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Life of Emmett Till

Life of Emmett Till

Emmett Till, a fourteen-year old African-American boy was brutally murdered by two white men in August 1955. His body was mutilated to such an extent that his mother asked for an open casket funeral for the world to see what they had done to her son. Around 50,000 people attended his funeral...
Priya Johnson
On August 28, 1955, fourteen-year old, African-American, Emmett Till of Chicago was brutally murdered by two barbarous men in Mississippi. Roy Bryant and his half brother, John Milam committed this horrifying and gruesome act, in order to punish Emmett for 'wolf whistling' at Bryant's wife, Carolyn. These men dragged Emmett out of his uncle's house and took him away with them. Three days later, Emmett's mutilated corpse was found by some fishermen in the Tallahatchie River. The body was mutilated beyond recognition and it was the ring on his finger that helped identify him.

Emmett's neck had a 75-pound cotton gin fan hanging from a barbed wire. His right eyeball was dislodged, nose crushed, tongue choked out and a large bullet hole in his head. The Funeral Home Director, of Chicago refused to unlock the casket to reveal Emmett's body. However, on the insistence of Emmett's mother they had to open the casket. When Emmett's mother saw what they had done to her son, she insisted the whole world to see what her son had gone through and asked for an open casket funeral. About 50,000 people attended Emmett's funeral.

Emmett Till: Family and Childhood

Emmett was born as the only child to Mamie Carthan and Louis Till, on July 25, 1941 in Chicago. His father, who had joined the army in 1942, was executed on grounds of 'willful misconduct' in 1945. Emmett's mother received a telegram from the Department of Defense, which abruptly mentioned her husband's execution, but nothing else.

Emmett never really knew his dad, since, even while he was alive, he was away serving in the army. He was raised by his mother and grandmother. At the age of six, Emmett was diagnosed with polio, which left him with a stutter. He also wore special shoes to support his weakened ankles. However, he grew into a strong and healthy teenager. Since he was the only child, he shared a special relationship with his mother and often did things to demonstrate his love. He even volunteered to cook and do the housework, while his mother worked to sustain them.


In August, 1955, Emmett and his cousin were sent to Mississippi to spend the summer with their uncle, Moses Wright. Before Emmett left for Mississippi, his mother cautioned him about the way he interacted with white people. She knew that racial tensions in Mississippi were far more than in Chicago. Once the two boys reached Mississippi, they engaged themselves in cotton picking at their uncle's farm.

On August 24, after a day of picking cotton, Emmett, along with six friends went to spend their pennies at Bryant's 'Grocery Store and Meat Market'. Roy Bryant owned the store, however, that day he was away and his wife, Carolyn was running it. Emmett went into the store, bought some candy and soda and on the way out, whistled at her. Somebody yelled out that Carolyn was getting a gun, and so the boys jumped into their uncle's car and disappeared.

When Roy Bryant heard about this incident two days later, he, along with his half-brother began looking for Emmett. On August 28, at 2 am in the morning, Bryant and his brother found Emmett at his uncle's cabin and took him away with them to a cotton plantation. At a barn there, they brutally beat him up and fired shots into his head. After tying a 75 pound gin fan to his neck using a barbed wire to keep his weight down in the water, they flung his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Three days later, on August 31, 1955, Emmett's grotesque body was found by fishermen in the river. Emmett's uncle identified the body to be Emmett's, from the ring on his finger.

The Trial

The trial of Roy Bryant and John Milam began on September 19, 1955 in Mississippi, 24 days after Emmett's murder. Carolyn accused Emmett of holding her by the waist, asking her for a date and using foul language. Emmett's uncle, Moses Wright was one of the main witnesses and was called for identification of Bryant and Milam. Wright was the first black to stand in Mississippi's court of law and testify against a white man.

He was followed by another key witness to the case, Willie Reed, who testified that he had seen the two men taking Emmett to the cotton plantation. He also said that he heard sounds of human cries. However, despite the testimonies on September 23, 1955, an all-white jury (12 males) held Bryant and Milam not guilty and let them go free. Despite Emmett's mother's identification of the body as her son and the ring found on the finger, the jury asserted that the body was not of Emmett Till.

In October, 1955, Roy Bryant and John Milam told the story of the gruesome act to 'Look' magazine for a sum of $4000. However, both these barbarians never faced any trial as long as they lived. Bryan died in 1994 and Milam died in 1980 (both of cancer). Emmett's mother passed away in 2003.

The gruesome murder and acquittal of Emmett's murderers, not only got itself etched into national history, but also spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement. Emmett's mother called him the 'sacrificial lamb' of the Civil Rights Movement. His murder planted the seeds of courage within the African-Americans to fight against racism.

Evidence says that more than a dozen people were involved in Emmett's murder. Based on this, the US Department of Defense, reopened Emmett's case in 2004, 50 years after his murder. Bryant and Milam are dead, but the five people involved with Emmett's murder are still alive. The reopening of the case gives us hope that these five are punished for the barbaric act. Let's pray that justice prevails this time.