Sixty years ago Monday, Emmett Till flirted with a white woman to impress his friends — setting in motion his brutal murder that propelled the civil rights movement into action.
The 14-year-old was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he and some other boys, finished picking cotton, stopped Aug. 24, 1955, outside a country store in Money.
The teen, whose mother called him “Bo,” bragged to the other boys that he had a white girlfriend back home in Chicago — and his friends dared him to speak to the woman working behind the counter.
A 12-year-old cousin briefly went inside but left Emmett alone with the woman — the wife of the store’s owner — for about a minute.
Carolyn Bryant, then 21, claimed Emmett had grabbed her, made lewd comments and wolf-whistled at her as he left the store, but cousin Simeon Wright recalled decades later that couldn’t have been possible.
“I don’t know what he said, but when I was in there, he said nothing to her,” said Wright, now 72. “He didn’t have time, she was behind the counter, so he didn’t put his arms around her or anything like that. While I was in there he said nothing, but after we left the store, we both walked out together, she came outside going to her car. As she was going to her car, he did whistle at her. That’s what scared her so bad. The only thing that I saw him do was that he did whistle.”
The boy, whose mother had warned him about the “Jim Crow” South, understood what he had done after he saw how terrified the other boys were and he begged them not to tell his uncle, Wright said.
Bryant told her husband about the incident when he returned home from a business trip a couple of days later, and Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, went early on Aug. 28, 1955, to the home of Emmett’s great-uncle and kidnapped the boy.
“My mother came in there pleading with them not to take Emmett,” said Wright, who had been sleeping alongside his cousin. “At that point, she offered them money. One of the men, Roy Bryant, he kind of hesitated at the idea, but J.W. Milam — he was a mean guy. He was the guy with the gun and the flashlight, (and) he wouldn’t hear of it. He continued to have Emmett put his clothes on. Then, after Emmett was dressed, they marched him out of the house into a truck that was waiting outside. When they got out to the truck, they asked the person inside the truck, ‘Was this the right boy.’ A lady’s voice responded that it was.”
The pair pistol-whipped Emmett in a tool shed and then forced him to carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the back of the Tallahatchie River, where they ordered him to strip off his clothes.
The men continued beating Emmett, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head and dumped his body — tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire — into the river.
His mutilated body was recovered three days later, and his great-uncle was able to identify his remains only by spotting an initialed ring the boy had worn.
Local authorities tried to quickly bury his body, but Emmett’s mother, Mamie Bradley, requested her son’s remains be sent home to Chicago — where she held an open-casket funeral to show the world what had happened to her son.
“She wanted to world to see what those men had done to her son because no one would have believed it if they didn’t the picture or didn’t see the casket,” Wright recalled. “No one would have believed it — and when they saw what happened, this motivated a lot of people that were standing, what we call ‘on the fence,’ against racism. It encouraged them to get in the fight and do something about it. That’s why many say that that was the beginning of the civil rights era.”
The black weekly Jet magazine published a photo of the boy’s disfigured remains, and other publications picked up the story and reported the murder and the brief trial just two weeks later.
Milam and Bryant were acquitted on murder charges Sept. 23, 1955, after jurors deliberated for less than an hour, explaining that the state had failed to prove the identity of the remains, and the state never indicted them on kidnapping charges.
Look magazine paid Bryant and Milam more than $3,600 for an interview about the case, and the men proudly admitted to killing the boy — who they said deserved death for lascivious behavior toward a white woman.
“What else could we do? He was hopeless,” Milam explained in the interview. “I’m no bully; I never hurt a n****r in my life. I like n****rs — 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, n****rs are gonna stay in their place.”
“N****rs ain’t gonna vote where I live,” Milam added. “If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a n****r 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 n****r 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.'”
Milam described how he and his brother-in-law had driven Emmett, who was badly beaten but still defiant, to a steep riverbank — and that’s where the racist white man first felt fear.
“When we got to that (cotton) gin, it was daylight — and I was worried for the first time,” Milam recalled. “Somebody might see us and accuse us of stealing the fan.”
He asked Emmett one more time whether he believed he was as good as a white man, and he said he was, and he asked if he had ever been with a white woman, and he again said he had.
The World War II veteran shot the boy once behind the ear with the .45 he had brought home from the U.S. Army.
Milam and Bryant became pariahs after the interview was published, and each man faced financial trouble for the rest of their lives due to their notoriety.
The boy’s murder came one year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” laws as unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education — and the acquittal of his killers motivated Rosa Parks to remain seated at the front of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus.
“You know, it’s amazing that he is still relevant,” said Wright in a 2009 interview. “Like I said at the beginning, the reason is because of the jury’s verdict. If the jury’s verdict had come in guilty, Emmett would have been forgotten about. But (Emmett’s story) shows people that if we allow lawlessness to go on, if we do nothing to punish those who break the law, then it’s going to get worse.”
“It’s going to get worse, and we can look back and say, look what happened to Emmett,” Wright continued. “He was murdered for no reason, and those in charge did nothing about it. Wherever you have that, whatever city you have that in, it could be in Washington, it could be in New York, where you have murder and crime going on and the people do nothing about it, it’s going to increase and destroy your society.”