The legacy of Emmett Till: the murder that reshaped the American civil rights movement

In August 1955, a 14-year-old boy travelled south from Chicago to visit his relatives in Mississippi. Eight days later he was dead, killed by two men who accused him of whistling at a white woman. The brutal murder of Emmett Till was just one of thousands of racially motivated lynchings in the American South, but it proved to be a pivotal moment in the civil rights revolution. Here, Maria Margaronis investigates what happened and why it continues to resonate in 2018

Emmett Till pictured with his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, in the early 1950s. (Photo by Alamy)

On 20 August 1955, Mamie Till Bradley reluctantly put her 14-year-old son Emmett – ‘Bo’, to his family – on the train from Chicago to Mississippi with his great-uncle Moses Wright, who had come up to Chicago for a family funeral. Bo’s favourite cousin, Wheeler Parker, was going down south with Uncle Mose for a summer holiday, and Bo didn’t want to miss out on the swimming and the fishing, the food from the gardens, the adventures and the starry nights. He was a confident, cheerful, kid, big for his age, a joker with a playful swagger in spite of the stutter left by a bout of polio.

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Mamie worried that Bo’s confident Chicago manners would get him into trouble in the small community of Money, deep in the American South, where black subjugation was policed by a rigid code of behaviour and enforced by murderous terror. She had prepared him carefully for his trip to the place her parents had left three decades before in search of work and safety: don’t speak to white folks unless you’re spoken to, step off the sidewalk when they pass, never look them in the eye. She had packed some fried chicken and cake for him in a shoebox, because she knew he wouldn’t be allowed to use the dining car. At Cairo, Illinois, he and his cousins would have to move to the crowded ‘colored’ car behind the locomotive – the noisiest and smokiest on the train.

American civil rights leader Martin Luther King in Washington DC, where he delivered his famous 'I Have A Dream' speech to a quarter of a million civil rights supporters in Washington DC in August 1963. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Emmett came back to Mamie two weeks later in a pine box packed with lime, his face mutilated and swollen beyond recognition, one eye missing and the other hanging halfway down his cheek, his skull split and pierced by a bullet hole. At 2am on the morning of Sunday 28 August, he’d been taken from his great-uncle’s house by two white men, Roy Bryant and JW Milam, who claimed he’d flirted with Bryant’s young wife, Carolyn, as she minded the couple’s general store. Bo had gone in to buy bubblegum the previous Wednesday evening; his cousins recalled that he’d whistled when Carolyn came out. They whisked him away from the store, but the white men came for him anyway, bundled him into the back of a pickup truck with a couple of Milam’s black hired hands, drove him around half the night, then tortured him in a barn before shooting and killing him. A black teenager called Willie Reed who happened to pass by heard the terrible screaming; later he saw something wrapped in a tarp loaded onto the truck. Emmett’s bloated body was found in the Tallahatchie River by a fisherman three days later.

The accused: Roy Bryant and JW Milam during their trial in September 1955. The all-white jury acquitted both defendants after deliberating for just over an hour. (Photo by Getty Images)
The accused: Roy Bryant and JW Milam during their trial in September 1955. The all-white jury acquitted both defendants after deliberating for just over an hour. (Photo by Getty Images)

Mamie refused to bury her boy in the Delta mud. She made sure that his body was sent back to Chicago, told the undertaker not to clean up his pulped head, and insisted on an open coffin so that the world could see what had been done to her son.

The funeral service was held on 3 September at Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. Tens of thousands of people filed past Emmett as he lay in state for four days afterwards, dignified in a dark suit in defiance of the white men’s violence. Some fainted at the sight. The horrifying photograph of his disfigured face was published in Jet magazine and reprinted everywhere, passed round, cut out and shown to African-American children for years afterwards as a warning. The image was a deliberate reversal of the white supremacist tradition of lynching photographs – gruesome images of black men hanging from trees while white families looked on – printed and sold as postcards in the segregation-era South.

When an all-white Mississippi jury acquitted Milam and Bryant in a brief trial in the town of Sumner, near Money, that September, news of the verdict travelled round the world. The dancer Josephine Baker led a protest in Paris, and letters demanding justice for Till arrived at the White House from as far away as Norway and the Kremlin. Rallies were held across the American Midwest; in Harlem, Mamie addressed a huge crowd alongside leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (the NAACP), the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and black unions.

In November, Mississippi civil rights activist TRM Howard spoke about Till at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The pastor of the church was the 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr, and among the congregation was the seamstress Rosa Parks. Four days later she refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott. Many years afterwards she said: “I thought of Emmett Till and I couldn’t go back.”

Thousands of black men and boys had been lynched on lesser pretexts, their killers never arrested, let alone brought to trial. But it was Emmett Till’s murder that galvanised the burgeoning civil rights movement and broke through white America’s silence about racist killings. Mamie’s courage in displaying her son’s body was essential to its impact; so, too, was the historical and political context of the time at which it happened.

