Murder in Money: The Death of Emmett Till As Catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement
Money. Rural Mississippi, 1954. A whistle. Then a murder. This, however, was not a murder over money, but rather in Money, a tiny one-shop town, whose primary inhabitants were sharecroppers, a throwback to antebellum times. That general store was owned by the Bryant family, whose owners included twenty-one year old Carolyn Bryant, a former beauty queen whose good looks were well-known around those parts.
It was that fateful day, when a fourteen year old boy from Chicago named Emmett Till came down to spend a few weeks visiting with relatives. He stayed along with several of his cousins at his great-uncle Mose “Preacher” Wright’s home, in a nearby section of town exclusively populated by blacks. Unbeknownst to young Emmett, there was an unwritten “code” in rural Mississippi: it was well known in the Jim Crow South that there were certain things a black male – be it a young child, or an adult man – just did not do. The list was long, and extensive. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, warned him before he boarded the train from Illinois that such “black codes” still existed. In fact, she feared a great deal for her son’s safety, and was reticent to even allow him to Mississippi.
Nonetheless, the young Till was insistent, and as was unsurprising to those who knew him, he exuded a confidence in adolescence that made him fearless. However, street smarts in Chicago would only get a young black man so far in rural Money. Though 700 miles apart geographically, the two locales were more like a million miles apart sociologically, racially, and culturally.
There were unspoken rules Emmett would need to acquaint himself with that were prevalent throughout the South at this time, and most black men were acquiescent, if not downright submissive to the white race’s presupposed dominance. Some of the rules included: not making eye contact with a white woman; deference in speaking, with simple phrases of “Yes, ma’am,” and “no, ma’am;” and interracial dating or intermarriage was more than faux pas; it was absolutely forbidden, and considered to be miscegenation. Southern politicians at the time railed against the dangers of the impending “mongrelization” of the races were intermarriage to occur.
Young Till violated all of the societal norms, at least in the eyes of Bryant and Milam, the half-brothers who perpetrated the unspeakable horrors after an innocent “wolf-whistle” that Till purportedly made at Bryant’s wife when leaving the store that fateful day in Money. Little did any of them know, but this would be the catalyzing event that would spark the nascent Civil Rights movement in the United States, dramatically altering race relations and the fabric of our very nation for decades to come.
Accounts vary as to what exactly Emmett Till said or did that day at Milam’s store, as he went in alone to buy some candy. By some witness’s statements, he put his arm around her waist and asked for a date. Others say he wolf-whistled at her as they left. Yet others, still, say he simply touched her hand when making change, which in itself was considered an egregious violation of the sanctity and purity of the Southern white woman, whose frailty prevented her from defending herself. In the Jim Crow South, he should have put his change down on the counter so as to avoid any potential for impropriety.
Irrespective of how the events transpired inside the store, the response was swift: Bryant ran out to her car to fetch her revolver, and Till and his friends quickly leapt into their automobile and fled. Little did they realize that they were about to unleash a hurricane, one which would spur a movement on a scale never before seen in American history.
One must first understand not only the juxtaposition between Till’s upbringing in Chicago vis-?Ã¯Â¿Â½-vis life in the Jim Crow South, but also understand the overarching framework of Southern power philosophy and black repression. By the time the Reconstruction period ended, a reconstruction of race relations in the South saw the genesis of the Southern white mythology of “the black rapist.” Fed by fears of miscegenation propagated by politicians, writers, and newspaper editorial boards, the myth was perpetuated that “marriage or sexual intimacy with blacks would degrade and eventually extinguish Anglo-Saxon civilization itself.”
By the time the Brown v. Board of Ed. decision was handed down in 1954, the preservation of Southern “white patriarchy seemed to require the suppression of even the most insignificant challenges to its authority;” thus the mythologizing of black men as savages, rapists, and lustful for white women. With a strong sense of “honor” identity in white Southern society, appealing to the basest instincts of a father, brother, or husband so as to defend the honor of his daughters, sisters or wife proved to be very effective. The lawlessness that prevailed would ultimately result in thousands of lynchings across the South. Few would resonate as much as that of Emmett Till.
