American Experience

S15 E12 | FULL EPISODE

The Murder of Emmett Till

The murder and the trial horrified the nation and the world. Till's death was a spark that helped mobilize the Civil Rights movement. Three months after his body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began.

AIRED: July 27, 2020 | 0:53:01
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TRANSCRIPT

(birds chirping)

REPORTER (on tape): This is the muddy, backwoods Tallahatchie River,

where a weighted body was found,

alleged to be that of young Emmett Till.

MAMIE TILL: I saw a hole,

which I presumed was a bullet hole,

and I could look through that hole

and see daylight on the other side.

And I wondered, "Was it necessary to shoot him?"

Here is Money, Mississippi, the home of Roy Bryant.

It was here that the Chicago Negro boy Emmett Till

is alleged to have paid unwelcome attention

to Roy Bryant's most attractive wife.

MAN: When white women was on the streets,

you had to get off of the street.

That was a way of life,

and all a white woman had to say

was, "That nigger kind of looked at me or sassed me."

So we're talking about a way of life that, uh,

in this part of the country, that was enforced by law.

REPORTER: This was the home of Mose Wright.

It was from this shack the state alleges Emmett Till was taken

by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam.

WHEELER PARKER: The house was as dark as a thousand midnights.

You couldn't see.

It was like a nightmare.

I mean... I mean, if someone come and stand over you

with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight

and you're 16 years old, uh,

this was a terrifying experience.

WILLIAM WINTER: The Till case held the whole system up for inspection

by the rest of the country and by the rest of the world.

It was the beginning of the focusing on the problems, uh,

between the races in the deep South

that culminated in the ultimate civil rights battles

of the... of... of the rest of the '50s

and... and into the '60s.

ROSE JOURDAIN: I think Black people's reaction was so visceral

and I think it was probably, more than anything else

in terms of the mass Civil Rights Movement,

the spark that... that launched it.

Everybody knew we were under attack

and that attack was symbolized by the attack

on a 14-year-old boy.

WINTER: When one drives through the Loess Hills

and looks out at the sweep of those fields below--

flat as a pancake as far as the eye can see--

it's breathtaking.

Those who have not been to the Delta, uh,

find themselves gasping at the sight

as they come over the Loess Hills

and see that expanse of flat agricultural land.

NARRATOR: It was the summer of 1955

when Emmett Till arrived in Mississippi from Chicago.

His family had worked cotton for generations,

but this trip would be Emmett's introduction to the Delta,

known as the most southern place on earth.

FILM NARRATOR: This is Mississippi.

Today a situation exists in Mississippi

that is unlike the situation in most states in the nation.

In some sections of the state,

there is a preponderance of colored citizens.

This situation has brought problems,

it has created challenges,

but most important of all, it has inspired a social system

to meet the challenge.

In every community in Mississippi,

there is segregation of the races.

Drinking fountains are segregated.

Restrooms are segregated.

The local theater is segregated.

Negroes sit in the balcony.

You never in any way said anything that they didn't like.

You didn't disagree with them on a whole.

You just didn't do that.

If a white person did something to you,

you had no recourse at all.

People disappeared.

We don't know what happened to them.

They just disappeared.

NARRATOR: In the 75 years before Emmett Till set foot in Mississippi,

more than 500 Black people had been lynched in the state.

Most were men who had been accused

of associating with white women.

PEARSON: Part of that culture

was that the women were put on pedestals

and they were, uh, some sort of um...

idealization of whatever it means

to be woman or to be female.

There was an almost, uh, irrational fear of Black men,

uh, as if every Black man

was ready to attack or rape a white woman

if you gave them the chance.

I can remember when my father died,

Sammy-- the Black man who worked for him-- was there

and I threw my arms around his neck,

and he pulled away from me.

He could not have that, you know,

physical show of affection, of sharing grief or whatever.

Black men did not touch white women.

WINTER: Many white southerners, perhaps most deep South southerners,

had convinced themselves

that, uh, Black people were relatively happy

in their... in their segregated relationships with white people.

Most white people, I think,

had convinced themselves

that this was a defensible social system

in which they lived.

