On August 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and lynched by Roy Bryant and his brother J.W. Milam after Till was accused of whistling near Bryant’s wife Carolyn. A History article says Bryant and Milam *content warning* “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.”
Emmett was born in Chicago, Ill. and grew up near Fred Hampton (I wrote about Fred’s execution here) and his family. In The Assassination of Fred Hampton, author Jeffrey Haas included a small section about how the Hamptons and Tills were closely linked as Iberia (Fred’s mom) occasionally babysat young Emmett before Fred was born. In an early chapter of the book, Haas wrote “”Among the Hamptons’ neighbors in Argo were Mamie Till and her son, Emmett. Mamie Till had come to Chicago from Mississippi a few years earlier. Emmett’s father also had found a job at Corn Products. One of Iberia’s first Chicago acquaintances was Fanny Wesley, Emmett Till’s regular babysitter. Because Iberia stayed home with her three kids until Fred, the youngest, was eight, she helped Fannie by sometimes watching Emmett, whom everyone called Bobo. Iberia told me young Emmett was “curious and quite rambunctious, a handful,” (Haas 15). His family members and friends often said he was known for his outgoing and friendly personality as he constantly joked and pranked those closest to him.
In the summer of 1955, Emmett was visiting his great uncle Moses Wright in Money, the Mississippi Delta region. He went with several friends to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market (Carolyn and Roy Bryant’s store) for snacks after the children picked cotton. At one point, Emmett is accused of whistling at or flirting with Carolyn, an incident about which she told Roy. Later that night, Roy and Milam drove to Wright’s house where they abducted Emmett at gunpoint. They drove the 14-year-old boy to the Tallahatchie River where they tortured and murdered him, pushing his body into the water. The next day, the two men were arrested on kidnapping and murder charges and are jailed in Greenwood, MS. On September 3, 1955, Mamie Till goes against the law and has an open casket funeral for Emmett in Chicago, so all attendees and media members would see his demolished face and know what white supremacy had done to her son. Shortly after the funeral, Jet Magazine and The Chicago Defender both published photos of Emmett’s corpse, which shocked Black people across America. On September 19, an all-white male jury is selected for the trial and on September 23, they acquitted Bryant and Milam of all charges in only 67 minutes, which one juror said, “wouldn’t have taken so long if they hadn’t stopped to drink pop.” On November 9, the men officially walk free after a LeFlore County grand jury refuses to indict them for kidnapping.
According to Talila Lewis, Emmett had a disability. Lewis wrote, “Emmett Till, survived a bout of polio. Like many survivors, he experienced post-polio symptoms that affected his daily life activities. In his case, he acquired a speech disability that stayed with him until his death. His mother, Mamie Till, recounted having taught him different techniques, including whistling, to clear his passage and speak through his speech disability — which was more pronounced when he was nervous or in particularly stressful situations. His mother and cousins also maintain that Emmett Till struggled with certain letters and his pronunciation sometimes actually sounded like a whistle.” Hampton’s brother Bill confirmed Lewis’ statements in Haas’ book, saying, “My mother had told us Emmett had a funny lisp like Fred had when he was younger. We heard that it was his lisp, which sometimes came out like a whistle, that had cost Emmett his life,” (17). In 2017, Timothy B. Tyson—a professor at Duke University who was writing a book about Emmett’s murder—found and interviewed Carolyn Bryant, writing that she said her allegations about the boy grabbing and/or being inappropriate toward her, “that part is not true.” Carolyn Bryant lied.
What happened to Emmett Till wasn’t rare or extraordinary at that time (or even today). Black people all across America have always been oppressed and destroyed by this white supremacist country. From slavery to Jim Crow laws to today’s widespread incarceration and police violence specifically toward Black people, it isn’t uncommon to see extreme cases of brutality. However, the barbaric nature of white men executing a child was especially horrifying to Black community members. Emmett Till won’t be forgotten, though, especially as his 80th birthday would have taken place today. His short life mattered as his death specifically inspired many Black civil rights leaders in their fight toward equality and justice. Haas included a snippet about Emmett’s legacy, writing, “Years later, Rosa Parks told Mamie Till that the photograph of Emmett’s disfigured face in the casket was set in her mind when she refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus,” (17). Emmett Till will live forever, even though he only had 14 years on earth. May we always remember his life and think of him in the ongoing struggle for a better world.