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Emmett Louis Till was a 14-year-old black-American boy who was a victim of a violent lynching. It was provoked by an allegation against him of sexually harassing a white woman, which most prominently was against the imposed segregation of black people in America; Till's murder and the acquittal of the killers was a major motivation of the civil rights movement, once the nation gave attention to the subjugation of black citizens to white supremacy efforts.

Emmett Till's Life[]

Emmett L. Till was born in Chicago on June 25, 1941. he contracted polio when he was six and was left with a long-lasting stutter. Till was regarded by his mother Mamie as generally happy, enjoying pranks with his cousins and friends, playing pickup baseball, and getting much attention from his peers, especially from his sense of style and wardrobe. She also remembered him as distracted and at times in need of making his own limitations. While Mamie clerked for the U.S. Air Force, Till would participate in chores to keep the house together. Because Till's father Louis had infidelities during his parents' marriage, and choked Mamie to the point she defended herself with scalding water, Till was protective of her. Louis would later be sentenced to enlisting in the army for violating a restraining order, then executed for raping two women and killing an Italian woman with an accomplice. (In recent reviews, the trial's honesty has been questioned). He and Mamie moved to Detroit, where Mamie her second husband Bradley, but Till returned to Chicago to be with his grandmother when he missed the city. Mamie and Bradley followed suit, until they divorced and Bradley returned to Detroit. When Bradley harassed and threatened Mamie after they split, Till grabbed a kitchen knife and threatened to kill Bradley, which got him to leave.

Mamie moved to Argo, Illinois (nicknamed "Little Mississippi" for its increasing populations of black citizens), during the Great Migration, as the Mississippi Delta, where she was born, was impoverished and had major influence under the Jim Crow-south, leaving black people generally with little opportunity and in more danger of racist violence in what was then America's poorest state. But Mamie's uncle Mose Wright told accounts of the Delta that left Till eager to see for himself. Mamie made sure Till acknowledge the South had different standards and etiquette before he departed. Mose would take the journey with Till's and guide him along with two of Till's cousins, Wheeler Parker and Curtis Jones, arriving on August 21, 1955. Wright, nicknamed "Preacher" for his work as a minister, kept Till with him, his wife, and five or six other relatives in a two-bedroom cabin in Money, Mississippi. As schools were being desegregated on federal levels, there were efforts to tighten the restrictions on relations and even intimacy between white and black people, along with generally disenfranchising black people particularly in the South, which would set the sociopolitical foregrounds for Till's last days.

Harassment Allegation and Lynching[]

Many accounts have been told of the timeline surrounding Till's death. Jones had once heard other boys say Till showed them a picture of his class, racially integrated, pointing out several white children who were his friends and one being his girlfriend; this has been challenged in more recent records. On August 24, Till and Jones skipped one of Wright's church sessions and went with some local boys working in sharecropping to buy candy. While Jones was playing checkers with another man across the street, the boys went into Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, owned by them-married white couple Roy Bryant, then 24, and Carolyn Bryant Donham, then 21. While Carolyn was working at the register alone, her sister-in-law was in the back keeping an eye on the children.

The most commonly agreed account of what happened next is Till wolf-whistled. Despite past accounts by Jones saying the other boys dared Till to talk to Carolyn, as he was from the North and more relaxed about interracial interactions, another of Till's cousins, Simeon Wright, objected they wouldn't dare cross such restrictions for fear of racial targeted violence. Simeon figured Till just wanted to get the other kids to laugh with him about a lighthearted joke, but they were alarmed out of their own fears of retaliation. Simeon had Till pay for their items and leave after less than a minute, which the FBI in 2006 said an anonymous source confirmed. Other reports say Till whistle to keep from stuttering, as Mamie herself recalled she taught Till to whistle so he could progress that to more articulate pronunciation in his speech. Yet another report has said he was whistling at the checker game, since many agreed he was outside while Carolyn was going to her car. Carolyn retrieved a pistol from under the seat, which is when the boys fled, also at the instruction of Mose Wright's checkers partner when one of the boys told him.

