Saturday, August 29, 2015

The murder of Emmett Till (July 25 1941-August 28 1955)

"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  

On August 28 1955 , fourteen year old African American teenager Emmett Till who was visiting relatives, was abducted and murdered in Money, Mississippi by two white men who claimed he was disrespectful to a white woman by whistling at her.

Emmett's murderers were the husband and brother of the white woman he supposedly disrespected.

In the US this weekend the significance of Emmett Till's life is being commemorated by civil rights activists, relatives of the black teen and other families "victimized by racial violence", including the family of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown , who are uniting for a commemorative weekend in Chicago to remember Till and to continue the legacy of Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley.

Emmett Till was born and lived in Chicago and at the time of his murder he was visiting family in Money, Mississippi.

A few days before his murder Emmett went into a local store, Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, and, on a dare, said something to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the owner's wife who was working behind the counter. A few nights later, the woman's husband, Roy Bryant, and her half brother, J.W. Milam, went to house where Emmett Till was living with his great uncle  and forced him into their car. After driving around they beat Till and drove to the Tallahatchie River. 

Emmett Till was forced carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the bank of the Tallahatchie River and ordered to take off his clothes. He was beaten nearly to death, had his eyes gouged out, was shot in the head, and then his body was tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire and he was thrown into the river.

Emmett Till's corpse was found three days later. He was found with a bullet hole in his head, barbed wire wrapped around his neck and a cotton gin fan weighing him down  He was so disfigured that his Mississippi relatives could only identify him by an initialled ring. 

(photo of Emmett Till in his casket) 
Bryant and Milam were subsequently arrested and charged with murder.
Authorities wanted to bury the body quickly, but Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, requested the body be sent back to Chicago. After seeing her son's mutilated remains, she arranged an open-casket funeral to show the brutality of the white murders.

Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral or viewed his casket and images of his mutilated body were published in black-oriented magazines and newspapers, rallying popular black support and white sympathy across the U.S.

Less than two weeks after Emmett’s body was buried, the two murderers went on trial in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. There were few witnesses besides a relative of Emmett Till who positively identified the defendants as Emmett’s killers. On September 23, the all-white jury deliberated for less than an hour before issuing a verdict of “not guilty,” explaining that they believed the state had failed to prove the identity of the body.

 Many people around the country were outraged by the decision and also by the state’s decision not to indict Milam and Bryant on the separate charge of kidnapping.

Months after the trial and immune from further prosecution, the two men openly admitted to a national magazine that they had abducted, mutilated and murdered Emmett Till.

Roy Bryant never showed remorse for the murder, claiming in an interview in 1992 that Emmett Till had ruined his life, stating "Emmett Till is dead. I don't know why he can't just stay dead" Ray Bryant died in 1994 aged 63. 

The murder of Emmett Till  was a pivotal event for the African American civil rights movement and provided a spark that contributed to igniting the civil rights movement in the USA by exposing the brutality of the conditions of black civil rights in Mississippi.

The killing of Emmett Till has inspired songs (for example by Bob Dylan), movies, books, artistic displays and memorials.

Till's mother Mamie Till-Mobley published a book titled Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, which is  currently being made into a feature film

The book was co-written with  journalist Christopher Benson and was nominated for a 2004 Pulitzer Prize and won a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award special recognition that year.  She died in 2003, aged 81, 58 years after her son's murder.
Bob Dylan' song The Death of Emmett Till appears on the

The Death of Emmett Till
By Bob Dylan

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what
They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat
There were screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds
out on the street

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie
Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly die

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this
awful crime
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind

I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood
it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live

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