Emmett Till would have been seventy-two today: nothing particularly remarkable in that—many people live into their eighth decade and beyond nowadays. It is the use of the third conditional—help me out Wendy! —which provides a clue to an incredible story. Emmett Till did not live to be seventy-two, because on 28th August 1955, the fourteen year-old was brutally murdered.
The black teenager, who was born in Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when, on 24th August, he reported “flirted” with a young woman who was the joint-owner of a grocery store.
The lady in question was named Carolyn Bryant, she was twenty-one—and she was white.
It is hard to be certain what exactly happened whilst Emmett bought bubble gum in the shop—some accounts suggest he wolf-whistled at Carolyn, others that he touched her arm. Whatever the truth, the consequences would be horrific.
A few days later, Carolyn’s husband Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped the youngster and handed out a brutal beating, before shooting Emmett in the head and throwing his body—which was weighed down with a heavy fan tied round his neck with barbed wire—into the Tallahatchie River.
The corpse was recovered three days later, the face mutilated beyond recognition; in fact, Emmet was only identified because he was wearing a ring that his mother had given to him, before his trip. The teenager’s body was taken to Chicago, where his mother decided to have an open-casket funeral, allowing her son’s terrible injuries to be displayed to the thousands who flocked to pay their respects.
It’s hard to believe that the suspects were subsequently tried before an all-male, all-white jury and despite some truly astonishing bravery of a number of black witnesses—including Moses Wright and Willie Reed (who died as recently as last Thursday)—who openly identified the attackers in court, the defendants were duly found not guilty after a paltry sixty-seven minutes of deliberation.
Protected by double jeopardy laws, Bryant and Milam not only admitted the killing early the following year, but actually sold their story to a magazine for $4,000. I haven’t the words to explain how I felt after reading that.
A matter of months after Emmett was slaughtered, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus—an action that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott—and, although it took many years until the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, Mamie Till realised that despite the pain of losing her son in such shocking circumstances, ultimately his death was not in vain.
For me, a world in which someone could not only justify, but glorify the killing of a black teenager is hard to accept— that this world existed less than sixty years ago is totally beyond my comprehension, but I would like to take this opportunity to remember Emmett Till on this, his seventy-second birthday.