EMMETT TILL, 1955
“I WANTED THE WHOLE WORLD TO SEE”
On August 20, 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old from Chicago’s South Side, almost missed the train that would carry him to a summer visit with relatives in the Mississippi Delta. Emmett, nicknamed Bo, was supposed to meet his seventeen-year-old cousin, Curtis Jones, at LaSalle Street station. Young Till didn’t show up at LaSalle Street, but with only seconds to spare, out of breath and stammering with excitement, he boarded the train at Englewood, more than seven miles away.
In the forty years since World War I began, Chicago’s black population had grown from some forty thousand to half a million. Many blacks had moved up from the South, seeking jobs and a better way of life. Of those, 75 percent hailed from Mississippi. Emmett Till was part of the emigrant community and was closing the circle that summer, traveling back to his family’s home place.
Money, Mississippi, was a dusty crossroads, population fifty-five, with the Tallahatchie River at its back door. Emmett’s mother had warned the boy to mind his manners with whites down there. No one expected a fourteen-year-old to be in mortal danger, but anyone black had to be careful. More than five hundred black people had been lynched in the state since these statistics were first compiled in 1882. Thousands more racially motivated murders were never officially reported. Now, in the summer of 1955, the death toll was beginning to build again, particularly in the Delta, the northwest corner of the state, where Money was located.
In some Delta counties, blacks constituted 80 percent of the population, and the outnumbered whites were bent on intimidating any blacks who wanted access to a better education or to the ballot box. Three months before Emmett’s trip, the Reverend George Lee from the Delta town of Belzoni was killed by a shotgun blast to the face. Local authorities ruled his death a traffic accident. Lee had been the first black to register to vote in the county.
On August 13, just a week before Emmett’s arrival, Lamar Smith, a black man who had voted in the state’s Democratic primary earlier in the month, was shot to death at high noon in front of the courthouse in Brookhaven. Again, there were no arrests.
For almost seventy years, the U.S. Supreme Court had supported southern insistence on second-class citizenship for blacks. With the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the Court signaled that it was changing its position regarding the legality of segregating black and white schoolchildren. Reaction in the South was swift, particularly in Mississippi. Leaders of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan exhorted their followers to resist the “mongrelization” of the white race. White Citizens’ Councils were formed to exert political and economic pressure on black activists and their white sympathizers. Segregationists James O. Eastland and John Stennis, Mississippi’s two U.S. senators, worked to further consolidate the white monopoly of political power. Governor J. P. Coleman stated flatly that Negroes weren’t fit to vote. Ten years after the end of World War II, many whites in the Delta felt that Mississippi was now in another war to protect its way of life.
Emmett arrived in Mississippi with his cousin Curtis Jones on August 21, 1955.
We was going to Money, Mississippi, to have a good time. I’d never picked cotton before and I was looking forward to that. I had told my mother that I could pick two hundred pounds, and she told me I couldn’t. Emmett Till was fourteen years old, had just graduated out of the grammar school.
My grandfather in Mississippi was a preacher. He had a church and he had a little raggedy ’41 Ford, if I’m not mistaken. And he took all of us to church that day, including my grandmother, my three uncles, myself, my cousin Emmett, and my cousin Willa Parker. While he was in the pulpit preaching, we get the car and drive to Money. Anyway, we went into this store to buy some candy. Before Emmett went in, he had shown the boys round his age some picture of some white kids that he had graduated from school with, female and male. He told the boys who had gathered round this store—there must have been maybe ten to twelve youngsters there—that one of the girls was his girlfriend. So one of the local boys said, “Hey, there’s a white girl in that store there. I bet you won’t go in there and talk to her.” So Emmett went in there. When he was leaving out the store, after buying some candy, he told her, “Bye, baby.”
I was sitting out there playing checkers with this older man. Next thing I know, one of the boys came up to me and said, “Say, man, you got a crazy cousin. He just went in there and said ‘Bye, baby’ to that white woman.” This man I was playing checkers with jumped straight up and said, “Boy, you better get out of here. That lady’ll come out of that store and blow your brains off.”
It was kind of funny to us. We hopped in the car and drove back to the church. My grandfather was just about completing his sermon.
The next day we was telling some youngsters what had happened, but they had heard about it. One girl was telling us that we better get out of there ’cause when that lady’s husband come back gonna be big trouble. We didn’t tell our grandfather. If we had told our grandfather, I’m sure he would have gotten us out of there. That was Wednesday. So that Thursday passed, nothing happened. Friday passed, nothing happened. Saturday, nothing happened. So we forgot about it.
Saturday night we went to town. The closest town was Greenwood. We must have stayed there till approximately three o’clock that morning. We returned and—my grandfather didn’t have but three rooms, the kitchen and two bedrooms—it must have been about three-thirty, I was awakened by a group of men in the house. I didn’t wake completely, youngsters, they sleep hard, you know. When they came, my grandfather answered the door and they asked him did he have three boys in there from Chicago? And he stated yes. He said I got my two grandsons and a nephew. So they told him get the one who did the talking. My grandmother was scared to death. She was trying to protect Bo. They told her get back in bed. One of the guys struck her with a shotgun side of the head. When I woke up the next morning, I thought it was a dream.
I went to the porch and my grandfather was sitting on the porch. I asked him, “Poppa, did they bring Bo back?” He said, “No.” He said, “I hope they didn’t kill that boy.” And that’s when I got kind of scared.
“I asked him, “Ain’t you going to call the police?” He said, “No, I can’t call the police. They told me that if I call the sheriff they was going to kill everybody in this house.” So I told him, I say, “I’ll call.”
That happened Sunday.
When Curtis Jones called the sheriff that Sunday, he also placed a call to his mother, Willie Mae Jones, back in Chicago. She in turn got in touch with Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, a thirty-three-year-old schoolteacher.
MAMIE TILL BRADLEY MOBLEY
Willie Mae was hysterical. I could barely get any sense out of her. But I finally pieced out that Emmett had been taken from her father’s house. I said, “Mama, Willie Mae said someone had taken Emmett from Poppa Mose’s house.” Well, Mother comprehended the situation immediately. And that of course alerted me that there was real danger.
By Wednesday we knew it was beyond the shadow of a doubt—the thing had really come fallin’ in place. We knew about the men who had taken Emmett. We knew the alleged crime. We knew that something was highly amiss that Emmett hadn’t turned up by then. He had an uncanny sense of direction, and I don’t care where you took him, he could get back home. And he hadn’t called. We knew the situation was serious, and we just couldn’t name it—that he had been killed. You just couldn’t put it into words, but deep down in our hearts we were fearing that.
Based on information that Mose Wright and Crosby Smith gave the sheriff, two men were arrested for kidnapping—Roy Bryant, husband of the woman in the store, and his half brother, J. W. Milam. That Wednesday, Emmett Till’s body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River. A cotton gin fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire. Milam and Bryant now faced murder charges.
Wednesday I was over at some relatives’ house. We was out there picking cotton. One of my uncles drove up there in that 1941 Ford. He said, “Curtis, they found Bo.” I say, “Is he alive?” He said, “No, he’s dead.”
Copyright © 2011 by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.