Who Was Emmett Till?

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Here is a look at who he was, the outrage at his murder and the acquittal of his killers, and how he has shaped the civil rights movement in America.

Emmett Till was 14 in 1955, when he was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Mississippi.
Credit...Associated Press

Adeel Hassan

Aug. 26, 2021, 2:32 p.m. ET

In late summer 1955, Mamie Till chose to lay the body of her only child, Emmett, in an open coffin, believing that “the whole nation had to bear witness to this” — this Black child of Chicago who had been murdered and mutilated by white men in Mississippi.

“They had to see what I had seen,” she wrote in her memoir.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined up to witness for themselves the horror wrought on the 14-year-old victim, and many, many more saw it when photographs of his body were published in Jet magazine.

From that moment until today, Emmett Till has shaped the civil rights movement in America. Here is a look at who he was, the outrage at his murder and the acquittal of his killers, and his enduring legacy.

Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago. While Emmett, who was nicknamed Bobo, was an only child, he lived with his mother, grandparents and cousins in a middle-class Black neighborhood on the South Side. A younger cousin, Ollie Gordon, said Emmett “was a jokester” and “loved to make people laugh.”

As a child he contracted polio, which led to a speech impediment. His mother taught him how to whistle, to help him overcome his stutter.

Emmett’s mother was a 2-year-old in 1924 when she and her family moved from Mississippi to the Chicago area as part of the Great Migration.

Emmett never knew his father, Louis Till, who joined the Army and was accused of raping two women and killing another in Italy in World War II. He was executed in 1945 at age 23, and his military record was leaked before the trial of Emmett’s killers.

In late August 1955, Emmett left his home to visit relatives in the Mississippi Delta.

On the evening of Aug. 24, after picking cotton with his cousins, Emmett went to a store in Money, Miss., that was run by a white couple in their 20s, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. When Emmett went inside to buy bubble gum, Ms. Bryant was working alone.

Emmett’s cousin Simeon Wright, 13, and Ruthie Mae Crawford, another Black teenager, said Emmett passed the money for the bubble gum into Ms. Bryant’s hand, instead of leaving it on the counter, as white Mississippians generally expected African Americans to do. Ms. Bryant stormed out to get a pistol from her car, she later testified. Simeon said that Emmett then whistled at Ms. Bryant, and that their group became afraid and left quickly.

Four days later, Mr. Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam, both Army veterans, abducted Emmett at gunpoint from the Wright family home. The men took him to a barn about a 45-minute drive away and tortured him.

The men shot Emmett in the head, tied a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to his neck with barbed wire, and tossed his body into the Tallahatchie River. His mutilated corpse was fished out of the water on Aug. 31.

The remains could be identified only by the silver ring on one finger. Emmett had been pistol-whipped; both his wrists were broken; the back of his skull was crushed; other parts of the skull were crumbled; and one eye was gouged out, while the other hung from its optic nerve. The sheriff sought to bury him immediately.

As soon as Mamie Till heard that her son had been kidnapped, she began harnessing the political and cultural power of Black Chicago. A large crowd was on hand when the train carrying Emmett’s body arrived.

“You didn’t die for nothing,” she said as the body was transferred to a hearse.

The Chicago Defender estimated that 250,000 people attended during the four days of public viewings.

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Credit...Bettmann, via Getty Images

The close-up photographs of Emmett’s face and body, and the television coverage of his funeral, turned a local murder into a global symbol of American injustice.

A few weeks after Emmett’s funeral, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama, saying that she found herself unable to move because she was thinking about Emmett.

Emmett’s mother became a teacher and a civil rights activist. “She cried from the day of Emmett’s murder to the day she died,” Ms. Gordon said.

Emmett and his mother, who died in 2003, are buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Historians believe that several white men were involved in the torture and murder of Emmett, though only Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam were put on trial. The defense’s argument, by the end, was that Emmett was still alive and hiding out in Chicago or elsewhere, and that the N.A.A.C.P. had put a different body in the river.

