Monday 25 July 2016

The Death of Emmett Till

"Have you ever sent a loved son on vacation, and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son, lynched?"
Mamie Till

"Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, 'That's their business, not mine.' Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all."
Mamie Till

Photograph: Emmett Till's mother, "Mamie Till Mobley collapses when her son Emmett’s body arrives at the old Illinois Central Railroad station after his murder by racists in Mississippi. On her left, with the white collar, is Alva Doris Roberts’ husband, Bishop Isaiah L. Roberts, who presided over the funeral. On the right, also dressed in clerical black, is Bishop Louis Henry Ford, who did the youth’s eulogy. An Illinois freeway is named after Bishop Ford" (via).

Photograph: Mamie Till Mobley at her son's funeral on 6 September 1955 in Chicago.

"He was a black skin boy
So he was born to die"
Bob Dylan

The Death of Emmett Till, written by Bob Dylan
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::: Listen to the song (starts after short documentary at 1:54): LISTEN
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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 Till

Some 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 street

Then 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 die

And 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
awful crime
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind

I 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 sea

If 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

Photograph: Thousands of people mourning at Emmett's funeral

In his song, Bob Dylan tells the story of Emmett Till's short life and mentions that there are "things too evil to repeat". Here are a few more facts including those that are too evil to repeat.
Emmett Louis Till, who would celebrate his birthday today, was born on 25 July 1941 in Chicago. On 21 August 1955, when he was fourteen years old, he went to Money in rural Mississippi to spend the summer with relatives. He stayed with his great-uncle Moses Wright.  Emmett had been warned by his mother that the South was different and that his behaviour tolerated in the North could lead to violent reactions in the South. On 24 August, Emmett Till went to a grocery store. What exactly "happened" there nobody knows for sure as accounts vary. The most likely version probably is that the teenager whistled at the store's cashier, Carolyn Bryant - a white woman. In the early hours of 28 August (at about 2 a.m.), Roy Bryant (the cashier's husband) and his half brother J. W. Milam forced their way into Moses Wright's house with a .45 Colt automatic pistol and kidnapped Emmett Till. They brutally beat him, shot him, then threw his corpse into the river.
Emmett's great-uncle reported the kidnapping and Bryant and Milam were arrested the following day. On 31 August, the boy's corpse was discovered, with an unrecognisable face. Emmett's mother had given him a monogrammed ring that had once belonged to his father. It was the ring that made positive identification possible.
The sheriff, as Emmett's mother Mamie Till Mobley recalled, wanted an immediate burial as he knew it would not be good for the state of Mississippi to see what had happened to the 14-year old child. And the only way was "to get him out of sight". The family was told to come to the church where everything had already been prepared, including Emmett's grave. Mamie Till Mobley, however, demanded the return of her son's body. On 2 September, his remains arrived in Chicago. When the box arrived, Mamie Till Mobley collapsed. As she said that was only the beginning and the size of the box was "the easy part" compared to what followed.
"When I discovered that the box could not be opened then I wondered 'What on earth in the world is going on?' (...) How do I know what's in the box?" Mamie Till Mobley
The funeral director was prohibited from opening the box. Mamie Till Mobley was determined to open it, asked for a hammer and finally got help. She was told to go home, to relax a little bit and return when she was called. When she got back to the funeral home, she said: "about three blocks away an odour met me that nearly knocked me out". It was the odour of a body that had been in the river for days. And then she saw her lynched son for the first time; beaten, mutilated, shot, his head cut in half with an axe, ... She wanted his casket open, wanted to show the brutality to the tens of thousands who attended the funeral. The horrible photographs appeared in magazines (and can also be seen online).
Then the trial of his killers began, on 9 September. There were jars everywhere in the town of Sumner to collect money for the defence of the two men accused of murder. The all-white-all-male jury acquitted Bryant and Milam after a little more than an hour of deliberation. In fact, it only took an hour because they wanted to be correct about the way they delivered the answer. The answer was a foregone conclusion. As the foreman of the jury said: "It wouldn't have us taken that long but they told us to make it look good." So the jury had some soda and beer, waited a little while and came back with the verdict.
"In this category were the defense lawyers, who, concededly [sic.], are honorable men. Only one of the five, in preparing the defense, dared ask Milam if he had, in fact, killed the young Negro. Milam cleared his throat to speak, but the lawyer, on second thought, stopped him.
The attorneys preferred, as was their legal right, to conduct the defense and erect smoke screens about the “forefathers” and the “Southern way of life” and to attack the “identification of the corpus delicti” without having asked their clients for the facts.
One lawyer told me: “No, I didn’t question them. I guess I assumed they’d killed him; but my wife was worried, and every night after we turned out the light, she had been asking me if they were guilty and I had been telling her no. So I figured the less I really knew the better.”
That was the figuring of most of the literate Southerners who defended Milam and Bryant and “Mississippi.” They preferred to “defend”–to “beat off their enemies”–without determining the truth." William Bradford Huie, Look 22 (January 1957)
A few months later, January 1956: Milam (who could "handle Negroes better than anybody in the country") and Bryant were offered money for an interview; the article was published in the Look magazine. But it was not just an interview, it was a confession. Knowing about the protection from further prosecution by double jeopardy statues, they were honest which also meant not showing the slightest hint of remorse. Milam's brother Leslie, by the way, made a deathbed confession and admitted his own involvement. Emmett Till had been lynched for whistling at a woman, for not being afraid of Milam, for claiming that he had had white women. In the years before Emmett had arrived in Mississippi, about 500 black men had been lynched; mostly for having been associated with white women (via and via and via and via).  Here an excerpt from the interview:
Milam: "Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers -- in their place -- I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you -- just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'"
::: The complete "Killers' Confession in Look" (1956): READ

