The Murder of Emmett Till

Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth

English 1017

16 November 2011

Emmett: Till Justice is Served

Emmett Till had always wanted to visit the south, so when his uncle Mose Wright offered to let him stay the summer in Mississippi, Emmett jumped at the opportunity. Emmett and his mother Mamie lived in Chicago, Illinois.

This photo was taken by Mamie Till in 1954 on Christmas Day, about six months before the murder.

Mamie warned her son about the racism in the Mississippi Delta before he left to visit his relatives. She told him, “Be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly” (Heroism.org). When Emmett got to the small town of Money, Mississippi, he and his cousins skipped Sunday church where Uncle Mose was preaching. They went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy candy. The store was owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Carolyn was working alone in the store that day, and the local boys dared Emmett to speak to her. Emmett often bragged about integrated schools back home in Chicago, and claimed that he had white friends and even a white girlfriend. What happens next is where the questions are asked. Some people say that Emmett wolf-whistled at the twenty-one year old white women. Other reports say that Emmett grabbed her hand and asked her out on a date, or that he said “Bye, baby” as he was leaving the store. Carolyn Bryant later said that Emmett grabbed her around the waist and asked her on a date, and used “unprintable” words. Carolyn went to get a pistol from under the seat in her car, and the boys ran. This occurred on the 24of August. Roy Bryant was in Texas and did not return home until August 27th (Crowe 32).

When Roy got home, he began questioning people who were around the store. He found out through the grapevine that the boy who talked to his wife was from Chicago and staying with Mose Wright. Roy, his half-brother J.W. Milam, and another man went to Mose’s house on August 28th very early in the morning, somewhere between 2 and 3 A.M. Roy had a gun and a flashlight, and started beating on the door demanding answers from Mose. Mose led Roy and the other men to Emmett. Roy asked Emmett if he was “the nigger who did the talking” (Huie, American Experience). Emmett was truthful, and told Roy that he was the one who spoke to his wife. The men threatened to kill Mose if he reported what he had seen. Emmett’s family offered the men money to leave, but it did no good. Roy told Emmett to get up and get dressed. They put Emmett in the back of a pickup truck and drove to a barn at the Clint Shurden Plantation in Drew, Mississippi, which is thirty miles from Money, Mississippi. In the barn, they pistol whipped Emmett. Pistol whipping is the act of beating or hitting someone with a pistol. According to Roy and his half-brother J.W., they were at many various locations with Emmett that night. They brought him to J.W.’s house and beat him in a shed while they decided what to do. They decided to kill him to set an example. In the segregated South, punishment was very strict for a black male accused of any kind of sexual relations with a white woman. Emmett bragged to his friends about having a white girlfriend at home in Chicago, and to Roy and others like him, that wasn’t tolerable.

While Emmett was being beaten, he insisted that he was as good as Roy and J.W. They took him to the Tallahatchie River and made him strip naked. J.W. asked Emmett “You still better than me?” Emmett said yes, so they shot and killed him (Harold and DeLuca). They tied his body down with a seventy pound fan, and threw his body into the river. Three days after the murder, Emmett’s body was found and pulled from the river. His head was very badly damaged from being beaten, he had been shot above the right ear, an eye was dislodged from the socket and his body was still weighted to the fan blade, 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. The ring belonged to his father, who was killed in Italy in 1945. Emmett always liked to try on the ring, and Mamie gave it to him to wear on his trip to Mississippi.  The ring was one way they identified his body (Smith 152). Mamie Till wanted the funeral to have an open casket, so that “all the world could see what they did to my son” (Eyes on the Prize). Thousands of people saw Emmett’s body.

This picture was taken at Emmett’s funeral and was published in Jet Magazine on September 15, 1955.

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted of the murder charges, and of kidnapping charges, even though they admitted to taking Emmett from Mose’s home (Metress, The Lynching of Emmett Till).

Emmett’s story isn’t well known, and there are others like him who aren’t well known. Thousands of murders happened in the south during the fight for equality. I feel that Emmett Till’s murder played a very important part in the Civil Rights movement. I chose eight songs that reflect my interpretation of everything that happened to Emmett Till, his mother, and his Uncle Mose.

The first song I chose was “Emmett Till” by Medicine Hat. This song is pretty factual. A fisherman did find Emmett’s body in the Tallahatchie River. The hooded judge in the song is the Ku Klux Klan. The song says that “the good boys walk while the others crawl”. Emmett was a good boy, then. He insisted that he was better than the white men threatening him, even when he knew that it could mean the end of his life. Roy and J.W.’s wives knew that they were going to hurt Emmett (at the very least. They may have known about the plans for murder) but they sit back and let it happen. Lynching and beatings were a common thing, but people just shut their doors and ignored it. The whole reason I chose this specific song is because of the line “a whipping hurts but talkin’ kills.” If they would have only beat Emmett, he probably would have “learned his lesson” and not talked to white females anymore. But they felt that Emmett didn’t “stay in his place,” so they killed him. They murdered him for something as simple as speaking to a woman of a different race. Talking really did kill in the south, if you said the wrong thing in front of the wrong person. The First Amendment gives you freedom of speech, so why should you be killed for simply having a conversation?