Mamie Till Bradley is comforted as her son's coffin is lowered into its grave in Alsip, Illinois, on 6 September 1955. The funeral followed four days in which Emmett Till's body lay in state. (Photo by Getty Images)
Mamie Till Bradley is comforted as her son’s coffin is lowered into its grave in Alsip, Illinois, on 6 September 1955. The funeral followed four days in which Emmett Till’s body lay in state. (Photo by Getty Images)

Till’s lynching united in grief, solidarity and anger the black communities of Mississippi and Chicago, which had been separated but not severed by the ‘great migration’ that began around 1915 and, over the next five decades, saw six million African-Americans move from the rural south of the US to the cities of the north-east, west and midwest. In some ways, it began to crystallise a national black consciousness. The hugely popular TV show I Love Lucy was interrupted to announce the discovery of Till’s body; the trial was international news, with TV cameramen crowding the square outside Sumner’s courthouse. White liberal reporters from the north saw Southern racism up close for the first time; black Chicago’s confident publications, especially Jet magazine, understood and framed the story in the context of the civil rights movement gathering strength in the South, and the white backlash against it.

The year before Emmett was killed, a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs Board of Education had declared unconstitutional the state laws establishing separate schools for black and white students. It was a landmark ruling that opened the first real crack in the legal structures of white supremacy, and set the Federal government on a collision course with Southern racism. That victory had given a new impetus to the black freedom movement, but also to white supremacists, who joined White Citizens’ Councils (a sanitised retooling of the Ku Klux Klan) in droves to protect their ‘way of life’. The thought of their daughters sharing classrooms with black teenage boys was anathema to those people. Racist fantasies about black sexuality and horror at the notion of ‘miscegenation’, or ‘racial mixing’, were driving forces behind Emmett’s murder, as they were behind so many previous lynchings.

Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,000 African-Americans were lynched in Southern states – that is, whipped, castrated, tortured, burned alive or strung from the trees by white mobs

Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,000 African-Americans were lynched in Southern states – that is, whipped, castrated, tortured, burned alive or strung from the trees by white mobs – a form of terrorism meant to enforce the subjugation of the entire community. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced to Congress between 1882 and 1962, but this seemingly obvious measure was blocked every time by Southern Democrats. (In 2005, the Senate finally issued a formal apology for its failure to act.) The NAACP hadmade the passage of anti-lynching legislation a primary goal since 1912; now, with the victory of Brown vs Board and the backlash against it, America’s oldest grassroots civil rights organisation was determined to redouble its efforts.

A few months before Till’s kidnapping, on 7 May 1955, minister and voting rights activist George Lee was shot dead in Belzoni, Mississippi. Police claimed he had died in a traffic accident, and that the shot found in his mouth was loosened dental fillings. Reverend Lee was given an open-casket funeral; his photographs, in life and in death, appeared on the cover of Jet. But the far more shocking images of the cheeky Chicago boy who’d gone South to visit family and been slaughtered for nothing more than teenage high spirits, mourned by a young mother who was also light-skinned enough to please the warped ‘colorist’ prejudices of the time, gave the NAACP a much better vehicle for its anti-lynching campaign. As Till scholar and film-maker Keith Beauchamp puts it, Till’s murder was “the perfect storm”. It was through that coincidence of history, politics and brave personalities that Emmett Till became the protomartyr of the civil rights movement, and his mother its grief-stricken but determined Madonna, a model for countless others deprived of their sons and daughters.

Emmett Till’s story lives on in literature, music, art and film, in commemorations and museums, in activism and the unfinished search for justice. Those streams converge and cross like the rivers of the Mississippi Delta, so that it’s hard to say where one ends and another begins; the waters began to flow at once, and still flow on today. Despite confessions by Milam and Bryant soon after the trial, no one has ever been convicted of Till’s murder. The FBI reopened the case in 2004 after Keith Beauchamp, working closely with Emmett’s mother, discovered new evidence. No one was indicted then but, since Carolyn Bryant confessed that she lied at the trial in an interview with historian Timothy Tyson for his 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till, there’s been pressure to reopen the case again.

The first blues for Emmett Till was written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes almost immediately; during the first weeks after Emmett’s murder, the leftwing Daily Worker and Chicago Defender carried an outpouring of elegies. In 1960, the great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks published a pair of poems that put Carolyn Bryant and Mamie Till Bradley at the heart of the story. The first is a free-verse exploration of Carolyn’s imagined thoughts, incisively honest and bravely empathic: Brooks’ Carolyn is both complicit and a victim of the men around her. The second gives us Mamie’s unspeakable grief from a respectful distance, in the restrained third person. Together, the poems map the two women’s roles in the system that both holds them and keeps them separate, putting gendered power at the core of white supremacy.

