While visiting family in Money, Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African American from Chicago, is brutally murdered for flirting with a white woman four days earlier. His assailants–the white woman’s husband and her brother–made Emmett carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the bank of the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to take off his clothes. The two men then beat him nearly to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, and then threw his body, tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, into the river.
Till grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, and though he had attended a segregated elementary school, he was not prepared for the level of segregation he encountered in Mississippi. His mother warned him to take care because of his race, but Emmett enjoyed pulling pranks. On August 24, while standing with his cousins and some friends outside a country store in Money, Emmett bragged that his girlfriend back home was white. Emmett’s African American companions, disbelieving him, dared Emmett to ask the white woman sitting behind the store counter for a date. He went in, bought some candy, and on the way out was heard saying, “Bye, baby” to the woman. There were no witnesses in the store, but Carolyn Bryant–the woman behind the counter–claimed that he grabbed her, made lewd advances, and then wolf-whistled at her as he sauntered out.
Roy Bryant, the proprietor of the store and the woman’s husband, returned from a business trip a few days later and found out how Emmett had spoken to his wife. Enraged, he went to the home of Till’s great uncle, Mose Wright, with his brother-in-law J.W. Milam in the early morning hours of August 28. The pair demanded to see the boy. Despite pleas from Wright, they forced Emmett into their car. After driving around in the Memphis night, and perhaps beating Till in a toolhouse behind Milam’s residence, they drove him down to the Tallahatchie River.
…Mrs. Burke entered the kitchen. “Essie, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed…?” she asked me…
“No, I didn’t hear that,” I answered, almost choking on the food.
“Do you know why he was killed? …He was killed because he got out of his place with a white woman. A boy from Mississippi would have known better than that. This boy was from Chicago. Negroes up North have no respect for people. They think they can get away with anything. He just came to Mississippi and put a whole lot of notions in the boys’ heads here and stirred up a lot of trouble,” she said passionately.
“How old are you, Essie?” she asked me after a pause.
“Fourteen. I will soon be fifteen, though,” I said.
“See, that boy was just fourteen too. It’s a shame he had to die so soon.”
“I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated. I was not going back.”
Just months after Emmett Till’s murder, Lookmagazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” in which Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam confessed to the crime.
Journalist William Bradford Huie recalled the interview:
Reactions by young Blacks:
I was coming from school the evening I heard about Emmet (sic) Till’s death. There was a whole group of us, girls and boys, walking down the road headed home… However, the six boys in front of us weren’t talking very loud… they were just walking and talking among themselves. All of a sudden they began to shout at each other… “That boy wasn’t but fourteen years old and they killed him. Now what kin a fourteen-year-old boy do with a white woman?…” “That boy was from Chicago… He probably didn’t even think of the bitch as white.” …I walked up to one of the boys. “Eddie, what boy was killed?” “Moody, where’ve you been?” he asked me. “Everybody talking about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed… by some white men…”
At critical moments in human history, events can occur that cause certain people to transcend their own existence to become symbols for something greater than themselves. For the Civil Rights Movements in America, one such figure was Emmett Till. In the summer of 1955, the small town of Sumner, MS, never expected to be the center of national and international attention and yet it would take little more than a month for the world to come to know the small Delta town and the boy named Emmett. Initially, Mississippians condemned Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for their actions, but as word of the murder spread throughout the nation, attitudes began to change. Mississippians felt the entire state was condemned for the actions of two of its residents. Furthermore, a story describing the murderers’ motivations began to spread and to define the case to many. Carolyn Bryant, wife of Roy Bryant, told of inappropriate behavior from Emmett toward her and of a whistle at her. In the segregated South, such interaction between a black male and a while female was taboo. The fact that most referred to the case as the Wolf Whistle murder illustrates its importance in the minds of many. –
Emmett Till’s cousins recall historic murder
They were all cousins, or brothers, and some slept two to a bed. They came from Chicago and from Summit, and were visiting family in Mississippi. They had just fallen asleep on a Saturday night.
Some woke when they heard the voices of white men outside the house. There was a woman with them. The men were saying they had business with a fat boy from up North.
“I can hear them talking,” Wheeler Parker told me the other day. “And I said, ‘Damn, they’re going to kill us.’ I started praying to God. I thought about every bad thing I’ve ever done, since I was getting ready to die, and I tried to make my peace with God.”
“Emmett Till and I were about the same age. A week after he was murdered… I stood on a corner with a gang of boys, looking at pictures of him in the black newspapers and magazines. In one, he was laughing and happy. In the other, his head was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets, and his mouth twisted and broken… I couldn’t get Emmett Till out of my mind, until one evening I thought of a way to get back at white people for his death.”
March 1968… “Life” Magazine showed a full-page photo of long-haired Bobbie Gentry walking across the Tallahatchie Bridge, which figured in her song, “Ode to Billie Joe.” And some of us did a double take. The location is Money, Mississippi — a mile or two from where Emmett Till’s body was found! Last year, there was a joke among black Americans. They knew what was thrown off that bridge.
The grave site of lynching victim Emmett Till is seen Friday, July 10, 2009, at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. The 14-year-old Chicagoan was killed in 1955 after reportedly whistling at a white woman during a visit to his uncle’s house in Mississippi. Nearly 100,000 people visited his glass-topped casket during a four-day public viewing in Chicago. Images of his battered body helped spark the civil rights movement. (Photo: Associated Press)
WRITTEN BY: BOB DYLAN’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett TillSome men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what
They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat
There were screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds
out on the streetThen they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie
Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly dieAnd then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mindI saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern seaIf you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood
it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live