My second song is “The Death of Emmett Till” by Bob Dylan. Carolyn Bryant said that Emmett said “unprintable words” to her. I think what’s “unprintable” are the things that Roy and J.W. did to Emmett. I agree with Bob Dylan when he said they “did some things too evil to repeat.” It’s rumored that Emmett was castrated, although that was never confirmed. Emmett was already dead by the time he was thrown into the river, so this song isn’t as factual as the first. Roy and J.W. never admitted to killing Emmett until after the trial, when they did an interview with Look magazine in 1956. However, the song is right about one thing. The jury that oversaw the trial consisted of white men who lived in the south. The men who were on the jury had probably committed similar acts themselves, or knew someone who did. The trial really was a mockery, but no one cared expect Emmett’s family and the black community. This song was supposed to be a reminder that “if we gave all we could give, we could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.” I want this paper to be a reminder of the same thing. I chose the murder of Emmett Till to write about because it moves me, but it also inspires me. I don’t want this to ever happen to anybody ever again. I want to keep history from repeating itself.

My next song is “Roads” by Portishead. I picture this as the theme song for the Civil Rights movement. The African Americans knew that they had a war to fight if they wanted equality, and they knew it wasn’t going to be easy. They didn’t have anybody on their side, so they had to stick together. The song says “How can it feel, this wrong from this moment.” In my opinion, Emmett’s murder was the moment where people finally realized that racism had went too far. His murder was the breaking point. He was an innocent, fourteen year old boy who was slain. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made people stand up and say that enough was enough. It made people angry, and anger is often the motivation that people need to act.

My fourth song is “Blowin’ In The Wind” by Bob Dylan. The song caught my attention after the first line, when it said “how many roads must a men walk down, before you call him a man?” Depending on your culture, different things turn a boy into a man. In my opinion, Emmett was more of a man at fourteen than Roy Bryant ever was. He endured things that no man ever should, much less someone his age. The song asks “how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?” How many people died before blacks were finally given the freedom and equality they deserved? Why did so many people have to die for a basic human right? The answer is blowin’ in the wind, just like Bob Dylan said. I’ll never understand some of the evils that were committed. Even after the slaves were freed and became citizens, blacks didn’t get the right to vote for another hundred years. That’s how many years people can exist before they’re allowed to be free. The song talks about how many ears can a person have before they can hear people cry?  Everyone heard the cries, they were just ignored. Racism and lynchings were normal in the south. Nobody really knows how many people died in the fight for equality. The answer to that is blowin’ in the wind as well. Emmett’s death was the death that made people start to realize that too many people had died.

My next song is “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” by Phil Ochs. Emmett was born and raised in Chicago, but his murder happened in rural Mississippi. The song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” by Phil Ochs makes me think of Emmett and the unfair was he was killed before his time. In Chicago, where Emmett was from, racial lines were not as drastic as they were in the Deep South. One of the lyrics from the song says in Mississippi, “the devil draws no lines.” They murdered an innocent fourteen year old boy. I’d say that hatred that strong definitely doesn’t have any lines. Another lyric says “if you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find.” Emmett’s body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. The murderers didn’t get convicted, because they were white, the judge was white, and the jury was white. The songs says the “black man stands accused the trial is always short.” This was true of the court case involving Emmett’s murder. The town “shrugged their shoulders at the murder of a man.” The sad thing is, Emmett was not yet a man. He was still a child. However, he endured things that no human should ever have to endure.

My sixth song is “Prayer For The Riverbed” by Medicine Hat. I would say that the title for this song says it all, considering where Emmett’s body was found. The song says “save your breath, save your child, save your life.” That’s pretty much how I picture life in Mississippi in the 1950s. You can save your breath, because speaking up would probably only get you killed. You can save your child by teaching them to bow down to authority. You can save your life by not questioning the things that go on and by doing what you’re supposed to do. In Emmett’s case, he didn’t save his breath. He insisted that he was just as good as a white man, and it cost him his life. Mamie couldn’t save her child. She told Emmett to willingly bow down to a while man if he had to, but he didn’t listen. She was almost seven hundred miles away at the time of her son’s murder. There was nothing she could do to protect him. The song also says “work for food, work for love, work for life.” They worked a lot harder for everything they had than the white people did. They had to work to be loved as people. They not only worked for life, but for everything that goes with it. You can be alive but never really live. They worked and fought to be treated equally and to get rights. Emmett didn’t try to stand up for himself. He didn’t try to fight off Roy and J.W. He didn’t lie and say that he had never spoken to Carolyn Bryant. “Take my heart, take my love, take my life” was also part of the song. When Roy took Emmett’s life, he also took Mamie’s heart. He was her only child. I’m sure when Emmett died, a little piece of Mamie was taken as well. Nothing compares to a mother’s love for her child.

