On July 25, 1941, Emmett Louis Till was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Louis and Mamie Till, a native of Mississippi. Mamie and Louis separated in 1942, and Louis, who served in World War II, was executed while serving in Italy for “willful misconduct.” After the death of her only child, Mamie Till will find out that Louis Till was executed for rape and murder. This would later play a major role in the way the media would twist the story to justify the jury’s verdict in Emmett Till’s case.Growing up in the North, Emmett and Mamie Till had a different view of the times. Emmett Till grew up on Chicago’s South Side. Unlike South Side Chicago of today, the neighborhood was a thriving, middle-class black neighborhood. The streets of this neighborhood were lined with black-owned businesses. Compared to life in the South, blacks up North were not susceptible to outright discrimination. Before going to Mississippi Emmett had not been exposed to the Jim Crow laws of the South. Many people who knew Emmett described him as a responsible, funny, and high-spirited child. At age six he was struck with polio, but he managed to make a full recovery except for that he developed a slight stutter, which would later play a role in his death.
In 1955, Moses Wright, Mamie Till’s uncle, visited Emmett and Mamie and their family in Chicago during the summer. Moses would often tell Emmett stories about living in the Mississippi Delta, and Emmett was eager to go visit Mississippi for himself. Moses would be returning to Mississippi soon, and Emmett’s cousin Wheeler Parker would also be joining Moses on the trip to Mississippi. Although Mamie Till was not eager about letting Emmett go to Mississippi, she finally gave in and soon Emmett would be heading to Mississippi. Before Emmett left for Mississippi Mamie Till tried to stress how Chicago and Mississippi were not the same. In an interview Mamie Till stated that she told Emmett, “And when you go to Mississippi, you’re living by an entirely different set of rules. Ah, it is, ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am’, ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no sir’. And, Beau, if you see a white woman coming down the street, you get off the sidewalk and drop your head. Don’t even look at her.” As she sent her son off to Mississippi all Mamie Till could think is that she hoped her son understood those words she told him only a few moments before.
On August 19, 1995 Till boarded a train for Money, Mississippi wearing his father’s signet ring. By this time Emmett Till had grown a lot. At the age of fourteen he weighed one hundred fifty pounds and stood five feet and four inches tall. Many of the whites who saw him in Mississippi claimed that he looked like an adult. Three days after Emmett’s arrival in Mississippi, on August 24, Emmett and few other young people, including his cousin Wheeler Parker, had been picking cotton all day and they decided to drive down to Bryant’s grocery for some refreshments. The story goes that Emmett went into the store and bought two cents’ worth of bubblegum, and according to witnesses, as Emmett exited the store he whistled to Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the owner of the store.
Wheeler Parker describes how scared they all were after Carolyn Bryant stormed out of the stormed. Parker recalls someone saying “She’s going to get a pistol.” So they all got into the car drove away, with Emmett begging them not to tell Moses Wright what took place that day, and they all agreed. Four days went by and nothing came of this incident, so Emmett and all of his cousins thought nothing more of the situation until that Sunday morning, April 28, 1955, around 2:30 in the morning when Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam showed up at the doorstep of the Wright house demanding to see the boy who talked to his wife. Moses and his wife Elizabeth pleaded with Bryant and Milam not to take Emmett, the Moses recalls Milam asking, “How old are you preacher?”. Moses replied, “Sixty-four,” and Milam replied, “You make any trouble, you’ll never live to be sixty-five.” Then Bryant and Milam left with Emmett in the back of their pick-up truck.
In a confession from Bryant and Milam, they both admit to kidnapping Emmett Till from his home. They say that they only intended to “…whip him…and scare some sense into him.” However, what Bryant and Milam did to Emmett was far worse. They took him into a tool house and whipped him, then they began pistol-whipping him across the head. According to Milam, these acts did not seem to scare Emmett and so he said “Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.” So Milam and Bryant took a metal fan from a cotton gin and took tossed Emmett back into the pickup truck and they headed to the Tallahatchie River. They made Emmett carry the fan to the river bank and order him to take off all his clothes. Then they shot Emmett, and once he was dead they used barbed wire to attach the fan around his neck then pushed him into the water.
Three days later the body of Emmett Till was discovered floating in the Tallahatchie River. On September 2, 1955, The Delta Democrat-Times reads “White Demands Full Probe Into Murder; Mom Stands by Sons” along with “Dead Lad’s Mother Joins Mayor In Asking Ike to Act”. In the first article Mrs. Eula Lee Bryant, the mother of Bryant and Milam, explain that her two sons “were never into any meanness.” The article continues with Governor Hugh White assuring that a prosecution would be held because the state of Mississippi did not condone such crimes. The second article, from Chicago, is describing how Mamie Till and Mayor Richard J. Daley were looking to President Eisenhower to act on the murder of young Emmett Till. The governor of Illinois, William Stratton, also contacted the attorney general asking him to write a letter to Mississippi to ensure that a complete investigation would be carried out on the death of Emmett Till.