Carolyn had told the story to her peers, which spread among their peers in turn. Jones and Till didn't inform Wright because of fearing the trouble they would be in, with Till wanting to return to Chicago. Roy Bryant was on an extended trip to Texas to haul shrimp, not getting back until August 27. When a regular informed Bryant, he was furious at Carolyn over her not telling him personally. He angrily questioned numerous black men to find Till, even forcing one black man named J.W. Washington to kidnap a black teenager boy off the street to be identified by Carolyn's acquaintance. The acquaintance and the boy's parents and friends refuted Bryant's assumption, but Bryant somehow learned Till was from Chicago and staying with Wright. Bryant met with his half-brother, John William "J.W." Milam, then 36, to plan on kidnapping Till, which was overheard by several witnesses.

On early morning August 28, 1955, between 2 and half past 3am, they drove up in a green pickup truck to Wright's house. With Milan armed with a .45 caliber pistol and a flashlight, they barged into the house and made Wright take them to who "did the talking". Despite Wright's wife's pleas to give money instead of taking Till, the boy was forced to clothe himself and marched out of the house. Wright tried to plead he didn't know better having lived in the North, but Milam threatened to kill him. Till was brought to a "high-voiced" witness to be confirmed, before being tied up in the truck and driven off with. heading back to Money to get to the family's grocery store, as a young black man named Frank Young would witness, two black men who worked for Milan's brother Leslie, Leroy "Too Tight" Collins and Henry Lee Loggins, were recruited for some unspecified tasks, but Collins and Loggins denied being present. Bryant and Milan drove to Leslie's shed in Drew, Mississippi knocking Till out with a pistol along the way. An 18-year-old man named Willie Reed saw the truck passing by.

Reed heard Till crying while he was being beaten, so he ran to get a neighbor. When they both went to a nearby water well, Milam chased them away, asking if Reed heard anything, to which Reed lied that he hadn't. He asked about Collins washing blood out of the truck and Till's boot being nearby, but Milam said the boot was his and he killed a deer. Placing Till in the back of the truck, they drove to a cotton gin for a 70-pound fan, the only time they were worried since they feared being accused of stealing while the sun was coming up and they're could've been witnesses. With Till tied by his neck to the fan with barbed wire, the duo drove along the Tallahatchie River to find a place to drop Till in, eventually reaching the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora. Till was stripped naked and shot in his right temple above his ear before being thrown into the river, the fan weighing him down. Till's clothes were burned at Bryant's house.

Wright didn't go back to bed, and after twenty minutes of Till not returning, he went to Money for gas with another man so they'd have fuel to drive around looking for Till. They returned by 8am, and when Jones heard Wright was too afraid to go to the police, Jones personally called the Leflore County sheriff's department. When he soon after called his own mother in Chicago, she told Mamie, around the time Wright and Mamie went to Sumner and Mamie's brother contacted the sheriff, George Smith. Bryant and Milan were questioned, but they alleged to have released Till in front of the family store. The two were still arrested for kidnapping. NAACP activists Medger Evers and Amzie Moore pretended to be cotton pickers to join the search. Three days after Till was murdered, his remains were found by two boys who were fishing. The damage of his wounds was extensive, Till being disfigured and bloated with an almost unrecognizable face from the violence and decomposition. He was severely mutilated, his eye was dislodged, he had beating marks on his back and hips, and his skull, wrists, and femur had breaks and fractures. Fragments from the bullet in his head would permanently be embedded in his skull, even after his burial. A fan blade was recovered, still tied to the barbed wire around his neck. He wore a silver ring inscribed with "L.T., May 25, 1943", which was given to Wright when was called to identify Till at the river.

Reaction, Trial, and Legacy[]

Mamie strenuously worked to get Till back to Chicago by calling Illinois and Mississippi state and local authorities, as Till was arranged to be buried in a pine box after being clothed, packed in lime, and maybe embalmed without an autopsy. She sought legal aid for apprehending her son's killers and insisted the state have a hand in paying the finances, a reporter misquoting her as "Mississippi is going to pay for this". Till was kept at the A. A. Rayner Funeral Home, and Mamie insisted she identify him. Remarking she could smell her son decaying from two blocks away, she arranged for an open-casket procession to demonstrate to the world her devastation over the pain of her son. Some countless thousands of people saw Till's remains at the funeral home, thousands more attending his funeral days after. He was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, on September 6, 1955.

