Emmett Till, an African American adolescent, was taken, subjected to brutal torture, and ultimately lynched in Mississippi in 1955 when he was only 14 years old. This horrific act was triggered by an accusation of disrespecting Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who owned a grocery store, during a visit to his relatives in Mississippi.
Till was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Still, during his summer break in August 1955, he found himself visiting family members in Money, Mississippi, located in the Mississippi Delta region. There, he had an encounter with Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman who was married and ran a small grocery store.
The exact details of what transpired in the store are subject to dispute, but Till was accused of engaging in flirtatious behavior, making physical contact, or whistling at Bryant. Unknowingly, Till violated the unspoken societal norms governing interactions between black males and white females in the racially segregated South of the Jim Crow era.
After the incident at the store, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, armed themselves and went to the residence of Till’s great-uncle. There, they abducted Emmett and transported him to a different location.
Subsequently, they subjected him to a severe beating, mutilation and eventually shot him in the head. Finally, they disposed of his body by sinking it in the Tallahatchie River. The young boy’s disfigured and swollen corpse was discovered and recovered from the river three days later.
Till’s remains were repatriated to Chicago, where his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on organizing a public funeral service featuring an open casket. This decision served to expose not only Emmett Till’s grotesquely mutilated body but also the world to the harsh realities of American racism, lynching, and the flaws and vulnerabilities of American democracy.
Emmett Till, The Boy from Chicago
Emmett Till came into the world in 1941 in the city of Chicago. His parents were Mamie Carthan (1921–2003) and Louis Till (1922–1945). Mamie Carthan, born in Webb, Mississippi, which is a small town in the Delta region, moved with her family to Argo, Illinois, near Chicago, when she was two years old.
This relocation was part of the Great Migration, a movement of black families from rural Southern areas to the North, seeking refuge from violence, limited opportunities, and discriminatory treatment.
Argo became known as “Little Mississippi” due to the significant influx of Southern migrants. Mamie’s mother’s home often served as a temporary shelter for newcomers seeking employment and housing.
The Allegation of What Emmett Till Did
On August 21, 1955, Till arrived at the residence of Mose and Elizabeth Wright in Money, Mississippi. On the evening of August 24, Till, accompanied by several young relatives and neighbors, including his cousin Maurice Wright, went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to purchase candy.
The group of youngsters, who were children of sharecroppers and had been laboring in the cotton fields all day, were driven to the store.
Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market primarily catered to the local sharecropper community and was owned by a young white couple, Roy Bryant, 24, and his wife, Carolyn, 21. On that particular day, Carolyn was alone at the front of the store while her sister-in-law Juanita Milam watched over the children in the back.
Outside the store, a few other local young individuals played games or observed a checkers match on a board set up by the Bryants.
The exact details of the events that unfolded inside the store remain a subject of debate. According to journalist William Bradford Huie, Till allegedly displayed a photograph of a white girl from his wallet to the youths outside the store, boasting that she was his girlfriend.
However, Till’s cousin Curtis Jones disputed this account, stating that the photograph depicted an integrated class at the school Till attended in Chicago. In his 2009 book, another cousin of Till, Simeon Wright, who was present during the incident, challenged the narratives put forth by Huie and Jones.
According to Wright, Till did not possess a photo of a white girl, and no one dared him to interact flirtatiously with Carolyn Bryant. In a 2015 statement, Wright clarified, “We didn’t dare him to go to the store—the white folks said that. They said that he had pictures of his white girlfriend. There were no pictures. They never talked to me. They never interviewed me.”
What Did Emmett Till Say To Carolyn Bryant?
According to accounts from Simeon Wright and Wheeler Parker, Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant. Wright believed that Till was attempting to elicit laughter from their group, as he was known for his playful nature.
However, Wright immediately became alarmed by the act, stating that they had never encountered anything like it before and were shaken by the audacity of a black boy whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, given the prevalent presence of the Ku Klux Klan and night riders in their daily lives.
It should be noted that Till sometimes whistled to alleviate his stuttering and to help with his articulation.
During the subsequent murder trial, Bryant testified that Till had grabbed her hand while she was stocking candy and made advances towards her, using inappropriate language and boasting about his previous encounters with white women.
She also alleged that one of Till’s companions had entered the store, pulled him away, and ordered him to leave. However, historian Timothy Tyson revealed in a 2008 interview that Bryant admitted her testimony about Till’s actions was false.
She acknowledged that he had not made any physical or verbal advances toward her. Bryant stated, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Nevertheless, conflicting reports exist regarding whether Bryant made this specific statement.
