1955 Killing Sparked Civil Rights Revolution : Emmett Till: South’s Legend and Legacy
He only whistled. But the woman he whistled at was white. He was black. A few days later, her angry husband roused him from bed, told him to hurry up and dress. Three days later, his terribly battered body surfaced in the muddy Tallahatchie River where it straightens out for a stretch through the cotton-rich flatlands of the delta.
His name was Emmett Till. He was 14 years old.
An all-white jury acquitted the husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, of killing the boy, even though the pair had admitted to the kidnaping. But in that fall of 1955, with the civil rights movement just emerging, headlines carried the trial’s result around the world and prompted a harsher verdict against a South where racial injustice seemed like an accepted way of life.
Today, while most of the world may have forgotten him, Emmett Till is remembered in this region of the delta. His memory has grown strong roots here, both as a legend and a legacy: Grandparents pass his grim tale on to their descendants, and black politicians say it still goads them in their fight to share local power. Even now, his name seems to haunt local whites.
Rosa Parks, a seamstress who started the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott on Dec. 1, 1955, by refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man, has become far more famous. The boycott is widely considered the start of the modern black movement.
But some historians, political figures from the time and veterans of the movement now say the Till case had an impact on the nation far beyond today’s faded memory. They contend that it and the bus boycott belong to the same progression of events. If Rosa Parks showed the potential of defiance, they say, Emmett Till’s death warned of a bleak future without it.
The Sept. 23, 1955, verdict was front-page news in Los Angeles, propaganda in Moscow. In Chicago, where 10,000 mourners had viewed the body, 20,000 protested after the acquittal, along with another 10,000 in Harlem. The NAACP, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters all held demonstrations. Hearing of the trial’s outcome while in Paris, Nobel Prize-winning author and Mississippi native William Faulkner cast a pessimistic glance homeward, speaking of “our desperate culture.”
‘Ugly Side’ of America
“I think it was a major incident when it came to showing one part of America the ugly side of another part,” said Robert Fredrick Burk, who wrote a 1984 book entitled “The Eisenhower Administration and Black Civil Rights.”
Burk and others say the case gave civil rights advocates a martyr and ambivalent politicians an impetus to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and laid the foundation for a series of historic voting rights laws.
“It certainly strengthened my hand in the day-to-day effort to get the Administration to speak out and do something on civil rights,” said E. Frederic Morrow, who advised President Dwight D. Eisenhower on black affairs. “I can still see the sacks and sacks of mail the White House received about Emmett Till.”
A Look magazine free-lancer named William Bradford Huie wrote that after the verdict, for an undisclosed sum, Bryant and Milam had confessed to him. In the Look story, the men described how they beat and shot the boy, then dumped his body in the river. Huie quoted Milam as saying the killing was his contribution toward keeping blacks “in their place.”
The verdict, which followed the killing by about a month, was returned in an hour. A juror afterward told a reporter it would not have been that long if the jury had not stopped to drink sodas.
The emotions of the case lingered into a time crowded with protests and sacrifices. Bob Dylan wrote an angry ballad in 1963 called “The Death of Emmett Till.”
In Mississippi today, aged former sharecroppers compare the boy’s death to Christ’s return from the dead. They tell their children how he was abducted early on a Sunday morning, how the body bobbed out of the Tallahatchie after three days and how the event struck deep in the national conscience and helped bring them a better life.
They recall how the body came up although the killers sank it with a large, wheel-shaped instrument used to gin seeds from cotton, tied to Till’s neck with barbed wire. (The river’s water level probably had dropped in the dry season, making the corpse appear to rise.)
‘God Sent That Boy’
“The Lord brought him up out of the water after three days, even though they put that thing on his neck,” said Nancy Prunell, 74, a former sharecropper in Greenwood, Miss., who says she has told the story of Emmett Till to her 15 children, 50 grandchildren and some of her 30 great-grandchildren. “God sent that boy for a purpose,” she said. “Just like Jesus. They weighed him down, but he came up. They put barbed wire on ‘im, just like Jesus. This is what I tells the chilruns. He come up and world learned of him, all the peoples. It’s after that things started gettin’ better for us. . . .”
It happened in a year when only 5% of adult blacks in the Mississippi Delta had registered to vote, dissuaded by poll taxes and subjective literacy tests. Laws barred them from parks, restaurants and bathrooms. Blacks did not sit on many juries. To do that, one had to be a registered voter. To this Mississippi, Till traveled that August from his home in Chicago for a visit with his great-uncle and aunt, Moses and Elizabeth Wright. They sharecropped 30 acres of cotton near this hamlet in the northern part of the state, which consisted of little more than a cotton gin, a gas station and a few stores where nearby farmers could buy provisions. Harvest time had come. Green plants spreading from horizon to horizon were ripe with snow-white tufts.