The news of Till's disappearance and murder spread vastly across the country, most notably as a Northern black teenager's murder in the South for breaking an American racial class system, which sent shockwaves across American cultures and politics. Papers nationwide and worldwide disseminated the events, the Greenwood Commonwealth writing three paragraphs about Till's disappearance. Happy photos of Till and Mamie, especially one during Christmas time, and a photo of Mamie standing over Till's remains disseminated so widely, white supremacy was called out in outrage in one of the greatest times of support for black citizens. Originally, the vast majority of newspapers denounced the murders without hesitation, demanded justice, and sent sympathy to Till and his loved ones. The Delta citizens averted any affirmation of the murder or Bryant and Milam. Mississippi's governor, Hugh L. White, telegrammed the NAACP with a promise for justice, condemning the violent lynching with Leflore County Deputy Sheriff John Cochran, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, Illinois governor William Stratton, and numerous other public officials. Communities of black people still grew more frightened of the possibility of increased violence against them with impunity, but younger black citizens were especially moved by the coverage.

But the publicity of the Jim Crow south and white supremacists expanded enough to rival the civil rights movement. White Citizens' Council executive secretary Robert B. Patterson blamed the NAACP for threatening the "safe" policy of segregation "protecting", with NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins retorting with deploring Mississippi for maintaining white supremacy and refusing to address Till's murder as a lynching. From there Mississippi papers falsely reported race riots in the Chicago funeral home, published photos of Bryant and Milam smiling and in military uniform, and publicizing Carolyn in traditional, purely innocent virtue of a Southern white American woman. The Leflore County Sheriff was on alert from fears of rioting black and northern white populations storming Mississippi. Mississippi white populations were so provoked against the North, Tallahachie County was nicknamed "The Freestate of Tallahachie", which left governing the region a taller task. County Sheriff Clarence Strider, who was confident about the case against Bryant and Milam, alleged Till was alive and his remains were another person planted by the NAACP and T.R.M. Howard, one of Mississippi's richest black people with reaches in business and activism, who threatened a civil war if lynchings of black people continued. Strider recanted his extreme and false comments eventually, stating public pressure made him defend the two killers. The Till family and their extended relatives never knew of Louis' convictions and execution was of worse than "willfull misconduct", until sensational and biased publications released the information when two state senators leaked the info from Army records. The portrayal of Louis was weighed against Till's character in a disparaging perspective, partly published to boost Carolyn's credibility even after the trial.

Bryant and Milam were indicted for murder, but prosecuting attorneys Gerald Chatham and Hamilton Caldwell without confidence in a guaranteed conviction. Papers were surprised but pleased by an indictment. Bryant and Milan couldn't find attorneys, until a Sumner law firm represented them pro bono. Supporters got $10,000 worth of funds in collection jars across the Delta. Mamie was welcomed to stay at Howard's armed home property in Mount Bayou during the trial at the Sumner county courthouse, and Wright gave Till's ring to the prosecution for the trial as evidence. Despite one boarding house and hotels refusing to accept black people as patrons, reporters flocked to the town. When Frank informed Sheriff Strider of Collins and Loggins, whom the prosecution were unaware of, the two men were booked in the Charleston city jail to not testify.

The trial went for five days in September 1955, the courtroom filled to capacity with a few hundred spectators and numerous reporters, all segregated and the white reporters closer to the jury. The lack of professionalism received from the procedure of the trial appalled civil rights activists and allies, with jurors drinking, white spectators with handguns on their persons, and Sheriff Strider greeting crowds of black people with peppy racial slurs. An all-white-male jury presided, as black citizens and women were banned. The defense bolstered Bryant's and Milan's lies about their activities the night of Till's lynching murder with the supremacist conspiracy theories about how Till was "still alive", casting doubt on the confirmation of his remains. Wright testified while the prosecution addressed him as "Uncle Mose", positively stating he only saw Milam clearly, but both half-brothers addressed themselves by name clearly. When Wright pointed at Milam and stated "there he is", it was regarded as the first time a black citizen testified to the guilt of a white citizen in court and lived. Mamie testified about how she warned Till about manners and to beg for forgiveness on his knees when ordered to, but the defense discredited her by emphasizing a life insurance policy she had on him.

