The Emmett Till Case As a Catalyst for a United Effort against Racial Discrimination in the US

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

23 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Race Relations in the South and in Chicago in the 1950s
2.1 In Chicago
2.2 In the South

3. The Emmett Till Case
3.1 The Murder of Emmett Till
3.2 Emmett Till’s Body Returns to Chicago
3.3 The Funeral
3.4 The Trial

4. Emmett Till as a Catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement
4.1 Age and Provenance
4.2 Commitment of Mamie Till Bradley
4.3 The Interest of the Labor Unions for the Case
4.1 The NAACP and the Till case
4.1 National Response and the Influence of the Media

5. Conclusion

6. References

7. List of Illustrations

1. Introduction

You may not realize it but you are making history. Bobo1 is not the only Negro that was lynched in Mississippi, but this is the first trial of its kind that has ever been held in Mississippi. The kind of death your son died is responsible for this trial. (Hudson-Weems, 2006, p.3)

This citation is taken from the unpublished biography of the energetic Civil Rights activist Rayfield Mooty. It addresses to Mrs. Mamie Till Bradley, mother of Emmett Louis Till. The 14-year-old Emmett Till was from Chicago (IL) visiting his relatives in the Mississippi Delta in August 1955 where he fell victim to race related violence. The black boy reportedly flirted with a white woman; an absolute taboo in the Jim Crow South. Her husband and his half-brother, furious about the incident, kidnapped Emmett, mutilated him, shot him in the head and disposed his body in the Tallahatchie River. After the body was found three days later, Mamie Till Bradley insisted on a public funeral with an open casket to “let the world see, what they did to [her] boy” (cf. Whitfield, 1988, p.23).

Although racially motivated lynchings were nothing out of the ordinary in Mississippi, tens of thousands attended the funeral and the media attention was enormous. Goldsby (1996, p.254) refers to it as the “first great […] media event of the civil rights movement.” Also other scholars and journalists2 refuse to date the Civil Rights Movement from the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott and assume that the Emmett Till murder marks the emergence of the Movement. When reviewing the scientific discussion, it is striking that predominantly more recent literature3 mentions the Emmett Till case as a trigger or as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.

This paper is to shed some light on the question why Emmett Till could evolve into such a historically important person given the circumstances that race related violence in Mississippi was nothing out of the ordinary in the 1950s. Therefore, after a brief evaluation of the race relations in Mississippi and in Chicago, the Emmett Till murder case will be examined. In a later part, the paper will address the prerequisites necessary to make the case that famous. Special attention will be given to the commitment of Mamie Till Bradley and the media landscape in the US in the 1950s.

2. Race Relations in the South and in Chicago in the 1950s

2.1 In Chicago

Emmett Louis Till was born near Chicago in July 1941. At the age of four, his father, Louis Till, died leaving Emmett’s mother Mamie Till Bradley4 responsible for her son’s upbringing. She had been born in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi but she migrated together with over 214,000 blacks to Chicago in the late 1930s (cf. Whitfield, 1988, p. 15). The Windy City became a refuge for southern blacks because of its great living conditions. In 1954, more than five hundred thousand residents were black constituting almost 15% of Chicago’s total population (Crowe, 2003, p.39). The industrial metropolis offered numerous job opportunities, in particular in its vast stockyards (cf. Whitfield, 1988, p. 15). Chicago had enforced de facto (by practice) segregation. Although there were predominantly black and white schools, churches and neighborhoods, there were also exceptions. Public facilities were open for members of the black and of the white society. Emmett lived in a mainly black middle class neighborhood and attended a predominantly black school, but according to Hudson - Weems (2006, p.7), he also had white classmates, teachers and friends. Even interracial marriage was possible in Chicago (cf. Hudson - Weems, 2006, p.7).

2.2 In the South

Race relations in Mississippi were different. The state had enforced de jure (by law) segregation which means that the separation of the black and the white society on all fronts was absolute law. Southern blacks lived in special neighborhoods, attended separate schools and worked in different jobs. Even restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains were separated for whites and blacks (cf. Hudson - Weems, 2006, p.7). The blacks in the south often worked low-paid jobs which reflected in their inferior economic situation. While whites earned an average family income of $5,200, blacks had to live off $1,400 (cf. Beito, 2009, p.116). The place of blacks in society was oppressive and it was generally expected that this dictated inferiority reflected in their speech and mannerisms. Whites were feared by the blacks and they were to be treated with respect.

