By Margaret Hicks

Staff Writer

 

Before Jeremey Lake, Terrence Crutcher, Eric Harris, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, and Arthur McDuffie, there was Emmett Louis Till.

Emmett Till 14 beating, shot and body dump in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother Mamie insisted on an open-casket public funeral, with the image of the boy’s mutilated body shocking the country.photo source: emmettillsocialjustice.blogspot.com
Emmett Till 14 beating, shot and body dump in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother Mamie insisted on an open-casket public funeral, with the image of the boy’s mutilated body shocking the country.photo source: emmettillsocialjustice.blogspot.com

Till was only 14 years old when he was murdered in Money, Miss., (about 100 miles northwest of Jackson) in August of 1955. Till, who was from Chicago, was visiting family in Mississippi and was accused of wolf whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year old white waitress.

Bryant, now 82 years old and whose last name is now Donham, admitted that she lied. She made this admission to historian Timothy Tyson, a Duke University Professor, who interviewed her 10 years ago, and kept this information hidden until now.

He is days away from releasing his book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.”  In the book, according to Tyson, Donhom is quoted as saying, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Roy Wilkins, the then head of the NAACP, called Till’s killing “a lynching.”

The following was released by Money Sheriff’s Department based on their external examination of Till’s body:

“The autopsy begun at 8:45 a.m. on August 31, 1955. The body is presented with a 70-pound cotton gin fan attached to the victim. The victim was absent of all clothing. The victim was castrated and only had his right eye. He was beaten severely. This was shown by the swelling of the face. His left ear was missing. Above this eye, there was a bullet hole that went through the victim’s head.”

A family member remembers looking into the bullet hole and seeing daylight on the other side.

Historical Overview

On September 23, 1955, two white men, Roy Bryant, husband of accuser, and his half-brother J.W. Milam, were acquitted at the Sumner Courthouse of murdering Emmett Till. Till’s mother Mamie Till and uncle Moses Wright courageously testified in the 5-day trial, which drew international attention. The most dramatic moment came when Moses Wright was asked who abducted Emmett, and he stood and pointed at the defendants saying, “Dar he.”

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted in less than two hours by an all-white jury, even though there was overwhelming evidence and the admission that they kidnaped Till. After their acquittal, they confessed to the crime, and their confession was published on January 24, 1956, in Look (Look was a bi-weekly, general-interest magazine published in Des Moines, Iowa, from 1937 to 1971) magazine and were protected because of double jeopardy.

They detailed how they beat Till with a gun, shot him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River with a heavy cotton-gin fan attached with barbed wire to his neck to weigh his body down. They were paid a reported $4,000 for their participation in the article.

 

Reopening Of The Case

Emmett ("Bobo") Till with his mother, Mamie
Emmett (“Bobo”) Till with his mother, Mamie photo credit: UMKC

In May of 2004 the FBI reopened the case. It was about this time the late Ed Bradley of “60 Minutes” tried to get an interview with Donham but she refused to answer any questions. By this time the men who were acquitted of Till’s murder were both dead. Roy later lived a private life and married a second time. At the age of 63, he died of cancer. In 1981, Milam died of cancer of the bone.

Back in April of 2016, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) introduced a bill which became Public Law 114-325 under the signature of President Barack Obama on December 16, 2016, the “Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016”. This law expands the responsibilities of the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute criminal civil rights violations that occurred before 1980 and resulted in a death. The bill is an expansion of a previous bill of the same name which was passed by the House of Representatives in 2007.

 

Hatred and Rage

In a video published by Time, on Nov. 17, 2016, titled, “The Body of Emmett Till | 100 Photos,” Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, and founder of Equal Justice Initiative, had this to say about Till: “It’s not just that they discovered his body and that he has been killed, he has been brutally, brutally beaten. As a criminal defense attorney, when we look at crimes we often try to put together a picture about what happened, and it takes a lot of hatred and a lot of rage to do the kind of violence that was done to Emmett Till. Being a black boy in the American south could be quite perilous…the shock of his death was compounded by the brutality of his death.”

 

Look What They’ve Done To My Child

WILLIAM LANIER COURTESY OF THE NAACP
WILLIAM LANIER COURTESY OF THE NAACP

In that video, Stevenson talked about Mamie Till, who made the choice to have an opened casket funeral so the world could see what they did to her child. She invited photographer David Jackson and Jet magazine to take pictures of her child’s battered body. Those images were widely circulated and indelibly imprinted on the brain of anyone who saw them.

In that video, Stevenson talked about imagery and photography being an important tool, because without it “no one who is prepared to believe some of the violence that we’ve witnessed.”

A Step In The Right Direction

The Eagle reached out to Stevenson to get his comment on Donham’s recant and he had this to say,

“Ms. Donham’s recent admission adds to the tragedy surrounding Emmett Till’s brutal murder. It’s not surprising that her original claim is false, knowing that since Emancipation thousands of black people have been assaulted, lynched and murdered based on racially provocative rumors, allegations and innuendo. What is sobering about this recent confession is

how little we have historically cared about the culpability and credibility of accusers in the Jim Crow South who caused violence or death against racial minorities. One can only hope that Ms. Donham’s confession encourages thousands of others holding secrets about our history of racial injustice to recognize that telling the truth is a necessary first step to creating meaningful repair and recovery from our tragic, violent and racially biased past.”

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