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Till, Emmett Louis free

(25 July 1941–28 Aug. 1955),

Till, Emmett Louis free

(25 July 1941–28 Aug. 1955),
  • Stephen J. Whitfield

A version of this article originally appeared in African American National Biography.

lynching victim, was born near Chicago, the son of Louis Till, a soldier, and Mamie Elizabeth Carthan, a clerical worker. After completing the seventh grade in an all-black elementary school on the South Side of Chicago, “Bobo” Till was sent on vacation to the Mississippi Delta in late summer 1955. His hosts were his great-uncle, Moses Wright, a sharecropper, and Wright's wife, Elizabeth.

On the evening of 24 August, after a week of visiting, the fourteen-year-old Till joined seven other black teenagers for a trip to Money, a hamlet in Leflore County. There, he entered a store owned and operated by Roy Bryant, a twenty-four-year-old former soldier who was momentarily absent, and his wife, Carolyn Bryant, the twenty-one-year-old mother of their two sons. She was five feet tall and weighed 103 pounds. Witnesses disagreed about what happened next, but apparently a couple of the adolescents began taunting Till, daring the five-foot four-inch, 160-pound Chicagoan to ask Mrs. Bryant for a date. Rather than evade the challenge, he bought some bubble gum, then, according to Mrs. Bryant's testimony, he firmly squeezed her hand and asked: “How about a date, baby?” When she immediately withdrew from him, she claimed Till jumped between two counters to block her path, raised his hands, and held her waist, reassuring her, again according to testimony that she later gave in court: “Don't be afraid of me, baby. I ain't gonna hurt you. I been with white girls before.” Mrs. Bryant also testified that he used “unprintable” words. It was then that one of Till's cousins rushed in and dragged him from the store, as Mrs. Bryant ran to get a pistol. As the group drove away, she testified, Till exclaimed, “Bye, baby,” and “wolf-whistled” at her.

According to Roy Bryant, two days after the alleged incident, a black customer informed him of this breach of Jim Crow etiquette. Claiming later that his sense of honor had been violated, Bryant asked his half brother, J. W. “Big” Milam, a thirty-six-year-old veteran of World War II, to accompany him the next night to punish the northern visitor. Armed with pistols, Bryant and Milam drove in Milam's pickup truck to the Wrights' shack, abducted Till, and pistol-whipped him. Then, near Glendora, Till was forced to tie himself to a cotton gin fan that would weigh his body down just before he was murdered and dumped into the Tallahatchie River.

Although an indictment of whites for such a crime was very rare in Mississippi, all five lawyers practicing in the county seat of Sumner volunteered to represent the defendants pro bono, an offer that Bryant and Milam accepted. A month after the murder, perhaps seventy reporters from major newspapers and magazines covered their trial, at which the defendants were acquitted by a jury of their peers—twelve white men. Despite Mamie Till's wrenching testimony and Moses Wright's identification in court of the two abductors, the jurors needed little more than an hour to reach their decision, which sent shock waves of editorial criticism and black protests throughout the country as well as abroad. The crime and the exoneration later affected writers and musicians as important and diverse as novelists Toni Morrison and James Baldwin (both of whom wrote plays about it), scenarist Rod Serling (who wrote a television drama), singer Bob Dylan (who wrote a song), and poet Gwendolyn Brooks (who wrote a ballad).

Because the victim was so young, because the infraction of the segregationist code seemed to outsiders so minor, and because the culprits were freed while the U.S. Department of Justice declined to intervene, the case exposed, like no other episode, the vulnerability of the region's blacks. The sense of black precariousness in the rural South helped to spur the civil rights movement. That assault against Jim Crow was facilitated when the intensity of the southern commitment to preserve its “way of life” was revealed. The brutality of Bryant and Milam and the communal support they commanded helped to erode the arrangement of white supremacy that they believed themselves to be reinforcing. Their crime made sense only in terms of a caste system that they took for granted, and yet paradoxically the murder was especially appalling because that system was already beginning to collapse. The intricate intermingling of tradition, race, and caste was entering a phase of decomposition, heightened by the growing realization of the anachronism of such violence during the cold war struggle for the support of the emerging Third World. Till's death became notorious because it intersected the antinomies of black and white, male and female, urban and rural, North and South, old and new, and native and stranger.

Further Reading

The papers of William Bradford Huie, the journalist who cracked the case by paying the acquitted defendants to recount their crime in Look magazine, are deposited at Ohio State University.

  • Huie, William Bradford. Wolf Whistle (1959).
  • Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta (1988)