My next song is “Victory is Mine” by Dorothy Norwood. I’m looking at this song from Mamie Till’s point of view. Victory was hers, because she was brave enough to have an open casket funeral and to testify in court. Even though she lost her son, ultimately the victory was hers because Emmett didn’t die in vain. The song says “when I rose this morning, I didn’t have no doubt. I knew that the Lord would bring me out.” I’m sure she was happy when the Civil Rights movement finally ended with African Americans getting the right to vote. I bet she was proud of her son.

Emmett Till Road

This photo was taken on February 1, 2009 in Grand Crossing, Chicago, IL.

My final song is “When The Children Cry” by White Lion. I saved this song for last, because it was my favorite out of all of them. When I first heard about this assignment and chose to write about Emmett Till, I knew I was going to use this song. You can’t describe the fear that was probably felt by blacks in the south. They never knew if they were going to be a victim. If it wasn’t them, then it would probably be someone they knew. Emmett was a child born into a world full of racial inequality and violence. The world is an evil place, and nobody knows why some people do the things that they do. I’m sure Emmett cried while he was being tortured and beaten. Emmett showed everyone the way to freedom. He made things better for future generations, “for all the young.” Emmett was born “for all the world to see.” Thousands of people came to his funeral and saw the injustice that was done to him. Emmett helped all the “wars to end.”  Inequality isn’t totally abolished, but it has gotten a lot better. The song says “when the children fight, let them know that it ain’t right.” Segregation is abolished, and blacks have the right to vote because people stood up for their rights. They taught their children right from wrong so that now people really are treated equally.


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Works Cited
Bivins, J. L. “”For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights””Journal of American History 98.1 (2011): 143-46. Web. <http://jah.oxfordjournals.org/content/98/1/143.short&gt;.
Crowe, Chris. Getting Away with Murder: the True Story of the Emmett Till Case. New York: Dial for Young Readers, 2003. Print.
Dylan, Bob. “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. CBS, 1983.
“Emmett Till.” Web Hosting Provider – Bluehost.com – Domain Hosting – PHP Hosting – Cheap Web Hosting – Frontpage Hosting E-Commerce Web Hosting Bluehost. Web. 08 Nov. 2011. <http://www.heroism.org/class/1950/heroes/till.htm&gt;.
Eyes on the Prize. Prod. Henry Hampton. PBS, 1987.
Harold, Christine, and Kevin Michael DeLuca. “Behold the Corpse: Violent Images and the Case of Emmett Till.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8.2 (2005): 263-86. Web. <http://mtw160-150.ippl.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/rhetoric_and_public_affairs/v008/8.2harold.pdf&gt;.
Huie, William Bradford. “American Experience . The Murder of Emmett Till . Special Features | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web.  <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/sfeature/sf_look_confession.html&gt;.
Image Editor. “14EmmettTillBefore.” Photograph. Flickr. 29 May 2008.

Image Editor. “15EmmettTillAfter.” Photograph. Flickr. 29 May 2008.

Medicine Hat. “Emmett Till.” Blood and Bone. 2008.
Medicine Hat. “Prayer for the Riverbed.” State Of The Union. 2006.
Metress, Christopher. The Lynching of Emmett Till a Documentary Narrative. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2002.
Norwood, Dorothy. “Victory Is Mine.” Fifty Years It’s Been worth It All. Malaco, 2009.
Ochs, Phil. “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” I Ain’t Marching Anymore. Hannibal Records, 1986.
Smith, Valerie. “Emmett Till’s Ring.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 36.1-2 (2008): 151-61. Print.
White Lion. “When The Children Cry.” Sounds of the Eighties. Time-Life Music, 1995.
Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta the Story of Emmett Till. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991. Print.
Zol87. “Emmett Till Road.” Photograph. Flickr. 1 Feb 2009.

15 thoughts on “The Murder of Emmett Till

  1. I heard about this story before. It is a very touching part of American history and should remind us that this stuff was going on way past the conservative 30ies and 40ies. Thank you for sharing this with so many other readers!

  2. Pingback: Some of my favorite posts | Writing Together in Honors

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  4. This makes me so sick, but it needs to be seen by people to show the true extent of how prejudice and cruelty cripples humanity. I feel the same way after reading this as I did from seeing the film “Mississippi Burning” which is a terribly, terribly sad and very graphic recount of times like these.
    Thanks for posting,
    Lorna xx

  5. Pingback: Lil Wayne, Emmett Till & Common Decency | InkPaperPen

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