By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“Over fifty two years ago, on August 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped in the middle of the night from his uncle’s home near Money, Mississippi, by at least two men, one from Leflore County and one from Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. Till, a Black youth from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi, was kidnapped and murdered, and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River. He had been accused of whistling at a White woman in Money. His badly beaten body was found days later in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.
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.
We the citizens of Tallahatchie County acknowledge the horrific nature of this crime. Its legacy has haunted our community. We need to understand the system that encouraged these events and others like them to occur so that we can ensure that it never happens again. Working together, we have the power now to fulfill the promise of ‘liberty and justice for all.’”
Excerpt from the 2007 official apology to the family of Emmett Till from Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. (www.etmctallahatchie.com/images/resolution.gif)
On Sunday, August 28, 1955 at 2:30 a.m., the family of African-American tenant farmer Moses Wright of East Money, Mississippi was rudely awakened by the sound of loud banging on their front door.
When Wright, 64, opened his door, he was confronted by two armed White men, 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his 36-year-old half-brother, John William “J.W.” Milam. The White men demanded entry into Wright’s home to search for his 14-year-old great-nephew, Emmett Till, who they accused of “whistling” at a White woman.
Apparently, Till, who was from Chicago, did not know that even “looking White people in the eye” was a capital offence for which African-Americans in the southern states were routinely lynched. Till, affectionately called “Bobo” or “Bo” by family and friends, was born on July 25, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of Mamie Till. He had celebrated his 14th birthday barely four weeks before the horrific unfolding of August 28, 1955.
In spite of the desperate entreaty of Moses Wright and his wife to spare the child’s life, the two White men entered the bedroom where Till was sleeping and using a large flashlight, searched the room, waking the occupants. They demanded that Till get dressed before kidnapping him at gunpoint (Colt .45 automatic) and bundling him into a car where he was identified by 21-year-old Carol Bryant as the “offender” who had “whistled” at her four days before on August 24, 1955.
On August 31, three days after the 14-year-old was kidnapped from his great-uncle’s house, Till’s horribly disfigured nude body, with a 70-pound industrial fan fastened around his neck with barbed wire, was taken out of the Tallahatchie River.
The teenager 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, there was a trial where not surprisingly, 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 boasted of committing the heinous crime against Till. The article, entitled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi”, was written by White American journalist, William Bradford Huie.
In the 2004 book, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, Mamie Till Mobley wrote about the morning of that fateful Sunday August 28, 1955:
“That call. Early Sunday morning. August 28, 1955. I can never forget that call. And I had so many questions to ask. What men? Why had they come? Where had they taken my boy? What was being done about it? Emmett was missing. Missing in Mississippi. Oh my God. Oh, dear Lord, no. Please no. Don’t let this be happening. The thing I feared most, the thing that had made me take so long to even think about letting Bo make the trip, the thing that kept me immobilized all week long, the most horrible thing any mother could possibly imagine was becoming a reality. I tried to fight back all the things, all the visions that were playing out in my mind. I tried to deny all the things that I could not allow myself to accept.” (www.biography.com/people/emmett-till-507515#synopsis)
I first saw the photograph of the horrifically mutilated face of Emmett Till in an old Ebony magazine when I was a small child. As a child it made no sense to me that the smiling face of the 14-year-old and the grotesquely mutilated face in the coffin was the same person or that he was tortured and killed for whistling at someone (www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAemBpFM1NI).
As an adult I have often wondered if the Bryant/Milam folks went to church right after that savagely murderous attack on a defenseless, unarmed 14-year-old or did they go home and change clothes first.
After all, this lynching did take place in Mississippi, right in the heart of White America’s “Bible Belt”, where White people prided themselves on their adherence to the Christian faith. It was Sunday so as God-fearing Christians at some point they would have gone to church.
The news would have spread swiftly in Money, Mississippi so everyone would know that the “uppity Negro” from Chicago had been taken care of. Were the Bryant/Milam clan welcomed in church with smiles and congratulations on a job well-done accompanied by much back slapping?
It was Mamie Till’s determination that prevented her son’s body being buried in Mississippi, where no one would have seen the evidence of the savage, 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 where 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?’” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1fBwUzcqa0)
In many circles the lynching of Emmett Till is considered the spark that lit the Civil Rights Movement. When Rosa Parks refuted the story that she was tired on December 1, 1955 as the reason she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus she said:
“I thought of Emmett Till, and when the bus driver ordered me to move to the back, I just couldn’t move.”
This quote is immortalized on a marker that was erected in remembrance of Till on May 18, 2011 in front of the store where Till allegedly whistled at a White woman. In 2014 there is America’s first African-American President who must be very cognizant of the fact that if he had been born in 1950s Mississippi as a Black male, he could have suffered the same fate as Emmett Till.
On August 9, 2014 with the killing of Michael Brown, the President must be considering himself very fortunate that he lives in the White House and not in Ferguson, Missouri. Maybe that is why he has not yet visited that beleaguered community where White police seem to be reliving the pre-Civil Rights days!