What Happened to Emmett Till

Emmett Till

Emmett TillFrom Chicago to Mississippi

Born in 1941, Emmett was fourteen years old when he visited family in Money, Mississippi, staying with a great-uncle, Moses Wright. Emmett planned to spend the summer and help with share-cropping cotton. This was 1955, and segregation was part of its culture and mindset.

Emmett was from Chicago and no doubt did not understand the racially-charged Mississippi culture, even though his mother, reportedly, tried to warn him before he headed south. The story line tells us he visited a store where he (depending on which account one reads) flirted with, whistled at, made comments to, OR propositioned Carolyn Bryant (Donhan), a 21-year-old white clerk. She, in turn, reported his behavior to her then husband Roy Bryant who, along with his half-brother Milam, kidnapped him three days later. They beat Till, gouged out his eyes, shot him, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River on August 28, 1955. Several days later, his body was found, so disfigured it could not be recognized save for the ring he was wearing. [If you don’t believe me, go to the link at the end of this article and look at the documentary of photos.]

Showing the world

The horror of what happened to her son caused his mother to let the world see. She insisted on an open casket so there was no speculation as to what was done to her son. His face was so disfigured it could hardly be recognized.

This past August, it was sixty-five years. The case has been brought to trial and re-opened several times. Even though Ms. Bryant later recanted her version of what happened, the family of Emmett never felt justice for the wrongful death of the teenager.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

While it’s quite possible Emmett Till did flirt with the young woman, and while it’s possible he wolf-whistled her, the torture he received was unjustified and unwarranted. How many women today can deny ever being gawked at, wolf-whistled at, or even had attempts at flirtation? Sexual harassments suits have been brought – and many won- for indecent behavior.

When we are treated as property or a thing for a fling, it’s insulting and degrading. Sometimes it’s frustrating, and sometimes it is frightening. When these things happen, it is wrong.

Yet, can we admit that what Till’s teen behavior might have been at worst  did not justify the lynching at the hands of two men in the Mississippi community? Indeed, both men later admitted to the crime, after being acquitted by an all-white jury.

Some sources state Donham later recanted her story. She is quoted as saying, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

So what am I to do with this story today? How much of it is true, and how much is twisted (by either side)?

Facts must be included in history

The fact remains that a young boy was tortured and murdered by two men who chose to “take the law” into their own hands. They committed a crime, and the reason was most likely more about the color of skin than about a flirtation. In all accounts, they were wrong.

I cannot imagine the pain this boy’s mama experienced. Can you imagine what it is like to view the body of your murdered son and see the atrocities done to him? Can you feel the pain of not being able to recognize your own son?

Rosa Parks, the woman who refused to relinquish her seat in the colored section to a white person as ordered by the bus driver, credits the death of Emmett Till for her reason to not give in. Happening that December day just four months after the murder of Till, Rosa Parks stood her ground. Horrible as his death was, it helped start the Civil Rights Movement.

I’m telling this story about Emmett Till because it was new to me.  We learned about Rosa Parks in school, but where was I when history class told this story – or was it never told? How did I miss this story, or was it dismissed as insignificant at best and embarrassing at worst?!

Looking Back

This story is part of America’s past. We cannot change the past, and truly, we can only go forward. Yet going forward involves recognizing and claiming (as painful as it is) the past.

Emmett Till’s mama did something with her pain. She caused the entire world to see what was so wrong. His mama had a purpose and she turned her pain into good. She could not change what happened and though she never forgot, she forged ahead with purpose.

The men who admitted to this crime? One of them did not want it mentioned. Even when he moved for a time to get out of Mississippi, it followed him there.

Roy Bryant said, “Emmett Till is dead. I wish he would stay dead.”

For the remainder of their lives, they lived with what they did because of their hatred. Like a haunting shadow waiting to pounce, the horror of a crime known to the world danced around them their entire lives. Click To TweetNeither Bryant nor Milam could ever escape its presence. What a way to live – and die.

Moving forward

No matter where we go, people do us wrong. This we know: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

This I also know:

  • bitterness enslaves us
  • untruthfulness paralyzes us
  • moving forward happens when we acknowledge the past
  • forgiveness releases those who harbor bitterness
  • the ground is level at the Cross, where there is enough blood for us all.

Pinterest Emmett Till

You can click on the following links to read more about the story. You can also Google and find many more articles about this event.


Daily Journal

The News Observer

Timothy Tyson


Documentary. This is an 8:27 minute documentary with original photos of this story’s coverage. If you do nothing else after reading this post, watch this documentary.