Truth for Emmett Till

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Written by C.W.S.

Warning: Includes graphic racial language and violence

The woman whose testimony led to the acquittal of two white men in the brutal 1955 murder of a 14-year-old black teenager, Emmett Till, has admitted on record that she fabricated her story. This infamous case, which contributed to the growing Civil Rights Movement, has been detailed in a new book called The Blood of Emmett Till, which includes an interview that took place ten years ago with Carolyn Bryant, the woman who claimed that Emmett sexually harassed her.  

When Emmett left his home in Chicago to visit some relatives the town of Money, Mississippi, he was traveling into a state that one week before saw black activist Lamar Smith shot dead for political organizing in Brookhaven. He was traveling into a state where 500 black folks had been murdered since the late 1800s, and though these acts of violence had slowed, the tone of the area was still one of intensive segregation and intimidation. Interracial relationships, and even the implication of sexual contact between black and white folks, held severe legal consequences for black men.

 Emmett Till

Emmett Till

Emmett was known as a sharp dresser and was often the center of attention. After meeting his mother’s 64-year-old uncle Mose Wright and hearing about the South, Emmett decided he wanted to see the Mississippi Delta area. His mother warned him that race relations were different in the South than they were in the North, and that he needed to be careful about how he acted around white folks. He told her he understood.

On Sunday, August 24th, Emmett and some local boys skipped church and went over to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant, both in their 20s. There the boys bought candy from Carolyn Bryant, who was in the store alone. Later, Carolyn Bryant would testify under oath that Emmett had sexually harassed her, first grabbing her hand while she was stocking a shelf, saying "How about a date, baby?"

In her story, Emmett then followed her toward the front of the store and grabbed her around the waist, saying "What's the matter baby, can't you take it?" He allegedly told her, "You needn't be afraid of me, baby,” and told her, "I've been with white women before.” One of Emmett’s friends then apparently grabbed him by the arm and led him outside, while Carolyn Bryant ran outside and grabbed a pistol from her car. Then she said that Emmett let out a “wolf whistle” at her while fleeing the scene.

When Carolyn’s husband Roy Bryant returned from a shrimping trip on August 27th, she allegedly let him know what had happened in the store, and he began aggressively questioning black folks in his store and around the neighborhood until he was able to discover that Emmett was staying with Mose Wright. In the early morning hours of August 28th, Roy and Carolyn Bryant, along with Roy’s half brother J. W. Milam, drove to Mose’s. Armed with a pistol and carrying a flashlight, Milam and Bryant pushed into the house, threatened Mose and his wife with the pistol, and found Emmett sleeping in a bed with his cousin. They forced him at gun point to put on his clothes, and then forced him toward the vehicle. Carolyn Bryant confirmed that this was indeed the young boy that had harassed her.

 Emmett and his mother, Mamie

Emmett and his mother, Mamie

Emmett was tied up and put into the back of the pickup. After dropping off Carol, the two men picked up two black men, Henry Lee Loggins and Leroy Too Tight Collins, who worked for Bryant. They were forced to participate in the brutality that followed. Till was pistol-whipped in the truck and knocked unconscious.

In a barn in Drew, Mississippi, the four men brutalized Emmett, while several witnesses overheard. In an interview with Look magazine the next year, the men would claim that they had only wanted to beat up Emmett to scare him, but that when he claimed that he was as good as a white man, and spoke about having sexual encounters with white women, they decided he needed to be killed:

“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a n----- in my life. I like n------ in their place—I know how to work 'em. 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, n------ are gonna stay in their place."

The men shot Emmett in the back of his head and then threw his body over the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora into the Tallahatchie River, his body weighed down with a 70lb fan from a cotton gin.

Soon after, Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping after admitting to police that they had taken Emmett from Mose’s yard, but said they released him in front of Bryant's store. Three days later Emmett’s body was found by two boys who were fishing. Emmett’s head was so badly disfigured it was unrecognizable.

 Mamie at Emmett's funeral

Mamie at Emmett's funeral

Newspapers began to report on the story, and op-eds began to run about Emmett’s murder: "Now is the time for every citizen who loves the state of Mississippi to 'Stand up and be counted' before hoodlum white trash brings us to destruction." Articles claimed that it was not black folks that were a danger to society, but the white men that made up organizations like White Citizens' Councils that encouraged violence against minorities.

Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, chose to have an open casket funeral. She wanted the world to be forced to bare witness to the true horror of her son's brutal murder. When the image of Emmett's disfigured face was published on the cover of Jet Magazine, it helped rally some of the public into organizing for equal rights. It also helped lead to the indictment of Bryant and Milam for murder.

During jury selection, both black folks and women were barred from participating. It took an all-white, all-male jury less than an hour to come back with a not-guilty verdict for murderers. A jury member was quoted as saying: “We wouldn't have taken so long if we hadn't stopped to drink pop.”

In the same interview with Look Magazine quoted above, Bryant and Milam freely admitted to killing Emmett and were given $3,000 for the interview. They knew they would be protected from being tried a second time because of double jeopardy laws. The two men have since died.

Now, author Timothy B. Tyson is experiencing both praise and anger for his newly released book that revealed Carolyn Bryant’s confession. It has been ten years since he met with her and she told him the truth. She told him that Emmett made no sexual comments toward her, and did not touch her. Carolyn Bryant told him, "Nothing that boy did could justify what happened to him." 

When asked to recall what really happened the day that Emmett came into the store, Carolyn Bryant said, “Honestly, I'd like to tell you, but I can't remember. It was more than 50 years ago.” She also said she felt “tender sorrow” for Mamie Till, who worked her whole life as an activist for civil rights and died in 2003.

 J. W. Milam, his wife Juanita, and Roy and Carolyn Bryant at the courthouse

J. W. Milam, his wife Juanita, and Roy and Carolyn Bryant at the courthouse

Mamie’s cousin Airickca Gordon-Taylor, who is also a spokesperson for the family, was angered by the fact that the author never bothered to tell the family of the confession. She also said of the revelation: “There are people who have died in the last 10 years whose lives were very impacted by what happened in 1955....that disturbs me.” She also stated “‘We are all upset about Timothy Tyson waiting 10 years. It was a marketing strategy and all of this is just publicity for his book. No one should buy this book.”

Emmett’s cousin Wheeler Parker, one of the boys who was present at the time of the kidnapping, had this to say about Carolyn Bryant: “My family thinks she’s trying to make money but being a preacher, I think she is trying to find a way to go heaven now.”

Whatever the motivation, the public now finally knows the truth that many suspected all along. Emmett Till was entirely innocent of even the smallest wrong-doing, and through systemic racism he was brutally murdered and his murderers died free men. Airickca Gordon-Taylor hopes to keep the memory of Mamie alive through her own activism, saying: “Mamie Till dedicated her life to working with young people. I am going to continue to keep her legacy and to do what Mamie Till would have wanted us to do….I am going to continue to educate people who don’t know the story.”