‘yassah ‘ and ‘nawsah’ were obligatory for black people when addressing white males; regardless of age and social status (cf. Hudson - Weems, 2006, p.7).

However, also black men were feared by the white population. According to Frances Berry (1982, p.112), black men found something strangely alluring and seductive […] in the appearance of the white woman; they are aroused and stimulated by its foreignness to their experience of sexual pleasures, and it moves them to gratify their lust at any cost and in spite of every obstacle.

The fear of black sexual violation ideology was fostered by contemporary best-selling novels like The Clansman and The Leopard ’ s Spots which depicted black men as shameless rapists (cf. Whitfield, 1988, p. 2).

This fear was additionally stoked by the state legislature of Mississippi and soon converted into pure hatred. Intermarriage and intercourse across the color line were already considered a crime and punishable by up to five hundred dollars or six month imprisonment. However, some Southern Governors felt that these penalties were not sufficient and suggested more drastic measures. Governor of South Carolina, Ben Tillman stated that he “would lead a mob to lynch a negro” for the violation of a white woman (Whitfield, 1988, p. 3). Jeff Davis, governor and US senator goes as far that [he] would rather tear, screaming from her mother’s arms, [his] little daughter and bury her alive than to see her arm in arm with the best nigger on earth (Whitfield, 1988, p. 4).

Such demagogic approval of self-administered justice and mob activity were accompanied by an enormous stress on honor; a remain from the early nineteenth century. According to Whitfield, (1988, p.5), white men felt only as real men if they responded to an insult; if not they were marked as “cowards and liars”. Physical contact, but also mere eye contact could be considered insulting. Whitfield (1988, p12) provides an example of a black woman tutoring a disguised journalist in the 1960s who had pretended to have crossed the color line:

You know that you don’t want to even look at a white woman. In fact, you look down at the ground or the other way. […] If you pass by a picture show, and they‘ve got [white] women on the posters outside, don’t look at them either […]. Somebody is sure to say: ‘Hey boy - what are you looking at the white gal like that for?’ (Whitfield, 1988, p. 12).

Of course, not every dispute was settled only by a lecture. According to official statistics more than five hundred black people had been lynched in Mississippi before Emmet Till arrived in August 1955. The dark figure is even higher; Hampton speaks of “thousands

[…] racially motivated murders” (cf. Hampton, 1990, p. 2).

Emmett’s relatives lived in Leflore County which was located in the very east of the Mississippi Delta. About 65% of its residents were black but nearly none of them was eligible to vote. The County was “rural and isolated, even by the standards of the delta” (cf. Beito, 2009, p116)

It can be noted that the social and cultural climate in Mississippi differed greatly from the one in Chicago. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was accustomed to a more relaxed relation between both races and his lack of awareness regarding the customs in the south are not surprising.

3. The Emmett Till Case

3.1 The Murder of Emmett Till

On August 20 1955, Mamie Till Bradley sent her son Emmett, nicknamed Bo, to spend his summer vacation with his cousins Maurice and Simeon Wright, Wheeler Parker, his greatuncle Mose Wright, and Wrights child Robert. They lived in Leflore County, located in the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta (cf. Beito, 2009, p.115).

Emmett blended in nicely with his cousins and rapidly enjoyed their respect and admiration. He carried a photograph of a white girl in his briefcase who he claimed was his girlfriend - unthinkable for blacks in the south at that time. According to Whitfield (1988, p.16), he “boasted of the attributes of that white stuff and enjoyed passing the photo around to his friends and relatives”.

Emmett had been in the Delta only for four days when he had the encounter leading to his death. On August 24th 1955, Emmett and his Cousins drove to Money, (MS) to buy some candy. One of the three stores in Money was owned and operated by Roy Bryant and his twenty-one-year-old wife Carolyn Bryant. At that day, Carolyn was the one taking care of the store while her husband was on a trip to Texas (cf. Hudson - Weems, 2006, p.9). According to the testimony of Emmett’s cousin Curtis Jones, Emmett also showed the picture of his white girlfriend to some local youngsters in front of the store of the Bryant’s. One boy then dared Emmett to walk in the store and to talk to Carolyn Bryant (cf. Hampton, 1990, p.3).

