The Blood of Emmett Till

Last week I was honored to participate in one of the Racial Unity Leadership Summit (RULS) prayer retreats hosted by the Carl Spain Center here at ACU. The RULS retreats bring together racially diverse leaders from across the Churches of Christ to pray, listen, discern, and organize in seeking racial justice, reconciliation, and unity in our faith tradition and the world.

This most recent prayer retreat was held in Jackson, Mississippi and was organized around readings and pilgrimages to sites associated with the murder of Emmett Till. For the reading, all the retreat participants read The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson.

Many historians consider the murder of Emmett Till to be the spark that ignited the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1955 Emmett Till was a fourteen-year old boy from Chicago who was visiting his uncle Mose Wright and extended family in the Mississippi Delta. On August 21, Emmett and some of his cousins drove to the small town of Money to by some Cokes and candy at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market. The market is now a rubble, to the right is a picture I took.

At one point Emmett was in the store alone with Carolyn Bryant, who owned and ran the store with her husband Roy. What transpired between Emmett and Carolyn is unclear since there were no witnesses, but what is clear is that Emmett said something to Carolyn, perhaps something flirtatious, that offended her, something that violated the strict taboos that regulated White/Black interactions in the Jim Crow South, especially interactions between Black males and White females.

Offended at how Emmett spoke to her, Carolyn exited the store to get a gun from a car. While she did this, Emmett wolf whistled at her. That also was a social taboo. Hearing that whistle, Emmett's relatives from Mississippi knew they had to get out of there fast. The group fled.

At 2:00 am that evening, Carolyn's husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam knocked on the door of Mose Wright's house. They each were carrying guns and demanded to see the boy who "did the talking" to Carolyn in the store. Emmett was unable to escape out the back door before the two men found him. Bryant and Milam forced Emmett into their car and drove away.

Toward morning, Bryant and Milam took Emmett to a barn in Sunflower County, just outside of Drew, on the plantation where Milam's brother worked as a supervisor and manager. There Bryant and Milam beat, pistol-whipped, tortured and eventually killed Emmett by shooting him in the head.

A picture I took of the barn where Emmett Till was tortured and murdered:

Bryant and Milam disposed of Emmett's body by wrapping a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and throwing him into the Tallahatchie River. Some evidence suggests that Emmett was thrown into the water at the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora, Mississippi. A picture I took of Black Bayou Bridge:

Three days later, a boy checking his fishing line spotted the body in the river. My picture of the location on the Tallahatchie River where Emmett Till's body was found:

There are two markers of the "River Site," one on the main road and the other 2.6 miles down a dirt road at the site where Emmett's body was recovered on the banks of the Tallahatchie. Both of these markers have been repeatedly shot at and replaced multiple times because of the damage. You can see the bullet holes on the main road marker from this picture I took:

Mose Wright recognized the men who kidnapped Emmett, so both Bryant and Milam were soon arrested and put on trial.

Because of the torture he had suffered, Emmett's body was gruesome, horribly disfigured. The local Mississippi authorities wanted a quick burial. Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett's mother, had other ideas. Mamie demanded that her son's body be sent back home to Chicago.

In planning the funeral Mamie was counseled, given the horrific sight of Emmett's body, to conduct the services with a closed casket. Mamie objected, demanding a open casket for the viewing and the funeral. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” she said.

And the world did see. The Black press covered the viewing and funeral and Jet magazine published a gruesome photo of Emmett. The photo and the story of Emmett's murder outraged and galvanized Blacks across the nation, a spark that would help ignite the American Civil Rights Movement.

During our retreat pilgrimage, we visited the Sumner County courthouse where Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were put on trial for the murder of Emmett Till.

To the right is a picture I took of the courthouse.

The trial lasted five days, and included Mose Wright courageously standing up in the courtroom to point at and positively identify the killers. The twelve members of the jury, all white men, deliberated for an hour.

The verdict was never really in doubt.

Not guilty.

Today, if you visit the Sumner courthouse, you'll find a Confederate Civil War memorial outside on the grounds. Facing the courthouse, it's to the left. Here, a picture I took of the memorial. Notice the Mississippi state flag flying above, the only state flag in the US to still carry the Confederate "Stars and Bars."

The inscription on the memorial, an ode to the Lost Cause, reads:
"For truth dies not and by her light they raise the flag whose starry folds have never trailed; and by the low tents of the deathless dead they lift the cause that never yet has fallen."
Facing the courthouse on the right, directly opposite the Civil War memorial, with its tribute to a "cause that never yet has fallen," is a historical marker about the murder of Emmett Till and the trial that took place at the courthouse.

The juxtaposition of the Confederate memorial and the Emmett Till historical marker on the very same grounds is deeply jarring and incongruous. When you stand and stare at the Sumner County courthouse it's almost as if you are being offered a choice. Confederate memorial to the left. The murder of Emmett Till on the right. Where will you stand?

Having made this pilgrimage--from the barn where he was tortured and killed, to the bridge where his body was thrown into the Black Bayou, to the banks of the Tallahatchie River where he was found, to the courtroom where his killers were acquitted--I knew my choice.

I could still hear the blood of Emmett Till crying from the ground.

I choose to stand with Emmett Till.

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