Emmett Till's Horrific Murder and the People Who Still Haven't Paid

As far as atrocious acts of American racism go, it’s saying a lot that it doesn’t get much worse than the murder of Emmett Till.
Emmett Till's Horrific Murder and the People Who Still Haven't Paid

As far as atrocious acts of American racism go, it’s saying a lot that it doesn’t get much worse than the murder of Emmett Till. Even more than 60 years after the 14-year-old boy was brutally killed by two white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at one of their wives, his name is still being literally assassinated.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till

(Image Editor/Flickr)

In many ways, Emmett Till was just a normal 14-year-old boy living in Chicago. He was mostly known for his keen fashion sense, which in 1955 involved a lot of suspenders, and playing pranks like putting underwear on his sleeping friends’ heads. That’s a good-ass prank right there.

America in 1955

Brown v. Board of Education

(Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

You could probably say as much about any given year, but 1955 was a particularly bad time to be black in the U.S., especially in the South. Brown v. Board of Education had just passed, so that was cool, but it led to even higher tensions on the street level, so there was literally no winning. It was during this time that Till decided to visit family in Mississippi, a completely normal thing that everyone should get to regret for normal reasons.

What Happened in Mississippi

During his visit, Till entered a shop owned by Roy Bryant, whose wife sold him candy, and that’s about all we really know. Till was with cousins, but they didn’t see the entire encounter, and Carolyn Bryant’s story has never been consistent. He may have whistled at her, called her by an overly familiar pet name like “baby,” and/or full-on assaulted her. Note that none of these actions carry the death penalty.

Till’s Stutter

Bryant's Grocery

(Eames Heard/Wikimedia Commons)

If Till had whistled in Bryant’s store, and that usually is part of the story, it’s entirely possible Bryant thought too highly of herself. Till’s mother later said he had a stutter and she’d taught him to whistle before attempting to pronounce sounds he had trouble with, including “b” sounds. He’d been buying bubble gum, so that definitely tracks.

Till’s Murder

Glendora Gin

(Deisenbe/Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever happened, Roy Bryant heard about something, so he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, showed up on Till’s relatives’ doorstep in the middle of the night, snatched Till from his bed, beat him mostly to death, shot him, and dumped his body in a local river. When his remains were recovered three days later, he was so unrecognizable that his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so everyone would have to reckon with what he’d suffered. Those pictures are very available, but be warned, she had a point.

There Were Conspiracy Theories

In fact, the extent of Till’s mutilation played a key role in his killers’ defense after the county sheriff insisted the body they found couldn’t possibly be identified. He even went so far as to suggest the NAACP had planted the body (apparently from their well-stocked frame job body storage facility) and Till was safely back home, so racists were crying false flag even back then.

The Trial

Tallahatchie County Courthouse

(Calvin Beale/Wikimedia Commons)

The defense rolled with the story, arguing that the prosecution couldn’t prove Bryant and Milam killed Till because they couldn’t prove Till was even dead, and it somehow worked. The all-white, all-male (that’s the “somehow”) jury took less than one hour to acquit the defendants.

They Confessed Everything

Display at National Civil Rights Museum

(Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

Having been cleared of beating and shooting a child to death, Bryant and Milam wasted no time explaining exactly how they beat and shot a child to death. Just a few months later, Look Magazine paid the men thousands of dollars to run an article detailing their story and exactly how unbad they felt about it, so that … “sucks” seems like not a strong enough word but also the only word.

Reopening the Case

Emmett Till's grave

(Nick Number/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2004, the FBI reopened the case to investigate suggestions that Bryant and Milam weren’t the only people involved in Till’s murder. They didn’t turn up much that was legally useful, but they did conduct a long overdue autopsy that confirmed, among other things, that the body in question was, in fact, Emmett Till. You know. Just in case there were still any holdouts.

Carolyn Bryant’s (Possible) Confession

In a 2008 interview with a historian writing a book on the case, he claims Carolyn Bryant admitted she’d lied about Till harassing her. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the confession on tape, and she later insisted she’d said no such thing, but she also did a whole lot of dubious insisting in…

Carolyn Bryant’s Autobiography


(Kaitlyn Baker/Unsplash)

In 2022, a memoir written by Carolyn Bryant that wasn’t supposed to be released until her death was leaked and discovered to contain not only even more inconsistencies but outright verifiable falsehoods. It ends with her assertion that she “always felt like a victim as well as Emmett.” This did not go over well.

Carolyn Bryant’s Arrest Warrant

A grand jury considered charging Bryant with kidnapping and manslaughter after the 2004 investigation and ultimately found insufficient evidence to do so, but in 2022, Till’s family members found out about an unserved arrest warrant for Bryant from all the way back in 1955. The grand jury still decided not to charge the nearly 90-year-old woman, but surely, they’ll get her ass someday.

Emmett Till Alerts

In 2022, the Caucus of African American Leaders began offering the Emmett Till Alerts system, a service that alerts subscribers to reports of hate crimes. It’s kind of like an opposite Amber Alert, instructing people not to go out searching but maybe stay home.

The Killers’ Later Lives

J.W. Milam's house

(Deisenbe/Wikimedia Commons)

If there were any justice in the world, you couldn’t admit to brutally murdering a child on the front pages and then just go about your life, and there might just be. Boycotts forced Roy Bryant to close his store and take up welding, which eventually left him blind. He and Carolyn divorced, and he served prison time for food stamp fraud. Milam was kicked off his farm, and when he finally wormed his way into a loan, he couldn’t get any black workers and went broke paying more expensive white laborers. His house was later turned into a black church, which seems satisfying but also dangerous. The only thing worse than ghosts is racist ghosts.

Top image: Image Editor/Flickr

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