Honoring Emmett Till: 65 years after brutal murder that galvanized civil rights movement, family still seeking justice
Emmett Louis Till was a handsome 14-year-old with a wide grin who liked wearing a hat and enjoyed putting a smile on other people’s faces.
The jovial teenager from the South Side of Chicago delighted in cooking. He helped his mother around the house. He loved sports and often cracked jokes, according to family members. But it was his death 65 years ago today that most people know – a savage murder that forced a nation to see the excruciating consequences of racism.
In many ways, Till’s death ushered in a reckoning, shaping the course of the civil rights movement, in much the same way recent killings of unarmed Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, Yassin Mohamed, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and too many others, have renewed a deep sense of urgency for racial justice across the country.
It was the summer of 1955, amidst the oppression of Jim Crow, when Till traveled to the Deep South to visit family members. The Black teen went into a store in Money, Mississippi, and bought some candy. After he left the store and rejoined his cousins outside, the woman who was behind the counter also came out, and Till reportedly whistled at her.
Carolyn Bryant, the woman behind the counter, later claimed that the boy grabbed her, made lewd advances and wolf-whistled at her as he sauntered out of the store. His cousins, who were present, denied this account, and Bryant herself reportedly recanted it decades later.
But based on Bryant’s word, her husband, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to the house of Till’s uncle, where the teen and his cousins were sleeping in the wee hours of the morning, and demanded to see Till. Milam was holding a .45-caliber gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other.
They beat him, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a 75-pound cotton-gin fan, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 28, 1955. The men were arrested for the murder, but an all-white, all-male jury swiftly acquitted them.
Later, in a magazine interview, the two men admitted to killing Till. But they were never convicted of the crime. Both died of cancer years later. Still others may also have been involved in the murder but were never prosecuted.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, refused to allow the body to be buried in Mississippi. She had the remains flown back to Chicago and insisted on open-casket funeral services to ensure people would see what white supremacists had done to her son. Jet magazine’s photo of Till’s mutilated corpse – shared with media across the country – shocked the nation and served as a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement.
The struggle continues
In recognition of the impact of Till’s murder, his name is among the first of 40 martyrs inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial, a circular black granite table across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama. The Memorial, commissioned by the SPLC, records the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock.
“Emmett Till’s death woke the nation up to the horrific reality of racism in the Deep South and was the inspiration for a number of resistant acts that led to the birth of the modern civil rights movement,” said Tafeni English, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, which sits behind the Memorial and is also operated by the SPLC. “The 65th anniversary of Till’s murder also reminds us that today’s Black Lives Matter movement is rooted in a struggle that has been going on for generations, and that continues to this day.”
Even some efforts to memorialize Till have been met with violence. The historical marker where Till’s body was found in Mississippi has been shot several times, and it was replaced last year with a 500-pound, bulletproof sign.
Till’s mother, who passed away in 2003, came to the Memorial in Montgomery for its dedication in 1989.
“It’s almost as if I were touching him, touching Emmett himself,” she said as she placed her fingers over his inscription at the time. “It’s almost as if I’m reliving the funeral, and yet my heart is full of joy that not only my son but all these other people who gave their lives for the cause are getting the recognition they are due.”
Till’s cousin, Deborah Watts, was also at the Memorial’s dedication alongside Till’s mother. The co-founder and executive director of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, Watts is seeking justice for Till. To her, that means bringing Carolyn Bryant Donham – now in her 80s – to justice. (Carolyn Bryant later remarried and is now known as Carolyn Bryant Donham.)
“The time for justice is now, the clock is ticking fast. It is important that the jurisdictional authorities in Mississippi, the attorney general and district attorney hold the one surviving known accomplice accountable before it’s too late,” Watts said in a statement from the Foundation. “For 65 years, members of our family have been pressing for answers and to hold those involved in the murder of Emmett Till accountable. But now we need the help of Congress and all Americans who care about the application of true justice in this country.”
Watts and the Foundation are urging the authorities to charge Donham with murder because her false accusation led to Till’s killing.
“Sixty-five years is, I think, a long enough time to determine the role of someone’s part in his lynching and his murder,” Watts told the SPLC. “And they need to be held accountable for it, and whatever price that needs to be paid, they need to pay the price. Carolyn Bryant [Donham] should not be held out as someone who is above the law.”