What happened next is still a matter of ongoing controversy. Mrs. Bryant declared under oath that Emmett first purchased bubblegum worth 2 cents. Instead of leaving the store after that, he grabbed her hand and asked: “How about a date baby?” The testimony further says that Mrs. Bryant intended to withdraw to the back of the store but that she was stopped by Emmett who hold her waist while whispering: “Don’t be afraid of me baby, I ain’t gonna hurt you. I been with white girls before.” One of Emmett’s cousins then pulled him out of the store (cf. Whitfield, 1988, p.17).

Emmett’s cousin Curtis Jones testimony differs. He stated that Emmett was leaving the store calmly but said “Bye Baby” to Mrs. Bryant (cf. Hampton, 1990, p.3). According to Hudson-Weems (2006, p.8), Emmett also wolf - whistled at Mrs. Bryant. This version was supported by Simeon Wright, Emmett’s other cousin:

[Emmett] came out of the store […] then he whistled. He did whistle and after that we all became afraid. We ran and jumped in the car. (Hudson - Weems, 2006, p.9).

It can be noted here that at that point Emmett and his cousins knew that Emmett’s gesture had been inappropriate. They rushed home without telling anybody (cf. Huson - Weems, 2006, p.10). Whitfield (1988, p.19) holds that also Carolyn Bryant decided not to make the incident public. According to him, the black youngsters who had witnessed Emmett’s massive infringement of the Jim Crow etiquette were the ones who spread the story. Whitfield further states that it was Maurice Wright, Emmett’s oldest cousin, of whom Roy Bryant first heard about the incident (cf. Whitfield, 1988, p.19).

Hudson - Weems provides a different version of the story. According to her, Carolyn Bryant told Roy Bryant right upon his return from Texas what had happened. Hudson - Weems (2006, p.10) presumes that she [Carolyn] was still enraged, so much that three days were not enough to cool her desire for revenge. She must have known that her husband’s reaction would be to some extend a threat to the youth’s safety.

There is no way to determine how Roy Bryant really heard about the incident. However, considering the prevalent race relations in Mississippi, it seems unlikely the Maurice Wright told the shop owner what had happened because he must have known about the possible consequences for his cousin.

Nevertheless, it is certain that Roy Briant together with his half-brother John William Milam (also called “Big Milam” because he weighed 235 pounds and stood six feet two inches) furiously knocked on Mose Wright’s door at around 2:00 A.M. on August 28 (cf. Beito, 2009, p.117). Both men had 45mm automatic pistols and they demanded “the boy from Chicago” (cf. Whitfield, 1988, p.20). Moses Wright desperately tried to conciliate the half-brothers by assuring them that he already had admonished the boy. Also Elizabeth Wright tried to mediate by offering money and by promising to discipline the boy but Milam and Bryant could not be appeased. They took Emmett to Milam’s house in Glendora. According to a later testimony of the half-brothers, they vainly tried to scare the boy by threatening him with a gun. They claimed that to their surprise, Emmett did not show any sign of regret. They stated that he had bragged with intimate relations with white girls. For his unreasonableness, they decided to kill him (cf. Beito, 2009, p.117).


1 Emmett Till was nicknamed Bobo or Bo (cf. Hampton, 1990, p.1)

2 See Booker, S. (1985) Thirty Years Ago: How Emmett Till ’ s Lynching Launched Civil Rights Drive,

Jet 17 June 1985, p. 2. See also Hudson-Weems, C. (2006) Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement, Bloomington: Author House, p. 163.

3 From 2000 and younger. See for example Hudson-Weems (2006), Beito (2009) or Crowe (2003).

4 Also Mamie Till Bradley Mobley, Mamie Till, Mamie Mobley can be found in literature. However, Mamie Till Bradley is the most common one and will be used henceforth.

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The Emmett Till Case As a Catalyst for a United Effort against Racial Discrimination in the US
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