ridiculous fantasies about an NAACP plot is a crude cover-up too thin to fool any decent human being.”
The highly publicized trial began Monday, Sept. 19, in Sumner, Miss., with Tallahatchie County Sheriff-elect Harry Dogan, according to one of the defense attorneys, helping the defense select favorable jurors. Though a Black person testifying against a White man in Mississippi risked being killed, that prospect did not scare away Mose Wright, who identified the defendants as the two people who had kidnapped Bo. Nor did it frighten surprise witness Willie Reed, an 18-year-old African-American, who said he heard screams coming from a barn in nearby Sunflower County the morning after Bo had been abducted. Reed identified Milam as one of the individuals leaving the barn wearing a pistol.
Leflore County Sheriff George Smith testified that one of the men on trial acknowledged taking Bo from Wright’s home. “Bryant told me that he went down to the house and got him
[Bo] and took him up to the store and found out he wasn’t the right one, and that he turned him loose,” Smith said.
When the state rested its case, all five defense lawyers – the entire Sumner County bar – would admit years later to Hugh Stephen Whitaker, a student studying the Till case, that prosecutors had presented “sufficient evidence to convict.” And even the jurors later confessed that not a single member of the panel doubted the defendants were guilty of murder. Still, after remaining behind closed doors for an hour and seven minutes, they all-White, all-male jury returned not-guilty verdicts against Milam and Bryant.
“If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long,” one juror told Time magazine.
One of the defense attorneys later disclosed to Hugh Whitaker that Sheriff-elect Harry Dogan, who had helped the defendants screen prospective jurors, sent word to the jurors that they should wait a while before announcing their verdicts to make it “look good.”
The verdict surprised no one.
“They could have had the gun, they could have had the bullet, they could have had it all. They never would have convicted those two men of killing Emmett,” Mrs. Till declares. “They just would not do it.”
The not-guilty verdicts were condemned around the world. A seven-page American Jewish Committee memo from its Paris office to the national office in New York noted, “Europe’s reaction to the trial and verdict in Sumner, Miss., was swift, violent and universal. There was total and unqualified condemnation of the court proceedings, of the weakness of the prosecution, the behavior of the jury and the judge, and at the verdict of acquittal.”
There were protests in cities across the United States and renewed calls for federal anti-lynching legislation.
Since her son’s death 40 years ago, Mrs. Till-Mobley, says she thinks about him every day. A retired elementary teacher, she has busied herself with church work in Chicago; with a youth group called the Emmett Till Players, students who perform Dr. martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches; and lecturing.
At 73 years old, she has outlived the accused murderers of her son. She also has witnessed the honorary renaming of a section of 71st Street in Chicago to Emmett Till Road. She says less than half of the street markers are up on Emmett Till Road and that she is battling city officials to erect the others.
Mrs. Till, an only child, sometimes has flashbacks of her only child.
“I have pictured Emmett being in that barn and those people relentlessly beating him,” she says. “I just wonder how long did he suffer? I hope in my heart that it wasn’t long. Yet, I heard Willie Reed testify Emmett was in the barn from daybreak until up in the day, maybe 1 o’clock. He said they beat Emmett until finally they didn’t hear any more sounds coming from Emmett.
Just before Emmett was born on July 25, 1941, doctors discovered that his butt rather than his head was protruding from Mrs. Till’s womb, a position that if left uncorrected, could suffocate the infant. As surgeons untangled and repositioned Bo, an assortment of surgical instruments were used, some that would inadvertently leave fresh cuts and bruises on the infant’s otherwise unmarked face. When the 6-and-three-fourths-pounds baby was placed in her lap, the mother thought: “What an ugly baby.”
She had similar thoughts when she saw Emmett in a casket 14 years later. “The first time I saw him, he was ugly,” she remembered. “The last time I saw him, he was ugly. That’s really ironic.”
But she said Bo, who became a handsome young man, died looking ugly for a reason.
“I will sometimes go to sleep crying,” she says. “I think about what he must have suffered. I will ask the Lord why did he have to suffer? If they had just shot him, that could have been so much easier to bear. And in one of those question sessions, the Lord showed me, revealed to me, the way he [Bo] looked was the personification of race hatred. That is what race hatred looks like – race hatred is ugly.”
The photograph of Emmett Till showed that.
“Even for those today who were not born during that period of time, if they see that picture, I think even the youngest – regardless of whether they were African-American or not – can see that and understand in that one picture what is [sic.] was like to live in Mississippi,” says Mississippi-born Myrlie Evers-Williams, now board chair of the NAACP.
On occasion, especially each spring when it’s time to plant flowers, Mrs. Till yearns for Bo and whatever grandchildren she might have had by now. But she reminds herself that her son had a special mission.
“The Lord spoke to me and said that Emmett didn’t belong to me in the first place, that I had been chosen to be his mother while he was on earth and he came here with a specific purpose,” Mrs. Till-Mobley recounts. “He’s done what he came here to do.”