The Day That Emmett Died | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Day That Emmett Died

Twelve-year-old Simeon Wright lay in his bed in his family's small house near Money, Miss., in the Mississippi Delta. It was Saturday night, Aug. 27, 1955, and Simeon was tired from a busy week. Wright was looking up at the raindrop ceiling, gray with the casts of traces of moonlight. For the last eight days, he had been hanging out with his older cousin Emmett Louis Till, and other cousins and friends, all teens—or, like Simeon, almost-teens.

When Emmett, or "Bobo" as his relatives called him, came to town from Chicago, he was a bit in charge. He was a city boy, after all, and his teachers considered him a natural leader.

Emmett, who was born on the South Side of Chicago on July 25, 1941, had lost his father at age 2, when his soldier-dad was hanged in Italy during World War II. Emmett then contracted polio when he was 5. The effects of the disease made him stutter—but he was still an active teenager who liked to play practical jokes on friends and cousins.

Along with his cousin Wheeler Parker, 16, the 160-pound teen had taken the Illinois Central train down to Mississippi for a summer visit to relatives who had stayed around when his family moved to Chicago. He arrived on Sunday, Aug. 21. While he was in Mississippi, Emmett shared a bed with 12-year-old Simeon. During the day, he helped picked cotton for his great-uncle and Simeon's daddy, Mose Wright, a sharecropper.

Fear of White Wrath

One of the previous week's most eventful days had been Wednesday, Aug. 24. After leaving the cotton fields around 7:30 p.m., Emmett, Simeon and Wheeler joined 16-year-old Maurice Wright, 15-year-old Roosevelt Crawford and 18-year-old Ruthie Mae Crawford for a trip into town. They had a little money, earned while picking cotton, in their pockets to buy some candy and soda.

"Town" wasn't much of one. There were only four main buildings. They headed toward the one they catered to black field hands—Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market—owned by Roy Bryant, a 24-year-old veteran of the 82nd Airborne. His wife, Carolyn—a 21-year-old high school dropout from Indianola with two sons—often worked behind the counter. The Bryants were members of the Baptist church and lived in the back of the store.

Carolyn Bryant was working that day, along with Juanita Milam, the wife of Bryant's half-brother J.W. Milam, 36. The kids hung out for a bit in front of the store, as was common there. They didn't all crowd into the store at once. First, Wheeler went in and bought something, then Emmett went inside.

But Emmett, probably due to his big-city background, didn't play by the rules that were so ingrained in blacks and whites in the Jim Crow South. When he paid for his gum, he placed the money directly into the hands of Mrs. Bryant rather than on the counter, a Mississippi taboo that Till knew nothing about, or didn't think mattered very much.

Simeon went into the store to get Emmett to come back outside. Soon, Carolyn Bryant would walk out of the store past the group. Then Till whistled at her, infuriating her.

That whistle shot shivers up the spines of Till's Mississippi cousins. They knew of the harsh consequences that could come when a black person stepped over such a forbidden line, especially a young black man toward a married white woman. It was unheard of to whistle at a white woman. Till's whistle was heard loudly on that day by everyone within earshot.

The cousins rushed Emmett into a car and drove like lightening away from the store. They were scared and paranoid. At one point, they believed Carolyn Bryant was following them. They thought she had a gun. They stopped the car, jumped out and ran into the fields to get away from her. They soon figured out that she or whoever was in the car was not after them.

Fear of white wrath had set in; Emmett simply had not grasped the entire concept of what was happening around him. Simeon feared for him, but the young people decided not to tell Mose, fearing that he would send Emmett home to Chicago, before their summer vacation had ended. Rumors went around that the young man had "wolf-whistled" at Bryant, but still they did not tell. They did continue to fear, however.

Four more days would go by before the fear would prove warranted.

Choking Life With Fear

Simeon didn't lie awake long on Saturday night. Soon the strong hold of sleepiness took over for Simeon and Emmett, and they were out for the night, their youthful energy stored for a new day.

As Wright lay sleeping, the pounding of boots and strong voices traveled through the home, like smoke from a blazing fire, choking life with fear. It was 2 a.m., early the morning of Aug. 28.

Flashlights and voices cut through the darkness of the room, alarming the boys, that night four in one room, two to a bed. They awoke to see what looked to be giant white men with pistols dangling at their sides rushing into their room. The men were bullying Mose Wright and demanding "the boy from Chicago that done the talking."

