Chapter 1 | The Murder of Emmett Till
The murder of a 14-year-old black boy and the subsequent trial horrified the nation and the world. Emmett Till's death was a spark that helped mobilize the Civil Rights movement.
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--
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.
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.
(rock 'n' roll playing)