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Who Was Emmett Till?

By Gena Sysavath
Web Content Contributor

“Emmett Till” can be seen along with many other names being spread across multiple signs during the recent protests around our country. Yet not many people know who he was and how important he is to the Civil Rights Movement. So, let me ask you a question: who is Emmett Till? 

Emmett Till was a 14-year-old kid who grew up in Chicago Southside’s working-class neighborhood. He was the only child of Mamie Till and went to a segregated elementary school. He was described by family and friends to always be funny, responsible and infectious in his life. He was known to be a lovable prankster to his family and loved to make jokes. However, his infectious personality would be the thing that brought him to his death.

August 1955

During August 1955, Emmett Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, went to visit his family in Chicago. He had planned to stay for a couple of days and then take Till’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, back down to Mississippi to visit the rest of their family. After hearing his great-uncle’s plan, Emmett had begged his mother if he could go along too. Mamie had originally denied her son’s request and tried to convince him to go on a trip with her instead; however, he was relentless and wore his mother down to allow him to visit his family down south.

Before he was set out to leave, his mother warned him that the segregation in the south was not the same from what he was used to. She also gave him a parting gift: his father’s signet ring that has the engravings “L.T.”

On August 24, Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery store to buy themselves some refreshments after a long day of working in the hot afternoon. Although no one will truly know what happened in that grocery store, it is believed that Till went in, bought gum and whistled at the white female clerk, Carolyn Bryant. She later claims that Till had gone in, grabbed her, made lewd advances and wolf-whistled at her as he walked off. 

A couple days later, her husband, Roy Bryant comes back from his business trip and becomes enraged about the encounter that his wife and Till had. Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam went over to Wright’s house and demanded that Till come out. Even with the pleas of the family, the men dragged Till out and threw him into their car.

Bryant and Milam then took Till to the tool-house behind their residence and is described to have beat him nearly to death, as they gouged his eyes out and shot him straight through his head, before tying his body with barbed wire and throwing him into Tallahatchie River. 

Wright reported the disappearance of Till and on August 28 his corpse was recovered floating in the river. Emmett Till’s face was so badly lynched that Wright was not able to recognize him, but instead had to identify him by the engraved ring on his finger. 

Open-Casket Funeral

After Mamie Till learned about her son’s murder, she requested that his body be sent back to Chicago, where she saw the mutilation of Emmett and decided that they were to have an open-casket funeral for him. She wanted the world to know what racist murderers had done to her son and thousands came to look and see the evidence of the hate crime. Jet, an African American weekly magazine, published the picture of Emmett’s corpse and soon after the mass media picked it up. 

The Trial

Less than two-weeks after the burial of the body, Bryant and Milam were put on trial. There were many other witnesses other than Mose Wright that could identify the two as the Till’s murderers. However, on September 23, an all-white male jury had in less than an hour issued a “not guilty” verdict, because they believed that the state had failed to prove the identity of the body. The two men were set free from the murder of Emmett Till. 

Afterwards, many people of the community were outraged by the ruling of the trial and with the state’s decision to not indict the separate charge for kidnapping. 

The Aftermath

In 2017, Tim Tyson, the author of The Blood of Emmett Till, revealed that in a 2007 interview, Carolyn Bryant recanted her testimony, admitting that Till had never touched, harassed or threatened her. 

In 2018, the Justice Department reveals that they now have “new information” and that the FBI is to reopen the Emmett Till murder case. His family knows that the reinvestigation may be their last chance to have closure as the approaching conclusion could bring justice to the decade-long case.

Emmett Till’s murder showed the country how the brutality of the Jim Crow segregation was being done in the south. Till’s death was the early motivation that sparked the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks refusing to move to the segregated seats in the bus, the Montgomery Bus boycott and Martin Luther King’s protests were all done after the lynching of a 14-year-old. His brutalized body was what was needed to start the push for civil rights, to have equal rights and destroy racism.

Featured image by Gena Sysavath.

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