Following the incident at the Bryant shop, Till and his cousins decided not to tell Mose Wright about what happened. Carolyn Bryant decided, similarly, to hide the story from her husband, but one of Till’s companions that day leaked the information to him. Enraged, Bryant “enlisted the aid of his half-brother, G.W. Milam, and went in the middle of the night to Mose Wright’s home, where Till was staying, and abducted him. Though details after that are murky, Till never returned. After a perfunctory and nonchalant search effort by local authorities, only days later did some teen boys fishing stumble upon his bloated and mutilated corpse in the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a 100-lbs. gin mill fan fastened around his neck with heavy barbed wire.
More notable than the response of local law enforcement and the community of Money – who were, unsurprisingly, unconcerned – was that of Mamie Till Bradley, young Emmett’s mother. By 1948, there were more than one million homes with television sets in the United States. Bradley, whose grief was most unbearable at the loss of her only child, decided to leverage mass media communications to convey images of this grave injustice around the world. “Tills mother, Mamie Bradley, made plans for a public four-day funeral that would make national headlines and transform the lynching of Emmett till into a national scandal.” Some estimates range from 10,000 – 50,000 people attended his services over those four days. Bradley’s insistence on an open casket service was meant to display the grotesquely battered state of her son, and she allowed the black press to take photographs of him as he lay dressed in a tuxedo. These images would resonate in media outlets around the entire world.
Jet magazine played an integral role in transmitting the grave and barbaric imagery of Till’s corpse, especially in light of its presence as the preeminent Afro-American-centric publication of the time. Reaching a nationwide audience, the graphic image of Till’s disfigured face in his open casket horrified – and galvanized – the black community nationwide. Juxtaposed with the bright, smiling image of Till a few months before his death, the images “of a child grieved over by a good and respectable middle-class mother made for particularly effective photographs, not only as anti-lynching images, but as catalysts for a whole generation of black people who felt propelled into an active fight for civil rights.”
In response to the New York Amsterdam News’ decision to place Till’s funeral picture top of fold, front page, one community member wrote to the editors, “Congratulations to your paper for putting the picture of the Till boy on the front page so the whole world can see what goes on inside Mississippi.” Other responses from around the nation – and the world – were similarly supportive.
In addition to her decision to have an open casket at Till’s funeral, Bradley even went so far as to send telegrams to President Eisenhower, urging him to take action on civil rights; he never responded. Similarly, black organizations utilized the black press as another means to heighten the awareness of the Till lynching to the upper echelons of the U.S. government, but still to no avail. Camille Carter of the NAACP appealed to Eisenhower directly via the Pittsburgh Courier, referring to Till’s death as “one of the most barbaric crimes ever perpetrated by racists and bigots… to perpetuate white supremacy.”
Till’s lynching was the first great media event of the civil rights movement and produced the largest amount of visual documentation ever. Many regarded it as the opening shot of the civil rights movement, a collective political mobilization that demanded full citizen rights for all blacks. It was only three months later that Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on the bus.
T. R. M. Howard of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, had spoken on the brutal slaying of Emmett Till as King’s guest at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church only four days before Parks’ arrest. Parks was in the audience and later said that Emmett Till was on her mind when she refused to give up her seat.