In the early 1960s, when young Freedom Riders (northern civil rights activists, both white and black) went south to support black activists who were putting their lives on the line, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Emmylou Harris all sang about Emmett Till. James Baldwin wrote a play, Blues for Mister Charlie, based on the murder and the trial. Memoirs by Anne Moody, Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis and John Edgar Wideman all mark Till’s death as a moment of awakening. Today, as the Black Lives Matter movement takes Till as an ancestor, rappers pepper songs with his name. As many as three films on the subject are currently in development, including one co-produced by actor and presenter Whoopi Goldberg. A new wave of writers are mining the connections, such as the playwright Ifa Bayeza, whose Ballad of Emmett Till was revived in Washington this June, and Chicago-born poets Nate Marshall, Eve Ewing and Patricia Smith, whose fiery collection Incendiary Art weaves sonnets about Till with poems about more recent killings of young black men. The controversy over a painting of Till by (white) artist Dana Schutz in last year’s Whitney Biennial made it painfully clear that the past is still present.

And yet it took 50 years for Till’s death to be commemorated in Mississippi. This summer I drove the Emmett Till Memorial Highway through the Delta, under a sky heaped with tall clouds that burst one afternoon in sluicing, thunderous rain. The wide, flat fields are empty, straddled by long sprinklers like giant insects, haunted by the thousands of souls who worked and suffered there or tried to run away, with no place to hide but muddy ditches and thin bands of trees.

The towns, too, are half empty. Absentee agribusiness firms now run the big plantations; the Delta ekes out a living from casinos, prisons, and tourism based on its rich blues heritage. Till is making his own small contribution to local regeneration. The restored Sumner courthouse where his murderers were acquitted is now a centre for projects aimed at truth and reconciliation. Sites related to his kidnapping and death form part of a national Civil Rights Trail. A small museum in the hamlet of Glendora, former home of JW Milam, includes an effigy of Till in his coffin, the head made from clay and the body stuffed with straw by the local undertaker.

A demonstrator in Ferguson, Missouri wearing a shirt depicting Emmett Till, August 2014. Some of the protests that followed the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown here turned violent. (Photo by Getty Images)
A demonstrator in Ferguson, Missouri wearing a shirt depicting Emmett Till, August 2014. Some of the protests that followed the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown here turned violent. (Photo by Getty Images)

But while black America remembers, much of white America still wants to forget. The sign by the Tallahatchie River where Till’s body was found was shot full of holes two years ago; the one by Bryant’s store has twice been vandalised. The store has almost vanished, pulled down by a tangle of creepers. Nothing remains of Milam’s house but its concrete foundation. Glendora itself has also been forgotten. Rickety houses straggle along a dirt road by an unfenced railway line; the general store is empty except for a cooler and bags of chips. Men without work sit outside in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, in the spectacular new National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC, Till’s real restored casket, white and lined with silk, lies in state in a room that is more shrine than museum display. Photographs cover the walls; gospel legend Mahalia Jackson sings over the loudspeakers. Visitors file out in tears, sometimes too overwhelmed to speak. “Your heart just drops,” one woman said. “So much sacrifice, so much blood, and it’s not over yet.”

In a way, Till’s funeral never ended. His story echoes every time the killing of an African-American person by a white man goes unpunished – especially when the victim is young, as Trayvon Martin was when he was shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in 2012 at the age of 17, or when the body is left in public view like that of a lynching victim, as 18-year-old Michael Brown’s was in Missouri in 2014. The wound is raw, and regularly reopened. As Till’s mother used to say, “You must continuously tell Emmett’s story until man’s consciousness is risen. Only then will there be justice for Emmett Till.”


American race relations: 10 key moments in the history of the black experience in the United States

1861

The Confederate States of America is formed after slave-holding states in the south declare secession
from the United States over disagreements about the expansion of slavery.

1861–65

The American Civil War is fought between the United States and the Confederate States of America. By its end, at least 750,000 people have been killed and the Confederacy collapses.

1896

In a landmark case,the US supreme court upholds the constitutionality of racial segregation of public facilities as long as they are ‘equal in quality’

Late 19th century

So-called ‘Jim Crow’ laws are enacted locally, enforcing racial segregation in public facilities in the South and reversing the
gains made by African-Americans after the war.

1941

The US joins the Second World War following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The nation’s military remains segregated throughout the conflict.

1948

Executive Order 9981 is passed, proscribing racial discrimination in the US armed forces. It marks the first step in the eventual desegregation of the military.

1954

State school segregation is ruled unconstitutional. This landmark victory for the civil rights movement is met with resistance, and further legislation is required for it to be fully enacted.

1955

Emmett Till is murdered. Activist Rosa Parks hears a speech about his death; on 1 December, she refuses to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, sparking a bus boycott.

1963

Martin Luther King begins a campaign against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Later that year, the Ku Klux Klan bombs the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four children.

1964

The Civil Rights Act is passed, prohibiting discrimination in employment based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”. Further legislation a year later revokes other ‘Jim Crow’ laws restricting voting rights.

Maria Margaronis is a writer and broadcaster. She is London correspondent for The Nation, the oldest political weekly magazine in the United States.

Archive on Four: The Ballads of Emmett Till, presented by Maria Margaronis, is scheduled to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in August. After that transmission it will be available online at bbc.co.uk/radio4

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This article was first published in August/September issue of BBC World Histories magazine