Emmett Till: The Opposite Ends of the Race Spectrum in the South

Emmett Till’s body before and after coming to Mississippi. It was painted by Dr. Lisa Whittington. The painting is in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Emmett Louis Till was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, which is situated in the northern part of the United States where racism and discrimination were much less overbearing when compared to its southern counterparts. Desiring a vacation, Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, sent her fourteen-year-old son down south to Tallahatchie County, Mississippi to stay with his uncle, Moses Wright. To his detriment, Emmett didn’t grasp how fundamentally different the South was as compared to the North, especially Mississippi, who led the nation in race-related murders in 1955. Emmett did not “hang his head” or add “the customary ‘sir’” when talking to white storekeepers. He was just completely naive to the ways and culture of the South. Unfortunately, this would come back to torture him sooner rather than later, as he wouldn’t even last a month in the South.1

On August 24, 1955, Till and several other teenagers drove down to Money, Mississippi and stopped at a grocery store owned and operated by Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam were away trucking shrimp to Texas, leaving Carolyn and Milam’s wife, Juanita at the store. After being egged on by the local black teenagers to ask Mrs. Bryant on a date, Emmett, falling victim to peer pressure, entered the grocery store. He bought a pack of gum, then foolishly, he grabbed her hand, flirted with her, and asked her out for a date. She yanked her hand away and ran to the back of the store in search of a gun. Realizing the imminent danger, one of Till’s cousins grabbed him and dragged him out of the store. As he was being dragged away, he wolf-whistled at Mrs. Bryant. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time Emmett saw a Bryant. This was only the beginning.2

In the early hours of August 28, upon learning about the incident, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam went to the Wrights’ residence and abducted Emmett. They brutally tortured him, murdered him, and dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Black man drinking water at a racially segregated water jug | Courtesy of Pxhere

Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s race is superior. This ideology/societal pressure was overwhelming on the African-Americans of the United States South. This part of the U.S. had attempted to secede from the country in order to protect its culture and its oppressive nature over its African-American population. The oppressive pressures of the Southern culture for centuries subdued Black southerners, instilling fear in their hearts and minds. For instance, in Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan was newly revived and African Americans were impoverished. The barriers separating Black and White southerners were strictly enforced by the threat of social violence from groups such as the KKK. In the 1950s, Black Mississippians experienced the fruit of Jim Crow laws, as everything was segregated from bathrooms to jails to schools to water fountains to public transportation.3

And the oppression ran deep in the veins of Mississippi as Mississippi led the nation in race-related murders in 1955. Mississippi was a place where exercising your right to vote as an American could get you killed in cold blood if you were a Black southerner. For George Lee and Lamar Smith, this was reality for the two activists who both tried to vote. Both men’s activism in working to get other African-Americans registered to vote had gotten them killed. In Lamar Smith’s case, he was shot dead on the courthouse lawn while urging African Americans to vote in a local run-off election. No one was prosecuted. The assailant ran free. These political assassinations received little press coverage. These cases showed black southerners that if they even tried to vote, they would be killed, and their deaths would be in vain, as there wouldn’t be an outcry in the news, as the southern, white-owned newspapers didn’t care. Additionally, there would be no repercussions for the murderers as the police wouldn’t care to investigate. When a black person was stolen from or lynched, local law enforcement did “little to investigate and bring a culprit to justice.” On the contrary, if the prime suspect or suspects of a criminal investigation were black, their guilt or innocence “mattered little.” A black southerner was “guilty until proven innocent,” and evidence was often planted to gain a conviction. On top of all that, going through the court system, a black southerner would be judged by a “jury of one’s peers” as promised by the U.S. Constitution, which almost always produced an all-white, all-male jury who “wanted nothing more than to see a black person behind bars.”4 So, black southerners not only would be killed in cold blood and forgotten, but they would also be framed, convicted of a crime they did not commit, and left to rot in prison. “If you see a white woman coming down the street, you get off the sidewalk and drop your head. Don’t even look at her,” Mamie Till, a native of the South herself, warned her son before he left to Mississippi. This attests to the fear the southern culture instilled in the southern blacks as they wouldn’t dare provoke a white southerner, fearing the extreme ramifications.5

However, the Emmett Till case wouldn’t be forgotten. On the contrary, it would cause a great outcry. On the morning of that same day of August 28, the Wrights reported the abduction to the local police while one of the visitors in their home phoned Mamie Till. By noon, Milam and Bryant were arrested. They confessed to kidnapping the boy, but claimed they had released him after realizing he was the wrong person. They remained in jail on the suspicion of murder. Three days later, Till’s body was found by a fisherman in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s body was found brutally disfigured with a gin fan wired to his neck. Upon its discovery, Mamie Till demanded the body be sent home to Chicago. Here, she held an open casket funeral and let the world gaze upon not only the horror Till had experience but the reality of the oppressive nature of the Southern culture. Mrs. Till let newspapers take on the story.6