WITHERS: I had a cousin that was living in Mississippi

and was walking down the sidewalk

down near downtown in Tunica

and didn't get off the sidewalk, and the man slapped him

and knocked him off the sidewalk.

And he got up.

Instead of killing the white man like he wanted,

he just started walking

and never stopped until he got to Memphis

and never stopped until he got up to Chicago.

MAN (on record): ♪ Home

♪ Baby, don't you want to go?

NARRATOR: Hundreds of thousands of Black people fled Mississippi

for Chicago in the years between the world wars.

One-way train fare of $11.10 took them to a different world.

MAN: ♪ To my sweet home Chicago.

NARRATOR: Neighborhoods and schools were segregated,

but the city offered a kind of freedom

Black Mississippians could only dream about.

TILL: Chicago was a land of promise

and they thought that milk and honey was everywhere.

And so it was a lot of excitement leaving the South,

leaving the cotton fields.

You could hold your head up in Chicago.

MAN: ♪ To my sweet home...

NARRATOR: Mamie Carthan arrived in Chicago at the age of two.

An only child, young Mamie was the hope of her family

of former sharecroppers.

She graduated from high school at the top of her class

and became one of the first Black women in town

to hold a civil service job.

In 1940, Mamie married soldier Louis Till,

and one year later, their son, Emmett, was born.

In 1945, Mamie got word that Private Till had died in Europe.

All she received of his possessions

was a signet ring inscribed with his initials, "L.T."

Emmett, her only child, was four years old.

A childhood case of polio left him with a stutter,

but by the time he was a teenager,

Emmett Till had grown into a cocky, self-assured boy

who loved to be the center of attention.

HEARD: When we first met,

we were in gym, uh, in Mr. Long's gym period.

I remember Emmett raising his shirt up to about his navel

and start making his belly roll.

Just waves of fat... (laughs)

rolling, and it... it just broke us up.

I mean, the whole gym went crazy.

He was that kind of kid.

PARKER: Anything going on, he's in the middle of all... all of it.

And he just loved to play ball.

He just loved jokes.

He would pay people to tell him jokes.

If there was a group there, Emmett was in front,

and he was the lively one.

He was the one that everybody kind of looked to.

Natural-born leader.

(rock 'n' roll playing)

NARRATOR: In June of 1955, Black Chicago swung to a new kind of music

called rock 'n' roll.

A Supreme Court decision

had struck down school segregation the year before.

Emmett finished seventh grade, and in July, he turned 14.

COOKSEY: I knew Emmett Till.

We went to grammar school together.

And Emmett was a fun young man,

just like any other young teenager.

The boys wore polyester pants, crepe-soled shoes.

I would wear flared skirts with the crinoline underneath.

You must have the crinoline.

And we were doing the bop-- that's the bebop.

And we just danced and had fun.

And we were just all good friends.

NARRATOR: In August, Emmett's great-uncle, Mose Wright, visited Chicago

and invited Emmett and his cousin Wheeler

home to Mississippi.

Before she let them go, Mamie schooled the boys

on the ways of the South.

TILL: I let them know that Mississippi was not Chicago,

and when you go to Mississippi,

you're living by an entirely different set of rules.

Uh, it is "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am,"

"yes, sir" and "no, sir."

"And, Beau, if you see a white woman coming down the street,

"you get off the sidewalk and drop your head.

Don't even look at her."

The concern for Emmett was that he could be...

with his fun-loving, free-spirited way of living,

he could get in trouble, could have a lot of problems.

He was 14, but he'd just turned 14.

He was just 13 a few weeks before we went down there.

TILL: He thought I was exaggerating, which I was.

I was trying to exaggerate.

If I could, oh, go high enough,

I... things could seek, uh... uh, soak into his head

that you have to be very careful.

NARRATOR: As Emmett packed his bags,

Mississippi was set to explode.

Two Black men had recently been killed

for registering Black voters...

and a push to implement the new law on school desegregation

had whites, from the Delta to the statehouse, spitting fire.

You are not going to permit

the N.A.A.C.P. to take over your schools!

(cheering)

You are not going to permit the N.A.A.C.P.

to control your state!

(cheering)

WINTER: It was argued in coffee shops all over the Deep South

that "If we give on this, then we'll...