Relatives say that despite a bad stutter, Emmett Till generally was good-natured, an impetuous kidder, sometimes mischievous. Wheeler Parker, one of his best friends in Chicago and a fellow traveler to Money that summer, says that if Till liked a joke, he would pay someone nickels and dimes to tell it repeatedly and would laugh just as loudly each time. He was not schooled in how to behave toward Southern whites.
That August in Money, he spent his days with his three cousins, Parker and another friend who had come along from Chicago, together with several local youths. They fished, swam, picked cotton, lazed around.
On Saturday, Aug. 24, eight of them them piled into Moses Wright’s 1946 Ford sedan and made the five-minute drive to Roy Bryant’s store in Money.
Simeon Wright, now 42, remembers walking inside with his cousin Emmett. “We walked in and Mrs. Bryant was there,” Wright recalled, during an interview in Chicago. “He bought gum. Then we walked out, and when we got outside, he turned around and he whistled. It was a definite wolf-whistle. Two blasts.
“He didn’t know that this was a mistake,” Wright continued. “He didn’t know about, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ Emmett said ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ ”
At Moses Wright’s house, Till and Simeon shared a bed. Simeon remembers that Milam, 36, and Bryant, 24, came for the boy late at night Aug. 28. He doesn’t know which man’s voice asked Moses: “Do you have a fat boy from Chicago?”
He recalls that the boy was quiet as they rushed him out of the house. Elizabeth Wright begged them not to and offered them money. Then, two other voices, a man’s and what sounded to Simeon like a woman’s:
“Is he the one?”
“Yes, that’s him.”
While fishing three days later, a 17-year-old white boy found the body.
Body Shipped North
Normally, local blacks quietly buried the bodies of their neighbors who they feared had been the victims of racial violence. But Till’s mother Mamie insisted that the body be shipped North for burial, thereby turning a Southern tragedy into a national sensation.
The former Mamie Till had been widowed before Emmett’s death. Having since remarried twice, she is now Mamie Mobley and still lives in Chicago. “I went to the funeral home to see the body,” she said during a recent interview. “I didn’t have the nerve to start at his head and work down, so I started at the toes and worked up, and when I got to the knee, I said, ‘Yes, yes, that’s my boy’s knee. I finally got to his face. His nose. His eye. One eye was missing, but one eye was Emmett’s eye. It was a hazel eye.”
The coffin lid, she decided, would stay open for the wake.
“I wanted the world to see what I had seen,” she recalled. “I wanted the world to see what had happened in Mississippi. I wanted the world to see what had happened in America.”
Jet, a major magazine for blacks, printed a savagely uncompromising picture of the Till corpse on its cover. The face looked like a heap of clay pounded apart and then stuffed into the black burial suit.
Later that year, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People sent Mobley on a tour around the country to tell large crowds about the son she had lost and the political determination she wanted her people to find as a result. “You have cried enough tears for me. I have none left,” she told them from atop a sound truck in Harlem.
The NAACP and other civil rights groups collected an estimated $250,000 in the 18 states in which Mobley spoke, says Simeon Booker, the Washington bureau chief for Ebony and Jet magazines, who covered the Till story. “It was the first time they realized there was money in civil rights . . . that funds for their work could be gotten through these speaking tours,” he said.
To Northern blacks, the story of the boy’s fatal journey to Mississippi reflected parts of their own experience. Blacks had come North for jobs and a freer life, but the South was always “back home.” The body offered a menacing reminder that conditions they had fled continued for others who stayed behind. “You sat in Chicago or Detroit or Ohio, and this was the worst part of what you had left coming back at you,” said a black woman, who has since married a Mississippi man and moved back with him from her home in the North.
The Northern press flocked to the trial. Reporters wrote about the young victim and Carolyn Bryant, the pretty 21-year-old newlywed at whom he had whistled. In spare time, they ranged through the countryside and described the planter aristocracy and workers’ poverty. A Southern sheriff with a big stomach named H.C. Strider strode into the courtroom every morning and called to black journalists: “Hello, niggers!”
A central figure was Till’s Uncle Moses, who local blacks called the Preacher because the 64-year-old sharecropper preached at a tiny church in Money.
In that courtroom, where the center aisle separated blacks and whites, Wright became the first black man anyone here could remember to stand up and accuse a white man of a serious crime. He told how Bryant and Milam came to his home and demanded the boy. During the trial, local law enforcement officials said Bryant and Milam had told them of the kidnaping. The two men explained that they later set the youth free, sheriff’s deputies testified.
