The most infamous case of that year and one that is often cited as the single incident that ignited the civil rights movement is the brutal murder of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year old boy form the South Side of Chicago who was visiting his relatives in Leflore County. The Till Murder aroused the public, both black and white. It was reported on the front pages of virtually every black newspaper throughout the country. It prompted thousands of blacks to become directly involved in participating in civil rights demonstrations, marches and protests.
On the evening of August 24, after Emmett had been visiting for almost a week, he joined seven black boys and a girl-all teenagers, three of whom were visiting the Delta-in Mose Wright’s 1946 Ford and drove to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a country store in Money, a hamlet consisting of a few hundred residents located in Leflore County. The store was owned and operated by Ron Bryant, a 24-year old farmer soldier, and his wife, Carolyn Bryant. She was 21-years old and had won two beauty contests while in high school.
When the eight teenagers pulled up to Bryant’s Grocery at about 7:30 PM, Ron Bryant was hauling shrimp to Texas. He had left his wife alone with Juanita Milam, the wife of Bryant’s brother in law, J.W. Milam. Outside the store, Emmett was showing off a photograph he carried in his wallet of a white girl who he claimed was his girlfriend in Chicago. A couple of the boys then began taunting Emmett, daring him to go inside the store and ask Carolyn Bryant for a date. His cousin, Curtis Jones, recalled that one of the local black boys told Till, “Hey there’s a [white] girl in that store there. I bet you won’t go in there and talk to her.”
Rather than duck away from the challenge that his boasting had provoked, Emmett enter Bryant’s store alone. While the boys watched through the window from outside, Emmett bought two cents worth of bubble gum from Mrs. Bryant, and then, when he was leaving, he said, “Bye, Baby,” and reportedly wolf-whistled at her. Then Emmett’s companions rushed in, pulled him away from the store and hustled him into the Ford and drove away.
The following day, the incident at Bryant’s store had become just another good story to Emmett and his cousin. But through the grapevine, the story was getting around the town of Money. Emmett and Jones had decided to conceal the encounter from their great-uncle, Mose Wright, hoping it would soon be forgotten. However, it was far from forgotten by Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy, who learned about it soon after he returned from Texas.
On August 28, after midnight, a car pulled up to Mose Wright’s cabin, where Emmett and his cousin were staying. Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law J.W. Milam had come to get that “boy who done the talking’.” Mose pleaded with the two men that Emmett was only 14 and this was only his second visit to Mississippi. They ignored Mose’s pleas and dragged Emmett into their car and drove away. As they were taking Emmett away, one of them reportedly said to Mose, “If you cause any trouble, you’ll never live to be sixty-five.”
Exactly what occurred next is unknown, and it has been subject to divergent accounts. According to William Bradford Huie, an Alabama journalist, who had paid $4,000 to Bryant and Milam to tell their story after they had been acquitted of murdering Till, the two men claimed they only intended to frighten Emmett, not to kill him. But Emmett refused to repent, they said, even after being pistol whipped several times. Milam told Huie, “What else could we do. He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I’ve never hurt a nigger in my life. 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.”
In Huie’s account, he describes how Milam and Bryant drove Emmett to the Tallahatchie River and made the boy carry a 100-pound cotton-gin fan from the back of the truck to the river bank before ordering him to undress. Milam then fired one bullet at Till’s head. Both men then tied the fan around the boy’s neck and dumped his body into the Tallahatchee River.
The body was so badly mangled and decomposed that Mose Wright could only identify it as Till’s from the ring on the boy’s finger, which bore the inscription “L.T. May 25, 1943.” The ring had belonged to his father, Louis.
Wexler, Sanford, An Eyewitness History of the Civil Rights Movement, Checkmark Books, New York, New York, 1999.