"we'll start giving on everything else.

"And the first thing you know,

"we won't have a segregated society,

"and Black people will be taking over

in this part of the country."

We are not going to permit...

MOSES NEWSON: A lot of the leadership was, uh, going around

making outrageous threats

and, uh, claiming they weren't going to obey the law

and that sort of thing.

Consequences was that almost anything could happen to anybody

at any time down there.

NARRATOR: On August 19, Mamie gave Emmett

the ring that had belonged to his father.

The next morning, Emmett and his mother grabbed his bags

and rushed off to the 63rd Street station.

TILL: He was running up the steps to try to make it to the train,

and I said, "Emmett..." or "Beau"-- I called him Beau--

I said, "Where are you going?

"You haven't kissed me goodbye.

And how do I know I'll ever see you again?"

And he looked at me and he said, "Aw, Mama,"

he kind of scolded me for saying something like that.

But he turned around, he came back

and, uh, he kissed me goodbye.

And he said, "Here, take this."

He pulled his watch off and gave it to me.

He said, "I won't need this where I'm going."

I said, "What about your ring?"

He said, "Oh, I'm going to show it off to the fellows."

And with that, he was up the steps

and on his way to get on the train.

(horn blaring)

NARRATOR: Emmett rode the Illinois Central 16 hours out of Chicago

to the Mississippi Delta.

PARKER: We went to South... near the beginning

of cotton-picking time-- late August--

and we picked cotton for a half a day

and we would go swimming, run the snakes out the river.

We had a lot of fun.

NARRATOR: Emmett's family lived on the outskirts of Money,

a whistle-stop town in the heart of Delta cotton country.

The town of Money was one street

with maybe five or six stores,

but that's all, just one... one street.

Wasn't much, wasn't really a town.

NARRATOR: At one end of Money was Bryant's Grocery,

which made a business of selling candy to Black kids

and provisions to field hands from nearby plantations.

Roy Bryant, a 24-year-old ex-soldier,

and his wife, Carolyn,

owned the grocery and not much else.

The Bryants lived with their two boys

in cramped rooms behind the store.

Roy's half-brother, J.W. Milam, helped out around the grocery.

The 235-pound Milam was a hard-drinking man

with a reputation for being tough on anyone

who got in his way.

(insects buzzing, chittering)

On a steamy Wednesday afternoon, Emmett and seven other teenagers

piled into Mose Wright's old Ford

and headed to Bryant's Grocery.

PARKER: The day that we went to the store in Money,

uh, we were picking cotton, uh, first half of the day,

and the second half, because it was so hot,

my uncle drove the car and we took off to Money

to get some refreshments,

just general things you buy in a store.

NARRATOR: Roy Bryant was out of town,

leaving his wife, Carolyn, alone behind the counter

when Emmett and his cousins pulled up.

Other customers were sitting outside,

talking and playing checkers in the cool of the shade.

One or two at a time,

the boys drifted into the store and back out again

with a cold drink or a piece of candy.

Then Emmett went in and bought two cents' worth of bubble gum.

According to witnesses, on his way out of the store,

Emmett turned to Carolyn Bryant and whistled.

She stormed out.

PARKER: We all got a-scared,

and someone said, "She's going to get a pistol."

That's when we became afraid.

Said, "She's going to the car to get a pistol."

And as she went to the car, we all jumped in my uncle's car.

We were going pretty fast, and dust is flying behind us.

And, of course, Emmett Till begged us

not to tell my grandfather what had took place.

And we didn't.

This was on a Wednesday,

and we didn't tell him what had taken place.

Uh, so Wednesday went by,

Thursday went by, nothing, Friday.

We forgot about it.

(crickets chirping)

WRIGHT (archival recording): Sunday morning about 2:30, I heard a voice at the door,

and it said, "This is Mr. Bryant,"

and said they wanted the boy that did the talk at Money.

And when I opened the door,

there was a man standing with a pistol in one hand

and a flashlight in the other one.

PARKER: It was like a nightmare.

I mean, it's...

I mean, someone come and stand over you

with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight

and you're 16 years old,

uh, it's a terrifying experience, very terrifying.

