61 years ago today, a young African American boy was murdered. Beaten to within an inch of his life, tortured without mercy, and ultimately given a bullet to the head that (I hope) ended his suffering, the fourteen year old was dumped into the Tallahatchie River, a gin fan tied around his neck to weigh down his mangled body. Yet within a few days, the body floated. A White youth spotted the legs sticking up out of the water, reported it to his father, and law enforcement was called in. Emmett Till, who had been missing since the wee hours of that fateful Sunday morning, had finally been found after days of searching.
Emmett was taken from his great-uncle Moses Wright’s home by two White men, J.W. Milam and his younger half-brother Roy Bryant. A Black man may have been with them (Moses divulged that a third man was in the party, one who hid his face from view and ‘acted like a Black man’), as well as a White woman – Roy’s wife, the former beauty queen Carolyn Bryant. She was there to identify the child. It is because of what allegedly happened between Carolyn and Emmett that the teenager was so brutally lynched.
According to witnesses at the time, when Emmett and his cousins were at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi on the evening of 24 August 1955, hanging around, watching a game of checkers, and just being kids. Emmett, known as Bobo or Bo to family and friends, was a known prankster, and something he said caused another youth to dare him to go in and speak to the ‘pretty White lady’ behind the counter in the store. Emmett did so, and whatever occurred between him and Carolyn Bryant can only be speculated at because the entire truth never was fully revealed.
Apparently, Emmett stepped over the boundary line as defined by Jim Crow, breaking a long-standing racial taboo by insulting Carolyn’s White Southern womanhood. Whether he actually placed the money for his purchase – two cents’ worth of bubblegum – directly into her hand, or called her ‘baby’, or forgot to say ‘ma’am’ or whatever, what is known is that Carolyn exited the store for some reason, and when she did, Emmett let go with what his cousins, Wheeler Parker, Jr and Simeon Wright both at that time (and subsequently) called a ‘wolf whistle’.
The incident was quickly forgotten by the teenagers and Carolyn did not mention it except to Juanita Milam, her sister-in-law who was in the living quarters in back of the store at the time of the incident, but someone – quite possibly a Black trying to keep in good with the Bryants, hoping to cadge a favor in the form of store credit perhaps, told Roy Bryant when he came back to town from a business trip. Roy was incensed, ready to defend the womanhood of his wife against this Northern marauder. He fetched his older half brother, J.W., and the two, along with the Black man who was never properly pinpointed by anyone involved in the case and Carolyn herself, went to Moses Wright’s home that early Sunday morning to snatch Emmett in the night.
Though both J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were brought up on charges of kidnapping and murder, they were acquitted of all charges and a few months later, bragged to a writer from Look magazine, William B. Huie, about their roles in the torture-murder, for which they were evidently paid several thousand dollars. They claimed that Emmett boasted of his prowess with White women, that he had been with plenty before,and also that he was just as good as they were. I find that article hard to swallow. A young kid in the hands of men he knows are out to harm him, crowing about having relations with White women when he knows that whatever happened between him and Carolyn in the store that night was ‘wrong’ by Jim Crow standards?
In the end, J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant, and whoever else may have been involved in the crime that awful Sunday morning – Leslie Milam, Levi ‘Too Tight’ Collins, Henry Lee Loggins, maybe even one or two others – brazenly got away with murder.