American Crime Case #36: August 28, 1955: The Torture and Lynching of Emmett Till

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

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Emmett Till, 1941-1955

THE CRIME

On Sunday, August 28, 1955, two white supremacists, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, tortured, mutilated, and murdered Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black youth.

Emmett, nicknamed Bobo, was a typical fun-loving teenager from Chicago who was visiting relatives near Money, Mississippi for summer vacation. His mother Mamie Till-Mobley recalled that he liked “art, math and science” in school.

On the evening of Wednesday, August 24, Emmett and six of his teenage cousins drove into town to get soda and candy after a day working in their uncle Moses Wright’s cotton field. They stopped at a grocery store owned by a young white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. At the time, Carolyn Bryant was the only one minding the store. One of his cousins, Simeon Wright, said Emmett had been inside the store for “less than a minute” when he went in to get him. Emmett may have put money for some gum into Bryant’s hand and looked her in the eye—violations of racist, Jim Crow taboos. Simeon said Emmett let out a whistle, “maybe to get a laugh out of us,” when Bryant walked by them outside the store.

Word that something had happened at the store got to Roy Bryant. Four days later, he and his half-brother J.W. Milam went to Moses’ home at about 2:30 in the morning wielding guns. They demanded Moses turn over “the one that done the smart talk up at Money,” dismissing the family’s offers of money and pleas that Emmett was from up north and didn’t know any better. They were seen beating Emmett as they drove away.

They tied Emmett up and took him to a barn where they savagely beat and tortured him. Bryant and Milam gouged out Emmett’s eyes, and hacked off his tongue and pieces of his ear. They cut the bridge of his nose, broke both his wrists and a leg bone, and split open his head. Then they shot him in the head with a .45-caliber pistol. They tied Emmett’s lifeless body to a 70-pound cotton gin fan blade with barbed wire, and then threw him in the Tallahatchie River.

Moses went to search for Emmett, looking under many bridges, but could not find him. On August 31, a body was discovered by 17-year-old Robert Hodges when he was fishing in the Tallahatchie. The body was horribly bloated and disfigured but Moses identified it as Emmett’s: an engraved ring with his father’s initials, L.T.—Louis Till—was still on his finger.

This may have ended the whole incident—just another Black man savagely murdered in Mississippi. But Mamie Till-Mobley courageously took Emmett’s mutilated body back to Chicago and insisted it be displayed, as is, in an open casket for the world to see. Tens of thousands of Black people viewed Emmett’s body and a photo of his mutilated corpse was published in Jet magazine, which sparked national and international press coverage and further protests.

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Tens of thousands of people pay their respects to the mutilated body of 14-year-old Emmett Till that his mother Mamie Till-Mobley courageously insisted be displayed in an open casket.  (Photo: AP )

A trial was quickly held in September. Bryant and Milam were charged with murder and kidnapping, before an all-white, all-male jury. The courtroom was segregated and only a few Black people were let in to witness the proceedings. Bryant and Milam were closely associated with a local sheriff, H.C. Strider. He’d secretly arrested two potential witnesses for the prosecution, and greeted Black journalists attending the trial with “Good morning, niggers,” each day as he walked by their segregated table.

Carolyn Bryant testified that Emmett had clutched her waist with both hands and made lewd comments—a lie she recanted in 2008 to author Timothy Tyson. Attorneys for Milam and Bryant accused Mamie Till and the NAACP of making up the whole story: they were hiding Emmett in Chicago, Detroit or maybe New York. They claimed Mamie Till couldn’t possibly have identified her own son with certainty, because the cadaver was so badly disfigured, and that she was just out to collect on a tiny life insurance policy she had on Emmett. Emmett’s uncle courageously identified Milam as one of the men who took Emmett—“crossing a line that no one could remember a black man ever crossing in Mississippi” according to one reporter. Bryant and Milam admitted in open court to kidnapping Emmett, but said they’d then just let him go.

