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Emmett Till
Born Emmett Louis Till
July 25, 1941(1941-07-25)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died August 28, 1955 (aged 14)
Money, Mississippi, U.S.
Cause of death Murder
Ethnicity African American

Emmett Louis "Bobo" Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was an African American boy from Chicago, Illinois, who was murdered[1] at the age of 14 in Money, Mississippi, a small town in the state's Delta region, after reportedly whistling at a white woman. The murder of Emmett Till was noted as one of the leading events that motivated the American Civil Rights Movement.[1] The main suspects were acquitted, but later admitted to the murder.

Till's mother insisted on a public funeral service, with an open casket so as to show the world the brutality of the killing:[2] Till had been beaten and an eye gouged out, before he was shot through the head and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied to his body with barbed wire. His body was in the river for three days before it was discovered and retrieved by two fishermen.

Till was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. The murder case was officially reopened in May 2004;[1] as part of the investigation, the body was exhumed in order to perform an autopsy.[3] The body was reburied in a new casket, which is standard practice in cases of body exhumation, by the family in the same location later that week.[4] In July 2009, while his gravesite appeared undisturbed, his original casket, in which his battered body was famously displayed years earlier, was found rusting in a run-down shack on the cemetery grounds. Till's family has since donated the original casket to the Smithsonian Institution.[5]



Emmett Till was the son of Mamie Carthan Till and Louis Till. Emmett's mother was born to John and Alma Carthan in the small Delta town of Webb, Mississippi ("the Delta" being the traditional name for the area of northwestern Mississippi at the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers). When he was two years old, his family moved to Illinois. Emmett's mother largely raised him on her own; she and Louis Till had separated in 1942. By the time of Emmett's death, she had married Lemorris Bradley. [6] Emmett suffered from polio as a child, which left him with a persistent stutter. Emmett's father, Louis Till, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. While serving in Italy, he raped two women and killed a third.[7] After his court martial, he was executed by the Army by hanging near Pisa in July 1945.[8][9] Before Emmett Till's killing, the Till family knew none of this, having been told only that Louis had been killed due to "willful misconduct". The facts of Louis Till's execution were made widely known after Emmett Till's death by segregationist senator James Eastland. Stanley Nelson Jr. has stated that this was attempt to turn public support away from Mamie Till Bradley just weeks before the trials of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam through the implication that criminal behavior ran in the Till family.[10][11]

In 1955, Till and his cousin were sent to stay for a time at the home of Till's uncle, Moses Wright,[12] who lived in Money, Mississippi, another small town in the Delta, eight miles north of Greenwood.

Before his departure for the Delta, Till's mother had cautioned him to "mind his manners" with white people, as she understood that race relations in Mississippi were very different from those in Chicago. Mississippi had seen many lynchings during the South's lynching era (ca. 1876–1930); though far less common by the mid-1950s, these racially motivated murders still occurred on occasion. Racial tensions were also on the rise after the United States Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in public education.

Till arrived on August 21, 1955. On August 24, he joined other young teenagers as they went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to get some candy and soda. The teenagers were children of sharecroppers and had been picking cotton all day. The market was owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant, and mostly catered to the local sharecropper population.

Till's cousin and several black youths, all under 19, were with Till in the store. The facts of what transpired in the store are still disputed, but according to several versions, Till was dared by one of the other boys to flirt with the 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant.[13][14] Some accounts say Till wolf whistled at Bryant; others say he grabbed her hand and asked her for a date; still others say that he said "Bye, baby" as he left the store.[14][15] One of the other boys ran outside to tell Till's cousin (who was outside playing checkers with Moses Wright across the street) what happened. When the old man heard what happened, he urged the boys to leave quickly, fearing violence.

Carolyn Bryant told others of the events at the store, and the story spread quickly. When Bryant's husband returned from a road trip a few days later and was told about the incident, he was greatly angered. Till's cousin, Wheeler Parker, Jr., who was with him at the store, claims Till did nothing but whistle at the woman. "He loved pranks, he loved fun, he loved jokes... in Mississippi, people didn't think the same jokes were funny." Carolyn Bryant later asserted that Till had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date. She said the young man also used "unprintable" words. Roy Bryant decided that he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, 36, would "teach the boy a lesson."


