And The Battle Continues: An Essay by Sean E. Ali

Emmett Till should have turned 79 today.

Till was just 14 years old when he was abducted and brutally murdered because of an accusation by Carolyn Bryant, the white married proprietor of a small grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Till was accused of flirting with or whistling at Bryant. In 1955, Bryant testified Till made aggressive physical and verbal advances towards her which deviated from her original story. The jury did not hear the judge ruled that her testimony was inadmissible and the jury never heard it. In an interview given in 2008, Bryant admitted that she had falsified part of the testimony, specifically the part where she accused Till of grabbing her waist and uttering obscenities, saying “that part’s not true” on the record.

His murderers, Carolyn’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, claimed they were innocent of the crime and they were acquitted by an all white jury. The decision by the jury was rendered after a 67-minute deliberation. It was reported that one juror said, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

A year later, with assurances that they were protected from double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam admitted that they had indeed lynched and murdered Till, saying that they had originally intended to beat him and toss him off an embankment into the Tallahatchie River, but allege that Till “forgot his place” by calling them bastards, claiming he was as good as they were, and he had been sexually active with white women…

Again, at the time of his death, Till was only 14-years old.

Over the years, Bryant and Milam would change their stories and vacillate between admitting they killed Till to denials of having done anything depending on their circumstances. But in the interview with LOOK Magazine, Milam stated:

“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—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, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger 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 nigger 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.”

The murderers had involved two black men in Milam’s employ, Levi “Too Tight” Collins and Henry Lee Loggins who may have been direct witnesses to the lynching and murder of Till. The prosecution was unaware of their involvement prior to the trial and the sheriff, Clarence Strider, had both men arrested and jailed to make sure they weren’t accessible to serve as witnesses for the entirety of the trial. Strider would also do his part to cloud the issue by changing his definite identification of Till when his bloated and mutilated body was pulled from the river after being tossed over the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora.

It should be noted that during the trial Sheriff Strider regularly welcomed black spectators coming back from lunch with a cheerful, “Hello, Niggers!”

Because he was a polite, classy guy.

Strider also suggested later that the recovered body had been planted by the NAACP. He speculated the corpse had been stolen and Till’s ring placed on it to solidify identification. Strider changed his account after his comments were published in the press, later saying: “The last thing I wanted to do was to defend those peckerwoods. But I just had no choice about it.”

Identification was difficult due to the state of the body when it was found. Till’s head was very badly mutilated, he had been shot above the right ear, an eye was dislodged from the socket, there was evidence that he had been beaten on the back and the hips, and his body weighted by a fan blade, which was fastened around his neck with barbed wire. He was nude, but wearing a silver ring with the initials “L. T.” and “May 25, 1943” carved in it. His face was unrecognizable due to trauma and having been submerged in water.

Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted that Till’s body not be buried in Mississippi, but returned to her in Chicago. The officials in Mississippi were trying to rush bury Till to put the issue to rest; they had already packed Till’s body in lime and had him in a pine box when they were compelled to comply with Till Bradley’s request to return the body to her. It’s been said that when the body reached Chicago and was opened at the funeral home to be identified before preparing the body for burial, the stench was said to be detectable at least two blocks away from where it was. Till Bradley, based on the condition of her son’s body decided to have an open casket funeral saying: “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” Images of Till were published in the black and white periodicals of the day and received worldwide attention with regard to the caste system and institutionally backed racism, and racially biased brutality brought to bear against Black Americans.

The counter charge by the officials with a vested interest in maintaining segregation and perceived white racial superiority was that groups like the NAACP were instigating discord and not interested in race related social justice as much as being agitators attempting to “radicalize” the local black community. There were conspiracy theories, reports of riots in the area and vandalism that didn’t happen but were meant to influence public reaction by misrepresenting the intent of outside groups who took an interest in Till’s death and the greater racial and social issues that were raised by it…

…sound familiar?

The admission of Bryant and Milan that they did, in fact, Lynch and murder Till changed their fortunes in an ironic way. The community turned on them despite their nearly unanimous support despite the overwhelming evidence they had a hand in the crime. Both men were compelled to relocate to Texas and take up new professions.

Milam tried to return to farming after his business was boycotted and he was forced to close. He secured a loan and got land, but was unable to coerce any of the black workers, who were the primary labor force in that line, to come and work for him. He’d eventually have to pay higher wages to secure white workers which led to financial problems that closed the new farm. He moved to Texas to try for a fresh start but his reputation and infamy followed him. He eventually returned to Mississippi where he’d be tried for various offenses like writing bad checks, credit card fraud, and assault and battery…

…for folks needing a modern day counterpart to relate: see George Zimmerman.

Roy Bryant’s store where Till encountered his wife leading to the murder was boycotted by the black community (who turned out to be the majority of his customers) and was forced to close it and file for bankruptcy. He’d later move to Texas, have his reputation and infamy make him return to Mississippi where he’d eventually divorce his wife, and open a new store where he would get caught and convicted for food stamp fraud a couple of times. He gave an interview in the 1980s In a 1985 interview, he denied that he had killed Till, but said: “if Emmett Till hadn’t got out of line, it probably wouldn’t have happened to him.” Bryant wanted to avoid the boycotting of his new store so he lived a private life and refused to be photographed or reveal the exact location of his store, explaining: “this new generation is different and I don’t want to worry about a bullet some dark night.”

A couple of years before he died, in 1992, Bryant was interviewed about his involvement in Till’s murder. Bryant was unaware that Till’s mother had been invited to listen in on the conversation in another room so he would feel comfortable to speak freely. During the interview, he asserted that Till had ruined his life. Expressing no remorse, Bryant reportedly said, “Emmett Till is dead. I don’t know why he can’t just stay dead.”

Till’s death is said to have been the tipping point that would inspire what would become the Civil Rights Movement because it was one of the first cases that showed how deeply ingrained racism was and how swiftly local governments and the white community moved to protect his murderers based on the racial component being that “white is right” above all else.

A battle that’s still being fought 65 years later come August.

Incidentally, just last month a bill to make lynching a federal crime, was blocked by a single Republican Senator.

And the battle continues.

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