As Collins and Loggins couldn't be found by Sheriff Smith, Howard, and numerous reports racially indiscriminate, other witnesses were brought to the stand. Two testified to hearing the beatings and Till crying, and one had to speak up recounting hearing him say "Mama, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy". Sheriff Strider said a white person was pulled from the river, and a doctor from greenwood said Till was in the river too long both for confirmation and for him to conclusively be the victim. When Carolyn was brought to testify, she accounted that Till made a pass at her for a date, touched her hand and her waist before she slid away, and said he'd "been with white people" before along with an unspecified explicit word. She added one of the boys with Till then took his arm and brought him away so they could leave. The jury was not present, as the prosecution objected her testimony didn't relate to the lynching, which Judge Curtis Swango ruled in favor of, but the record was retained in the event of an appeal against a guilty verdict. Closing arguments from the prosecution went from alleging Till was better of with a spanking than a murder to Chatham stating the sheriff and doctor wanted a conspiracy over justice, which astounded Mamie; the defense alleged the murder to be "improbable" and from a conviction the jury's "forefathers would turn on their graves". With life imprisonment, capital punishment, and acquittal being the three possible outcomes for Mississippi capital murder, the jury delivered a not guilty verdict after 67 minutes of deliberation, one stating they only took longer from stopping to drink pop soda. In November, a grand jury declined to indict the defendants for kidnapping, despite their confessions and Wright and Reed testifying to them.

After the trial, Mamie was painted as not having cried enough, while the jury selection was lambasted for exclusively picking jurors from Tallahachie County, where racism and racial competition of business and property ownership were prominently abundant. The prosecution was chastised for rejecting jury candidates familiar with Bryant and Milam to avoid a biased acquittal, but historian Stephen Whitaker such candidates already didn't like the two defendants. One juror voted twice to convict earlier, and jurors were interviewed later stating they knew the defendants were guilty but refused to accept punishment as fitting. Some jurors would state in 2005 their belief in the conspiracy theory presented by the defense. Howard paid for the relocations of Wright, Reed, and another black citizen who testified to Chicago to protect them from reprisals.

Polarized papers scolded the verdict and American society on one side and affirmed the verdict as the duty of the courts on the other, Till's murder and the trial being publicized for weeks. Bryant and Milam sold a story to journalist William Bradford Huie of Look magazine in 1956 for less than $4,000, unable to be prosecuted again on double jeopardy rights. The interview took place in the Sumner law firm, with the attorneys asking the questions after never having heard an account of the murders. The interviews riddled with slurs and disparaging supremacist language, among other profanities, Milam was more articulate and comfortable, both he and Bryant denying any sense of wrongdoing in their crimes. The two said Carolyn wasn't asked to identify Till because he reportedly admitted he was the boy they were looking for. They also said Till cussed them out and said he was just as entitled to be with white people while he was being brutalized, alleging they only wanted to beat him and throw him off an embankment to frighten him. The interview is credited with drawing attention away from reported cover-ups of additional participants and witnesses.

