Emmett Till (1941-1955) was a 14-year-old black boy who whistled at a white woman and was savagely beaten and killed. That was in 1955 in Mississippi in the American South. The two men who killed him were white. They walked free.
Emmett Till lived in Chicago, his mother’s only child. She sent him down south to Money, Mississippi to spend two weeks during the summer with his cousins.
One day he and his 12-year-old cousin walked into the Bryant Grocery Store. The owner’s 21-year-old wife, Carolyn Bryant, was there. The cousin said Till whistled at her. Once he whistled they ran. Till liked to play pranks.
In Bryant’s account, Till took her arm and said, “How about a date, baby?” She broke free and he came behind the counter, put his hands on her hips and said, “What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it?” He said things too obscene to repeat. He told her not to be afraid, that he had been with white women before.
Just then, as she tells it, another coloured fellow entered the store, took Till by the arm and led him out. Outside the store Till made another obscene remark. She went to her car to get her gun and they ran off.
Three days later two white men came in the middle of the night and took away Till at gunpoint. The men were Roy Bryant, the husband, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam.
Four days after that Till was found dead in the Tallahatchie River north of town, his head wired to a big, heavy cotton gin fan.
The body was sent back to Chicago to his mother. His face was gone, his head partly crushed, his left eye hanging out of its socket. Only a ring told her that it was her son.
His mother had an open casket funeral so that everyone could see the savage thing that had been done. Jet magazine printed pictures, pictures burned into the brain of probably every grown black American of the time:
The NAACP called it a lynching, but unlike most lynchings this one went to trial.
Bryant and Milam were arrested. The trial lasted five days. It took the jury of white men one hour to come to a verdict: Not guilty. Bryant and Milam, knowing they could not be retried, later told Look magazine that they did it.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady and a leading white liberal of the day, said maybe the jury was not sure the body was Emmett Till’s, that maybe the accused could still be put away for kidnapping, something they had confessed to. They never were.
Earlier that year in Mississippi Lamar Smith and George Lee were killed. They were black men who had been registering blacks to vote. Unlike Till’s death, theirs never became big news.
Emmett Till’s mother said,
My son was a sacrificial lamb, he was sent to play a special role and I don’t think he died in vain.
Ten weeks later Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man.
– Abagond, 2011.