The defense’s main argument was that the body in the river was not Till’s. Yet, on one finger of the bloated corpse was a ring that had belonged to Till’s father. A local physician testified the river had decomposed the body beyond recognition.
Today, J.W. Kellum, one of the defense lawyers in the case, says he believed all along that the body was Till’s. “I never mentioned it at the time. I had obligations to my clients,” said Kellum, now 74 and still a lawyer in Sumner, Miss., where the case was tried. “Still,” he added, “the boys never admitted to me that they were guilty. I asked them and they denied it. But it sort of makes you wonder--if the boys didn’t kill him, who did?”
After the murder acquittal, state prosecutors sought a kidnaping indictment against Bryant and Milam from a local grand jury. They did not succeed.
“The way I see it,” Kellum says, “and I think there are a lot of white folks here who will go along with this, that boy’s death was a tragedy, like a Greek tragedy. A terrible thing, and I don’t think people feel good about it. That was part of another time, and things are a lot different.”
The old Bryant store stands vacant now, its square front windows gray with dust. A rust-coated Chesterfield cigarette sign hangs by one nail. Tall and faded advertisements showing Dr Pepper bottles remain plastered on either side of the building like tired sentinels to the past.
The house from which Till was kidnaped, just up Money Road and out along another narrow road through the cotton fields, is gone. So is J. W. Milam, dead of cancer in 1981. Roy Bryant runs a grocery store much like the one he had in Money, in a town called Ruleville, about 30 miles away. He was away on three occasions when a Times reporter stopped by recently.
Despite his reported confession in Look, Bryant still maintains his innocence, according to relatives.
Emmett Till’s name in this region frequently elicits a strong reaction. Mentioning it is like holding up a mirror to the anxieties or aspirations of people who live here.
To black politicians, his is a potent memory, whose story helped inspire their climb uphill and over the closed gates of an entrenched white Establishment. From whites old enough to remember him, the name frequently draws angry looks and a few terse sentences.
In a Methodist church in Greenwood, a city of 22,400 about 20 miles from the town where Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant, congregants walked away when asked for their thoughts about the murder and changes in the years since. “It’s dead and buried so why can’t it stay there?,” said one.
“What are you trying to do? Stir up the blacks all over again?” asked another.
One man whose career reflects changes here since 1955 is Ray Tribble, a juror in the trial. He is a politician now--in fact, the chief executive of Leflour County, where Moses Wright lived and Roy Bryant owned his store. The part those two man played in Tribble’s past could affect his political future.
In the district Tribble represents as president of the county board of supervisors, 62% of the voters are black. He is expected to run again within six months, although the election date has not been set. Black politicians are thinking of fielding a black candidate against him and have thought of using the Till connection. “A few people know he sat on that jury,” said one black politician. “Now don’t quote me saying this, but I think we might start gettin’ the word around.”
In a brief interview, Tribble said he thought the jury’s verdict was “fair.”
Blacks have only recently acquired the kind of political influence that could alter the fortunes of Tribble and other white politicians. David Jordan, Joseph Curtis and James Moore became the first blacks ever elected to Greenwood’s governing body last May after winning a federal lawsuit charging that the city’s political structure discriminated against them. All three say their political aspirations have roots in what happened to Emmett Till.
“Whoooooo, it’s been something,” said Jordan, as he tells how blacks tried again and again to get someone elected to the three-member commission that ran the city. Commissioners were elected “at-large” from a city-wide pool of votes. White voters have plurality in the city as a whole and always won. As a result of the suit, Greenwood has been broken into seven wards, each with its own representative.
In the 1960s, when white segregationist radicals burned and bombed and murdered to deter civil rights activists who had taken to the streets and voting booths demanding progress, all three men were in the thick of it.
Both Curtis and Jordan recall how in 1955 they and their friends hung around the courthouse, waiting for news of the Till trial inside.
Moore did not go to the trial but did attend the wake that preceded it. The Mississippi native was badly wounded while fighting in Korea and had moved into a Chicago Veterans Administration hospital for two years of physical therapy. He read in the black press that Till’s body was coming back North and that there would be a public wake. “Here was this teen-ager, who had left home for some fun in the summer,” says Moore, a wiry man of 55 who still limps. “They beat him bad . . .”
He pauses, as if recalling the face. “I remember I felt hurt, especially for the mother. But I was angry. I remember I got so angry inside. Well, that was when I decided it was time to go back home.”