Milam and Bryant led miserable lives after the confession (both of them lost two sons each at about the same age as Emmett, both had financial problems; blacks would no longer work for Milam and he had to employ white men at higher pay, could not rent land as landowners declined to do so, was refused a loan by the Bank of Charleston and Bryant had trouble getting a job after closing his shop) (via). Emmett Till's murder acted as a spark for the early Civil Rights Movement and was said to have changed the world (via). Bryant died in 1994, Milam in 1980. Emmett's mother Mamie Till passed away in January 2003, in 2004 the case was reopened by the FBI. In 2009, the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation was founded to honour her legacy and preserve the memory of her son.
"Milam and Bryant will not be tried again; but as landless white men in the Mississippi Delta, and bearing the mark of Cain, they will come to regard the dark morning of August 28, 1955, as the most unfortunate of their lives." William Bradford Huie, 1957, one year after publishing the "killers' confession" in Look
One month before she passed away, Mamie Till talked about not hating Milam and Bryant despite everything.
"It seemed like someone took a giant eraser and my mind had become a chalkboard. And everything, all memories of Mr Milam and Mr Bryant were erased from my thoughts. (...) I can say that for 47 years I have not wasted any time hating Milam and Bryant." Mamie Till , 2002

- The Untold Story of Emmett Luis Till, documentary by Keith Beauchamp, 2005: WATCH
- The Murder of Emmett Till, documentary: WATCH
- Mamie Till talks about not hating Milam and Bryant, December 2002: WATCH
- Bob Dylan's amazing "The Death of Emmett Till", 1962 Freewheelin' Outtake: LISTEN
- The Ghosts of Emmett Till, The New York Times Magazine: READ
- Simon Wright, Emmett Till's cousin, recalls the events surrounding Emmett's murder and talks about how his cousin's casket went to the Smithsonian: READ

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photographs via and via and via and via and via


  1. Incredible tragedy. Thanks for putting this together.

  2. Abbie Winterburn25 July 2016 at 11:36

    painful and disturbing

  3. What a nightmare. The violence, the murder, the loss of a child. And as if this were not enough the reaction to all that, the people in the town - this sickening silent agreement among them...
    Many thanks for your comments, Derek, Karen, Macy, Abbie, Wim and Tim!