WRIGHT (in archival recording): And so we marched around through two rooms

and I found the boy in the third room

in the bed with my baby boy

and they told him to get up and put his clothes on.

NARRATOR: Mose Wright pleaded with the two men.

"He's only 14 and he's from up North.

"Why not give the boy a whipping," Wright begged,

"and leave it at that?"

PARKER: There were two in the next room,

my cousin and uncle, they never woke up.

My Uncle Simmie did wake up,

but they told him to go back to sleep.

He was 12 years old.

And I just said, "Hell, I'm fixing to die."

NARRATOR: J.W. Milam turned to Mose Wright.

"How old are you, preacher?" he asked.

"Sixty-four," Wright replied.

"You make any trouble, you'll never live to be 65."

Near to the car they asked a question,

"Is this the right one?"

And I heard a voice say, "Yes."

And they drove off toward Money with him.

PARKER: Nobody talked to anybody.

The house was as dark as a thousand midnights.

You couldn't see.

And when they left, I was still afraid

and so I'm waiting for them to come back.

It was that Sunday morning, early Sunday morning.

(birds chirping)

HAMPTON: I was, uh, playing beside the road,

and I saw, uh, Mr.... uh, Milam in the truck coming by,

and it had a... had a cover with it, what we called a tarpaulin.

And I heard somebody hollering on the truck.

WILLIE REED: I could hear all this beating

and I could hear this beating and I could hear this crying,

and crying and beating, and I'm saying to myself,

"They're beating somebody up there."

I heard that beating before I got to...

even before I got to the barn.

I passed, they still was beating,

they still was beating, I can hear it.

Milam came out.

So when he said, uh, "Did you hear anything?"

I saw him, he had khaki pants on, had a green nylon shirt

and a .45 on his side.

So I said, "No,"

I said, "I ain't heard anything," I said, "anything."

(birds chirping)

OUDIE BROWN: I was coming through there that morning.

Too Tight was out there washing the truck out,

out washing J.W. Milam's truck out.

I said, "Where all that blood come from?"

He laughed.

The boy laughed, that's what he did.

He said, "There's a shoe here.

There's one of his shoes here."

I said, "Who?"

That's the way I said it. I said, "Who?"

"Emmett Till's shoe."

NARRATOR: In Chicago, a desperate Mamie Till

notified the local newspapers of Emmett's disappearance.

In Mississippi, the family alerted the sheriff

and then began to search for any sign of the boy

along riverbanks and under bridges,

"Where Black folks always look," Emmett's uncle said,

"when something like this happens."

The next day, Roy Bryant was arrested for kidnapping.

J.W. Milam was at a store in nearby Minter City

when the Leflore County sheriff caught up with him.

Said, "J.W., I got a writ for you."

He threw his head up just like that.

He spoke of it again, he went over it again.

He said, "I got a writ for you."

"Is you goin'?" "Hell no."

"That's (no audio) you talkin'."

No longer than two hours, the high sheriff come back.

The high sheriff come on in there,

didn't even knock on no door or nothing.

Walked in there and say, "J.W. Milam, I come at you.

"I'm gonna carry you dead or alive.

You about to get ready to go."

Hear?

NARRATOR: On August 31, three days after Emmett Till had disappeared,

a boy fishing in the Tallahatchie

noticed a body caught on a gnarled root in the muddy water.

He informed Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider.

CLARENCE STRIDER, JR.: My dad called me and asked me did I have a boat in the river,

and I told him I did.

Then he said, "Well, we'll be down there in a little while,"

and he sent deputies down here to go with me

and we took the boat and went up the river.

It was in a curve in a drift and a foot was sticking up.

And we tore into the drift and got to him

and, you know, got him out.

Then we carried him up to the other landing

and put him in the hearse.

NARRATOR: Emmett's body had been weighed down

with a 75-pound cotton gin fan

tied around his neck with barbed wire.

The boy was so badly beaten

that Mose Wright could identify Emmett

only by his father's ring.

Mamie Till was in Chicago,

surrounded by worried family and friends,

when she was told that her only child was dead.

Those words were like arrows sticking all over my body.

My eyes were so full of tears until I couldn't see.

