"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Monday, July 25, 2011

Emmett Till

"Be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly." ~ Mamie Till Bradley

Chicagoan Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was brutally murdered while visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The following publicity made this the most widely known lynching of the twentieth century. Outrage felt by African Americans across the country was one of the causes leading to the civil rights movement, with the Rosa Parks-inspired Montgomery bus boycott beginning only months later.

Till was born July 25, 1941 to Mamie Cauthon Till from Webb, Mississippi, and Louis Till. His parents separated when he was two, and Mrs. Till married Pink Bradley in 1951, divorcing him a year later. In the summer of 1955 Mrs. Till's uncle Mose Wright was in Chicago and he took young Emmett back with him for a visit to the Delta. Mrs. Bradley was reluctant to let her son go, warning him of the differences between her home state and the life he knew in Chicago.

Till, along with his cousins and other teenagers, went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market on August 24 in Money, Mississippi, a town of only 55 people. Carolyn Bryant was working alone at the counter of the store, which catered to sharecroppers and their families. Descriptions of what happened next vary, but witnesses agree that the other boys dared Till to flirt with Mrs. Bryant. It is reported that as he left the store some heard him whistle at her. However, Till had a stutter that he could overcome by whistling. The youths left the area quickly and were afraid to tell Mose Wright what had happened.

Carolyn's husband Roy was out of town at the time. After he returned several days later he and his half-brother J. W. Milam went to Wright's cabin in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 28 and forcibly took Till away with them. They beat Till, then shot him in the head and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River tied to a 70-pound fan from a cotton gin.

Till's badly disfigured body was discovered three days later. When questioned, Bryant and Milam admitted they had taken Till from his great-uncle's house but had let him go. They were later indicted for murder by the Tallahatchie County Grand Jury. Local press coverage at first expressed shame and anger but quickly turned defensive as the story spread across the nation. Mamie Till Bradley had her son's body sent back to Chicago and insisted on an open-casket viewing. Very graphic  photographs were published in Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender.

Jury seated on first two rows.
Bryant and Milam's trial began less than a month later on September 19. The defense claimed that the body could not be positively identified. Both were acquitted a week later after an hour's deliberation by the all-male, all-white jury. In an interview with Look magazine the next year they admitted that they killed Till, with Milam saying "Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless....  'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'"

In addition to global media coverage of the case and the wider issues of justice for African Americans, it has appeared in a number of literary works, including Bebe Moore Campbell's novel Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, Toni Morrison's play Dreaming Emmett, and poems Afterimages by Audre Lorde, A Bronzeville Mother Loiters In Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon by Gwendolyn Brooks and Mississippi 1955 by Langston Hughes. 

                                        Mississippi—1955 (1955)
                                             by Langston Hughes

                                   Oh what sorrow!   
                                   Oh what pity!
                                   Oh, what pain
                                   That tears and blood
                                   Should mix like rain
                                   And terror come again
                                   To Mississippi.

                                   Come again?
                                   Where has terror been?
                                   On vacation? Up North?
                                   In some other section
                                   Of the nation,
                                   Lying low, unpublicized?
                                   Masked—with only
                                   Jaundiced eyes
                                   Showing through the mask?

                                   Oh, what sorrow,
                                   Pity, pain,
                                   That tears and blood
                                   Should mix like rain
                                   In Mississippi!
                                   And terror, fetid hot,
                                   Yet clammy cold


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