Donham’s arrest, Watts said, would be an initial step toward justice for all Black people in America who have been murdered or otherwise unfairly treated.
“This is the time to wake up, and we really need the country to recognize that Black lives do matter,” she said. “And things that are threatening our existence, we need to reform them immediately.”
Delivering justice for Till is the best way to honor her cousin’s legacy, Watts said.
The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation is committed not only to educating communities about Till’s murder and its impact on the civil rights era, but also to demonstrating its parallels in today’s struggle for racial equality.
“The image of Emmett Till in Jet magazine went viral long before there was any language to describe such a phenomenon,” said Robert Luckett, a professor of history at Jackson State University who also runs the university’s COFO Civil Rights Education Center. “If you were Black in America at that time, you saw that picture, and, for the rest of us, it is impossible to forget the first time you’re confronted with it.”
Luckett compared today’s cellphone videos of police brutality with the picture of Till from 1955.
“With the near ubiquity of technology today, young people have the capacity to more widely decry and publicize acts of brutality at the hands of white supremacists and to galvanize people to action, which has been obvious throughout the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “In a less tangible way, the courage that Mamie Till-Mobley displayed is an example that we can all aspire to, even if most of us will not be asked to risk as much as she did.”
Inspiring the movement
Till’s murder – and the way it was shared with the world – inspired prominent civil rights activists.
Congressman John Lewis, the late civil rights icon who was beaten nearly to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 while peacefully marching for voting rights, cited Till’s influence on him in an op-ed that was published in The New York Times soon after his death.
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd,” Lewis wrote in the op-ed. “He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me.”
Just four months after Till was murdered, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott that energized the movement.
Years later, Jesse Jackson asked Parks why she refused to move to the back of the bus. Parks replied, “I thought of Emmett Till and I couldn’t go back.”
The organizers of the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, selected Aug. 28 for the historic event in honor of the date that Till was murdered.
The struggle continues today, with a renewed call for justice for Emmett Till.
In the 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till, author Timothy B. Tyson quoted Donham as saying she wasn’t truthful when she claimed that Till grabbed her, whistled and made sexual advances.
After Donham reportedly admitted to lying about Emmett’s actions in the store, the FBI reopened the case into his murder – and the case is still open.
But even Donham’s recanting of her statement about the whistling incident has been called into question. Tyson never recorded the recanting statement from Donham but has it in his notes.
“Honestly though, her [reported] recanting was not a surprise,” Luckett said. “Everyone knew then and has known since then that she was lying. I’m not sure why people were surprised. Perhaps they couldn’t believe she actually said it out loud.”
‘Whistle and then go ahead and speak’
In Tyson’s book, Donham is quoted as saying, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
And despite the Southern norms that severely limited interaction between the races, whistling was never a capital offense.
Witnesses – including Till’s cousins, who were outside the store with him – confirmed that Till whistled when Donham came out. But it was probably not flirtatious behavior, Watts said.
Till had an issue with stuttering, she said, noting that his mother gave him this bit of advice: “If you find yourself stuck on a word, take in a breath, whistle and then go ahead and speak.”
In fact, one day, Till’s mother realized that his stutter would disappear when he spoke from memorization, Watts said. She then made him memorize everything from the U.S. Constitution to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
To commemorate the 65th anniversary of Till’s murder, the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and members of his family will hold commemoration events from now through Aug. 30 in Jackson, Mississippi, and surrounding areas in the Mississippi Delta.
This milestone reminds us that we are not at a new point in American history, but that racial injustice continues to permeate the fabric of the country, just as it did before the U.S. became a nation, said Luckett, the history professor at Jackson State University.
The current movement for racial justice has been around since at least 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in what would become the United States. The violent reign of white supremacy has been just as long, he said.
“The memory of Emmett Till should embolden us in the knowledge that rooting out racial oppression in this country is going to require a lot more of all of us, especially of white Americans, who have a responsibility to not just be allies but to actively tear down the system of power that has guided this nation for 250 years,” Luckett said.
“I’m pleased to know that Emmett Till’s memory holds an iconic place in American history and will long outlive the white supremacists who murdered him.”
Lead photo by Bettman/Getty Images