And when I began to make the announcement, uh...

that Emmett had been found,

uh... and how he was found,

the whole house began to scream and to cry.

And that's when I realized that this was a load

that I was going to have to carry.

I wouldn't get any help carrying this load.

NARRATOR: By the time Mamie received her son's body back in Chicago,

two weeks after she had kissed him goodbye,

Emmett's murder was front-page news.

His body was taken to a funeral home

owned by A.A. Rayner, who had promised Mississippi authorities

that he would keep the casket nailed shut.

When Mamie Till asked him to open it up, Rayner refused.

TILL: I asked him, "Mr. Rayner, do you have a hammer?"

I said, "I haven't signed anything

"and I haven't made any promises,

and if you can't open those box... that box, I can."

We opened the casket.

There was a terrible odor that came from the body

because the body had been in the water and began to deteriorate.

Mr. Rayner was... he told the mother,

he said, "If I was you, I wouldn't look at this body,

because this body is in such a horrible condition."

She said, "Mr. Rayner, I want to see my son."

And I decided then that I would start at his feet

and work my way up,

maybe gathering strength as I went.

I paused at his midsection,

because I knew he would not want me looking at him.

But I saw enough that I knew he was intact.

I kept on up until I got to his chin,

and then I... I was forced to deal with his face.

I saw that his tongue was choked out.

I noticed that the right eye was lying on...

midway his cheek.

I noticed that his nose had been broken,

like somebody took a meat chopper

and chopped his nose in several places.

As I kept looking, I saw a hole,

which I presumed was a bullet hole,

and I could look through that hole

and see daylight on the other side.

And I wondered, was it necessary to shoot him?

Mr. Rayner asked me... he said,

"Do you want me to touch the body up?"

I said, "No, Mr. Rayner, let the people see what I've seen."

I... I was just willing to bear it all.

I think everybody needed to know

what had happened to Emmett Till.

NARRATOR: Mamie's decision would make her son's death

a touchstone for a generation.

At a church on the south side of Chicago,

Emmett Till's mutilated body would be on display

for all to see.

COOKSEY: It was on a Sunday afternoon.

I won't ever forget-- it was a Sunday afternoon.

The church was very calm.

The line was very orderly.

I thought that pretty soon the crowd would die down.

It looked like all of Chicago was there.

CAISE: Well, they brought their children with them,

because Emmett was 14 years old.

And they wanted the younger kids to see what happened to Emmett.

They were mad, they were angry.

COOKSEY: And as we were led into the church,

my girlfriends and myself, we walked up to the casket

and it was covered with glass.

And we all looked down.

This was our friend laying, looking like a monster.

TILL: They said that about one in every five

had to be assisted out of the building.

They would just go into a faint.

I think Black people's reaction was so visceral.

Everybody knew we were under attack,

and that attack was symbolized

by the attack on a 14-year-old boy.

PARKER: As far as I was concerned, that wasn't him there.

Yet at the same time, as confusing as it may sound,

it was him.

But I didn't accept it.

I just... in my mind, I kept saying,

"I'll see him again," you know.

And I guess to me, it didn't happen.

But it did happen.

NARRATOR: 50,000 people in Chicago

had seen Emmett Till's corpse with their own eyes.

When the Black magazine "Jet" ran photos of the body,

Black Americans across the country shuddered.

It was grotesque.

I mean, it was just... it blew my mind.

I couldn't sleep at night.

It was traumatic for me for... for months.

I mean, it... it touched us all.

NARRATOR: Mainstream newspapers and magazines spread the story

of the 14-year-old Black boy who'd been brutally killed

for whistling at a white woman.

JOURDAIN: It stunned white America.

Most white Americans at that time

were saying things such as the Emmett Till murder

had happened back in slavery times,

that these kinds of things were not of their generation,

that they no longer happened in America.

And this said to them clearly, "Hey, it's right here.

It is now."

NARRATOR: Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam

admitted having taken Emmett Till,

but claimed they'd let him go.

Now, with the eyes of the nation turning to Mississippi,

the state appointed a special prosecutor and filed charges.

The federal indictment is that they did willfully, unlawfully,

feloniously and of their malice of forethought

kill and murder Emmett Till, a human being.

