You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.
Grand jury refuses new murder indictment
Justice denied again for Emmett Till

By Sharon Smith | March 9, 2007 | Page 9

WHEN ROSA Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Ala., bus on December 1, 1955, she told reporters, "I thought of Emmett Till, and when the bus driver ordered me to move to the back, I just couldn't move." Parks' actions sparked the mass civil rights movement that finally broke the stranglehold of Southern segregation.

Mamie Till Mobley's only son, 14-year-old Emmett, boarded a train from Chicago to visit family in Mississippi on August 19, 1955. She could not have suspected that within days, he would become, in her words, the "sacrificial lamb" of the civil rights movement--whose young life was extinguished for unwittingly challenging the mores of white supremacy in the Mississippi Delta.

Emmett, known as "Bobo" to family and friends, boarded the train a free-spirited adolescent, seeking fun and adventure, but returned to Chicago a tortured and disfigured corpse just two weeks later, after allegedly aiming a wolf-whistle in the direction of a white woman in the tiny town of Money, Miss.

The key events of August 24, 1955, are not in dispute. In the company of seven teenage friends and relatives, Emmett Till entered Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market to buy some bubble gum.

Shortly after leaving the store, Emmett infamously whistled, reportedly at the white shopkeeper, Carolyn Bryant. But Emmett Till had a speech impediment, causing him to stutter, and sometimes causing a whistling sound, according to his mother.

In the early morning of August 28, Emmett was ordered at gunpoint out of the bed he shared with his cousin, Simeon Wright, by Carolyn Bryant's husband Roy and his half brother, J.W. Milam.

Three days later, Emmett Till's bruised and swollen body was found in the Tallahatchie River, one eye dangling from its socket, the other removed; most of his teeth missing; his nosed smashed in; and a bullet-sized hole in his right temple. He was weighed down with a 75-lb. cotton gin fan barb-wired to his neck.

Within four short weeks, an all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of murder. Times-Picayune reporter Bill Minor described the jurors' deliberations: "I could hear...laughing and joking." They stopped for soda to waste time, and delivered their not-guilty verdict after 67 minutes.

Protected by the constitutional provision against double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam were free to sell their story for $4,000 to Look magazine in January 1956. There, they boasted about the murder and their motivations. Milam told reporter William Huie, "As long as I live and can do anything about it, n---- are gonna stay in their place... And when a n---- gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

EMMETT TILL'S death could have thus ended quietly, as have those of countless other Black victims murdered at the hands of white supremacists. But Mamie Till Mobley ordered her son's body returned to Chicago.

Upon viewing her son's unrecognizable corpse, she cried in despair, "Have you ever sent a loved one on a vacation and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and waterlogged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son--lynched?"

She ordered an open casket for the funeral, stating, "Let the world see what I saw." Jet magazine captured the photos for the world to finally see, while 50,000 Black Chicagoans lined the streets to view Till's body.

But the murder of Emmett Till did not provoke an FBI investigation in its time. On the contrary, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote a memo claiming there was no legal basis for federal involvement: "There has been no allegation made that the victim has been subjected to the deprivation of any right or privilege which is secured and protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States."

The FBI waited until 50 years after Emmett Till's murder to reopen his case. His body was exhumed from a Chicago-area cemetery in 2005 for its first autopsy.

Bryant and Milam had long since died of natural causes. Mamie Till Mobley died in 2003, unable to protest the long-delayed exhuming of her son's body.

In 2005, the FBI declared itself unable to press charges after gathering 8,000 pages of material. Since the five-year statute of limitations in effect at the time precluded federal charges, the Justice Department turned the case over to Leflore County officials, recommending that they focus their investigations on the role of the alleged recipient of Till's whistle, Carolyn Bryant Donham, now 73 years old.

But on February 23, 2007, a Leflore County grand jury firmly closed the Till murder case, with two words: "no bill," claiming lack of evidence to prosecute.

Simeon Wright, who last saw Emmett when he was pulled from their bed, told reporters, "You're looking at Mississippi. I guess it's about the same way it was 50 years ago. We had overwhelming evidence, and they came back with the same decision. Some of the people haven't changed from 50 years ago. Same attitude. The evidence speaks for itself."

Home page | Back to the top