Sixty years ago, on August 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted and brutally murdered.
About a week earlier, Emmett, who lived in Chicago, traveled by train to Money, Mississippi, to spend a few weeks with his great-uncle and cousins. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, cautioned him before the trip, as life in Chicago was much different than life in the Mississippi Delta.
In her testimony at the trial of his murderers, she recalled the advise she gave to her son.
“He would have to adapt himself to a new way of life. And I told him to be very careful about how he spoke and to whom he spoke, and to always remember to say ‘Yes, Sir’ and ‘No, Ma’am’ at all times. And I told him that if ever an incident should arise where there would be any trouble of any kind with white people, then if it got to a point where he even had to get down on his knees before them, well, I told him not to hesitate to do so.”
Four days into his visit, Till and a group of friends went to Bryan’s Grocery Store to buy some candy. While in the shop, Till allegedly acted “familiar” when speaking to the white female storekeeper, Carolyn Bryant. Accounts differ as to what actually transpired: some said he “wolf whistled,” others said he said “Bye, baby” upon leaving the store.
A few days later, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy, became aware of the interaction. On August 28, 1955, he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Emmett at gunpoint. They beat and tortured Till, forced him to load a 74-pound fan into the back of their pick-up truck, and drove to the Tallahatchie River. Once they arrived at the body of water, they ordered Emmett to undress and proceeded to shoot him in the head. After the shooting, they attached the heavy fan to Emmett’s neck and rolled his body into the river.
Emmett’s badly disfigured body was discovered three days later by two young boys. Heart-broken and grief-stricken by the brutality of her son’s death, Mamie Till Bradley defiantly held an open-casket funeral in Chicago for her son. She also distributed a photo of his corpse to newspapers and magazines for publication, later explaining that “the whole nation had to bear witness to this.”
In September 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were indicted for the murder of Emmett Till. The trial lasted 3 days; the jury deliberated for just over one hour. On September 23, 1955, the all-white, all-male jury announced a not-guilty verdict.
Seven years after the acquittal, one juror admitted during an interview that most of the jurors believed Bryant and Milam were guilty. However, the jury decided to acquitt them because the mandatory punishment of life in prison or death seemed too harsh to impose on white men for killing a black boy.
Hosted by the late D’Army Bailey, Moments in Civil Rights History is produced in collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative and is part of Comcast NBCUniversal’s “His Dream, Our Stories” project. Visit http://www.HisDreamOurStories.com for more Civil Rights History, first-hand accounts from those who led, participated in or benefited from the Movement, or to share a civil rights story of your own (or that of a loved one).
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