At about 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 28 1955, Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, got into a car with his wife Carolyn and another whose identity has still not been confirmed. They drove to Reverend Wright's house, where Emmett stayed. Bryant pounded on the door until Wright opened it, and asked Wright if he had two black boys in the house. Till was sleeping with his cousin; Milam asked him whether he was "the one who'd done the talking." Till said "Yeah."[15] Bryant brought Till to be identified by his wife. When it was confirmed that Till was in fact "the talker," the men put him in the back of a pickup truck and drove off. According to witnesses, they drove him to a weathered shed on a plantation in neighboring Sunflower County, where they beat him up, then shot him. A 70-pound cotton gin fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire to weigh down the body, which they dropped into the Tallahatchie River near Glendora, Mississippi, another small cotton town north of Money.[15]

Afterwards, with Till missing, Bryant and Milam admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle's yard but claimed they turned him loose the same night. Some supposed that relatives of Till were hiding him out of fear for the youth’s safety or that he had been sent back to Chicago where he would be safe. Word got out that Till was missing, and soon NAACP civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the state field secretary, and Amzie Moore, head of the Bolivar County chapter, became involved, disguising themselves as cotton pickers and going into the cotton fields in search of any information that might help find the young Till.[citation needed]

Till's swollen and disfigured body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days after his abduction.[16] After the body was recovered, the brothers and the police tried to convince people that it was not Till, that Till was in Chicago and that the beaten boy was someone else. Till's features were too distorted by the beatings to easily identify him, but he was positively identified thanks to a ring he wore that had been his father's. His mother had given it to him the day before he left for Money. The brothers were soon under official suspicion for the boy's disappearance and were arrested in early September.[17]

Moses Wright, Till's great-uncle, told the sheriff that a person who sounded like a woman had identified Till as "the one," after which Bryant and Milam had driven away with him. Bryant and Milam claimed they later found out Till was not "the one" who had allegedly "insulted" Mrs. Bryant, and swore to Sheriff George Smith they had released him. They would later recant and confess after their acquittal in a January 1956 interview with William Bradford Huie for Look magazine.[15]

In an editorial on Friday, September 2, Greenville journalist Hodding Carter, Jr. asserted that "people who are guilty of this savage crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."[citation needed]


After Till's disfigured and partly decomposed body was found, he was put into a pine coffin and nearly buried, but his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, wanted the body returned to Chicago, so she refused to allow burial. A Tutwiler mortuary assistant worked all night to prepare the body as best he could so that Bradley could bring Till's body back to Chicago.[citation needed]

The Chicago funeral home had agreed to not open the casket, but Bradley fought their decision. The state of Mississippi insisted it would not allow the funeral home to open it, so Bradley threatened to open it herself, insisting she had a right to see her son. After viewing the body, she also insisted on leaving the casket open for the funeral and allowing people to take photographs because she wanted people to see how badly Till's body had been disfigured—she has famously been quoted as saying, "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby."[18]

Open casket of Emmett Till at his funeral.

News photographs of Till's mutilated corpse circulated around the country, notably appearing in Jet magazine, and drew intense public reaction. Some reports said that up to 50,000 people viewed the body. Emmett Till was buried September 6 in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. The same day, Bryant and Milam were indicted by a grand jury.[citation needed]


Mrs. Bradley traveled to Mississippi to testify at the trial, staying in the home of Dr. T.R.M. Howard in the all-black town of Mound Bayou. Others staying in Howard's home were black reporters, such as Cloyte Murdock of Ebony magazine, key witnesses, and Congressman Charles Diggs of Michigan, later the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Howard was a major civil rights leader and fraternal organization official in Mississippi, the head of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), and one of the wealthiest blacks in the state. [19]

The day before the trial, Frank Young, a black farm worker, came to Howard's home, stating that he had information indicating that Milam and Bryant had help in their crime. Young's allegations sparked an investigation that led to unprecedented cooperation between local law enforcement, the NAACP, the RCNL, black journalists, and local reporters. The trial began on September 19, 1955, 22 days after the murder. Moses "Mose" Wright, Emmett's great-uncle, was one of the main witnesses called up to testify by lead prosecutor Gerald Chatham. Pointing to one of the suspected killers, he identified the man who had killed his nephew.[19]