After five days of testimony, the jury returned a not guilty verdict on all charges—in one hour. It would have been less, one juror said, but they took a soda-pop break to “make it look good.”

Hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. and worldwide denounced and fiercely protested Emmett Till’s murder and this sham trial. A few months later, Look magazine paid Bryant and Milam $4,000 for an interview. The two men openly bragged about brutalizing and murdering Emmett Till.

Bob Avakian, "Emmett Till and Jim Crow: Black people lived under a death sentence"

THE CRIMINALS

President Dwight D. Eisenhower ignored the massive protests and never answered Mamie Till-Mobley’s telegram about her son’s death. He declared that segregationists “are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.”

Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI called Emmett Till’s death “an alleged murder” and directed the FBI to investigate the role of communists among those protesting this lynching.

The White Citizens Council (WCC) backed Bryant and Milam including by raising money for their defense. One of its founders and financial backers said it was “a shame [Milam and Bryant] had not slit open [Till’s] stomach so that his body would not have risen in the river.” J.J. Breland, a lawyer for Milam and a WCC official, told Look that the lynching was due to the Brown v. Board of Education decision: “The Supreme Court is responsible for the murder of Emmett Till.” Other criminals include the court officials and jurors who orchestrated the acquittal of the murderers, and the whitewash of the Till murder.

J.W. Milam, Roy and Carolyn Bryant, and all their accomplices (a few Black, mostly white) who had participated in the activities, lies and cover up of the torture and lynching of Emmett Till.

Editors and news reporters who contributed to the murderers’ acquittal by lying about and slandering Emmett Till. For instance, The Greenwood Morning Star reported that “Till made an ugly remark to Mrs. Bryant”, that he was “insolent” and refused to address her with “Yes, ma’am.” Or William Bradford Huie of Look who painted a sympathetic portrait of Bryant and Milam.

THE ALIBI

At their trial, Milam and Bryant admitted to seizing Emmett from Moses Wright’s house but said that they had released him and did not kill him. Unfounded rumors and claims also circulated that Emmett Till had grabbed, accosted and propositioned Carolyn Bryant.

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The REAL MOTIVE

J.W. Milam pointed to the real motive for Emmett Till’s barbaric murder and torture, and the acquittal of his murderers—maintaining segregation, Jim Crow and the brutal oppression of Black people—in his interview with Look:

“I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed [where he and Bryant were torturing Emmett] and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'”

At the time of Till’s savage murder, the system of Jim Crow segregation was coming under stress from the huge, post-World War 2 economic, social and political changes in the U.S. and the world. This included U.S. imperialism’s sharp contention with the then-socialist Soviet Union (socialist from 1917-mid 1950s). The U.S. was posing as the leader of the free world and friend to the rising national liberation struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America that were challenging the old colonial powers of Europe and Japan. In this national and international context, Emmett Till’s lynching and Mamie Till-Mobley’s brave decision to share her grief publicly helped fuel the civil rights and Black liberation movements of the next decade.

REPEAT OFFENDERS

After Milam and Bryant had both died, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reopened the case to determine if anyone other than the two men was involved and, if so, if such person(s) should be prosecuted under federal law. In 2005, Emmett’s body was exhumed, autopsied and positively identified. Two years later in 2007, a Leflore County jury did not indict anyone, even though Carolyn Bryant was/is still alive and 14 people had been identified by a documentary film maker as having been involved in Till’s kidnapping and murder.

In mid-2018, 63 years after the murder and trial, the DOJ has again reopened the case, saying it had discovered “new information” but refusing to specify what.

To this day, this system has never brought justice to Emmett Till and his family.

 

Sources:

An excerpt from Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About, by Bob Avakian

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson, Simon and Schuster, 2017

Emmett Till, Wikipedia

Murder of Emmett Till, Hidden Story, Emmett Till Special 60th Anniversary, posted by Keith Beauchamp, March 25, 2017

The Untold Story of Emmett Till, history documentary directed by Keith Beauchamp, 2005

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