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The tragedy that launched the civil rights movement

GRIEF: Mamie Till Bradley grieves for her son next to the open casket that allowed thousands of people to see his brutalised body

MONEY. RURAL Mississippi, 1955. A whistle. Then a murder.

This, however, was not a murder over money, but rather in Money, a tiny town whose primary inhabitants were sharecroppers, a throwback to antebellum times.

The main shop in town was owned by the Bryant family, including 21-year-old Carolyn, a former beauty queen whose good looks were well-known around those parts.

It was that fateful day, when a 14-year-old boy from Chicago named Emmett Till came down to spend a few weeks visiting with relatives.

He stayed, along with several of his cousins, at his great-uncle Mose Wright’s home, in a part of town exclusively populated by black people.

Unbeknownst to young Emmett, there was an unwritten “code” in rural Mississippi: it was well known in the Jim Crow South that there were certain things a black male just did not do. The list was long, and extensive. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, warned him before he boarded the train from Illinois that such “black codes” still existed.

PERVERSION OF JUSTICE: Teenager Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955 and his killers were acquitted by an all-white jury

In fact, she feared a great deal for her son’s safety, and was reticent to even allow him to go to Mississippi.

Nonetheless, Till was insistent, and as was unsurprising to those who knew him, he exuded a confidence in adolescence that made him fearless.


But street smarts in Chicago would only get a young black man so far in rural Money. Nearly 600 miles apart geographically, they were more like a million miles apart sociologically and culturally.

There were unspoken rules throughout the South at this time, and most black men were acquiescent, if not downright submissive to the white race’s presupposed dominance.

Some of the rules included: not making eye contact with a white woman; deference in speaking, with simple phrases of “Yes, ma’am”, and “no, ma’am”; and interracial dating or intermarriage was more than faux pas – it was absolutely forbidden, and considered to be miscegenation.

Young Till violated all of the societal norms, at least in the eyes of Roy Bryant and JW Milam, inset, the half-brothers who perpetrated unspeakable horrors after an innocent “wolf-whistle” that Till purportedly made at Bryant’s wife when leaving the store that fateful day in Money.

Accounts vary as to what exactly Emmett Till said or did on August 28 at the Bryant store, as he went in alone to buy candy.

By some witnesses’ statements, he put his arm around her waist and asked for a date.

Others say he wolf-whistled at her as they left. Yet others say he simply touched her hand when making change, itself considered an egregious violation of the sanctity and purity of the white woman.

He should have put his change down on the counter so as to avoid any potential for impropriety.

Irrespective of how the events transpired inside the store, the response was swift: Bryant ran out to her car to fetch her revolver, and Till and his friends quickly leapt into their automobile and fled.

Till and his cousins decided not to tell Mose Wright about the incident.

Carolyn Bryant decided, similarly, to hide the story from her husband, but one of Till’s companions that day leaked the information to him.

Enraged, Bryant enlisted the aid of his half-brother, JW Milam, and went in the middle of the night to Mose Wright’s home, where Till was staying, and abducted him.

Though details after that are murky, Till never returned. After a perfunctory and nonchalant search effort by local authorities, only days later did some teen boys who were fishing stumble upon his bloated and mutilated corpse in the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a 70lb fan fastened around his neck with barbed wire. More notable than the response of local law enforcement and the community of Money – who were unconcerned – was that of Mamie Till Bradley, young Emmett’s mother.

By the mid-1950s, millions of Americans had television sets in their homes.

Bradley, whose grief was most unbearable at the loss of her only child, decided to leverage this new mass media to convey images of the grave injustice around the world.

She made plans for a public four-day funeral that would make national headlines and transform the lynching of her son into a national scandal.

Estimates say around 10,000 to 50,000 people attended his services over those four days.

Bradley’s insistence on an open casket service was meant to display the grotesquely battered state of her son, and she allowed the black press to take photographs of him as he lay dressed in a tuxedo.

These brutal images would resonate around the world.

Jet magazine played an integral role in transmitting the grave and barbaric imagery of Till’s corpse, especially as the pre-eminent Afro-American centric publication of the time.

Reaching a nationwide audience, the graphic image of Till’s disfigured face in his open casket horrified – and galvanised – the black community nationwide.

CIVIL RIGHTS: Dr Martin Luther led the movement for civil rights in the wake of outage over Till’s death

Juxtaposed with the bright, smiling image of Till a few months before his death, the images “of a child grieved over by a good and respectable middle-class mother made for particularly effective photographs, not only as anti-lynching images, but as catalysts for a whole generation of black people who felt propelled into an active fight for civil rights”. In addition to her decision to have an open casket at Till’s funeral, Bradley even sent telegrams to President Eisenhower, urging him to take action on civil rights; he never responded. Till’s lynching was the first great media event of the Civil Rights Movement.

Many regarded it as the opening shot of the civil rights movement, a collective political mobilisation that demanded full citizen rights for all blacks.

It was only three months later that Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on the bus.

TRM Howard of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership had spoken on the brutal slaying of Emmett Till as Dr Martin Luther King’s guest at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church only four days before Parks’ arrest.

She was in the audience and later said that Emmett Till was on her mind when she refused to give up her seat.

It was not simply the media’s portrayal of Till’s body that helped to catalyse the Civil Rights Movement; the media also played a prominent role in the court trial that took place once Bryant and Milam were apprehended for his murder.

Newspapers all over the nation, and the world, gave front page coverage to the proceedings once they began in Sumner, Mississippi.

What ensued would merely be a prelude to what many in the black community around the country knew would be a farcical, perversion of justice.

Southern politicians accused the whole Emmett Till case as a communist plot; or a scheme devised by the NAACP to stir up resentment in order to drive a wedge between the white and black communities.

In their eyes, the status quo had to be preserved. From the outset of the court hearings, the defence team for Milam and Bryant would seek to instil doubt in the jury’s minds that it was not even Till’s body that was pulled from the river, further perpetuating the myth that this was another young man’s body, planted by the NAACP.

Their campaign of misdirection and sowing the seeds of doubt worked; it took a mere 63 minutes for the jury to acquit the two men on all charges.

The national press responded with shock and indignation at the acquittal.

The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine, reported: “Not since Pearl Harbour has the country been so outraged as by the brutal, insensate lynching... and the unconscionable verdict of the Sumner, Mississippi jury.”

The lynching of a child for a crime as simple as whistling at a white woman – and the subsequent acquittal of the perpetrators by an all-male, all white jury – would galvanise blacks all around the nation.

To say that this was not the spark that lit the smouldering powder keg of pent up black repression, would be to deny history.

His martyrdom inspired a people to start a movement that would inexorably alter the course of human justice, the natural rights of man, and equality for not just people of different races, but of different genders, income levels, and religions.

As Mamie Till Bradley so succinctly put it: “The death of my
son can mean something to the other unfortunate people all over the world. Then for him to have died a hero would mean more to me than for him just to have died.”

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