Another key witness for the prosecution was Willie Reed, an 18-year-old high school student who lived on a plantation near Drew, Mississippi in Sunflower County. The prosecution had located him, thanks to the investigation sparked by Young's information. Reed testified that he had seen a pickup truck outside an equipment shed, on a plantation near Drew managed by Leslie Milam, a brother of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. He said that four whites, including J.W. Milam, were in the cab and three blacks were in the back, one of them Till. When the truck pulled into the shed, he heard human cries that sounded like a beating was under way. He did not identify the other blacks on the truck.[19]

On September 23 the all-male, all-white jury acquitted both defendants. Deliberations took merely 67 minutes; one juror said, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken us too long."[20] The hasty acquittal outraged people throughout the United States and Europe and energized the nascent Civil Rights Movement.

After the trial

Even by the time of the trial, Howard and black journalists such as James Hicks of the Baltimore Afro-American named several blacks who had allegedly been on the truck near Drew, including three employees of J.W. Milam: Henry Lee Loggins, Levi "Too-Tight" Collins, and Joe Willie Hubbard. None of the men were called to testify. In the months after the trial, both Hicks and Howard called for a federal investigation into charges that Sheriff H.C. Strider had locked Collins and Loggins in jail to keep them from testifying.[19]

Following the trial, Look magazine paid J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant $4,000 to tell their story. Safe from any further charges for their crime due to double jeopardy protection, Bryant admitted to Huie that he and his brother had killed Till. Milam claimed that initially their intention was to scare Till into line by pistol-whipping him and threatening to throw him off a cliff. Milam explained that, contrary to expectations, regardless of what they did to Till, he never showed any fear, never seemed to believe they would really kill him, and maintained a defiant attitude towards them concerning his actions. Thus the brothers said they felt they were left with no choice but to fully make an example of Till, and they killed him. The story focused exclusively on the role of Milam and Bryant in the crime and did not mention any possible part played by others. The article[15] was published in Look in January 1956. While some found it repugnant that Look had paid these men $4,000, the editorial position was that the good of getting the public to know the truth outweighed the bad of these men being paid a considerable sum.

In February 1956, Howard's version of the events of the kidnapping and murder, which stressed the possible involvement of Hubbard and Loggins, appeared in the booklet Time Bomb: Mississippi Exposed and the Full Story of Emmett Till by Olive Arnold Adams. At the same time a still unidentified white reporter using the pseudonym Amos Dixon wrote a series of articles in the California Eagle. The series put forward essentially the same thesis as Time Bomb but offered a more detailed description of the possible role of Loggins, Hubbard, Collins, and Leslie Milam. Time Bomb and Dixon's articles had no lasting impact in the shaping of public opinion. Huie's article in the far more widely circulated Look became the most commonly accepted version of events.[19]

In 1957, Huie returned to the Delta for a follow-up piece in Look; the article indicated that local residents, white and black alike, were shunning Milam and Bryant and that their stores were closed due to a lack of business.

Milam died of cancer in 1980 and Bryant in 1994 of the same cause. The men never expressed any remorse for Till's death and seemed to feel that they had done no wrong. In fact, a few months before he died, Bryant complained bitterly in an interview that he had never made as much money off Till's death as he deserved and that it had ruined his life[21]. Emmett's mother Mamie (as Mamie Till Mobley) outlived both men, dying at the age of 81 on January 6, 2003. That same year her autobiography Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (One World Books, co-written with Christopher Benson) was published.

In 1991, a seven-mile stretch of 71st street in Chicago was renamed "Emmett Till Memorial Highway." In 2006 and 2008 a Mississippi historical marker marking the place of Till's death was defaced, and in August 2007 it went missing.[22] Less than a week later a replica was put up in its place.[23]

In 2005, the "James McCosh Math and Science Academy," where Till had been a student, was renamed the "Emmett Louis Till Math And Science Academy."[24] It is the first Chicago school to be named after a child.[25] At the renaming ceremony, plans for an Emmett Till Museum on the school's grounds were discussed.