NARRATOR: Scores of reporters descended on the Delta.

Television networks chartered a plane

to send footage to New York for the nightly news.

The Associated Press fielded queries

from Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo.

The Till case had become a major international news story.

Under the glare of the spotlight,

white Mississippians began to close ranks.

Local stores collected $10,000 in countertop jars

for Bryant and Milam.

Every lawyer in the county joined their defense team.

WINTER: People of the socioeconomic level

of the two defendants in this case

were obviously looked down on by the more aristocratic whites,

almost with the same disdain

that they looked down on... on Blacks.

But they were still white folks.

And when push came to shove,

the... the white community rallied in support of them

against a... a young Black person

for whom they had even greater disdain.

The atmosphere among whites in Tallahatchie County

and other... the whole surrounding area

was one of absolute scorn at the fact

that these men were being put on trial for their lives.

And the cynicism was usually couched in very crude jokes.

One of them was, "Isn't that just like a nigger

"to swim across the Tallahatchie River

with a gin fan around his neck?"

I can't understand how a civilized mother

could put a dead body of her child on public display.

I'm almost convinced that the very beginning of this

was by a communistic front.

Well, sir, I'll tell you right now--

if he gets justice, they'll turn him a-loose.

If I was on the grand jury, that is what I would do.

NARRATOR: Among African Americans, there was outright fear.

"Too Tight" Collins, who worked for J.W. Milam,

and had been seen washing blood from Milam's truck, disappeared.

The message to Black people was clear:

hide what you know, hide even what you think,

or face the consequences.

REPORTER: Young man, do you think

these two men should be indicted?

I really don't know, sir.

What do you mean, you don't know?

I don't know whether they should or not.

Have you studied the case by reading the papers, perhaps?

Yes, sir.

And you don't know whether they should be invited?

No, sir. Indicted?

No, sir. Thank you very much.

You're welcome.

NARRATOR: On September 19,

less than three weeks after Emmett's body was found,

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam's trial for murder

opened in Sumner, Mississippi,

which touted itself as "a good place to raise a boy."

The air in the courtroom, a reporter wrote,

was "as heavy and oppressive as the moss that hangs

from the cypress trees."

TILL: In the courtroom, they recorded 118 degrees,

and, of course, there was no air conditioning.

They had the ceiling fans

that were only stirring the air up,

making it hotter when it reached your body.

NARRATOR: On the first day of the trial,

presiding judge Curtis Swango named the jury--

all white men from Bryant and Milam's home county.

PEARSON: I remember looking at the... at that jury,

and even though I knew a good many of the men

who were on the jury...

and... and they looked mean to me.

I would have hated to have gone up against any of those guys.

NARRATOR: Tallahatchie County sheriff

and plantation owner Clarence Strider

was responsible for locating witnesses

and gathering evidence against Bryant and Milam.

Sheriff Strider was a big, fat,

plain-talking, obscene-talking sheriff

you would expect to find in the South.

His actions at the trial

were more, I think, not to so much to see justice

over what was going on,

but to be sure that his courtroom

was totally segregated.

The man had laid it out that,

"We got 22 seats over here for you white boys,

"and we got four seats over here for you colored boys.

"We don't mix them down here.

"We ain't going to mix them, and we don't intend to.

"You ain't going to be with the white folks

"and the white folks ain't going to be with you

"and y'all might be...

Ain't going to be no love nest between Black and white folk."

NARRATOR: Strider consigned Black reporters

and Detroit congressman Charles Diggs

to a card table on the sidelines.

Strider greeted them as he passed

with a cheery, "Hello, niggers."

We never have any trouble,

until some of our southern niggers go up north

and the N.A.A.C.P. talks to them and they come back home.

If they would keep their nose and mouths out of our business,

we would be able to do more in enforcing the laws

of Tallahatchie County and in Mississippi.

HERBERS: The reaction of reporters from out of the South

was one of just absolute amazement.

They knew that there were strange things going on

down... in places like Sumner,

but they did not know it would be quite like that.

They were really surprised at... at what they found.

At the same time, of course, they wrote about it

with great relish because it was a good story.

It had sex.

It had murder.

