Emmett Till’s murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, got off scot-free. Even though Emmett’s great-uncle Moses Wright risked his life by bravely standing up in court and identifying them, on Sept. 23, 1955, an all-white jury “acquitted both defendants after a 67-minute deliberation; one juror said, ‘If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long’.”
We see this happen far too often. There are too many Emmett Tills, and too many murderers of our children who never pay for their crimes.
Today, I think about family—mothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. I think about the impact of these killings on our communities.
The unfathomable grief of mothers—and their strength—resonates with me. I watched my mother deal with burying her son. It is as if the world turns upside down. There is such a wrongness when it is the parent at the burial. Though there are many books about the lynching of Till and the subsequent miscarriage of justice, one stands out because it is written in the words of his mother. It’s titled Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson.
There are many heroes of the civil rights movement—men and women we can look to for inspiration. Each has a unique story, a path that led to a role as leader or activist. Death of Innocence is the heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring story of one such hero: Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till—an innocent fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who paid for it with his life. His outraged mother’s actions galvanized the civil rights movement, leaving an indelible mark on American racial consciousness.
Mamie Carthan was an ordinary African-American woman growing up in 1930s Chicago, living under the strong, steady influence of her mother’s care. She fell in love with and married Louis Till, and while the marriage didn’t last, they did have a beautiful baby boy, Emmett. In August 1955, Emmett was visiting family in Mississippi when he was kidnapped from his bed in the middle of the night by two white men and brutally murdered. His crime: allegedly whistling at a white woman in a convenience store. His mother began her career of activism when she insisted on an open-casket viewing of her son’s gruesomely disfigured body. More than a hundred thousand people attended the service. The trial of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, accused of kidnapping and murdering Emmett (the two were eventually acquitted of the crime), was considered the first full-scale media event of the civil rights movement.
What followed altered the course of this country’s history, and it was all set in motion by the sheer will, determination, and courage of Mamie Till-Mobley—a woman who would pull herself back from the brink of suicide to become a teacher and inspire hundreds of black children throughout the country.
This documentary further details the strength and resolve displayed by Till’s mother.
Never-before-seen testimony is included in this documentary on Emmett Louis Till, who, in 1955, was brutally murdered after he whistled at a white woman. Simple yet riveting, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till articulates the madness of racism in the South of the 1950s. Combining archival photos and footage with deeply felt interviews, this documentary tells the harrowing story of what happened when a mischievous 14 year old black boy from Chicago, visiting his relatives in Mississippi, whistled at a white woman in the street. The lynching that followed was so gruesome that a media circus surrounded the trial--and what stunned the nation was not only the crime, but the blithe unconcern the citizens of a small Mississippi town felt toward the brutal murder of a black teenager.
The interviews suspensefully unveil the story, moving from the viewpoint of Till's mother to the perspective of his Southern cousins to actual film of Till's uncle, who had the astonishing courage to accuse the two killers in court. Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, addressed the entire country in news footage, begging that something be done so that her son did not die in vain. The awkward, un-media-savvy quality of the 1950s interviews may seem to come from another world, but the harsh truth of what happened sprang all too clearly from America's still unresolved racial conflicts.
But women are not always heroes—and indeed, some are part of the problem. In the case of Emmett Till, Carolyn Bryant, wife of killer Roy Bryant, has often been excused of any culpability. But not everyone feels that way.
For their part, many in the news media have assumed that Carolyn Bryant was a helpless pawn in a murder plot hatched by her husband and brother-in-law. Randy Sparkman put that case bluntly in an article for Slate magazine, writing that Mrs. Bryant was “a Southern wife who did as [she was] told” and who “would have felt [she] had no other choice.” But when weighing Caroline Bryant’s culpability, it is critical to recall exactly what she told her husband about the incident at the store. She claimed that Till grabbed her hand and asked “How about a date, baby?” She further said that, after she struggled loose, Till put his hands around her waist and asked, “What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it?” Other statements she attributed to Emmett included an “unprintable word,” and assurances that he had been “with white women before.”
In 1955 Mississippi, black males were lynched for far less than that. Carolyn Bryant’s lurid claims inspired the men who committed the murder, and the evidence shows that she was lying. According to his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and other relatives, Emmett Till suffered from polio at age five and was left with a speech impediment that would have made it impossible for him to say the words Carolyn Bryant attributed to him without halting or stammering. (Mrs. Bryant’s various accounts of the incident at the store never included any mention of a stammer.) Also, Ruthie Mae Crawford, who accompanied Till to the store that day, said that he did nothing more threatening than put money into Mrs. Bryant’s hand while making his purchase and whistle at her one time outside the store.
Carolyn Bryant claimed that a witness saw the latter moments of her confrontation with Emmett and could confirm that part of her account. She stated that her brother-in-law’s wife, Juanita Milam, was in the back room of the store on the day of the incident. According to Mrs. Bryant, after Till grabbed her, she “called out” to Mrs. Milam and asked her to come to the front room. According to the FBI report, however, Juanita Milam “stated she was not at the store when this incident occurred.” She also told the FBI that she believed that Carolyn Bryant made up the whole story: “The only way I can figure it is that she did not want to take care of the store. She thought this wild story would make Roy take care of the store instead of leavin’ her with the kids.”
We will never know the answer. Carolyn Bryant remarried and became Carolyn Donham, and refused to talk to any reporters. I do not know if she is still alive.
Though Mamie Till-Mobley has passed on, there are many other mothers of slain sons and daughters who bear witness to the fact that we still have a long way to go on the road to justice. These mothers’ children were not lynched. Their children were killed by officers of “the law.” Their stories are told in the short film Mothers of the Revolution.
Directed by Davia Carter and Executive Produced by the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and Blackout for Human Rights, "Mothers of the Revolution" looks at a gathering of mothers who've lost their sons and daughters to police violence -- like Lezley McSpadden, the Mother of Michael Brown; Rev. Wanda Johnson, the Mother of Oscar Grant; Geneva Reed-Veal, Mother of Sandra Bland; Samaria Rice, Mother of Tamir Rice; Lucia McBath, Mother of Jordan Davis, along with others.
In the name of Emmett Till, and all the names on the list that is growing longer every week, we have to continue to fight. Until we can get justice, we will have no peace.
Today, the iconic song The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan will be my meditation as I think of Javon Johnson’s poem. Emmett Till died ’cuz he was black.
Then ask yourself: How many more boys and girls will continue to live in fear of police and bigots? How long will it take before the color of a child’s skin will cease to make him or her a target?
You can be part of the solution.
Comments are closed on this story.