The Tallahatchie River flows for about 85 miles (137 km) in Mississippi before it joins the Yalobusha to form the Yazoo River. This image depicts the Tallahatchie south of Minter City. After Emmett Till's death, his killers placed the boy's body into the Tallahatchie. Image by Richard Apple, online via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Arriving at Mose Wright’s cabin, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam ordered Emmett Till to get out of bed. The two white men had plans for him, and no black person - living that moment inside Wright’s rural dwelling - could stop them.
Bryant and Milam didn’t like Till’s attitude. Seemingly unafraid, he thought he was as good as a white person and appeared unintimidated by the brothers' taunts. Perhaps Bo didn’t believe the two men would actually murder him.
A veteran, Milam had pistol-whipped Germans during World War II. Although it was against U.S. military law to do so, Milam had learned such actions produced results. Both he, and Bryant, began to pistol-whip Emmett Till inside a tool shed at Sheridan Plantation. Although they inflicted serious injuries on the boy, they could not break him.
Leaving the shed at Milam's property, where they had beaten Bo, the brothers drove to a local cotton gin. Milam knew the owners were replacing equipment and expected they could find something to act as a weight. Locating a discarded cotton-gin fan, he directed Till to pick it up and place it in the truck.
Their next destination was a spot along the Tallahatchie River. Ordering the now-injured boy to strip naked, while standing on the shore, Milam asked Emmett a question. Did he still think he was as good as Milam and Bryant?
Bo’s answer became his final word. As soon as he said "yeah," Milam shot the youngster in the head. The two brothers then attached the 74-pound gin fan to Emmett’s head - with barbed wire - and rolled him into the Tallahatchie. They made it home in time to attend church that Sunday morning.
Three days later - on August 28 - boys fishing in the river, near Glendora, saw what appeared to be the feet of a body. It was Emmett Till’s, horrifically disfigured.
Local authorities had the body placed into a coffin and planned to bury it. Emmett’s mother, who'd learned her son was dead, had meanwhile lobbied for a court order requiring her son’s remains returned to Chicago. The order was served three hours before the scheduled Mississippi burial.
Although forced to release the body, the sheriff in Mississippi - H. Clarence Strider - had the coffin pad-locked. He ordered that no one could open the casket and had it sealed with Mississippi’s state seal.
When Emmett’s remains arrived in Chicago, his mother instructed the funeral director - A.A. Rayner - to open the lid. When he refused, because of the sheriff’s order, Mamie Till-Mobley reminded him they were in Illinois, not Mississippi. She threatened to take a hammer herself, to open the coffin, if Rayner didn't do it.
Stunned at what she saw inside, she insisted on two key things. The funeral director would not "touch-up" her son, and his casket would remain open for all the world to see what had happened to her boy. Emmett's death would reveal what could happen - even to children - in a racially divided society.
As crowds of people lined-up to pay their respects, reporters from Jet magazine were at the scene. Not only did Jet publish a story about Emmett Till, the company also printed pictures of his body. Its shocking appearance stunned all who viewed it firsthand (estimated to be more than 50,000 people) and all who saw it in the magazine (estimated to be millions around the world).
Mamie Till-Mobley’s insistence on showing the evidence of her son’s brutal torture, and death - at his wake and at his funeral - provided a key step forward in the civil-rights movement. Addresses by politicians, or even eloquently worded speeches from civil rights leaders, could never leave a lasting impact the way pictures of Emmett's body could.
Justice, however, did not prevail for him. Bob Dylan memorialized that fact in a song he wrote about Emmett Till.
"Mississippi Values" influenced the result of the murder trial - held in the Tallahatchie County courthouse in Sumner - which included moments of high drama (and segregated seating). Moses Wright identified the defendants as his great-nephew's kidnappers. Willie Reed testified about the noises he'd heard when the brothers were with someone in Milam's shed.
Despite such eyewitness testimony - the first time a black man had directly accused a white man in a Mississippi court, then lived to tell about it - a jury of white men found Bryant and Milam "not guilty" of murder. While the defense team rejoiced, Mose Wright left Mississippi for Chicago. He no longer believed that he and his family were safe.
Two months later, he returned to tell a grand jury the facts about his great-nephew's kidnapping. After convening for a very short time, the grand jury issued no indictment against Bryant and Milan for that crime (although they'd previously admitted, to police, they had abducted Till).
Effectively condoned by a justice system ignoring evidence of racially based crimes, extreme violence against blacks did not diminish. As the "Mississippi way of life" continued through the late 50s and early 60s, people - including African-American women who provided domestic help in the homes of white families - were in fear of such one-sided justice.
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