Each Black witness for the prosecution, including Emmett’s mother, took great risks to testify. Two Black witnesses were jailed in another county to keep them from appearing at the trial.

Ms. Bryant testified that Emmett accosted her and made crude remarks (claims that she would recant more than 50 years later). After five days and an hour of jury deliberation, the two men were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury; the acquittal meant they could not be retried, even after they later admitted in a Look magazine interview that they had committed the murder. After the trial, a grand jury chose not to indict them on kidnapping charges, even though they had initially told the authorities that they kidnapped and released Emmett.

Tallahatchie County issued a formal apology in 2007 for the 1955 acquittals. “The Emmett Till case was a terrible miscarriage of justice,” it said in part. “We state candidly and with deep regret the failure to effectively pursue justice.”​

The Black Americans who grew up in the 1950s organized nearly all of the mass meetings, sit-ins and marches that accelerated the civil rights movement, calling themselves “the Emmett Till generation.”

“I realized that this could just as easily have been a story about me or my brother,” Muhammad Ali said.

Representative John Lewis of Georgia wrote that he had been “shaken to the core” by Emmett’s death. As was Representative Bobby L. Rush of Illinois, who was 9 years old and living in the Deep South at the time of the killing.

“When the photograph from Emmett Till’s funeral ran in Jet magazine, I will never forget how my mother gathered us around the living room coffee table, put the magazine in the middle, pointed to it, and said, ‘This is why I brought my boys up out of Albany, Ga.,’” he said in an interview. “That photograph shaped my consciousness as a Black man in America. The course of my life would not have been the same had I not been exposed, as a child, to the horror of the photograph.”

No. In May 2004, the F.B.I. opened an investigation to see if others were involved, and Emmett’s body was later exhumed for an autopsy, which had not previously been performed. In 2007, a state grand jury in Mississippi declined to indict anyone else.

Mr. Bryant, who spent time in prison for food stamp fraud, died in 1994. Mr. Milam also spent time in jail, for using a stolen credit card and, in a separate case, for assault and battery. He died in 1980.

The local authorities initially issued a warrant for Ms. Bryant’s arrest on kidnapping charges, but it was never served. A grand jury in Greenwood, Miss., declined to indict her in 2007.

The Justice Department reopened the case after a 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” quoted Ms. Bryant as saying she lied when she claimed that Emmett had physically accosted her and had made sexual advances. She also told the author that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” There have been no recent updates on the case.

Some of his relatives are trying to keep pressure on law enforcement officials to charge Ms. Bryant. “We hope that they’re not waiting for her to pass on,” said Emmett’s cousin Deborah Watts, who leads the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, which supports other families whose civil rights have been violated.

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Credit...Renée Jones Schneider/Star Tribune, via Associated Press

Another cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, the only remaining witness to the kidnapping, is helping lead an effort to preserve related sites in Chicago and Mississippi, like the church that held Emmett’s funeral, the barn where he was tortured and the courthouse, so that they might form a national park or monument.

The photographs and TV coverage of Emmett’s body were a precursor to the 1960s’ scenes of officers turning dogs and water cannons on peaceful civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham and Selma, Ala., the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, and the smartphone video of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year.

Emmett’s name has in some ways become a byword for African American boys and men who are killed by people in positions of authority, such that victims are sometimes referred to as “the new Emmett Till.”

After learning that there would be no state indictment of the police officer who fatally shot a Black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, a crowd gathered in front of the White House, chanting: “How many Black kids will you kill? Michael Brown, Emmett Till!”

And Mr. Rush introduced a bill this year, called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, that would make lynching a federal hate crime.

“The metaphorical lynching rope that killed Emmett Till also killed George Floyd and countless others,” Mr. Rush said. “It extends throughout the history of Black people in America, and it has strangled our nation, preventing America from realizing the promise of its potential.”

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