More than 55 years have passed since Emmett “Bobo” Till was taken from his great-uncle’s house in the Mississippi Delta region, transported to a barn, beaten and had one of his eyes gouged out. Then he was shot, and his body dumped in Tallahatchie River. Emmett, 14, was found with a cotton gin fan tied with barbed wire around his neck. His body was discovered and retrieved from the river three days later.
His crime? Talking to a white woman.
A cousin of Emmett’s, Deborah Watts of the Emmett Till Foundation, will be in town Sunday to speak at St. John AME Church. She leads the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. Watts, who lives in Minneapolis, has recently been touring on behalf of the educational foundation.
“There are few people I find in Emmett’s generation who don’t know his name or the story,” Watts said in a phone interview last week.
Emmett Till’s death propelled the civil rights movement forward, taking it to the national stage.
“As early as the 40s and 50s, people were organizing but this was so horrendous, especially because he was a child,” said former Columbus resident and civil rights activist Ruby Nell Sales, who herself was targeted by a gunman in Mississippi on Aug. 20, 1965. A white friend, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, jumped in front of her, took the bullet and died. He is a martyr in the Episcopal Church.
The murder of Emmett Till “shocked the nation in realizing the horrors of southern segregation. It gave the black cause more legitimacy in the national community,” Sales said.
Emmett was raised by his mother, Mamie Carthan Till-Mobley, in Chicago. She was born in the small Delta town of Webb, Miss. When Mamie Carthan was 2 years old, her family moved to Argo, Ill., as part of the general migration of black families to the north to escape lack of opportunity, according to Stephen Whitfield’s book, “A Death in the Delta.”
Emmett Till was born July 25, 1941, in Chicago. A family friend nicknamed him “Bobo.” Emmett’s mother raised him with her mother; she and Emmett’s father, Louis Till, separated in 1942.
When he was 6 years old, Emmett contracted polio, leaving him with a persistent stutter, according to “The Death of Innocence” by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson. In 1951, Emmett and his mother moved to Detroit where she met and married “Pink” Bradley.
Mamie Till Bradley’s uncle, 64-year-old Mose Wright, visited the family during the summer of 1955 and told Emmett stories about living in the Mississippi Delta. Emmett wanted to go. Wright, a sharecropper, planned to take Emmett with a cousin, Wheeler Parker. Another, Curtis Jones, would join them later. Wright lived in Money, Miss., near Greenwood, a town of about 200 residents. Emmett’s mother cautioned him that Chicago and Mississippi were two different worlds, and he should know how to behave in front of Southern whites, according to Henry Hampton’s book, “Voices of Freedom.” His mother rejoined him with his stepfather later.
Throughout the South, a divided racial caste system meant avoiding interracial relationships.
Although it rarely happened, even the suggestion of sexual contact between black men and white women carried severe penalties for black men. Additionally, racial tensions were on the rise after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, “Brown v. Board of Education,” ended segregation in public schools.
Emmett arrived in the Delta on Aug. 21, 1955. Three days later, he and his cousin, Curtis, skipped church where Wright was preaching. They joined some local boys at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. The market was owned by a white couple, 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his wife, Carolyn, and it mostly catered to the local sharecropper population. Carolyn was alone in the store that day; her sister-in-law was in back of the store. Roy Bryant was out of town. Jones left Emmett with the other boys while he played checkers across the street. One or more of the local boys dared Till to speak to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, according to “Voices of Freedom.”
The facts of what transpired in the store are still disputed, but according to several versions, Emmett may have whistled at Bryant. A newspaper account stated that Emmett sometimes whistled to alleviate his stuttering, according to Christopher Mettress’ “The Lynching of Emmett Till.”
His mother claimed he had particular difficulty with pronouncing “b” sounds, and may have whistled to overcome problems asking for bubble gum. Other stories say Till may have grabbed Carolyn Bryant’s hand and asked her for a date. Carolyn Bryant later said Emmett grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date.
Carolyn Bryant ran outside to a car to retrieve a pistol. The teenagers left immediately. One of the other boys ran across the street to tell Curtis Jones what happened. Jones urged the boys to leave, fearing violence. In the early morning hours on Aug. 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, Milam and another man drove to Mose Wright’s house. Milam, with a pistol and a flashlight, asked Wright if he had three boys in the house from Chicago. Emmett shared a bed with another cousin; there were eight people in the two-bedroom house. The men threatened to kill Wright if he reported what he’d seen. They put Emmett in the back of a truck and drove to a barn in nearby Drew, Miss. Emmett was pistol-whipped and placed in the bed of the truck again and covered with a tarp. Throughout the night, Bryant, Milam and witnesses recall them being in several locations with Emmett. According to witnesses, they took Emmett to a shed behind Milam’s home in a nearby town where they beat him again.
Accounts differ as to when Emmett was shot -- either in Milam’s shed or by the Tallahatchie River. Emmett was driven to Bryant’s store where several people noticed blood pooling in the truck bed. Bryant said he’d killed a deer.
Three days later, Emmett’s swollen and disfigured body was found by two boys fishing in the river.
The A. A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago received Emmett’s body. Mamie Till Bradley decided to have an open-casket funeral. “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see,” according to Hampton’s book.
Emmett was buried in Alsip, Ill.
“The story of Emmett Till is one of the most important of the last half of the 20th century. And an important element was the casket. ... It is an object that allows us to tell the story, to feel the pain and understand loss. I want people to feel like I did. I want people to feel the complexity of emotions,” Lonnie Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, told the Washington Post in 2009.
The trial was held in September 1955, and lasted five days. The defense’s primary strategy was that the body pulled from the river could not be positively identified; and they questioned whether Emmett was dead at all.
On Sept. 23, Milam and Bryant were acquitted by an all-white jury.
Milam died of cancer in 1980, at age 61. Bryant worked in Texas as a welder, causing him partial blindness later in his life. He and Carolyn divorced, and he remarried in 1980. He operated a store in Ruleville, Miss., and was convicted in 1984 and 1988 of food stamp fraud. Bryant died of cancer in 1994 at 63 years old.
Meanwhile, Emmett’s mother continued her life as an activist working to educate people about what happened to her son. In 1957, she married Gene Mobley. A 1956 cum laude graduate of Chicago Teachers College, she received a master’s degree in administration and supervision from Loyola University in Chicago in 1975.
She taught special education in Chicago elementary schools. She died in 2003, at age 81.
“I believe she died inspired that she could touch the lives of young people,” Watts told the Ledger-Enquirer, “but she died searching for justice.”
Watts said Mamie Till-Mobley never got an apology from anyone involved in the killing, or from the state of Mississippi.
Through the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, now six years old, Watts and the eight other board members do what they can to raise awareness about the case -- but also inspire people to rise above ill treatment of any kind, including bullying and hate speech. In schools, forums and through a new 45-minute documentary, the foundation helps people explore ways to overcome adversity, up to and including the murder of a loved one.
“There’s a way to mend that, by being empowered -- to love yourself and move beyond what happened and find ways to push yourself forward,” Watts said.
Allison Kennedy, 706-576-6237