When asked if he was the one, Till said "Yeah." The response—not the "yes, sir" the men believed they were entitled to by race—agitated the intruders even more. "Don't say, 'Yeah' to me: I'll blow your head off. Get your clothes on," Milam boomed.

The men, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, then told Emmett, who was sleeping only in his shorts, to put on his clothes. They turned to Wright and instructed him to close his eyes and go back to sleep. He silently refused, standing helplessly as his great-nephew prepared to leave his house with the two white men.

Minutes passed while Simeon watched as his cousin, seemingly unafraid of what might happen, put on his clothes. Little did Simeon know that his cousin, his friend was dressing for death. All that the 12-year-old saw was the most courageous boy on Earth. Emmett demanded that he be able to put on his socks, after being told to leave them, in front of men who clearly meant him harm.

Simeon then watched as Emmett walked out of the room, poised and a prisoner of two men much older, much larger, filled with hate.

The men then marched Emmett out the front door as Moses and his wife, Elizabeth, begged and pleaded for Emmett with promises of payment and sending him home to Chicago, which was the way that young black men were often saved from white men in the South. Their pleas grew more unsuccessful with each footstep. The men were intent on taking Emmett, on making him pay for what he had done, for violating the sacred code of the South.

The night was silent, chilly for a hot August night thick with suffocating humidity. Simeon swallowed the disturbing air of night, closed his mouth and wondered with fear what would happen to his cousin from Chicago.

'I Know How to Work 'Em'

Simeon, of course, would not see what happened to his cousin next—but he would learn the gory, horrifying details later, mostly from the memories of Willie Reed, an 18-year-old black field hand who said he saw Bryant and Milam barreling down a dirt road toward Sheridan's Plantation in Drew, which was managed by Milam's brother, Leslie Milam. Four white men were in the truck; three black men were in the back, one of them Emmett. The other two are suspected of assisting the white men in the murder.

After returning to the plantation later that morning, Reed heard screams of pain coming from the barn. He tried to get closer to look, but was blocked by Milam and his Colt .45. The two men would later tell Look magazine that they pistol-whipped Emmett with their .45s—much as Milam had done to get information out of German prisoners while fighting overseas. "I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him," Milam—known as "Big Milam" due to his hefty frame—would later say.

Then Milam got a discarded fan, three feet high and circular, used to gin cotton. They took Emmett to the banks of the Tallahatchie River—where they would later say they shot him in the head to finish him off—tied the 75-pound fan to his by-then naked body with barbed-wire, and pushed him into the river. They returned to Milam's house to burn the boy's clothes. They later said his thick-soled crepe shoes took three hours to burn.

It took only about 72 hours for Emmett's badly deformed body to turn up on Aug. 31, found by a group of boys fishing eight miles downstream in the river. His left eye was gone, forehead crushed, his head had a gaping bullet hole. Three days later, the body was returned to Chicago where his mother, then known as Mamie E. Bradley, insisted on an open casket so that the world could see what white Mississippi had done to her boy, whom she could no longer recognize. On Sept. 15, Jet Magazine published a photo of the corpse, shocking the sensibility of a nation that had turned its back on race violence for so long.

It was widely known that Bryant and Milam committed the crimes; they were arrested and then tried and quickly acquitted of the murder on Sept. 25, 1955, by an all-white male jury that deliberated for 63 minutes. Then in October, Bryant and Milam—who could not be re-tried—sold their confession to Look magazine for $4,000, admitting to killing the boy. They, however, claimed to have acted alone, implicating no others in the crime.

However, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp argues in "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" that other witnesses were there and that others, who are still living, participated in the murders. His film led, 50 years later, to an FBI investigation into the case, which included exhumation of Till's body, and positive ID. The new probe concluded last week, and the nation awaits to see if new indictments are forthcoming in the case.

This narrative is based on commentary by Simeon Wright at Jackson State University, research by Keith Beauchamp and PBS, the Look Magazine interview with Bryant and Milam, and articles that appeared in the Black Collegian and The Washington Post.

Additional reporting by Donna Ladd.

Previous Comments


What a touching and painful story? American Indians and Black people have displayed an amazing capacity to forgive and forget. From all I have heard and read there weren't any doubt (no need to mention reasonable doubt)about the guilt of those two at the trial or in the court of pubic opinions. You can't fairly juxtapose the O.J. Simpson case to this one either despite all of the white wrath that followed. I believe O. J was factually guilty too, but I also know there were reasonable and unreasonable doubt.