It had mystery.

NARRATOR: When Mamie Till arrived,

she had to make her way through an unsympathetic crowd

gathered on the courthouse lawn.

REPORTER: What do you intend to do here today?

To answer any questions that might...

that the attorneys might ask me to answer, to the best...

REPORTER: How do you think that... how do you think

you could possibly be a help to them?

I don't know-- just by answering

whatever questions that they ask me.

I see.

REPORTER: Do you have any evidence

bearing on this case?

I do know that this is my son.

NARRATOR: Mamie Till testified that the body she'd examined and buried

was indeed her son.

In their cross-examination,

Bryant and Milam's attorneys

peppered her with hostile questions,

and then presented

the main argument for the defense:

the corpse pulled from

the Tallahatchie River was not Emmett Till.

They summed up by saying,

"Isn't it true that you and the N.A.A.C.P.

"got your heads together, and you came down here

"and with their help, you all dug up a body

"and you have claimed that body to be your son?

"Isn't it true that your son is in Detroit, Michigan,

with his grandfather right now?"

NARRATOR: With Sheriff Strider and courtroom sentiment

clearly on the side of the defendants,

reporters began their own desperate search for witnesses.

HAMPTON: Black people wasn't speaking out

about the Emmett Till case at that particular time,

because they knew that it could happen to them.

The Blacks feared for their... for their lives

and for their family's lives,

because... those white folks were for real.

So it was just, you know, like hush-hush, you know.

So I was told to keep my mouth shut, and that's what I did.

NARRATOR: Two days into the trial,

reporters got a lead on a young sharecropper named Willie Reed,

who might be willing to talk.

REED: I was in the cotton field and I was picking--

I was picking cotton, picking cotton.

And I looked across the field,

and there was about seven or eight peoples

coming across the field towards me.

Was white and Black coming that way.

And then they began to question me about this here--

"Did you see anything?"

So I told them what I saw.

NARRATOR: Putting his life at risk, Willie Reed agreed to step forward.

REED: Well, when you walk in that courtroom,

and you know what you...

that you're going to testify,

then you look at all these white folks

and everybody looking at you,

and they got their frowns on their face and everything...

You see them, they be looking at you,

rolling their eyes and looking at you.

Yeah.

White... looking at you.

(laughs)

It was something.

NARRATOR: Reed spoke in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

He'd seen Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam and one other white man

with Emmett Till early that Sunday morning

and had heard the sounds of a beating

coming from Milam's shed.

After delivering his testimony,

Reed was smuggled out of Mississippi.

When he reached Chicago,

he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.

The prosecution's best witness was Mose Wright,

who had clearly seen the men who took Emmett Till from his home.

Wright had been in hiding since the night of the kidnapping

and had been threatened with death.

But there, in the searing heat of a Delta courtroom,

the 64-year-old sharecropper had his say.

WITHERS: One of the attorneys asked,

"Do you know the man that came to your house that night

to get Emmett Till out of your house?"

NARRATOR: Mose Wright stood and pointed

first at Roy Bryant,

then at J.W. Milam.

"Thar he," he said.

Wright later claimed he could feel the blood boil

in hundreds of white people in the courtroom.

But, he said, "I had decided to tell it like it was."

NEWSON: That was a dramatic moment.

That took an awful lot of courage for him to get up there

and do what he did.

I think he had decided that he was going to do it

no matter what happened.

NARRATOR: After he testified,

Wright left his cotton blooming in the field,

his old car sitting at the station,

and slipped onto the train to Chicago.

He would never again live in Mississippi.

The trial drew to a close after only five days.

In his summation,

the lead defense attorney warned members of the jury

that their ancestors

would turn over in their graves

if Bryant and Milam were found guilty.

"Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you," he said,

"has the courage to free these men."

As the jury retired,

the Black people who were standing around the walls

began to ease out of the door.

I said, "It's time for us to go."

Congressman Diggs said, "What, and miss the verdict?"

I said, "Congressman, this is one verdict

you don't want to be present to hear."

NARRATOR: The crowd in the courtroom waited in the heat.

Reporters overheard members of the jury

laughing and joking in the jury room.

In just over an hour, the jury returned.

