We think we know the story of Emmett Till, but do we?
I am writing a book. It’s not about Emmett Till, yet every person I speak to about this book says his name. Every single one.
They invoke the name of Emmett Till long before I get to the part of the conversation about the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement, or the racial turbulence of those times. The fourth or fifth this invocation occurred, it stopped me in my literary tracks. The ghost of Emmett Till is haunting my book. It is haunting our nation.
The book is about Thurgood Marshall. In 1954, he famously argued and won Brown v Board of Education, persuading the U.S. Supreme Court to rule segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Emmett Till would not live to enjoy the promise of Brown.
The year after the Brown decision, in the summer of 1955, Emmett, little more than a boy, begged his mother to travel from their home in Chicago to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi. Mamie Till-Mobley was reluctant. Emmett was her only child. Mamie was a protective mother. But more than that, as an African American woman, she knew what could happen to a Black boy down south — especially one who did not understand Southern mores — and a culture that would exact violence against “Negroes who did not know their place.” Still, and perhaps buoyed by the sense of hope inspired by the Brown decision, its promise of equal protection under the law, she let him go.
Whether Emmett did or did not violate Southern mores has been debated for 67 years.
A white woman, Carolyn Bryant, first said he’d been fresh with her during an encounter at the store she owned with her husband, Roy. Over time, her tale grew taller, taking on more ominous overtones. He’d wolf-whistled. He’d grabbed her hand, grabbed her around the waist. He’d whispered obscenities. He’d been “menacing.”
Four days later, Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped the boy from his uncle’s house, torturing and beating Emmett beyond recognition. They shot him in the head and tied him up with barbed wire, symbolically anchoring his little body with a 74-pound cotton gin fan, before the final degradation—tossing his limp frame into the Tallahatchie River.
Emmett Till was 14 years old.
Yet his murderers never spent a day in jail. They were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury.
The men admitted their guilt to Look magazine in 1956, but the U.S. Department of Justice didn’t reopen the case until 2004 after Emmett’s murderers had died. Ultimately, a federal grand jury failed to indict.
So, who cares what Emmett did or did not do on that hot August day when he visited the Bryants’ store in Money, Mississippi? We have been missing the point all along.
In 2017, Carolyn Bryant acknowledged that Emmett had never whistled, touched, or grabbed her and was not menacing in any way. Emmett, she told historian Timothy B. Tyson, never did anything wrong. Hell, even if he had, she avowed, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
Well, that’s right. But that’s not enough.
Now, a campaign is underway to have this woman face justice.
While it is true that Carolyn Bryant Donham is now 88 years old and didn’t lay hands on the boy, she was part of a conspiracy of white supremacy, murder, and silence. She’s told the truth. Now, there must be some form of reconciliation.
What happened to Emmett Till was not the exception. It was the rule, part of a systematic terror campaign against Black people, mostly between 1877 to 1950. Still, not exclusively so, as a trip to the National Monument to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama plainly reveals. The memorial honors the victims of racial terror lynching with 800 steel columns, one for each county in the United States where a lynching occurred. The names of those lynched are engraved on the columns — thousands of victims. There are also names inscribed on a monument at the Peace and Justice Memorial Center to commemorate 24 men and women lynched or killed in racially motivated attacks during the 1950s, including Emmett Till.
We only know about Emmett because his mother wanted us to know.
“There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see,” she said after bravely opening the coffin for the world to see Emmett’s brutalized corpse within.
So, why does her son’s name keep coming up, now, 68 years later?
When I speak to people about those times, about Thurgood Marshall’s work, about Brown v. Board, they invariably bring up Emmett Till because his unresolved lynching is a wound that has been festering in our national consciousness for 65 years. These folks I’ve been speaking with are Black, white, and brown, some lawyers, some not, young and old, but they all have one thing in common: the pain they feel about Emmett Till and a desperate longing to resolve it.
Most experts agree that the Emmett Till lynching was the most critical event to galvanize the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, Emmett Till — and how we failed him — is emblematic of the unresolved racial schism that runs through the soul of our nation. Until we solder it, our democracy can never meet its full promise of equal justice under law, for Emmett Till, for all.
The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson.
Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, by Devery S. Anderson (foreward by Julian Bond)
The Murder of Emmett Till, The Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress