We know some of the story of African-American Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat in the “coloured” section of a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a White man who could not find a seat in the “White” section of the crowded bus.
Over the almost 57 years since then (December 1, 1955), there have been various stories written about her reasons, including that she was tired after a hard day’s work as a seamstress. However, Parks debunked that myth when she said:
“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.”
The impact of the brutal murder on August 28, 1955 of Black teenager Emmett Louis Till was felt by African-Americans of all ages and is considered pivotal in the Civil Rights struggle.
African-American boxer Muhammad Ali shared his memories of the impact:
“Emmett Till and I were about the same age. A week after he was murdered, I stood on the corner with a gang of boys, looking at pictures of him in the Black newspapers and magazines. In one, he was laughing and happy. In the other, his head was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets and his mouth twisted and broken.
“His mother had done a bold thing. She refused to let him be buried until hundreds of thousands marched past his open casket in Chicago and looked down at his mutilated body.
“(I) felt a deep kinship to him when I learned he was born the same year and day I was. My father talked about it at night and dramatized the crime. I couldn’t get Emmett out of my mind.”
Ali and thousands of African-Americans had read about and seen the grisly photographs of Till’s gruesomely mutilated body in several issues of Black-owned Jet magazine.
The late African-American lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran also shared his memories of Till’s murder:
“I was a senior at Los Angeles High School in California. It had a profound effect on me because I understood that it could have happened to any of us. It shook my confidence.
“It was as though terrorists had struck – but it was terrorists from our own country. It made me want to do everything I could to make sure this event would not happen ever again.”
Similar to the murder of 17-year-old unarmed African-American Trayvon Martin, Till’s lynching garnered international attention (the story was reported in the international press, including newspapers in Belgium, Germany and France) even though countless African-Americans had been lynched by White Americans.
For example, on May 7, 1955, the Reverend George W. Lee, a 52-year-old Baptist minister, grocery store owner and NAACP field worker in Belzoni, Mississippi, was shot and killed at point-blank range while driving in his car after making an unsuccessful bid to vote.
On August 13, 1955 in Brookhaven, Mississippi, Lamar Smith, a 63-year-old African-American farmer and World War I veteran, was shot to death in broad daylight. Smith was murdered in front of several witnesses at close range on the lawn of the Lincoln County courthouse in Brookhaven after casting a ballot.
Both victims had been active in voter registration drives. No one was ever arrested for either murder, even though Jet in its May 26, 1955 issue reported on the lynching of Reverend Lee.
There are countless instances of African-American men, women and children lynched by White Americans who were never held accountable for their crimes. Many of the lynched African-American men were accused, like the 14-year-old Till, of looking at White women or just being in the presence of White women.
Emmett Till was an African-American male born in Chicago on July 25, 1941, the only child of Mamie Till Mobley. During the summer of 1955, Till Mobley sent her son to Money, Mississippi to spend time with her uncle, Moses “Mose” Wright.
There are differing versions of Till’s interaction on August 25, 1955 with Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old White woman who worked in the neighbourhood grocery store, “Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market.”
The stories range from Till smiling at the White woman, whistling, winking or merely looking her in the eye, all of which apparently were hanging offences in the southern states if you were an African-American male.
Keith Andre Beauchamp, who is the driving force behind the documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, reportedly found during his investigation of the case that Carolyn Bryant apparently made up the story to teach her husband a lesson. Apparently, Bryant was incensed that her husband had left her in the store alone.
There are countless instances of African-American men throughout the history of the USA who were lynched on flimsy “evidence”.
The 14-year-old Till was dragged out of Mose Wright’s house by Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy, at approximately 2:30 a.m. on August 28, 1955.
Bryant was accompanied by his half-brother, John William “J.W.” Milam. Three days later on August 31, 1955, Till’s horribly disfigured nude body was taken out of the Tallahatchie River with a 70 pound industrial fan fastened around his neck with barbed wire.
The 14-year-old had been so brutally beaten and tortured that his face was unrecognizable where he had been shot above the right ear, his nose broken and his right eye gouged out.
Surprisingly, for that time and place, a trial was held. Unsurprisingly, Bryant and Milam were acquitted of the murder of Till. A few months later, both murderers gave an interview published in Look magazine (January 24, 1956) where they admitted to committing the heinous crime against Till. The article, titled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi”, was written by William Bradford Huie.
It was Mamie Till’s determined advocacy that contributed to a second investigation many decades later. This feisty woman’s determination also prevented her son’s body being buried in Mississippi, where no one would have seen the evidence of the brutish, barbaric White supremacist culture which permitted and condoned his murder.
Instead, she fought the system, including the sheriff and other Mississippi politicians, insisting that her son’s body be returned to Chicago so the world could see what Bryant, Milam and White supremacy had done to her child.
In an interview just before she transitioned in 2003, Till Mobley spoke about the day she saw her child’s body:
“I looked at the bridge of his nose and it looked like someone had taken a meat chopper and chopped it. And I looked at his teeth because I took so much pride in his teeth. His teeth were the prettiest things I’d ever seen in my life, I thought.
“And I only saw two. Well, where are the rest of them? They had just been knocked out. And I was looking at his ears, and that’s when I discovered a hole about here and I could see daylight on the other side. I said, ‘Now, was it necessary to shoot him?’”
In 2007, Tallahatchie County issued a formal apology to Till’s family which read:
“We the citizens of Tallahatchie County recognize that the Emmett Till case was a terrible miscarriage of justice. We state candidly and with deep regret the failure to effectively pursue justice. We wish to say to the family of Emmett Till that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved one.”
By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)