The photo of Emmett Till has become part of American lore. It depicts a young Black teenager — innocent but flashing a level of sophistication beyond his years — dressed nattily in a white shirt and loosened thin black tie with a fedora atop his head. His expression is open, confident but not cocky, joyously looking out onto the world from a life he couldn’t possibly know would be cut so brutally and senselessly short. The picture was snapped by his mother on Christmas Day of 1954 when he was 13, a mere eight months before he was killed in a savage abduction, torture, and lynching.
With the release on October 14 of “Till,” which tells the true story of Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley‘s (played by Oscar contender Danielle Deadwyler) relentless pursuit of justice some 67 years after the event that lent considerable fuel to the nascent civil rights movement, there is renewed interest not only in the horrible reality of what happened but in recalling who the lad was.
Born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago and raised primarily in the Windy City, Emmett was the son of Mamie Carthan and Louis Till. Mamie had been born in the small town of Webb, Mississippi, moving with her family to Argo, Illinois, near Chicago as part of the Great Migration of rural black families from the south to the north to escape violence and persecution. She married Louis Till but separated in 1942 when she caught him cheating. There were later charges of abuse as well. Louis was ultimately executed in 1945 for the murder of one woman and the rape of two others.
From these already traumatic beginnings, Emmett contracted polio at six years old, leaving him with a persistent stutter. His mother remarried in 1951 and moved with her new husband to Detroit. But Emmett opted to stay in Chicago and returned there to live with his grandmother until the following year, when Mamie separated and divorced again and rejoined her son on Chicago’s South Side. In the ensuing years, Mamie’s second ex would stalk her, causing Emmett to threaten him with a butcher knife. Not exactly a happy-go-lucky young childhood. But Emmett reportedly was mostly a fun-loving prankster who loved playing pickup baseball and had a large circle of family and friends. He was also a sharp dresser, as his iconic teen photo makes clear.
In the summer of 1955 Emnmett’s great uncle Mose Wright visited he and Mamie in Chicago and arranged to have his great nephew accompany him on a trip to the tiny Mississippi Delta town where he lived. On August 24 Emmett and his cousin Curtis Jones, along with some local boys who had been picking cotton in the hot sun all day, went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in the town of Money, owned by 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his 21-year-old wife, Carolyn Bryant. Her husband was away that day, but Carolyn was joined in the store by her sister-in-law. What transpired will never be fully known. Supposedly, Emmett either wolf-whistled at, flirted with, or touched the hand of Carolyn Bryant, or grabbed her around the waist while aggressively flirting — or some combination thereof.
Four days later, at around 2:30 in the morning on August 28, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam abducted Till from Mose Wright’s home. They reportedly tortured Emmett, shot him in the head, and shoved his body into the Tallahatchie River. Mamie defiantly insisted on an open-casket funeral so as to force the country to see what had been done to her son, making sure such unconscionable brutality could no longer be ignored. The photo of Till’s body would be emblazoned on the cover of Jet magazine, arousing intense reaction the world over.
During the subsequent murder trial, Bryant testified that Emmett Till grabbed her hand while she was stocking candy in the grocery store and began making verbal passes at her. She would much later recant her trial statements, admitting in a 2008 interview that her sworn claims of verbal and physical advances had been fabricated.
That trial, held in September 1955, resulted in a quick acquittal from the all-white, all-male jury. Both defendants were found not guilty after an appallingly short 67-minute deliberation. One juror noted, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
The new feature film follows Mamie Till’s quest to gain any measure of justice for the murder of her son (played in the film by Jalyn Hall), an event whose reverberations continue to be felt today. That proved true as recently as this past summer. In August, a grand jury in Mississippi declined to indict Carolyn Bryant, now 88, for her actions that led to Till’s lynching. Testimony surrounding her involvement in his kidnapping and death determined there was insufficient evidence to move forward. Justice delayed continues to be justice denied.
While he was physically alive for just 14 years, however, in every other way Emmett Till and his legacy live on, in our minds and hearts and now on the big screen.
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