By Davis W. Houck, Professor, Florida State University and first published on theconversation.com.

The U.S. federal government is again investigating the case of Emmett Till’s murder, the Department of Justice has announced, bringing optimism that some measure of justice might ultimately prevail.

Nearly 63 years after he was kidnapped, brutally tortured, murdered and then dumped into the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, the Till case continues to resonate with audiences around the world because the case represents an egregious case of justice denied.

As an historian of the Mississippi civil rights movements, I quickly learned that most Mississippi civil rights history leads back to the widespread outrage over the Till case in the summer of 1955.

Emmett in Money

Fourteen-year-old Emmett arrived in Mississippi on August 20th, 1955, from Chicago to visit his mother’s family, who sharecropped cotton in the tiny Delta community of Money.

On the evening of Aug. 24, Emmett and several cousins and neighbors drove the 2.8 miles into Money to buy candy at the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market.

Emmett entered the store alone. He bought two cents worth of bubble gum and left. At the door, Emmett let out a loud, two-note wolf whistle directed at white 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant. His cousins were terrified: Emmett had just hit the trip wire of Southern racial fears by flirting with a white woman.

Early on August 28th, several men – white and black – took Emmett from his family’s house. Emmett’s badly decomposed and battered body was discovered three days later in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett’s uncle could only identify Emmett by a ring he was wearing that once belonged to Emmett’s father, Louis Till.

Two white men, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, were quickly arrested and later charged with murder. During a five-day trial in September, the two men were found not guilty after a 67-minute deliberation by an all-white, all-male jury.

Several years later, members of the jury confessed to a Florida State University graduate student, Hugh Stephen Whitaker, that they knew the men were guilty but simply wouldn’t convict a white man of crimes against a black child.

In 1956, Milam and Bryant sold their “shocking true story” of what happened to Till for $3,150 to Look Magazine. For nearly 50 years, Celebrity journalist William Bradford Huie’s “confession” story in Look functioned as the final word on the case.

Till then and now

Southern newspapers wanted immediately to forget the Till story, ashamed of the backlash caused by Milam and Bryant’s “confession.” Many northern and western newspapers editorialized on the case long after its conclusion. America’s black press never quit writing about the case; it was their work, after all, helping to track down black eyewitnesses in September 1955 that helped us understand the truth of what actually happened to Emmett Till on August 28th, 1955.

Thanks to investigative work by documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp and others, the public has since learned that Milam and Bryant were part of a much larger lynching party, none of whom were ever punished.

Today, all of the people directly involved in Till’s murder are dead – save for one: Carolyn Bryant Donham. Eighty-four years old and living with family in Raleigh, North Carolina, FBI investigators and federal prosecutors have had their eyes on Bryant-Donham for several years. Whether she was a willing participant in Till’s kidnap and murder or, as her family claims, she tried to protect Emmett from harm, she remains the focus of the announcement from the Department of Justice.

The Till case continues to resonate, especially for a nation which still experiences the all-too-frequent and seemingly unprovoked deaths of young black men. Whether it’s the Bay County, Florida murder of Martin Lee Anderson or the Sanford, Florida killing of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till’s murder powerfully represents myriad acts of white-on-black killing that have gone unpunished. The Black Lives Matter movement might have received a jolt from the shooting death of Michael Brown, but long before Ferguson there was Money, Emmett, and a whistle.

2 COMMENTS

  1. They sure waited a long time to do it, to seek justice, so why now, all of a sudden? I thought that I had read somewhere about the white woman that supposedly said the black boy whistled at her, had lied, and I read that she admitted on her death bed that she had indeed lied about Emmitt whistling and flirting with her, after all those long decades had passed by. But this article indicates that the white lady, is still alive. You can’t always believe the things that you read are indeed factual on the internet, on some of these articles.

  2. I looked up the community of Money, Miss. on the Bing Maps. It indicates that it is and unincorporated area and has a population of less than a 100 residents today, down from 400 residents back in the 1950’s when a cotton mill operated there. It is along the railroad lines, and yes, I see the Tallahatchie River there on the maps too, although on the map, the river is not real close to Money. The murderers must have killed the boy and then transported his body to the river. It is sad, that there are people, just plain out and out evil, walking this earth, among us, that are capable of such horrific acts of cruelty and pure evil.

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