Emmett till Disappeared 60 years ago today August 24
Sixty years ago on this date, Chicago native Emmett Till whistled at a white woman. Four days later he would be brutally killed, spurring a case that many say launched the Civil Rights movement.
The 14-year-old African American, along with some relatives whom he was visiting near Money, Mississippi, had stopped at a local country store after they had finished picking cotton on Aug. 24, 1955.
The friends he was with dared him to speak to the white woman behind the counter — who happened to be the store owner’s wife — because Till had bragged that he had a white girlfriend in Chicago.
Then 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant claimed that Till grabbed her and said lewd things to her. But in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine years later, Till’s cousin Simeon Wright said that the only thing that could have possibly happened was Till had whistled at her.
“I don’t know what he said, but when I was in there, he said nothing to her,” said the now 72-year-old Wright. “He didn’t have time, she was behind the counter, so he didn’t put his arms around her or anything like that. While I was in there he said nothing, but after we left the store, we both walked out together, she came outside going to her car. As she was going to her car, he did whistle at her. That’s what scared her so bad. The only thing that I saw him do was that he did whistle.”
That whistle would later lead Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, to track down, kidnap and kill Till, mutilating his body and sinking it in the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 28, 1955.
The two men were tried for murder, but an all-white, all-male jury found them not guilty after less than an hour of deliberation, and they were never charged with kidnapping.
That the men were acquitted was nothing new; PBS reports that some 500 lynchings had been documented over the previous 70 years in Mississippi, resulting in almost no convictions.
But Till’s mother would not let her son’s death simply go unnoticed. She requested that the body be displayed at Till’s funeral in Chicago “so all the world can see what they did to my boy.”
Thousands of Chicagoans mourned the teen’s death over a five-day period, and the world took notice.
Jet magazine snapped and published a photo of the boy’s mutilated body, and the image sent waves of outrage through the country.
That outrage was compounded after Look magazine paid Bryant and Milam more than $3,600 for an interview, in which they boasted about killing Till.
Some excerpts of Milam’s comments during from thatinterview:
“What else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a n****r in my life. I like n****rs — in their place — I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, n****rs are gonna stay in their place.
“N****rs 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 n****r 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 and listened to that n****r 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.’”
The two never expressed remorse for the killing, and the remainder of their lives were marred by financial ruin as they became pariahs even in the Jim Crow South.
Bob Dylan wrote a song about the tragedy,Whoopi Goldberg ismaking a film about it, and Florida State is soon expected to announce an archive dedicated to Till.
But vastly more important, as documentarian Keith A. Beauchamp told NPR, Till’s brutal murder and the verdict that followed inspired people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to start ”the 1957 Civil Rights Act and it’s one of the main reasons why we have a Civil Rights Division of the United States Justice Department.”
Beauchamp concluded: “Just like it was a catalyst for change in 1955, I truly believe that if everyone understands Till’s story, it can be a catalyst for change today.”