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Reflections on the Death of Emmett Till Anne Sarah Rubin The undisputed facts of the case are simple and few: In August 1955 Mrs. Mamie Till Bradley of Chicago, in need of a vacation, sent her only son to visit her family in the Mississippi Delta. Within two weeks he was dead, beaten and shot by two white men, both of whom were subsequently found not guilty. Beyond this, the "truth" is a matter of speculation, opinion, and debate.1 Fourteen-year-old Emmett "Bobo" Till differed considerably from his southern cousins. He was a self-assured young man, given to pranks and dares and boasting, and willfully unaware of the subtleties of the Jim Crow Mississippi code of racial etiquette. On 24 August, Bobo and eight other teenagers piled into a car and drove to the crossroads hamlet of Money, where they joined about a dozen other blacks congregating outside Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market. Emmett bragged of his familiarity with white girls in Chicago, even claiming that he had a white girlfriend, showing them a white girl's picture in his wallet. A few of the teenagers, hoping to knock the northerner down a peg, dared him to go inside and ask the young white woman behind the counter for a date, certain that such an outrageous request would quiet him. Till went into the store, bought two cents worth of bubble gum from Carolyn Bryant, and said something to her—exactly what will likely never be known. Realizing the mistake that they had made by taunting him, Till's friends rushed into the store, brought Till out and took him home. Four days later, in the middle of the night, Carolyn Bryant's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J. W. Milam, appeared at the home of Till's greatuncle , Mose Wright, and demanded to see the "Chicago boy." Wright begged them not to take the boy, assuring them that Emmett had made an innocent mistake, but Bryant and Milam, brandishing guns, forced the boy to lie down in the back of their pickup truck and disappeared into the night. They drove around for several hours, savagely beating and pistol-whipping the boy. Finally, believing that Till did not show sufficient remorse for his unforgivable breach of Delta etiquette in flirting with Bryant's wife, they decided to kill him. Bryant and Milam drove to a local cotton gin, forced Till to lift a seventy-four pound fan onto the truck, and drove to the bank of the Tallahatchie River. Milam then shot Till in the back of the head, assisted his brother in tying the fan around 46Southern Cultures the dead boy's neck, and dropped his body into the river. Then Bryant and Milam returned home, shortly after dawn. Meanwhile, Till's family reported him missing and contacted his mother, who called the Chicago police. That afternoon, reluctantly following up on Wright's and his brother-in-law Crosby Smith's complaint , the sheriff of LeFlore County arrested Bryant and Milam on charges of kidnapping and suspicion of murder. They admitted to abducting the boy but denied killing him and would continue to do so throughout their two trials. Three days after that, on 31 August, a young white fisherman discovered Till's battered body in the Tallahatchie River. It was so badly decomposed and disfigured that Mose Wright could only identify his nephew by the signet ring (with his late father's initials) that the boy always wore. Mamie Bradley demanded that her son's body be sent home for burial in Chicago, over the strenuous objections of the sheriff's office that in turn demanded that the casket be sealed. Mortician's orders notwithstanding, Mrs. Bradley opened the casket in the Chicago train station , collapsed, and demanded an open casket funeral. She wanted "the world [to] see what they did to my boy." She got her wish. By the time Emmett was buried two days later, more than ten thousand people had filed past her son's body. A picture of his mangled corpse would be published in Jet magazine, thereby involving the NAACP and the national media, ensuring that this...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 45-66
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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