"Till" is the new film about the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till - a crime that helped spark the civil rights movement. The movie has opened to rave reviews, and got us thinking about the October 24, 2004 "60 Minutes" report on Emmett Till's death from our late colleague Ed Bradley. We wanted to share some excerpts of that award-winning story:
He was 14 years old when he was kidnapped, tortured and killed. The failure to punish anyone for the crime made headlines across the country and around the world, exposing the racial hatred and unequal justice of Blacks that was pervasive in the segregated South, where laws dictated where Blacks could eat and drink and where they could sleep.
But Emmett Till wasn't from the South; he was from Chicago, and just visiting relatives in Mississippi in August of 1955 when his nightmare began.
Emmett's 16-year-old cousin, Wheeler Parker, Jr. (now 65 years old), traveled to Mississippi with him: "He loved pranks, he loved fun, he loved jokes," said Parker. "You know, he just was there in the center of everything. He was kind of a natural-born leader."
Correspondent Ed Bradley asked, "Why would that be a problem?"
"In Mississippi, why would it be a problem?" Parker smiled.
"Did anybody say, 'Look, here are the do's and the don'ts about going to Mississippi? You do this, you don't do that'?"
"Oh, yes, that's routine. You always prepare to go to Mississippi to stay alive. Because, you know, once you got to Mississippi, you had no protection under the law."
For Emmett Till, the trouble started at Bryant's Meat Market and Grocery Store in Money, Mississippi. The store was owned by a white couple: Roy Bryant, and his 21-year-old wife, Carolyn, who was behind the counter the afternoon that Emmett Till and his cousins came in to buy some candy. As he was leaving the store, Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant – and she went to get a gun.
Simeon Wright, Emmett Till's cousin who lived in Mississippi, who was 12 years old on that day, recalled: "We ran, we jumped in the car and we got out of there."
"Just because he whistled?"
"Oh, yes. It's like if you're a kid and you throw a rock and break a window, you don't hang around to see what's going to happen."
Emmett and his cousins raced home that day and hoped nothing would come of what Emmett had done. But three days later, Carolyn Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went looking for Emmett in the middle of the night, and found him and his cousins at the home of Reverend Mose Wright, Emmett's late great-uncle.
Emmett and Simeon, Rev. Wright's son, were asleep together in one room. "I woke up and I looked, I saw two men standing over the bed, one had a gun, which was J.W. Milam," Simeon Wright said. "I saw Roy Bryant. And they ordered Emmett to get up and put his clothes on. And my mother was pleading and begging with them not to take him. My dad was pleading with him. And my mother then, at that time, offered to give them money to leave Emmett alone. And Roy Bryant kind of hesitated. But J.W. Milam, he didn't hesitate at all."
"I'd have been scared to death," said Bradley.
"Not only afraid, but there was a sorrow, a sadness over the whole house, you know, like you could cut the grief in the house. Because after they left, no one said anything, hardly."
On August 31, 1955, three days after he'd been abducted, Emmett's mangled body was found by a boy fishing in the waters of the Tallahatchie River, not far from Money. His body had been weighted down by a 75-pound fan from a cotton gin attached to his neck by barbed wire. He'd been badly tortured. An eye was detached, an ear cut off, and he appeared to have been shot in the head.
The local sheriff, H.C. Strider, a plantation owner and ardent segregationist, tried to have the body buried immediately, hoping no one in the outside world would ever find out what happened to Emmett Till.
But Emmett's mother, Mamie, battled with Mississippi authorities and was able to have her son's body returned to Chicago so she could identify him before she buried him.
In one of the final interviews she gave in 2003, Mamie Till said, "I looked at his teeth, because I took so much pride in his teeth. His teeth were the prettiest things I'd ever seen in my life, I thought. And I only saw two. Where were the rest of them? They'd just been knocked out."
Some 50,000 people, nearly all of them Black, turned out for Emmett Till's funeral. Mamie Till ordered the funeral director to place her son in an open casket, and permitted the shocking photograph of Emmett's corpse, which was seen across the country. "I said, 'I want the world to see this,'" she recalled. "Because when people saw what had happened to this little 14-year-old boy, they knew then that not only were men, Black men, in danger, but Black children as well."
The same day that Emmett Till was buried, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were indicted on charges of kidnapping and murder. Their trial was held in the small Mississippi town of Sumner, billed as "a good place to raise a boy."
The star witness was Emmett's late great-uncle, Mose Wright, who bravely stood up in the courtroom and pointed his finger at Milam and Bryant as the ones who had come to his home and abducted the child at gunpoint.
Another key witness was an 18-year-old sharecropper named Willie Reed, who said that on the morning after Emmett Till was abducted, he saw Emmett on a truck with six people: Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam, two other white men, and two Black men who worked for Milam. Soon after, Reed said he saw the same truck parked in front of a barn managed at the time by Milam's brother – and heard the screams of a young boy he presumed was Emmett Till.
Bradley asked Reed, "When they found the body, did you put two and two together and think that what you had heard going on in that barn that that was Emmett Till being beaten?"
"I was sure. I was sure then," Reed replied.
Fearing for his life after testifying against Milam and Bryant, Willie Reed was smuggled out of Mississippi. He went to Chicago, where he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.
Bradley said, "You're a good man. You had a lot of courage for an 18-year-old. I think a lot of people would have walked away from it, wouldn't have said a word."
"No, I, I couldn't," Reed replied. "I couldn't have walked away from that like that, because Emmett was 14, probably had never been to Mississippi in his life, and he come to visit his grandfather and they killed him. I mean, that's not right."
It took the jury just an hour and seven minutes to return a verdict of not guilty. One juror said it wouldn't have taken that long, but they stopped to take a soda pop break to make it look good. Milam and Bryant were congratulated by their many supporters, and kissed their wives in celebration.
Four months after the trial, knowing that double jeopardy protected them from being tried again, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam admitted to a reporter from Look magazine that they had, in fact, tortured and murdered Emmett Till. They were paid $4,000 for their story.
- The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi (Look Magazine, Jan. 24, 1956)
Emmett Till's family has had to live with that for nearly 50 years – that his killers confessed, and nothing ever happened to them.
Simeon Wright said, "J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant confessed that they killed Emmett. The people of the State of Mississippi say they didn't. We need to reconcile that statement, and we need to send a message to those who are committing crimes against Blacks like this that you can get by, but you can't get away."
- J.W. Milam died on cancer in 1980.
- Roy Bryant died of cancer in 1994. In a 2008 interview, Carolyn Bryant Donham said, "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."
- Mamie Till Mobley died of heart failure in a Chicago hospital in 2003. She was 81 – the age Emmett would be today.
- No one was ever convicted of the kidnapping, torture and murder of Emmett Till.
To watch a trailer for "Till" click on the video player below:
For more info:
- "Till" (Official site), now playing in theaters
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Emanuele Secci.
- How Emmett Till's murder revolutionized civil rights movement ("CBS This Morning")
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