It was not simply the media’s portrayal of Till’s victimized body that helped to catalyze the Civil Rights Movement; the media also played a prominent role in the court trial that took place once Bryant and Milam were apprehended for his murder. Newspapers all over the nation, and world, gave front page coverage to the proceedings once they began in Sumner, Mississippi. In addition to a press corps of nearly 70 newspapermen, “the three major television networks flew planes daily to a field in Tutwiler (seven miles away) to pick up film for editing and showing in New York.” What ensued hereafter would merely be a prelude to what many in the black community around the country knew would be a farcical, perversion of justice. One local, befuddled by all of the attention their tiny hamlet had garnered, remarked to a newspaperman, “[nodding] in the direction of the Tallahatchie [and pointed out]: ‘That river’s full of niggers.'” Local press in the predominantly white controlled regions of the South echoed the sentiments of the locals. Some were even openly hostile to all of the tumult surrounding the court proceedings. “The Yazoo City Herald [wrote] ‘Through the furor over the Emmett Till case[,] we hope someone gets this over to the nine ninnies who comprise the present United States Supreme Court. Some of the young negro’s blood is on their hands, also.”
Other newspapers and Southern politicians accused the whole Emmett Till case as a communist plot; or else, a scheme devised by the NAACP to rabble rouse and stir up resentment in order to drive a wedge between the white and black communities of the South. In their eyes, the status quo must be preserved. Immediately from the outset of the court hearings, the defense team of Milam and Bryant would seek to instill doubt in the jurists’ minds that it was not even Till’s body that was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, further perpetuating the myth that this was another young man’s body, planted by the NAACP. Their campaign of misdirection and sowing the seeds of doubt obviously worked; it took a mere sixty-three minutes for the jury to acquit the two men on all charges. In an interview in the late 1990s, Ray Tribble, the youngest of the jury pool in his 20s, commented to journalist Richard Rubin, “‘That body,’ he told me, his voice assuming a didactic tone, ‘had hair on its chest. And everybody knows,’ he continued, that ‘blacks don’t grow hair on their chest until they get to be about 30.’
Other doubts were cast that the body was so badly decomposed, no one would be able to identify, though Till’s mother did. Another recognizable feature was the gold ring found on his finger, engraved with the initials, “LT,” for his father, who had left the ring to Emmett upon his death. Nevertheless, the seeds of doubt were incessantly fertilized throughout the trial. Even Tallahatchie County sheriff Strider testified – strikingly – for the defense, and claimed in his testimony, “that the notorious NAACP had plotted Till’s so-called killing, and that Till himself was happily living in Detroit.”
In his closing arguments, attorney for the defense John Whitten “told the jurors he was sure “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that pressure.” That comment is strikingly similar to that made, in the early 1900s, by several prominent politicians who warned of the degradation of “Anglo-Saxon civilization.” Later, in a 1995 interview with Richard Rubin, defense attorney Whitten somewhat apologetically admitted, “I guess you could say I was playing the race card.”
The national press responded with shock and indignance at the acquittal of Bryant and Milam. The Crisis reported, “Not since Pearl Harbor has the country been so outraged as by the brutal, insensate lynching… and the unconscionable verdict of the Sumner, Mississippi jury.” Jet advertised a large community meeting featuring Emmett Till’s cousin, who was one of the witnesses during the trial:
‘More than 10,000 persons jammed an NAACP mass meeting at Chicago’s Metropolitan Community Church where lanky Willie Reed, 18-year-old cotton picker who became the trial’s star witness, urged northern Negroes to quit shouting and begin working to help their people in the South.’ This is also a demonstration of the trial becoming a call to action by members of the black press to the black community at large.
Thus we are beginning to see how watershed a moment the lynching of a child for a crime as simple as whistling at a white woman — and the subsequent acquittal of the perpetrators by an all-male, all-white jury – would galvanize blacks all around the nation. To say that this was not the spark that lit the smoldering powder keg of pent up, black repression, would be to deny history. Emmett Till’s martyrdom incited the likes of Rosa Parks, Septima Clark, and Dr. Martin Luther King. His martyrdom fomented a people to start a movement that would inexorably alter the course of human justice, the natural rights of man, and equality for not just people of different races, but of different genders, income levels, and religions.
As Mamie Till Bradley so succinctly put it, “The death of my son can mean something to the other unfortunate people all over the world. Then for him to have died a hero would mean more to me than for him just to have died.”