Simeon Wright, who was present then, disputed Carolyn Bryant’s account during the trial. He claimed that he entered the store shortly after Till was left alone with Bryant and witnessed no inappropriate behavior or lewd conversation.
According to Wright, Till paid for his items, and they left the store together. The FBI’s investigation of the case in 2006 also found a second anonymous witness who supported Wright’s version of events.
Devery Anderson, an author, highlights inconsistencies in Bryant’s various versions of the encounter. In an interview with the defense’s attorneys, Bryant described an initial encounter that involved Till grabbing her hand and asking her for a date.
Still, he omitted the more extreme details mentioned during the trial. Anderson suggests that these embellishments may have been constructed later as part of the defense’s legal strategy. Evidence and statements from witnesses indicate that Till’s remarks to Bryant angered his eventual killers rather than any alleged physical harassment.
After Till and his companions left the store, Carolyn Bryant went outside to retrieve a pistol from a car. Till and his group saw her actions and promptly left. While it is acknowledged that Till whistled during this time, one witness, Roosevelt Crawford, claimed that the whistle was not directed at Bryant but at a checkers game outside the store.
Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, was away on a trip until August 27, hauling shrimp to Texas. Historian Timothy Tyson discovered that civil rights activists concluded Carolyn Bryant initially did not inform her husband about the encounter with Till.
Instead, Roy learned about it from a person who frequented their store. Reportedly, he was angered by his wife’s failure to disclose the incident. Carolyn Bryant told the FBI that she did not tell her husband because she feared he would assault Till.
After being informed of the incident involving Emmett Till, Roy Bryant aggressively interrogated several young black men who entered his store. That night, Bryant, accompanied by a black man named J.W. Washington, approached a black teenager walking along a road.
Bryant instructed Washington to apprehend the boy, place him in the back of a pickup truck, and take him to be identified by someone who had witnessed the encounter with Till. The boy’s friends or parents verified his innocence in Bryant’s store, and the witness denied that he was the one who had accosted her.
However, Bryant somehow discovered that the boy involved was from Chicago and was staying with Mose Wright. Overheard conversations revealed Bryant and his half-brother, John William “J.W.” Milam, discussing the plan to take Till from his house.
In the early morning of August 28, 1955, between 2 and 3:30 a.m., Bryant and Milam drove to Mose Wright’s residence. Milam carried a pistol and a flashlight. Milam asked Wright if there were three boys from Chicago in the house.
Till was sharing a bed with another cousin, and eight people were in the cabin. Milam requested Wright to lead them to “the ni**er who did the talking.” Till’s great-aunt offered them money, but Milam refused, urging Emmett to dress quickly. Mose Wright informed the men that Till was not familiar with local customs because he was from up north.
Milam allegedly asked Wright, “How old are you, preacher?” and Wright replied, “64.” Milam threatened Wright, saying that he wouldn’t live to see 65 if he disclosed anything. The men escorted Till to the truck.
In a 1956 interview with Look magazine, during which they confessed to the murder, Bryant and Milam mentioned their initial plan to bring Till to the store for Carolyn to identify him. Still, they claimed they abandoned the idea because Till admitted speaking to her.
Emmett Till was bound and placed in the back of a green pickup truck as they drove toward Money, Mississippi. Some witnesses reported that they returned to Bryant’s Grocery and enlisted the help of two black men. Together, they proceeded to a barn located in Drew.
Till was subjected to a brutal beating during the journey, rendering him unconscious. Willie Reed, who was 18 years old at the time, witnessed the truck passing by. Reed remembered seeing two white men in the front seat and “two black males” in the back.
It has been suggested that the two black men may have been coerced into assisting Milam with the assault, although they later denied being present.
As Reed was walking home, he heard the sounds of beating and crying emanating from the barn. He informed a neighbor, and they both returned to a water well near the barn. There, Milam approached them and inquired if they had heard anything.
Reed replied with a “No.” Others who passed by the shed also heard shouting. A local neighbor noticed Milam at the rear of the barn, washing blood off the truck, and observed Till’s boot. Milam claimed that he had killed a deer and that the boot belonged to him.
The Lynching and Death of Emmett Till
During an interview with William Bradford Huie, which was later published in Look magazine in 1956, Bryant and Milam revealed their original intentions regarding Till. They admitted that their plan was to beat Till and frighten him by throwing him off an embankment into the river.
According to their account to Huie, as they were beating Till, he insulted them, calling them bastards and proclaiming that he was as good as they were. Till also claimed to have engaged in sexual encounters with white women.
After the beating, they placed Till in the back of their truck and drove to a nearby cotton gin to obtain a 70-pound (32 kg) fan. They admitted feeling concerned during this time, fearing they might be caught stealing in the early daylight.
