by Charlie Leck
Stories in the news about the discovery of the casket of Emmett Till in an abused condition have motivated me to write the following.
In August of 1955 I was 14 years old. So was Emmett Till. Does the name mean anything to you? It does to me; and, the name is deeply significant in the history of the southern civil rights movement in the United States.
Fourteen year old boys may be among the strangest creatures on earth. I, for instance, was. I’d just finished my first year of high school. My head spun from the experience of having engaged in algebra. It had been terrible being on the bottom rung of the ladder in a social system and moving aside for all these upper classman.
Girls were driving me crazy. There they were, blossoming and becoming women right in front of me. Years before, I’d already fallen madly in love with one of them to whom I could never even speak, but of whom I had constant thoughts and imaginations that we were close and that she shared my deep affection. Now, in high school, there were so many pretty girls and I couldn’t look any of them in the eyes and, when I didn’t, it gave the impression I was looking instead at their chests, which I was, but not consciously. I had sweaty palms and all these sexual rumblings stirring around inside me and I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with them. Both my mind and body were substantially confused and bewildered – and sometimes they were both out of control at the same time.
Slightly mature women fascinated me. I liked their assurance and poise. I also liked the confidence they seemed to have about their bodies.
A lovely and attractive woman, who I remember so clearly, use to stop at my father’s luncheonette nearly every single mid-morning for several years. She’d always ordered a cup of black coffee, an English muffin and a copy of the NY Times. There were times, during the summer and school holidays, when I might be there when she was. I loved to watch her – actually examine her – as she read the paper. Occasionally, she’d glance over at me and catch me looking at the delectable curves and movements in her body. When our eyes met, caught, I could feel the flush of heat cover my face and I would, of course, look quickly away.
He was a Chicago boy. He didn’t know the strange ways of this southern state. It was another world down there, but Emmett was from Chicago and didn’t know that.
In August of 1955, this 14 year old boy, Emmett Till, went down to Money, Mississippi to visit relatives. A sign on the highway entering the town announced that it was “ Money – A good place to raise a boy!”
Emmett Till was a bold and confident kid and he was likely showing off to his country bumpkin cousins and their rural friends. After all, he was from the big city.
Certainly, this boy had experienced segregation, but he knew nothing about the strong and strange traditions and customs of a place like Mississippi.
On one of these hot Mississippi days, he showed off a photograph he was carrying of a white girl who was back home in Chicago. He bragged that she was a very close friend. The boys pointed out a young white woman entering a store and dared Emmett to go talk to her. With no thought that he was doing anything wrong, he walked into the store and bought some candy and then, as he was leaving, he looked at the woman.
“Bye, baby,” he said to Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the owner of the store. With a teenager's bravado, he may also have whistled slightly or clucked his cheek at her.
The young boys from Mississippi knew that something terribly wrong had happened and, perhaps, they felt some gears within the planet shift slightly. Yet, nothing immediate happened. They let out their collective breaths and thought, perhaps, the incident had been overlooked.
It was three days later that two men came for him in the middle of the night. They took him right out of the home of his uncle, Mose Wright. A few days later, Emmett Till’s body was found. It was retrieved from the Tallahatchie River. Mr. Wright could only identify the body because of an initialed ring on one of its fingers. An eye had been gouged and destroyed, the head had been crushed and there was a bullet it in. To weight down the body, a cotton gin wheel had been tied to Emmett’s neck with barbed wire.
Even before the body was found, Roy Bryant, husband of Carolyn Bryant and owner of the store, and J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant’s brother-in-law, were arrested for kidnapping. Upon the discovery of the body, and the description of the brutality imposed on it, it seemed that both whites and blacks were horrified. The story also quickly received nationwide attention.
In Chicago, Emmett’s mother insisted that the casket be left open at the funeral, so that everyone could “see what they did to my son.” Thousands saw in person and many more across the nation saw in photographs that were published in Jet Magazine.
Black preachers across the country preached about Emmett Till in their sermons on that Sunday. They were demanding that something be done. The backs of white people in Mississippi began to rise as criticism of Mississippi’s system of segregation began to spread across the nation. Some prominent Mississippi attorneys volunteered to defend Bryant and Milam.
In mid-September, in the town of Summer, the trial began in a courthouse with separate water fountains and rest rooms for colored and white.
Any who testified against the white men had to be rushed from the state after they did. Even though Emmett’s uncle, Mose, had been able to point out the two men, Bryant and Milam, who had taken his nephew, the two were heading toward acquittal. Defense attorney, John Whitten, rose to make his closing statement.
“Your fathers will turn over in their graves if these men are found guilty, and I’m sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men even in the face of the pressure being brought on you.”
“They failed to prove the identity of the body,” the jury foreman would later explain.
It was only months after the trial, in a Look Magazine interview, that the two men admitted to the crime. William Bradford Huie, who wrote the story in Look, recalled the interview this way.
“I met Milam and Bryant. We had this strange situation. We’re meeting in the library of this law firm. Milam and Bryant are sitting on one side of the table, John Whitten (lawyer) and I sitting on the other side. I’m not doing the questioning. Their own lawyer is doing the questioning. And he’s never heard their story. Not once. He becomes as interested in the story as I am. I said, 'Now I’m going to take notes and then during the day I’m going to do two things. I’m going to be roughing out this story, and I’m also going where you say you went, and I’m going to find evidence.'
"Milam did most of the talking. Now remember, he’s older. Milam was then 35 or 36. He was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army reserve at that time. And so Milam was a bit more articulate than Bryant was. Bryant did some talking, particularly when they talked about what they were told happened in the store. But J. W. Milam did the killing. He fired the shot when they took Till down on the river and killed him.”
In the last few years, there was a meager attempt to bring manslaughter charges against another man, but it never happened.
Many historians have pointed to the murder of Emmett Till as the watershed moment in the development of the civil rights movement in the south. It was the decision of his mother to leave open the casket that set the stage.
Shortly after the “not guilty” verdict was returned in the Emmett Till case, the bus boycott was begun in Montgomery, Alabama.
Emmett Till and I were the same age – 14 was a confusing and difficult age to be. Neither of us understood life very well and we certainly didn’t understand death.