(Historical Background)

Part 1

Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Bradley.

First published Apr 1996, reprinted in "Dignity," No. 7, Nov-Dec 1996, pp. 11-14;
© Manfred Helfert, 1996-1998.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use" for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

The Death of Emmett Till
(Words and Music by Bob Dylan)
© 1963, 1968 Warner Bros. Inc
© Renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

'Twas down in Mississippi no so long ago,
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door.
This boy's dreadful tragedy I can still remember well,
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.

On August, 20, 1955, Emmett Till (14 years of age), along with his cousin Curtis Jones (17 years of age) boarded a southbound train in Chicago, Illinois, to visit relatives (Curtis Jones' grandfather and Emmett Till's granduncle, Mose Wright) in Money, Mississippi, a tiny town located in the Delta. Prior to his journey, Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, had cautioned him to "mind his manners" with white people.

She told her boy not to fool with white people down there: "If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly."

Juan Williams, Eyes On The Prize, New York, NY, 1988, p. 41.

Just little over a year ago, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court had ordered all schools desegregated. On May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its 1954 decision, calling for "deliberate speed" in the desegregation of all school in the country, resulting in the organization of White Citizens' Councils by angered Southern whites to counteract the court order.

The Jackson "Daily News" openly declared in an editorial, "YES, WE DEFY THE LAW." Throughout the summer of 1955, coinciding with the blacks' growing political boldness in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling, there had been an alarming increase in the number of violent acts and even murders committed by whites against blacks.

While staying with Moses Wright, Curtis Jones' grandfather (a preacher), Emmett Till and his cousin drove Wright's '41 Ford into Money to buy candy at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market. Emmett made friends with some local boys his age hanging around the store and showed them a picture of a white girl, claiming that the girl in the picture was his "sweetheart."

One of the local boys then dared Emmett Till to speak to the white woman (Carolyn Bryant) in the store. According to Curtis Jones, Emmett went back inside the store and bought more candy, saying "Bye, baby" to the white woman as he left. Curtis Jones, Emmett Till and the other boys jumped in their car as Carolyn Bryant came out the swinging screen doors and sped out of town.

News of the incident quickly spread among the local black youth and Emmett and Curtis were warned to leave town before the woman's husband found out. But a week passed without the threatened retribution.

Then, in the "wee hours of the morning" of August 28, 1955, Mose Wright was awakened by a knock on his door. Upon opening, two white men (later identified as J. W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant) asked him for the "nigger here from Chicago", the boy "that did all the talking." Emmett Till then was abducted at gunpoint. Mrs. Wright, trying to come up for his defense, was struck in the head with the side of a shotgun.

Four days later, Emmett's mutilated body, with a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire, was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie river.

Up until his [Emmett Till's] death, I had heard of Negroes found floating in a river or dead somewhere with their bodies riddled with bullets. But I didn't know the mystery behind these killings then. I remember once when I was only seven I heard Mama and one of my aunts talking about some Negro who had been beaten to death. "Just like them low-down skunks killed him they will do the same to us," Mama had said. When I asked her who killed the man and why, she said, "An evil spirit killed him. You gotta be a good girl or it will kill you too." So since I was seven, I had lived in fear of that "Evil Spirit." It took me eight years to learn what that spirit was.

Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi, New York, NY, 1968, p. 121.

March 1968... "Life" Magazine showed a full-page photo of long-haired Bobbie Gentry walking across the Tallahatchie Bridge, which figured in her song, "Ode to Billie Joe." And some of us did a double take. The location is Money, Mississippi -- a mile or two from where Emmett Till's body was found! Last year, there was a joke among black Americans. They knew what was thrown off that bridge.

Pete Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger, New York, NY, 1972, p. 307.

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.
They said they had a reason, but I can't remember what.
They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat.
There was screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing
sounds out on the street.

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain.
The reason that they killed him there, and I'm sure it ain't no lie,
Was just for the fun of killin' him and to watch him slowly die.

Emmett Till had been stripped naked, beaten, and finally shot through the head with a .45 caliber automatic. Upon seeing his mutilated body (identifiable only by a ring on one finger) prior to the funeral, Emmett's mother decided "that the family's privacy was less important than revealing this atrocity to the world." A photograph of Emmett's body in an open casket was published in "Jet" magazine.

The sight of Emmett Till's mutilated body not only shocked blacks, it drew white attention as well. Even whites normally indifferent to racial problems were appalled at this particular brutal murder of a child... the Till case became a pan-racial, nationwide issue. Newsreel and TV cameras swarmed around the Delta.

Jennie Brown, Medgar Evers: Activist, Los Angeles, CA, 1994, p.109.

In her autobiography, Anne Moody remembers some of the reactions (by Blacks and by white Southerners) following the Till murder:

Reactions by young Blacks:
I was coming from school the evening I heard about Emmet (sic) Till's death. There was a whole group of us, girls and boys, walking down the road headed home... However, the six boys in front of us weren't talking very loud... they were just walking and talking among themselves. All of a sudden they began to shout at each other... "That boy wasn't but fourteen years old and they killed him. Now what kin a fourteen-year-old boy do with a white woman?..." "That boy was from Chicago... He probably didn't even think of the bitch as white." ...I walked up to one of the boys. "Eddie, what boy was killed?" "Moody, where've you been?" he asked me. "Everybody talking about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed... by some white men..."

Moody, pp. 121-122.

Reactions by older Blacks:
But I wanted to ask Mama about Emmett Till... "Mama, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old Negro boy who was killed a little over a week ago by some white men?"
"Where did you hear that?" she said angrily.
"...I heard Eddie them talking about it this evening coming from school."
"Eddie them better watch how they go around here talking. These white folks git a hold of it they gonna be in trouble," she said.
"What are they gonna be in trouble about, Mama? People got a right to talk, ain't they?"
"You go on to work before you is to late. And don't you let on like you know nothing about that boy being killed before Miss Burke them. Just do your work like you don't know nothing," she said. "That boy's a lot better off in heaven than he is here," she continued...

ibid., p. 123.

Reactions by white Southerners:
Anne Moody, who at that time is employed as a domestic servant by "one of the meanest white women in town" (ibid., p. 121) continues:

On my way to Mrs. Burke's that evening, Mama's words kept running through my mind... "Why is Mama acting so scared?" I thought... "Why must I pretend I don't know? Why are these people killing Negroes? What did Emmett Till do besides whistle at that woman?"

ibid., pp. 123-124.

...Mrs. Burke entered the kitchen. "Essie, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed...?" she asked me...
"No, I didn't hear that," I answered, almost choking on the food.
"Do you know why he was killed? ...He was killed because he got out of his place with a white woman. A boy from Mississippi would have known better than that. This boy was from Chicago. Negroes up North have no respect for people. They think they can get away with anything. He just came to Mississippi and put a whole lot of notions in the boys' heads here and stirred up a lot of trouble," she said passionately.
"How old are you, Essie?" she asked me after a pause.
"Fourteen. I will soon be fifteen, though," I said.
"See, that boy was just fourteen too. It's a shame he had to die so soon."

ibid., p. 125.

Anne Moody concludes:

I went home shaking like a leaf on a tree. For the first time out of all her trying, Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me. Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me -- the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears.

ibid., p. 125.

I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders...

But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites.

ibid., p. 129.

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