KILLING: The brutal murder of Emmett Till shocked America in 1955
IT WAS August 1955, and Mississippi resident Moses Wright was visiting family up north in Chicago. On his return journey he was taking his nephew, Wheeler Parker, with him for a visit. When another nephew, Emmett Till, found out that his cousin was going down south, he wanted to go to.
The day before Emmett left, his mother Mamie gave her son a signet ring, one of the few possessions she had from her late husband. The next day, Mamie took her son to the train station. Their kiss goodbye would be their last. It was also the last time she would see her son alive.
Emmett was something of a joker, and on arrival in the small town of Money, Mississippi, he bragged to his cousins that he was a charmer with the girls. It was a teenage boast that was to have terrifying consequences for the young boy. Days later, after accepting a dare from his cousins, he wolf-whistled at the 21-year-old white wife of a local shopkeeper. It’s claimed that he touched the arm of Carolyn Bryant and offered to take her out on a date.
Had he been white the incident would have been seen as no more than the precocious behaviour of a pubescent teenage schoolboy. But Emmett was black, and being from the north had no idea that he had crossed accepted racial customs of the Deep South.
The segregation of white and black people was long part of the former slave-owning southern states, and any behaviour that was deemed to cross the racial divide would not be tolerated.
The brutal history of lynchings in the South bore testimony to that fact. There was an obsession among white males about black men lusting over white women, that helped to create the environment in which Emmett unwittingly found himself.
Sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s study into the Southern fight against integration asked white Southerners to choose what they believed black people most wanted from integration. The number one item on their list was ‘intermarriage and sexual intercourse with whites’. In contrast this came bottom of a list when black people were asked what they saw as positive things coming from integration.
A few days after the incident, the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, showed up at Moses Wright's home late at night, where Emmett was staying, and took him away. Wright said he saw a person in the car, possibly Carolyn Bryant, who helped identify Emmett.
The boy's corpse would be found several days later, disfigured and decomposing in the Tallahatchie River. Moses Wright could identify the body only by the ring, which had belonged to Emmett's father, Louis Till.
The men were soon arrested and put on trial for murder, but the jury found them not guilty. The ‘trial' was what could be expected of the racist South of the time. For his closing summation, defence attorney Sidney Carlton told the all-white, all-male jury that if they didn't free Milam and Bryant: "Your ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I'm sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men."
After deliberating for only 67 minutes, the jury returned a not guilty verdict . Reporters said they overheard laughing inside the jury room. One juror later said: "We wouldn't have taken so long if we hadn't stopped to drink pop."
When they were acquitted, the men later sold their story for $4,000 to Look magazine in January 1956. As they could not be tried twice for the same crime, the men talked freely about how they killed the young teen from Chicago.
Their confessions made harrowing reading and caused such anger among black Americans that it was a catalyst in the formation of the Civil Rights Movement. The case caused a storm of protest when the black magazine Jet, later ran photographs of the teen’s bloated and mutilated body.
Emmett’s mother had insisted that his battered face not be remodelled for his burial, and his body be put in an open casket so that the world could see what had been done to her son. Some 50,000 people came to view Emmett's corpse in Chicago, with many people leaving in tears or fainting at the sight and smell of the body.
The two men who confessed to the killing were never to serve time for what they did to the 14-year-old boy. Both are now dead and there can be no trials for the deceased. However, there has been rumours that there were others involved in the killing.
A documentary filmmaker said in 2005 that he had found new witnesses who suggested that as many as 10 people were involved in Till's murder. Five of them, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp said at the time, were alive and were never charged.
"An investigation was never done in this case," said Beauchamp, who worked with Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to try to renew interest in the case. "I found out that there were more people involved, five white and five black. From what we think transpired, the five white men forced the black men to participate."
Federal and state prosecutors first began sifting through old killings from the South's violent past in 1989, when they reopened the investigation into the slaying of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in 1963. In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist, was convicted of killing Evers. Beckwith died in prison in 2001, aged 80.
Since then, old cases involving 22 killings have been resurrected in six states. Twenty-six people have been arrested, resulting in 21 convictions, two acquittals and a mistrial.
In March 2004, the FBI in conjunction with Mississippi justice officials launched an appeal for information about others who may have been involved in the murder of Emmett Till.
After an investigation the FBI said in 2006 that no federal prosecutions would be brought from their investigation and the matter is closed.
Despite the FBI’s decision five years ago not to take any further action, there are many activists and Till family members who live in hope that any surviving suspects in the case could be brought to justice even now.
US prosecutors who in the past won convictions of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four children, had urged Mississippi officials to seek federal help in pursuing another well-known case: the murders in 1964 of three civil rights workers who were trying to register black people to vote.
James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were abducted, killed and buried. Their deaths later became the subject of the movie, Mississippi Burning.
But among these old cases, the terrible murder of Emmett Till stands out. The killing shocked the nation and inspired the early Civil Rights Movement.
"There's a real historical need to set the record straight," says John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. "Because that case was so crucial in the development of the Civil Rights Movement, we need to know as much as we can about what happened."
Carolyn Bryant still lives in the region but refuses to speak to the media about the case.
A MOTHER’S LONG FIGHT FOR JUSTICE
WHATEVER THE outcome of any future attempts to reopen the investigation, it will come too late for the mother of Emmett Till who for 47 years worked to try and get justice for her son.
Mamie Till Mobley died in 2003, aged 81 having failed to get prosecutors to reopen her son’s murder case. She tried to get the acquitted men to stand trial on kidnapping charges but on November 9, 1955, a Mississippi grand jury refused to indict the pair.
Just weeks before the grand jury met, Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, a staunch segregationist, dug up information on her late husband’s past and leaked it to the press.
The US Army had executed Private Till in Italy in 1945 for allegedly raping two Italian women and killing a third. The implication was that Emmett's behaviour ran in the family.
Mamie Till Mobley had not received her ex-husband's Army records, and she asked how a senator, but not a widow, could receive that information. She tried to meet with President Dwight Eisenhower, but he refused. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote in a memo: ‘There has been no allegation made that the victim [Emmett Till] has been subjected to the deprivation of any right or privilege which is secured and protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States...’
Mamie started work on writing her story in 2001 but died of a heart attack just two weeks before the screening of a TV documentary into her son’s murder.