DemDaily: The American Story of Emmett Till

July 26, 2023

President Joe Biden signed a proclamation Tuesday establishing a national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, in memory of the 14 year-old Black child from Chicago who was beaten to death in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.

“Today, on what would have been Emmett’s 82nd birthday, we add another chapter in the story of remembrance and healing,” said Biden during the ceremony. “Only with truth comes healing, justice, repair, and another step forward toward forming a more perfect union.”

Till's abduction, torture and murder brought nationwide attention to the racial violence and injustice prevalent in the South and became a catalyst for the next phase of the civil rights movement.

“Our history as a nation is born of tragedy and triumph, struggles and success. That is who we are, and as people who love our country -- and as patriots -- we know that we must remember and teach our full history. even when it is painful. Especially when it is painful.” - Vice President Kamala Harris 7/25/23

The Story of Emmett Till
In the summer of 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley put her son Emmett on a train from Chicago, Illinois to her native Mississippi, where he was to spend time with his uncle and his cousins.

Till stopped at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in the small town of Money with his cousins on August 24, where he encountered Carolyn Bryant, a married 21-year-old white woman who was the store's proprietor.

What happened then is disputed to this day. Bryant claimed Till grabbed her and propositioned her. Till's cousins Simeon Wright and Wheeler Parker, who were present, said that there was no interaction with the two and that Till only "wolf-whistled" at her when they departed the store, then sped off after someone said Wright had a gun. Another witness maintained that Till's whistle was directed not at Bryant, but at the checkers game that was taking place outside the store.

In the late hours of August 28, 1955, Emmett was taken from his uncle Moses Wright's home at gunpoint by Bryant’s husband Roy and Roy's half brother, J.W. Milam.

The two men brutally tortured Till, executed him, then strung barbed wire and a 75-pound metal fan around his neck and dumped his lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, a fisherman discovered the teenager’s bloated and mutulated corpse, shot through the head.

Till's body was returned to Chicago for his funeral, where his mother insisted on an open-casket ceremony so the public could see her son’s mangled body -- saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.”

Thousands attended the funeral, witnessing first hand the barbarism of the lynching. A captivated country bore witness to the event through pictures published by Jet magazine and other publications.

On September 23, 1955, an all-white jury promptly acquitted the men, with one juror saying it had taken so long only because they had to break to drink some pop.

Protected against double jeopardy, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam publicly admitted they had tortured and murdered the boy in a 1956 interview with Look magazine, selling the story of how they did it for $4,000.

Newspaper coverage of the murder trial galvanized popular black support and white sympathy across the United States, casting a spotlight on racism and Jim Crow laws in the South and forcing a nation to confront the extremity of its prejudice.

The “Emmett Till Generation,” coined by civil rights activist and author Joyce Ladner, describes African American baby boomers in the South who were inspired by Till’s murder to join a burgeoning movement of mass meetings, sit-ins, and marches to demand their equal treatment under the law.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Till's murder “one of the most brutal and inhumane crimes of the 20th century.” 100 days after Emmett’s murder Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery bus boycott by refusing to sit in the "colored" section at the back of the bus, stating, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I couldn’t go back.”

Till's murder contributed to congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which authorized the US Department of Justice to intervene in local law enforcement issues when individual civil rights were being compromised, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed many forms of racial discrimination and segregation.

In May 2004, the FBI opened an investigation into other potential co-conspirators in Till's murder, focused on Carolyn Bryant Donham (then remarried), but in 2007 a state grand jury in Mississippi declined to indict.

The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, introduced by Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) to investigate and prosecute unsolved Civil Rights-era murders, was signed into law in 2008.

As a part of its annual report under the act, DOJ in March 2018 announced it was reopening the investigation into Till's death due to “new information.” Although the reasoning was not specified, it was apparently based on a 2008 interview with Donham cited in historian Timothy Tyson's 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till in which she acknowledged that she lied in her testimony about Till's actions in 1955.

The 'recanting' claim made by Tyson, however, was not tape-recorded and in December 2021, the DOJ announced that it had closed its investigation in the case.

After more than 200 failed attempts by Congress to outlaw lynching, President Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act on March 29, 2022, making lynching a federal hate crime.

In June 2022, researchers from the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation found at the Leflore County, Mississippi courthouse an arrest warrant on kidnapping charges issued for “Mrs. Roy Bryant” in August of 1955 that was never served. Till's family called for Donham's arrest, but the district attorney declined to charge her, and in August 2022, a grand jury concluded there was insufficient evidence for an indictment. She died in April 2023.

“I’ve been suffering for all these years of how they’ve portrayed him -- I still deal with that. The truth should carry itself, but it doesn’t have wings. You have to put some wings on it,” said Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. of his cousin Emmett Till’s legacy and the monument. “We are resolute that it now becomes an American story and not just a civil rights story.”

The new national monument enshrines the story of Emmett Till and his mother's fight for justice and truth -- just as conservatives across the country are attempting to suppress their legacy by limiting the teaching of slavery and Black history in public schools.

The struggle continues.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: AP, Library of Congress, Politico, UnitedInSolidarity, The Guardian, Aljazeera, New York Times

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