“Nothing that the boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” This is a statement by Carolyn Bryant made briefly before she admitted in 2008 that she had lied in court in the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy whose death warrant she signed by accusing him falsely and lying about what he allegedly did to her.
Emmett ‘Bobo’ Till was a teenage boy from Chicago who in the summer of 1955 was sent to relatives in Mississippi to spend his summer vacation there. Growing up in the North he was not too familiar with the social structures in the South and the racial tensions that became worse after the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled in favor of the desegregation of public schools in the case of Brown v. Board of Education just months upon his arrival in the Deep South. Given his young age he most likely did not care either.
Till was described as a jokester, and as brash at times. A behavior that did not sit well with the Whites in the South. Allegedly, it was this behavior that got him into trouble on that summer day in August 1955. The details of the event remain unclear to this day as the witness accounts have been contradicting depending on who was asked. However, a few facts are certain: On August 24, 1955, four days after he had arrived in Money, a small town in the Mississippi Delta, he and his cousins and friends decided to drive into town. There, they stopped at a small store, owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Allegedly, the reason why they went to the store was that Till’s friends and cousins wanted him to see Mrs. Bryant who they claimed was a beautiful woman. Till, as witnesses stated, remained unimpressed and claimed that he had white girlfriends before back in Chicago and that he could make Carolyn Bryant fall for him. His friend did not believe him and dared him to go inside and talk to her, which he did. What happened inside remains unclear. Carolyn Bryant later siad that he made advances and insulted her, and that she felt threatened by him, upon which she went to get her gun. It was then that Emmett, after he had left the store, allegedly whistled at her.
Later that day she told her husband, Roy, what had happened to her in the store upon which he decided, together with his half-brother J.W. Milam, to “teach him a lesson.” In the middle of the night, they went to the house of Emmett’s grandfather, Mose Wright, where he had stayed during his vacation, and kidnapped him at gunpoint. The grandparents, worried and frightened let the two men go with Emmett, but they still hoped he would return after they had whipped him. However, when the following day, Emmett had not returned, they reported his abduction to the police and Milam and Bryant were arrested and brought to the police station where they claimed that they had set Till free after asking him a few questions.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Bradly, who already knew that her boy was missing, was informed about his murder. She decided to bury him in his hometown Chicago and insisted on an open casket funeral to show everybody what they had done to her son.
A couple days later, Milam and Bryant appeared in court where they pleaded ‘not guilty’ to all charges. Carolyn Bryant appeared as a witness and stated again that she had felt threatened by Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy. The all-white jury eventually acquitted Milam and Bryant, who months later admitted in an interview for a Southern newspaper that they had lynched Emmett Till.
The case of Emmett Till sparked a nationwide outrage, especially in the Black community and is said to be one of the catalyst of the Civil Rights movement. In fact, to this day, the case is still relevant as an early reminder of what it means to be black in the US and to be perceived as a threat.
Anderson, Devery S. 2015. Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement. Oxford: The University Press of Mississippi.
Mace, Darryl. 2014. In Remembrance of Emmett Till: Regional Stories and Media Responses to the Black Freedom Struggle. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.
Tyson, Timothy. 2017. The Blood of Emmett Till. New York: Simon & Schuster.