NEWSCASTER: In the Emmett Till murder trial,

the all-white jury has acquitted the two white defendants

accused of killing the 14-year-old Negro youth.

The jury foreman said the deciding factor

was the state's failure to prove the identity

of the body pulled from a river near Sumner, Mississippi.

NARRATOR: A juror later revealed that the jury had stalled

"to make it look good.

"They wouldn't have taken so long

to return to the courtroom," he said,

"if they hadn't stopped to drink pop."

TILL: The verdict came in "not guilty."

You could hear guns firing.

I mean, it was almost like a Fourth of July celebration,

or it was almost as if the White Sox

had won the pennant in the city of Chicago.

It was just, uh... it was just... oh, it...

It was a mess.

NARRATOR: After the trial, Sheriff Clarence Strider told reporters,

"I hope the Chicago niggers

and the N.A.A.C.P. are satisfied."

People are used to doing things normal around here.

(laughs)

And they just tried to run the thing.

They thought they could run over the judge and the sheriff

and everybody over there.

They thought that they, you know, could just take over,

but they didn't.

REPORTER: How do you folks feel now that it's all over?

Roy, how about you?

I'm just glad it's over with.

REPORTER: J.W.?

I am, too.

And Mrs. Bryant?

I feel fine.

And how about you, Mrs. Milam?

Fine.

NARRATOR: Reports of the acquittal made front-page headlines

across the United States

and set off an international firestorm.

"The life of a Negro in Mississippi,"

one European paper observed, "is not worth a whistle."

From Boston to Los Angeles,

Black people packed meeting halls

and spilled into the streets

to hear Mamie Till tell her story.

TILL: And what I saw

was a shame before God and man.

And the way the jury chose to believe the ridiculous stories

of the defense attorneys.

I... I just can't go into detail to tell you

the silly things, the stupid things

that were brought up as probabilities,

and they swallowed it like a fish swallows a hook.

Just anything, just any excuse to acquit these two men.

NARRATOR: Protected from further prosecution,

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam sold their story

to a reporter from "Look" magazine for $4,000.

Their account appeared just four months after the acquittal.

READER: "We took him and we was just going to whip him,

scare some sense into him."

"Back of the house is a tool shed,

"two rooms about 12 feet square.

"We walked him in there

"and took turns smashing him across the head with a .45--

first my brother, and then me."

"We put him back in the truck.

We knew what we was going to do."

"There's a spot about a mile and a half from the bridge

"where the banks are steep.

"It was just the spot.

"I held up the gun.

"I fired, and the Chicago boy twisted around

and caught it right in the ear."

"We tied the gin fan to his neck with barbed wire

"and rolled his body into 20 feet of muddy water.

"For three hours that morning,

"we had a big old fire in the yard.

"Damn if that nigger didn't have crepe-soled shoes.

You know how hard they are to burn?"

NARRATOR: If there were others involved,

as Willie Reed and Mose Wright had testified under oath,

Milam and Bryant did not name them.

Mamie Till went to Washington

to press the federal government to reopen the case.

Despite thousands of letters

protesting Mississippi's handling of the murder,

President Dwight Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover

ruled out a federal investigation.

Eisenhower didn't even answer Mamie Till's telegram.

NARRATOR: No one ever did time for the killing

of the 14 year-old Black boy from Chicago.

But his murder, and the trial and acquittal of his killers,

sent a powerful message:

If change was going to come,

people would have to put themselves on the line.

Contributions to civil rights groups soared.

And 100 days after the death of Emmett Till,

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person,

and the Montgomery bus boycott began.

When people saw what had happened to my son,

men stood up who had never stood up before.

People became vocal who had never vocalized before.

Emmett's death was the opening of the Civil Rights Movement.

He was the sacrificial lamb of the movement.

PEARSON: I do believe that nationally, or at least across the South,

the Emmett Till trial and the... and the result of that trial

somehow spurred the Civil Rights Movement,

as if this was either the last straw or maybe it was the spark.

People were thoroughly disgusted

at what happened in that situation.

And it made an awful lot of people realize

that they themselves had to get involved and do something.

It was just a magnificent reaction to a very ugly thing

that had taken place in this country.

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