On September 3, 1955, in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, the Mt. Vernon Register-News reports on the 15,000 people who went to a South Side funeral chapel in Illinois for the viewing of the body of Emmett Till. Pictures of the body of Emmett were even displayed in the Jet Magazine under an article titled “Will Mississippi ‘Whitewash’ The Emmett Till Slaying?” The Post-Standard of Syracuse, New York, reports on the funeral that was held September 6, 1955, for Emmett Till. Although the body of Emmett Till was completely disfigured and unrecognizable, “Mrs. Mamie Bradley, postponed the funeral so everyone could ‘see what they did to my boy.’” The article also takes a statement from Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, in which he states “after the boy’s body was found…his slaying showed Mississippi was determined to keep segregation ‘by murdering children’”.
The news of the ruthless killing of Emmett Till spread like wildfire, and as shown in the article in The Post-Standard newspaper, many northern state newspapers were voicing their opinion on the Jim Crow South, and they were not so nice. Papers like The Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, promoted the Emmett Till murder in order to make people of the United States aware of what many blacks were facing living in the Jim Crow South. In an article titled “Blood On Their Hands” the author stated, “…there can be no compromise this time. Your child can be the next victim of the white supremacists.” Other articles in The Chicago Defender were titled “Savagery, Southern Style”, “Mississippi’s Infamy”, and “Protest Mississippi Shame”. They were determined to show the country the evils of the Jim Crow South. The Chicago Defender even sent a telegram to President Eisenhower: “A Chicago Boy. Emmett Louis Till 14 was kidnapped and lynched in Mississippi this week, would you let us know if your office has plans to take any action with reference to this shocking act of lawlessness.” This was not just a story to report on. The case of the murder of Emmett Till was going to help promote social change.
The trial was set for September 19, 1955, and after hearing the testimonies of Moses Wright, Mamie Till, and Carol Bryant, on September 23. the jury retired for deliberations. Only an hour later, the jury returned and presented the verdict of “not guilty”. A juror would later reveal that the jury stalled to “make it look good,” and they would not have taken so long to return “if they hadn’t stopped to drink pop.” If the media in the North had not been going hard to make sure that people across the nation were aware of the un-justice black people faced in the Jim Crow South, they did so after the verdict was delivered.
The headline of Cleveland Call and Post on October 1, 1955, was “Mississippi Jungle Law Frees Slayers of Child.” With all the evidence that had been presented, and the testimonies, along with the confession to kidnapping that Bryant and Milam gave, how could the jury still find these two men “not guilty”? The case of Emmett Till had become a worldwide issue. An article written in Vatican City stated that “…it is the duty of U.S. Roman Catholics to rub out the ‘color smudge’ of racism from their ‘fine and generous’ civilization,” referring to many crimes of racism in the United States but in particular the murder of Emmett Till.
Although the murderers of Emmett Till were never convicted on murder charges or kidnapping charges, it marked the turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. On December 1, 1955, a woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on bus in Montgomery. Many people believed that Rosa Parks did not give up her seat because she was tired, but she later told that it was not because she was tired, but rather that she was inspired by the death of Emmett Till. Rosa Parks told Reverend Jesse L. Jackson on her sickbed, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated. I was not going back.” Exactly ninety-four days after Emmett Till was beaten, shot, and dumped into the Tallahatchie River, Rosa Parks takes a stand not only for herself, but for an entire race, with inspiration from Emmett Till, the sacrificial lamb. Rosa Parks’ act of defiance would lead to a bus boycott, spearheaded by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for equality that would lead to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Black people were being murdered in the Jim Crow South day to day, but what made the death of Emmett Till more significant. The answer to this question was the amount of press coverage that the death of Emmett Till received because he was originally from the North. Normally when a black person was murdered in the South because of racism, it often times went without being covered in the news because the black people did not want to talk about it, and the white people saw it is a fitting punishment. This time was different because Emmett Till was a boy from up north, and his mother knew that by contacting the media justice might be served.
The press coverage of Emmett Till during 1955 served as the turning point for the Civil Rights Movement. The media is used to help shape the opinions and mindsets of the nation, and during 1955 the newspapers served this same purpose with the case of Emmett Till. With the mass amount of coverage on the murder of Emmett Till, and the graphic pictures of his disfigured body throughout the country to help blacks to realize that something must be done about the inequality. Soon black people across America began to realize that this was something that could have happened to anyone of them. With this realization blacks across America knew that something must be done, and that was that blacks needed to demand their freedom. Through protests, boycotts, marches, petitions, sit-ins, and much more black people across America were demanding equality. Although the death of Emmett Till is a tragic point in history, it also served as way to help black people across the world see how many innocent people have to die before change comes?