In September 1955, the bloated and broken corpse of Emmett Till arrived in Chicago. His mother identified his body and made the decision to leave his casket open for the funeral. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she told the owner of the funeral home, and the people did. What they saw changed the world.
Emmett Till: A Story to Be Known and Not Forgetten
Sometimes, when I teach the history of the American family as part of my graduate-level course on family ministry, I begin the section on the African-American family by listing several key events that have shaped the black experience in America and ask students to tell me about each one. I do this because I want students to see the degree to which their knowledge of the experiences of African Americans is, at best, fragmented and unbalanced.
Each time I undertake this exercise, there are several historical phenomena that a significant number of the students typically cannot identify or to describe accurately. Among these are
- the Middle Passage,
- the Nat Turner rebellion,
- the Great Migration, and
- the murder of Emmett Till.
Of these, the murder of Emmett Till is the event regarding which I find an occasional but persistent lack of awareness most shocking.
The reason I’m shocked by my students’ ignorance is because Emmett Till’s murder isn’t an event that occurred centuries ago. This event happened in the living memory of nearly all of my students’ grandparents and perhaps even some of their parents. His death took place barely more than half a century ago, and his story is a story that ought to be known far beyond an obscure Bob Dylan song and a passing reference in Kanye West’s “Through the Wire.”
This story should be known because no one was ever brought to justice for his murder, even though the murderers publicly confessed their crime.
This story should be known because it helps us to comprehend the anger that emerges when it seems that the killer of a black male is not brought to justice.
This story should be known because what happened to Emmett Till wasn’t an isolated incident. More than five hundred such murders occurred in Mississippi alone between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. The distinction that separated Emmett Till’s murder from so many others was not the event itself or even the depth of its brutality. The uniqueness of his death was that his mother refused to let his torture and murder remain hidden. As a result, the circumstances surrounding his death were revealed to the world.
“Let the People See What I’ve Seen”
In the summer of 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till took a train from Chicago to central Mississippi, to visit relatives in the town of Money. On August 24, the African-American youth purchased some candy at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. The owner’s wife, Carolyn Bryant, was attending the store alone.
No one knows exactly what transpired between Carolyn and Emmett. According to the most radical recounting of the events, Emmett touched her hand and asked her for a date. Carolyn’s sister-in-law said, however, that Carolyn Bryant fabricated this story because she thought such a story might force her husband to “take care of the store instead of leaving her with the kids and the store.” Carolyn Bryant has recently admitted that her own testimony was false.
No matter which rendition of the events happens to have been true, a 1955 letter to the editor of Look magazine cuts to the heart of the issue: “Had Emmett Till been a white boy, his approaches to Carolyn Bryant … would very probably have been laughed aside as teen-age boisterousness.”
Four days later, Carolyn Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam seized Emmett Till from his great-uncle’s house sometime after midnight. Three days after Emmett was kidnapped, a group of boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River found Emmet Till’s body—a bullet hole near his right ear, a seventy-pound metal fan barb-wired around his neck, and one eye knocked from its socket. A grave was dug for Emmett Till near Money, Mississippi, but his mother wanted his body shipped back to Chicago. “They tried to make us bury him here, to do away with the evidence,” one of his cousins later recalled. “And we had the grave dug.”
I saw that his tongue was choked out. I noticed that the right eye was lying on midway his cheek, I noticed that his nose had been broken like somebody took a meat chopper and chopped his nose in several places. As I kept looking, I saw a hole, which I presumed, was a bullet hole and I could look through that hole and see daylight on the other side. And I wondered was it necessary to shoot him? Mr. Rayner asked me, he said “Do you want me to touch the body up?” I said, “No, Mr. Rayner, let the people see what I’ve seen.” I was just willing to bear it all. I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till. …
Two months ago, … when something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, “That’s their business, not mine.” Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.
I cannot begin to imagine staring into one of my children’s faces—a face that I have caressed and loved, with a smile that has caused joy to surge within my heart so many times—and seeing it mauled in the way that this woman saw her son’s face. And yet, this woman not only looked at this face but she also made the painful decision to leave the lid of the casket open, with Emmett’s mutilated flesh visible through a clear pane of glass.
On the day of the funeral, thousands of mourners lined up in the streets near the Roberts Temple Church of God, waiting for hours to reach the casket. Inside, people shrieked, wailed, and fainted. They were unprepared for what they saw: Till’s right eye was missing and his face was disfigured beyond recognition. Photographs were taken, and the black press disseminated the image of Till’s mutilated corpse far outside of Chicago, making Till’s death a national story.
But no one was ever brought to justice for this death. Near the end of September, an all-white jury cleared Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of Emmett Till’s murder. In November, 1955, the two men were found innocent of the charges of kidnapping as well. This tragedy stands as part of the crushing burden of racial prejudice and systemic injustice from which our nation is still far from free. More than six decades later, many of our African-American brothers and sisters still live in the shadow of imbalanced systems of justice.
“We Were Never Able to Scare Him”
The following January, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam admitted to murdering Emmett Till. According to Milam,
We were never able to scare him. … He was hopeless. … But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, … they ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. … I just made up my mind. “Chicago boy,” I said, “I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. … I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.
According to the reporter who interviewed the murderers, Bryant and Milam pistol-whipped Emmett Till, then took him to the banks of the Tallahatchie and forced him to remove his clothes. Then,
that big .45 jumped in Big Milam’s hand. The youth turned to catch that big, expanding bullet at his right ear. He dropped. They barb-wired the gin fan to his neck, rolled him into twenty feet of water. For three hours that morning, there was a fire in Big Milam’s back yard: [Emmett’s] crepe soled shoes were hard to burn.
The responses to the two men’s confession of their crime were mixed. One letter to the editor declared that the murder “was certainly justified. … Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam did what had to be done, and their courage in taking the course they did is to be commended. To have followed any other course would have been unrealistic, cowardly and not in the best interest of their family or country.”
And yet, the boldness of Emmett’s mother in bringing his body home and making certain that the world saw what had been done to him made a lasting impact. In the years that followed, many civil-rights activists would mention that Emmett Till’s murder had been what spurred them to join the movement. As D.A. Horton has pointed out,
Pictures of Emmett’s disfigured corpse began to circulate, putting on display the depravity of humanity. An act of injustice that was done in secret was now brought in plain sight for the world to see. Thank you Mamie. Till’s open casket was used as an agent of social change to open the hearts of men and women from various walks of life to advocate in partnership to start the Civil Rights Movement. Mamie Till-Mobley provided our nation with a model for turning tragedy into triumph.
The life, the death, and the legacy of Emmett Till—a painful story, but a story that should be known and never forgotten.