On Sept. 15, 1955, Jet, a nationwide, black-owned publication, ran photos of Emmett Till’s disfigured corpse galvanizing the nation as they were appalled by the severity of Till’s disfigurement. They cried. They shouted. They begged for justice. But, there was something else brewing in Mississippi.7

White farmers standing in front of a farmhouse | Courtesy of Flickr

Compared to the black southerners’ experience, white southerners, the oppressors, had been benefiting from the constraints their culture placed on the African-American people as they lived in an environment structured to where African-Americans couldn’t even compete with them, not due to lack of ability, but due to the absence of opportunity and resources. In 1952, 10.2% of black Americans were illiterate, while conversely, only 1.8% of white Americans were illiterate.8 To this point, the social structure of the South has been based on “White Supremacy.” This ideology was protected and cultivated for so long through various avenues, such as slavery, where African-Americans were forced to work and be subject to abuse, or the Dred-Scott court case that labeled African-Americans property, or the Three-Fifths Compromise that declared African-Americans worth three-fifths of a person, or the many Jim Crow laws that effectively segregated the two races. For over 200 years, White Supremacy, the ideology that White Americans were superior to African-Americans, was permitted to cultivate and, as a result, deeply rooted itself into the culture and way of life of the South. The South’s way of life, time and time again, oppressed African-Americans as they were, first subject to abuse through the avenue of slavery, then later through the avenue of Jim Crow laws. White southerners experienced higher quality school books, higher-quality teachers, better seats on the bus, and the greatest power of all, immunity. They were immune to an entire race of people. They were completely unaffected by the actions of an entire race. Whatever they wanted, they got top priority over an entire race of people no matter the difference in skills and work ethic. They could terrorize African-Americans and demand submission, which is a testament to the power white southerners exercised over black southerners. Mamie Till, herself, warned her son to be mindful of this and simply do as they must. An underlying effect of the heavy discrimination in the South was its unifying effect on white southerns as they became closer, as they could all play under the umbrella of White Supremacy. Whether you were from Georgia, Mississippi or Alabama, as long as they were both white, they could acknowledge the other wasn’t black, therefore, they couldn’t be that bad.9

Moses Wright, Emmett Till’s uncle, rising and identifying the two men as Till’s kidnappers during his testimony. This took place in Sumner, Mississippi in 1955 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On September 19, 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam stood trial to a white male judge and a jury of all white southern men. Mamie Till took the stand stating that the disfigured body found was, in fact, her son’s. Next, Moses Wright took the stand. Mr. Wright had been in hiding ever since the incident and came out now to give eyewitness testimony. As the “white eyes” gazed upon him, Mr. Wright gave damning evidence as he rose up and pointed at Bryant and Milam, identifying the two as ones who abducted Emmett. Finally, a young sharecropper, Willie Reed, was persuaded to testify, despite his fear for his life. Mr. Reed told the courtroom about the shrieks and screams he heard from the barnyard where Bryant and Milam tortured Emmett. Fearing for their lives after giving incriminating eyewitness accounts, both, Mr. Wright and Mr. Reed were sent to Chicago to flee the threat of being killed by angry white southerners, the former vowing “never to return.”10

Despite the damning eyewitness testimony that was given by Ms. Till, Mr. Wright, and Mr. Reed, the Southern culture and Southerner brotherhood ran deep in the jurors’ veins. Before resting his case, the defendant’s lawyer warned the jurors how ashamed their ancestors would be if they convicted Bryant and Milam, claiming “your ancestors will turn over in their grave” if these two were convicted.11

After a mere 67 minutes of deliberations, the jury acquitted J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, scoffing that they would have deliberated faster if they hadn’t “stopped to drink a [soda] pop.” A couple of years later in an interview with Look magazine, J.W. Milam, now protected by double jeopardy, admitted to doing the crime.12

  1. James Podesta, Contemporary Black Biography, (Detroit, MI: Gale, 1994), 262-266.
  2. Emma Crandall, Till, Emmett Louis 1941-1955 (Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), 1464.
  3. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 2006, s.v. “Till, Emmett,” by Robyn Spencer.
  4. David Robson, The Murder of Emmett Till (Detroit, MI: Lucent Books, 2010), 27.
  5. Rebecca Segall, “Who killed Emmett Till?” The Nation, Feb. 2003, https://go.gale.com/.
  6. James Podesta, Contemporary Black Biography (Detroit, MI: Gale, 1994), 262-266.
  7. David Robson, The Murder of Emmett Till (Detroit, MI: Lucent Books, 2010), 27.
  8. “Literacy from 1870 to 1979.” 1993. National Center for Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.asp.
  9. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, 2000, s.v. “Racial Discrimination,” by Owen Fiss.
  10. David Robson, The Murder of Emmett Till (Detroit, MI: Lucent Books, 2010), 38-40.
  11. David Robson, The Murder of Emmett Till (Detroit, MI: Lucent Books, 2010), 44.
  12. David Robson, The Murder of Emmett Till (Detroit, MI: Lucent Books, 2010), 45.