On June 20, 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 923, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007.[26]

Recent investigations

In 2001, David T. Beito, associate professor at the University of Alabama and Linda Royster Beito, chair of the department of social sciences at Stillman College, were the first investigators in many decades to track down and interview on tape two key principals in the case: Henry Lee Loggins and Willie Reed. They were doing research for their biography of T.R.M. Howard. In his interview with the Beitos, Loggins denied that he had any knowledge of the crime or that he was one of the black men on the truck outside of the equipment shed near Drew. Reed repeated the testimony that he had given at the trial, that he had seen three black men and four white men (including J.W. Milam) on the truck. When asked to identify the black men, however, he did not name Loggins as one of them. The Beitos also confirmed that Levi "Too-Tight" Collins, another black man allegedly on this car, had died in 1993.[19]

In 1996, Keith Beauchamp started background research for a feature film he planned to make about Till's murder, and asserted that as many as 14 individuals may have been involved. While conducting interviews he also encountered eyewitnesses who had never spoken out publicly before. As a result he decided to produce a documentary instead, and spent the next nine years creating The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. The film led to calls by the NAACP and others for the case to be reopened. The documentary included lengthy interviews with Loggins and Reed, both of whom the Beitos had first tracked down and interviewed in 2001. Loggins repeated his denial of any knowledge of the crime. Beauchamp has consistently refused to name the fourteen individuals whom he asserts took part in the crime, including the five he claims are still alive.

On May 10, 2004, the United States Department of Justice announced that it was reopening the case to determine whether anyone other than Milam and Bryant was involved. Although the statute of limitations prevented charges being pursued under federal law, they could be pursued before the state court, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and officials in Mississippi worked jointly on the investigation. As no autopsy had been performed on Till's body, it was exhumed on May 31, 2005 from the suburban Chicago cemetery where it was buried, which was conducted by the Cook County coroner. The body was reburied by relatives on June 4. It has been positively identified as that of Emmett Till.

In February 2007, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that both the FBI and a Leflore County Grand Jury, which was empaneled by Joyce Chiles, a black prosecutor, had found no credible basis for Keith Beauchamp's claim that fourteen individuals took part in Till's abduction and murder or that any remained alive. The Grand Jury also decided not to prefer charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham, Roy Bryant's ex-wife. Neither the FBI nor the Grand Jury found any credible evidence that Henry Lee Loggins, now living in an Ohio nursing home, and identified by Beauchamp as a suspect who could be charged, had any role in the crime. Other than Loggins, Beauchamp still refuses to name any of the people he alleges were involved, although the FBI and District Attorney have completed their investigations of his charges and he is free to go on the record. A story by Jerry Mitchell in the Clarion-Ledger on February 18 described Beauchamp's allegation that fourteen or more were involved as a legend.

The same article also labels as legend a rumor that Till had endured castration at the hands of his victimizers. The castration theory was first put forward uncritically in Beauchamp's Untold Story, although Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett's mother) had said in an earlier documentary directed by Stanley Nelson, The Murder of Emmett Till, (2003) that her son's genitals were intact when she examined the corpse. The recent autopsy, as reported by Mitchell, confirmed Mobley-Till's original account and showed no evidence of castration.

In March 2007, Till's family was briefed by the FBI on the contents of its investigation. The FBI report released on March 29, 2007 found that Till had died of a gunshot wound to the head and that he had skull, leg, and wrist bone fractures.[27]

The July 31, 2005 issue of The New York Times Magazine featured an article, "The Ghosts of Emmett Till," by Richard Rubin. Rubin had previously interviewed the two surviving defense attorneys and the two surviving jurors from the murder trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, most of whom had never been interviewed before.

On July 9, 2009, a manager and three gravediggers at Burr Oak Cemetery were charged with digging up bodies, dumping them in a remote area, and reselling the plots. Till's grave was not disturbed, but investigators found his original glass-topped casket rusting in a dilapidated storage shed.[28] When Till was reburied in a new casket in 2005, his original casket was to be installed in an Emmett Till memorial museum. Authorities said the cemetery manager, who administered the memorial fund, had pocketed donations intended for the memorial. It was unclear how much money may have been collected.[29][30] In 2007, several photographs of the original casket in the storage shed were taken by Devery S. Anderson and are posted on his website The Emmett Till Murder. Cemetery officials clearly neglected the casket, as shown by photos taken in July 2009, although its glass top was still intact. The casket has since been taken to the Rayner and Sons mortuary, where it will be restored for display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.[5] Rayner and Sons also prepared Emmett Till's body for burial in 1955.