Civil rights leaders had a fiery enough reaction that pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to be passed. Mamie remarried to Gene Mobley and became an instructor, taking tours arranged by the NAACP to educate the public on herself, Till, and the murder. Willie Reed, who changed his surname from Reed to Louis for safety, lived in Chicago for the rest of his life, keeping private and his wife only knowing his history when a relative told her. He later died on July 18, 2013. Documentarian Keith Beauchamp was impacted by Till in an open casket, he produced The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, releasing it in 2003 after nine years of composition. PBS released The Murder of Emmett Till, where Willie Louis made an appearance before he died. As Beauchamp asserted 14 people at most were involved in the lynching, including Carolyn herself, the U.S. Department of Justice reopened the investigation, as part of their efforts to investigate cold cases the civil rights movement put their investment in. Till was exhumed in 2005, confirmed in his identity, and given an autopsy by the Cook County coroner. In February 2007, a Leflore County grand jury so no credibility with confirmation of additional involved parties, refused to charge Carolyn as well as refusing to with Loggins along with the FBI. Historic markers in Till's honor were defaced with "KKK" and being covered in black paint, as well as repeatedly shot at, to the point a replacement was made of 500-pound steel. An unserved arrest warrant for Carolyn, dated August 29, 1955, was discovered in a courthouse basement in June 2022. the Till family called for Carolyn's arrest, but the district attorney and a grand jury declined on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Bryant and Milan's support sunk after the interview, their shop reduced to bankruptcy and foreclosure and banks refusing them loans for crops. Milan eventually secured a plantation, but black people didn't come for jobs, white workers being hired for higher wages. When the two relocated to Texas, they were still shunned, even by people from Mississippi when seen there. Returning to Mississippi, Milam operated heavy machinery until retiring from unspecified illness. Bryant and Carolyn divorced, and Bryant remarried in 1980 and worked as a welder in Texas until losing enough eyesight, leading to him opening another store in Ruleville. Bryant didn't give out his store's location out of fear of boycotts and being killed himself out of revenge for Till's murder. Milan was tried for assault and battery, check fraud, and using a stolen credit card, while Bryant was convicted of food stamp fraud. Bryant recanted his confessed in a 1985 interview, but stated Till died because he "got out of line". In a 1992 interview, Bryant stated Till ruined his life, communicated no compunction, and wished for people to forget about him. Mamie was listening in on the interview without Bryant's knowledge. Both died of cancer, Milan in the spine on December 30, 1980, age 61, Bryant with unspecified cancer on September 1, 1994, age 63.

Carolyn herself would recant much of the testimony she gave in court in an interview with historian Timothy Tyson. She said the physical contact and obscenities she alleged weren't true, and that nothing Till did justified his murder. She told the FBI she didn't tell Bryant about the event immediately because she feared him beating Till up, as, by her account, he was abusive, while Milam was "domineering and brutal". Her account heavily implies her court testimony was coerced. Carolyn's daughter-in-law Marsha disputes much of her reported dialogue, especially since it wasn't on tape recordings of the interviews she and Tyson had. Marsha was the dedication in Carolyn's manuscript, I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle, which Carolyn wrote in 2008 and gave to Tyson, who gave it to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to be strictly archived until 2036, or if Carolyn died earlier. The 100-page memoir was leaked to NewsOne, an offshoot of black-American-owned broadcasting company Urban One, when journalist and professor Stacey Patton published about the manuscript's existence. The text described Carolyn's childhood, her take on the lynching and trial, and ended with her saying she was a victim along with Till. When it was disseminated online in PDF format, there was disdainful reaction toward the language used in the interest of proper representation and the change in accounted details. It was regarded as demonizing black people still, with no significant guilt and accountability, and Bossip magazine even called for Carolyn to be jailed.

Till has been immortalized in monuments, poems, location names, the name of a school in Chicago, and even a Bob Dylan song, to name a few examples. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired in 2009 the glass=topped casket in which Till was buried, with evidence that animals were living in it. The Emmett Till Memorial Project and Legacy Foundation have been formed, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was passed in 2008 with sponsorship by late activist and congressman John Lewis, and the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed in 2022.

Offenders[]

  • Roy Bryant
    • Store owner and welder
    • Arrested for kidnapping Emmett Till, tried for capital murder
    • Acquitted by an all-white-male jury; not indicted by a grand jury on kidnapping
    • Died of cancer on September 1, 1994.
  • John William "J.W." Milam
    • Grocery store employee and heavy equipment operator
    • Arrested for kidnapping Emmett Till, tried for capital murder
    • Acquitted by an all-white-male jury; not indicted by a grand jury for kidnapping
    • Died of spinal cancer on December 30, 1980.

On Criminal Minds[]

  • Season Nine
    • "Strange Fruit" - Emmett Till was one of three cases (the others being Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin) mentioned by Morgan while interviewing Tina Johnson regarding her son Lyle. The Till case also appears to partly inspire the episode's unsub, Charles Johnson - Both were African-American hate crime victims who were falsely accused of sex crimes by Caucasian women, were subsequently targeted by small groups of racists (one being a relative of the accuser), were left with permanent scars from the violence of the attacks, the killers in both cases were defended by family members, their respective accusers recanted their allegations, and some of them later died of natural causes (though Johnson murdered two of his).

References[]

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