They then proceeded to drive along the river for several miles, searching for a suitable location to dispose of Till. Ultimately, they shot him by the river and used the fan as a weight to submerge his body.
According to Milam, in an interview with the Look magazine in 1956
“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a ni**er in my life. I like ni**ers—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, ni**ers are gonna stay in their place.
Ni**ers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a ni**er gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him.
Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that ni**er throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”
Mose Wright anxiously waited on his front porch for twenty minutes, hoping for Till’s return. He couldn’t bring himself to go back to bed. Determined to locate Till, he joined another man and ventured into Money, acquiring gasoline for their search.
Despite their efforts, they were unable to find Till. By 8:00 am, they returned home, their search yielding no results. When Curtis Jones learned that Wright was reluctant to involve the police out of fear for his own safety, he took it upon himself to contact the Leflore County sheriff.
In addition, Jones reached out to his own mother in Chicago to inform her of the distressing situation. Upon receiving the distressing news, Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett’s mother, was deeply distraught.
In the meantime, Wright and his wife Elizabeth traveled to Sumner, where Elizabeth’s brother sought assistance from the sheriff.
Three days after being abducted and murdered, Till’s body was discovered by two boys who were fishing in the Tallahatchie River. The sight they encountered was horrifying: Till’s body was swollen and disfigured. His head had suffered severe mutilation, and he had been shot above his right ear.
One of his eyes had been forced out of its socket, indicating the extent of the violence inflicted upon him. Evidence of beatings on his back and hips was apparent, and his body had been weighted down with a fan blade secured around his neck with barbed wire.
Till’s lifeless form was unclothed, except for a silver ring bearing the initials “L. T.” and the date “May 25, 1943” carved into it. The trauma his face had endured and the submersion in water made it unrecognizable.
Mose Wright called to the river and had the heartbreaking task of identifying his young relative. The silver ring was carefully removed from Till’s finger and returned to Wright. It was then handed over to the district attorney as crucial evidence in the case.
The Trial for the Murder of Emmett Till
Following Emmett Till’s disappearance, news of his death spread through a three-paragraph story published in The Greenwood Commonwealth, which was then picked up by other newspapers in Mississippi. The reports detailed the discovery of his body.
The following day, a photograph of Till and his mother, captured during the previous Christmas and showing them happily together, was published in the Jackson Daily News and Vicksburg Evening Post. In response, editorials and letters expressing outrage and condemnation towards those responsible for Till’s death flooded the newspapers.
One letter emphasized that the downfall of Mississippi society was not due to African Americans but rather the white individuals affiliated with White Citizens’ Councils who condoned violence.
Till’s body was clothed, treated with lime, placed in a pine coffin, and prepared for burial. It is possible that it underwent embalming while still in Mississippi. Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett’s mother, strongly insisted that her son’s body be sent to Chicago.
She actively worked to prevent an immediate burial in Mississippi and contacted local and state authorities in Illinois and Mississippi to ensure that her son would be returned to Chicago.
Mississippi’s governor at the time, Hugh L. White, expressed his strong condemnation of the murder of Emmett Till and called for local authorities to pursue an active and determined prosecution. In a telegram sent to the national offices of the NAACP, Governor White assured them that a thorough investigation would be conducted, emphasizing that such conduct was not condoned in Mississippi.
The residents of the Delta region, regardless of their race, also distanced themselves from Till’s murder, finding the circumstances appalling. Local newspaper editorials unequivocally denounced the perpetrators of the crime.
Deputy Sheriff John Cothran of Leflore County affirmed the collective anger and indignation among the white population, stating that they were deeply disturbed by the horrendous treatment inflicted upon the young boy and that they would not tolerate such acts of violence.
The defense team argued that the prosecution’s version of events on the night of Till’s murder was highly unlikely, suggesting that the jury’s “forefathers would turn over in their graves” if they convicted Bryant and Milam.
In Mississippi, for capital murder, there were three possible outcomes: life imprisonment, the death penalty, or acquittal. On September 23, the all-white, all-male jury (excluding women and blacks due to the prevailing discriminatory practices) acquitted both defendants after a brief deliberation of only 67 minutes.
One juror even remarked that the deliberation would have been shorter if they hadn’t taken a drink break.
Opinions regarding the outcome of the trial varied in subsequent analyses. Mamie Till Bradley was criticized for her perceived lack of sufficient tears while testifying. The jury selection process was scrutinized as it primarily drew jurors from the hill country section of Tallahatchie County, where competition between whites and blacks for land and agricultural opportunities created tensions.
