mamie bradley

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THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL, Part 1 of 2

This year marks the 60th Anniversary since the brutal kidnapping and lynching of Emmett Louis Till, in Money, Mississippi, back in August of 1955, so I thought I’d share a little history with you, in light of the fact that it seems that killing young Black people without legal repercussions has become fashionable again. This is from a historical presentation I gave last week, and now it’s here for you all at Black American OURstory.

Emmett Till was born inChicago on 25 July 1941. At the age of 13, he was sent by his parents to visithis uncle, Moses Wright, in Money, Mississippi. Till was reportedly dared bysome local boys to enter Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market and talk to the white woman behindthe counter, Carolyn Bryant, whose husband owned the store. According to William Bradford Huie, ajournalist who later interviewed his killers—the only people who could leave usan account of what supposedly happened in that store, mind you— Till enteredand touched Carol Bryant’s hand while at the counter, and whistled at her as heleft the store. Four days later, on 28 August, 1955, he was abducted from his uncle’shome by Bryant’s husband, Roy, and Roy’s half brother, J. W. Milam. Till’smangled body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River, with a largecotton-gin fan tied around his neck. He had been brutally beaten and shotthrough the head.

Till’s body was returned to Chicago, where his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so everyone could see the brutality of her son’s death. The NAACP and other organizations planned demonstrations following the publication of photos of Till’s corpse in Jet magazine. On 19 September the kidnapping and murder trial of Bryant and Milam began. Till’s uncle, Moses Wright, identified the two men as the assailants, but the all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of Till’s murder after only 67-minutes of deliberation. According to one of the jurors, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

That’s the brief Wikipedia version of the Emmett Till story, but for those of you who actually like to scrutinize the history, let’s take a closer look via the documents:

  • Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Bradley, on 25 Dec 1954: The Jackson Daily News and the Vicksburg Evening Post published this often-used photo of them on September 1, 1955, the day after Emmett’s bloated corpse was pulled from the Tallahatchie River.
  • Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, 1955: Emmett and some of his friends went to Bryant’s to buy bubble gum on August 24, only his third day in Money.
  • Telegram from The Chicago Defender to the Eisenhower White House, 1 Sept 1955: John Sengstacke, Editor of one of the most widely circulated African American newspapers in the country at the time, inquires about what action the federal government planned to take about Emmett’s heinous murder.
  • J. William Barba’s reply to John Sengstacke (The Chicago Defender), 2 Sept 1955: According to Barba, Assistant to the Special Counsel to President Eisenhower, “inquiry has failed to reveal any facts which provide a basis for Federal jurisdiction or action.” Now follow the dates; Emmett’s body had only been pulled from the Tallahatchie River 2 days prior. Was Barba lying?
  • A Grief-stricken Mamie Bradley Mourning Over Emmett’s Casket, 3 Sept 1955: Emmett’s funeral was held in Chicago, Ill, at Robert’s Temple Church of God. Notice that his mother has pre-lynching photos of him posted on the casket lid. Mrs. Bradley chose an open-casket service, saying “There was no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” Thousands of people attended the funeral and witness the brutality done to Emmett.
  • The Face of Emmett Till: as it appeared to funeral mourners looking down into his casket on September 3, 1955.
  • J. Edgar Hoover to Dillon Anderson re Emmett, 6 Sept 1955 (pg. 1 of 3): On September 6, Emmett was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery, Cook County, IL. On that same day, btw, a grand jury indicted Milam and Bryant. And the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, sent this letter to the Special Assistant to the President, Dillon Anderson, regarding the rallying work of the Communist Party USA around civil rights generally and Till specifically. Hoover claims “Communist Party functionaries… will launch a huge campaign protesting the killing of the 14-year-old Chicago Negro boy, Emmett Louis Till.” He writes, “The campaign will involve a scathing condemnation of police officials in the State of Mississippi and will be designed to show that full equality for all races does not exist in the United States.” As if CP USA propaganda, rather than actual U.S. history, was necessary to make that point. The other two pages read the same; Hoover focusing on how the CP might use Till’s murder and the acquittal of his killers to make America look bad, rather than whether or not Mamie Bradley received justice for her son’s lynching.
  • The original issue of Jet Magazine featuring the story of Emmett’s murder, 15 Sept 1955: John H. Johnson admitted in his 1989 memoir that initially he had “serious reservations about publishing the gruesome photos of Emmett,” but did so because after talking to Mamie Bradley, he realized they had a responsibility to show people the extent of the savagery of the attack on the child. Only Jet and one other African American publication [see Part 2] printed Till’s photos and story, with no white publications initially willing to do so. Also note that nowhere on the cover is Emmett’s story mentioned. Jet would go on to publish 10 more issues that featured information about the Till case, but this was the first one.

[stay tuned to Black American OURstory for THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL, Part 2, coming soon…]

Justice for Emmett Till Flyer

On September 23, 1955, an all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the two white men accused of Emmett Till’s lynching. The verdict aroused international protest. The NAACP organized mass demonstrations nationwide under the auspices of local branches with Mamie Bradley, Emmett Till’s mother, as the featured speaker. Mrs. Bradley was sometimes accompanied by Ruby Hurley. Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, and Congressman Charles Diggs (D-Michigan), an observer at the trial, also served as speakers. In the aftermath of the trial, growing public demand for federal protection of civil rights led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.