Dowell: Emmett Till finally got justice
Published 6:15 pm Friday, February 3, 2017
In August of 1955, a 14-year-old black youth, Emmett Till, from Chicago, challenged with a serious speech impediment, arrived in Money, Miss., by train, along with a cousin. They had accompanied Till’s grandfather, Moses Wright, who was returning home to Mississippi after a brief trip up North.
After settling in to the rural community, dramatically different from Chicago, Till, along with cousins and a few of the neighborhood kids decided to take a ride into town. Upon arrival, they immediately went into a store to buy bubblegum. The person who waited on them was a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, whose husband, Roy Bryant owned the store.
After leaving the store, it is alleged that Emmett Till wolf whistled at the white woman to impress his cousins and new friends. If true, Till had done the unthinkable. In Mississippi and in most of the South, a black person could be lynched or killed for a much lesser offense.
When Carolyn Bryant’s husband returned she immediately shared what was interpreted as Till’s inappropriate behavior towards a white woman, even exaggerating what had actually taken place. Roy Bryant, infuriated by what he was told, shared what happened with his half-brother, J.W. Milam, and together decided to teach the Northerner, Till, the consequences disrespecting his wife and violating Southern customs.
Three days later, Bryant and Milam, at approximately 2 a.m., forcibly entered the home of Moses Wright and demanded that he fetch his northern visitor. They immediately grabbed Till at gunpoint and drove away into the night. A few days later the Tallahatchie River revealed the results of their dastardly act. Till’s swollen and decomposing body was found in the river by a young fisherman. Intending that the body never be found, Till had been weighted down by the murderers with a 75-pound cotton gin fan.
When Till’s body was returned to Chicago it was accompanied with a Mississippi seal stating that the coffin should not be opened. Till’s murder caused a national outrage in America and around the world. It became a rallying cry for Blacks fed up with being mistreated by whites because of the color of their skin.
Till’s mother, saddened by the murder of her son, refused to remain silent and decided to violate Mississippi’s request that the coffin not be opened. She wanted the world to know how black men, even boys, were treated, under what was then the segregated South. Her statement was powerful – she opened the coffin and the world did respond with consternation. Tens of thousands of people from Chicago and around the world, of all races, over a five-day period viewed the remains of a person who had a few weeks earlier been a handsome young boy, now unrecognizable as having been a human being.
Bryant and Milam went to trial for Till’s murder and kidnapping and were found not guilty. It took the jurors less than an hour to make their decision. One juror stated to the media that “it would have taken less time but they took a soda pop break.”
Because the trial had attracted unwanted and unfavorable international media attention against the state of Mississippi, senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis, staunch segregationists, uncovered details about the crimes and execution of Emmett’s father while a soldier in World War II and released them to reporters. The Senators were successful in their campaign to smear Emmett Till with evidence that would’ve been palatable at the time to most Southerners that his father was executed by the military for rape and murder and that the son had inherited his criminal traits.
Less than a year later, Bryant and Milam for a few thousand dollars admitted to Look magazine that they had actually killed Till. Both men would find themselves later divorced from their wives. In fact, Milam’s wife had in 2004 confided to an FBI agent that she believed that Bryant’s wife fabricated the incident.
In 2007, at the same courthouse where Bryant and Milam were found not guilty, community leaders in the small town of Sumner, Miss., apologized to Till’s family for this act of savagery. Unfortunately, Till’s mother was not there to accept the apology – she died of heart failure on January 6, 2003.
It was also in 2007 that the woman who was essentially responsible for Till’s death, Carolyn Bryant (now Carolyn Donham) finally admitted to Duke University scholar Timothy B. Tyson for his book, The Blood of Emmett Till, that she had fabricated the incident. Emmett Till, the stuttering kid from Chicago was finally exonerated and can rest in peace.
Dr. Glenn Dowell is an author and columnist who currently lives in Jonesboro, Georgia. He has been a guest speaker on major college campuses , including having appeared on TV programs such as the Oprah Winfrey Show. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org