Ray Carter

Amen. One addendum to a previous thread is that I almost never encounter black racism. Almost never. What's remarkable about this is that there's much more reason for there to be black racism than there is to be white racism, and yet white racism is still more prevalent, 40 years after segregation...didn't end, actually, just merely changed from being a fact of law to a fact of culture. Still generally a fact of life, though. My take on O.J. is that he probably did it, but LAPD mishandling of the case--and the behavior of Mark Fuhrman--guaranteed that a fair guilty verdict was impossible. Ironically, white racists in the LAPD are probably responsible for O.J. getting away with murder. Not so with Till's murderers, who should have had the book thrown at them. Given your occupation, you know all too well, I'm sure, that even though the majority of murder victims are non-white, 80% of those on death row are there for killing whites. Our justice system has changed in the past 50 years, but only incrementally. We've got an 110 meter dash to run and we're about 10 meters into it. I've read the Look confession in its entirety. Everybody who hasn't should, and can, by clicking here. Particularly chilling is this quote from Milam: Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a n****** in my life. I like n****** -- in their place -- I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, n****** are gonna stay in their place. N****** ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a n***** gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that n***** throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. '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. Many of the letters to the editor are also pretty distressing. I've had to write about the Till case for my criminal justice book. It's tough to read about. Tough to examine. Tough to realize how damned little has changed. And people vote for the Confederate flag because they like our state government's heritage, its history? Lord. No wonder so many northerners think we're all stupid, inbred, toothless, shotgun-stroking yahoos. Mississippi whites sure as hell vote like it. Cheers, TH

Tom Head

Oh, and tough to look at that photo, too, and to realize he's the same sweet-looking kid we see on the cover of this week's issue after Milam and company got done with him. And now we see kids just as sweet-looking, just as innocent, who often do things that are not substantially worse than whistling at a woman, and end up thrown in prison and having their lives destroyed for it because they're supposed to be "thugs." Which side won the civil rights movement, folks? Because sometimes it doesn't really feel like ours did. Cheers, TH

Tom Head

Till case update today in the Chicago Tribune: A Mississippi prosecutor said she is still uncertain if any charges will be lodged in the decades-old murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, even as the FBI concluded its investigation late last month. "We don't have the case yet. We have to review the entire case, every document," Joyce Chiles, district attorney of Mississippi's Fourth Circuit, said Friday. "After that, we will make a decision if there is an appropriate person to charge and what the charge will be." Chiles said the review could take weeks, which could push any charging decision into next year. As they prepare to look over the FBI's investigation, Chiles said she and her staff are trying not to be influenced by the national attention put on the case. Till's brutal 1955 murder helped spark the modern civil rights movement. "We are trying our best to handle it as any other case in our office," Chiles said. [...] Asked whether Carolyn Bryant or others could be charged, Chiles insisted the office has made no decisions one way or another. Chiles said she has received periodic updates since the U.S. Justice Department reopened the investigation in 2004. "At this point, we don't know who we're looking at and won't know until we review the evidence," she said. Investigators have combed through details of the case, poring through old documents, reinterviewing aging witnesses and revisiting sites related to the crime. Earlier this year, Till's body was exhumed from a Chicago area cemetery, and the Cook County medical examiner performed the first autopsy on Till. With a surprisingly well-preserved body, investigators recovered a bullet fragment from the body and through DNA testing confirmed the body was indeed Till's. Hallie Gail Bridges, assistant district attorney under Chiles, said possible charges under current statutes are murder and kidnapping.


Interesting that Jerry Mitchell's short piece about the Till film, which came out Saturday after the film opened, contradicts what Chiles told the Tribune about the charges. We'll try to find out which is correct, and if the kidnapping charge is still possible. That seems a key point being that other people helped kidnap him as well as the torture and murder, apparently: A much-publicized documentary on the 1955 killing of Emmett Till debuted Friday in Mississippi. Questions afterward centered not on the film but on whether those who killed the 14-year-old from Chicago ever will be brought to justice. The FBI recently confirmed it had concluded its investigation into the killing, and agents say they hope to complete their resulting report by year's end and deliver it to District Attorney Joyce Chiles of Greenville. "Then we can review to see if there's anyone to prosecute," she said Friday. "If there is, what is the appropriate charge?" She acknowledged murder likely is the only charge that can be pursued because the statute of limitations bars nearly all other charges.


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