Historian Stephen Whitaker observed that the population closer to the river, who held a more benevolent outlook toward blacks, was not well-represented on the jury, unlike the eastern part of the county, characterized by intense racism.
The prosecution faced criticism for dismissing potential jurors who personally knew Milam or Bryant, fearing they would lean towards acquittal. Whitaker later noted that this approach was flawed since those who knew the defendants typically harbored negative sentiments towards them.
One juror initially voted twice for conviction but ultimately aligned with the rest of the jury to acquit during subsequent discussions.
In later interviews, some jurors admitted knowing that Bryant and Milam were guilty but did not believe that life imprisonment or the death penalty were appropriate punishments for white men who had killed a black man.
However, as late as 2005, two jurors maintained their belief in the defense’s case, asserting that the prosecution had not sufficiently proven Till’s death or that the body recovered from the river was his.
In November 1955, a grand jury chose not to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping, despite their own admissions of taking Till. Mose Wright and witness Willie Reed, who testified to seeing Milam enter the shed where screams and blows were heard, appeared before the grand jury.
Following the trial, T. R. M. Howard covered the relocation expenses for Wright, Reed, and another black witness who testified against Milam and Bryant, ensuring their safety and protection from potential reprisals.
Reed, who later changed his name to Willie Louis to avoid detection, resided in the Chicago area until his death on July 18, 2013. He maintained a low profile and kept his involvement in the case hidden from his wife until a relative informed her. Reed began speaking publicly about the case in the 2003 PBS documentary “The Murder of Emmett Till.”
Later Incidents and Deaths of the Murderers of Emmett Till
Till’s murder intensified the fears within the local black community, as they became increasingly concerned about potential violence without legal protection.
Deloris Melton Gresham, whose father was also killed a few months after Till, described the prevailing sentiment at the time, stating that it was believed that “it’s open season on n*****s” and that perpetrators could get away with their crimes.
After Bryant and Milam confessed to killing Till in their interview with Huie, their support dwindled in Mississippi. Former friends and supporters, including those who had contributed to their defense funds, distanced themselves from them.
Black individuals boycotted their businesses, causing them to go bankrupt and shut down, while banks refused to grant them loans for crop planting. After facing difficulties in securing a loan and finding someone willing to rent to him, Milam managed to obtain land and a loan to plant cotton but encountered difficulties hiring black workers who refused to work for him.
As a result, he had to pay higher wages to white workers.
Eventually, Bryant and Milam relocated to Texas, but their notoriety followed them, and they continued to face animosity from locals. In 1961, while in Texas, Bryant recognized the license plate of a resident from Tallahatchie County and tried to greet them and identify himself. Still, the resident drove away without speaking to him. After several years, they returned to Mississippi.
Milam worked as a heavy equipment operator until declining health forced him into retirement. Throughout the years, he faced legal troubles, including charges of assault and battery, writing bad checks, and using a stolen credit card. He passed away from spinal cancer on December 30, 1980, at the age of 61.
Bryant worked as a welder in Texas until his worsening eyesight prevented him from continuing in that occupation. At some point, he and Carolyn divorced, and he remarried in 1980. He opened a store in Ruleville, Mississippi.
Bryant was convicted of food stamp fraud in 1984 and 1988. In a 1985 interview, he denied killing Till, despite admitting to it in 1956, but remarked, “if Emmett Till hadn’t got out of line, it probably wouldn’t have happened to him.”
Fearing economic boycotts and potential retaliation, Bryant lived a secluded life, avoiding photographs and keeping the exact location of his store undisclosed, stating concerns about the possibility of harm. He died of cancer on September 1, 1994, at the age of 63.
In June 2022, an arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant (now known as Carolyn Bryant Donham), which had never been served, was discovered by Emmett Till Legacy Foundation members in a courthouse basement.
The warrant was dated August 29, 1955, and signed by the Leflore County Clerk. Upon this discovery, Till’s family called for Donham’s arrest. However, the district attorney decided not to pursue charges against Donham, stating that there was no new evidence to reopen the case.
In 2022, a 99-page memoir titled “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle” was obtained by NewsOne from an anonymous source. The memoir was originally given to the University of North Carolina with the intention of it being held privately until 2036.
The memoir had been prepared by Donham’s daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant, who shared the material with Timothy Tyson under the assumption that he would edit the memoir. However, Tyson claimed that no such agreement had been made.
The memoir was eventually placed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill library archives, where access to it was restricted for twenty years or until Donham’s death.
Carolyn Bryant Donham passed away on April 25, 2023, at the age of 88.
RIP Emmett Till.
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