Depictions in popular culture

See also


  1. ^ a b c United States Department of Justice (May 10, 2004). "Justice Department to Investigate 1955 Emmett Till Murder". Press release. Retrieved 2007-08-24. 
  2. ^ Parker, Laura (2004-03-10). "Justice pursued for Emmett Till". USA Today. Retrieved 2007-08-24. 
  3. ^ "Body of ’55 civil rights victim returned to grave". Associated Press. 2005-06-04. Retrieved 2007-08-24. 
  4. ^ "Emmett Till's Body Reburied". WMAQ-TV. 2005-06-04. Retrieved 2007-08-24. 
  5. ^ a b Trescott, Jacqueline (August 27, 2009). "Emmett Till's Casket Donated to the Smithsonian". The Washington Post. 
  6. ^ Bernstein, Adam (January 8, 2003). "Mamie Till-Mobley; Civil Rights Figure". Washington Post: p. B06. 
  7. ^ "American Experience: People & Events: Mamie Till Mobley (1921-2003)". PBS. Retrieved 2009-11-14. 
  8. ^ Transcript of interview with Christopher Benson, author of Death of Innocence, a book documenting the Emmett Till case
  9. ^ American Experience | The Murder of Emmett Till | Special Features
  10. ^ PBS People and Events: Mamie Till Mobley
  11. ^ PBS forum question posed to Stanley Nelson Jr., producer and director of The Murder of Emmett Till.
  12. ^ Expressing the sense of Congress with respect to the murder of Emmett Till
  13. ^ This Day in History 1955: The death of Emmett Till
  14. ^ a b Langston Hughes's "Mississippi—1955": a note on revisions and an appeal for reconsideration
  15. ^ a b c d e Huie, William Bradford (January 1956). "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi". Look Magazine. 
  16. ^ Crowe, Chris (2003). Getting away with murder. ISBN 0803728042. 
  17. ^ "A boy's death set off rights movement". The Philadelphia Tribune. February 1, 2005. 
  18. ^ Recollection by Joyce Ladner of conversation with Till's mother, in the context of a Brookings Institution panel discussion on the Civil Rights Movement.
  19. ^ a b c d e f Beito, David T.; Beito, Linda Royster (2009). Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. pp. 120–21. ISBN 0252034201. 
  20. ^ Alschuler, Albert W. (February 1995). "Racial Quotas and the Jury". Duke Law Journal 44 (4): 706. doi:10.2307/1372922. 
  21. ^ American Experience | The Murder of Emmett Till | People & Events
  22. ^ "Marker Commemorating Till's Death Disappears". 2007-08-22. Retrieved 2007-08-22. 
  23. ^ "Sign commemorating Till's death replaced in Delta". Associated Press. 2007-08-24. Retrieved 2007-08-24. 
  24. ^ Approve the Renaming of the Current James McCosh Math & Science Academy to Emmett Louis Till Math & Science Academy
  25. ^ Lynch, La Risa R. (1 Mar. 2006). "South Side School Named for Emmett Till". Chicago Citizen. 
  26. ^ "H.R. 923: Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007". 2007-2008. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  27. ^ Johnson, Carla (2007-03-30). "Emmett Till's Family Gets Autopsy Report". ABC News. Retrieved 2007-03-30. 
  28. ^ "Authorities discover original casket of Emmett Till". CNN. 2009-07-10. Retrieved 2009-07-10. 
  29. ^ "Cemetery workers made $300K in grave digging scheme". AP. 2009-07-10. Retrieved 2009-07-10. 
  30. ^ "Till casket removed, investigators looking for memorial money". SouthtownStar. 2009-07-14.,071409tillfolo.article. Retrieved 2009-07-24. 
  31. ^ The Ballad of Emmett Till By Ifa Bayeza

Further reading

External links

Simple English

Emmett Till was a black boy from Mississippi that was killed for whistling at a white woman. His body was severely beaten.

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