American Experience

S15 E12 | CLIP

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.

AIRED: August 27, 2020 | 0:10:01
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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)

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