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38 Responses

  1. Each story pertaining to racism and the south, always get harder and harder to read. The violence white individuals showed to people of different color will be a never ending process of forgiveness. No one has the right to treat others the way that they did. I’m astonished to read about one of the witnesses actually hearing Emmett being tortured. Imagine that poor man having to live everyday with the sound in his mind. What I am thankful to see is the difference in society from this event. It has progressed a long way from the hatred that was everyday life. It’s not completely gone, but the change is there. Good choice in writing. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. This is an amazing article, I have heard of Emmett Till’s story before but you offered a very good description to those who might haven’t heard of the case. Emmett Till’s death is really upsetting because I just don’t understand how people could have been so cruel and evil to African-Americans. And honestly to this day, they still are. From gun violence in the black community, to the way the media portrays them, it is still a very prominent problem today. In this case, which is one of many, Emmett was only a young boy who was clearly innocent and he did not deserve what happened to him.

  3. The story of Emmett Till is a very sad but necessary and eye opening case in American history. And the fact that 70 years later we still hear stories of young men and women of color being brutally murdered and their murderers getting off free should infuriate the world today. Thank God for the strength and audacity of Mamie Till. She struck a chord in the hearts and minds of those brave men and women of the Civil Rights Era to fight for the freedoms that most take for granted today.

  4. I hardly ever ponder on systematic racism against African-Americans, maybe because I was not born in this culture, and because the retellings I have heard of and read are those that come from tragic stories and literature and those of plain slavery. I do remember, however, the impactful image of hundreds of some old newspapers that I found in a Peruvian library where I could clearly read what was the price of a black man, and how he was better in doing the laundry, and how a woman was in search of a black. I remember reading those publications and advertisements in an 1853-newspaper and realizing that racism, racial prejudices, and ethnic hate, are an unfortunate global issue. Emmett Till is just another unfortunate story

  5. The story of Emmett Till is always one that is very sad to hear about and it makes me very disappointed that it even occurred. It is an awful story and it is disgusting the way that it was handled. I admire the mother so much for wanting an open casket, and I think it truly made a difference because it exposed how awful the treatment was, and it is something that will never be forgotten. In addition, our system including double jeopardy shows how unfair trails can be because the gentlemen should have been convicted when they confessed.

  6. This was a very detailed article about a specific case that demonstrated the South’s racism during that time. I was shocked and very saddened by how Emmett Till was murdered and how the criminals got away with it. It’s hard to believe that people got away with anything just because of their privileges. The article had a substantial amount of context how racism affected situations in the South and added to the understanding of the case.

  7. Reading about Emmett Till is always very difficult and it’s especially difficult to view the image of him in a casket with his face disfigured, or an image of his mother standing over the casket in despair. As difficult as it is for me, a person of mild privilege because I have medium to light skin tone, and have never and will never face a prejudice that brutal, I can’t even imagine how difficult the story of Emmett Till continues to be for black people today, especially black men who live in Southern states still dealing with the aftermath of the Jim Crow era. It’s crazy to think that just a few changes in Emmett’s mannerisms (bowing his head, not addressing any white women) would have saved his life. How was he to know that in order to survive he must make himself invisible?

  8. The story of this boy is a very sad one because of how innocent he was when the incident happened. He had no idea what he was getting himself into and since racism was very prominent throughout that period, it is very upsetting to see the injustice the boy had. The article was very informative about the situation and the events that happened.

  9. Wow. I’m shocked. How could people do something like that and get away with it? This was a really good but sad article to read but I’m glad that the author brought attention to it. This was a sad story to read about but to an extent, it does make you upset because these people got away with murder because of their skin color. It’s really infuriating that this actually happened and that this was how people were at one time in our nations history.

  10. I had heard the story of Emmett Till before, but I thought this article went well into detail describing exactly how prejudice the South was during the 1900’s. It is hard to believe for most that although the United States is a collection of States under the federal scope, each state (and more specifically each area/territory) are quite different from each other. It is saddening that a teenager who was living in the century after slavery was abolished, was killed because of his race.

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