This Black Man Was Killed For Offending A White Woman. But 63 Years On She Confessed That She Lied

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The 14-year-old boy pulled from the Tallahatchie River on August 31, 1955, had been so badly beaten that he was practically unidentifiable. In fact, one of his eyes had been gouged out. And then he had been shot in the head. To weigh down his body, his murderers had tied a 75-pound metal fan around the teen’s neck with razor wire. After that, they threw him into the water…

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The boy’s name was Emmett Till, and he was visiting Mississippi from Chicago. Upon the return of his body, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley thought the whole world should see what those Southern racists did to him. His casket was left open at his funeral. And when the media published images of his grotesque injuries, it helped galvanize the civil rights movement and, ultimately, bring about social change.

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Today, however, the hard-won progress by the civil rights movement is facing a challenge from a tide of racial hatred. The Southern Poverty Law Center (S.P.L.C.) – an Alabama-based non-profit organization dedicated to monitoring the far right – has recorded a 20 percent rise in hate groups since 2014. But there is another reason why Till’s death has contemporary significance. According to recently unearthed evidence, the supposed motive for his killing was apparently predicated on lies.

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Emmet Louis Till was born in Chicago on July 25, 1941, to working-class African-American parents. Nicknamed “Bobo” by his friends and family, as a teenager Till was something of a joker. And it was this attention-grabbing behavior that worried Mamie. Indeed, before he left for his summer in Mississippi, the boy’s mother warned him that some Southern whites might be violently intolerant of his humor. Sadly, her warning was all too prescient.

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On August 21, 1955, Till arrived at the home of Moses Wright, his great-uncle. Wright lived in Money – a community of around 400 people in the Mississippi Delta. While there, Till assisted with the harvesting of cotton for a few days. And then, on August 24, he and some other teenagers made the ill-fated decision to visit a nearby store.

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Working behind the counter that day was 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant. And according to testimony she later gave in court, Till threatened her, grabbed her and made sexual advances towards her. “I was just scared to death,” she told the judge. Although her testimony was not actually heard by the jury, it was added to the court record at the defense’s request. And a version of her evidence came out in the media, too.

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In retaliation for Till’s allegedly threatening behavior, two men abducted the boy early in the morning on August 28. The perpetrators were Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam. After dragging him out of bed at gunpoint and beating him mercilessly, they murdered him with a single bullet. Indeed, were it not for the ring the teenager was wearing, which had been passed down to him by his father, a positive identification of his body would have been impossible.

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September 19, 1955, was the day that Bryant and Milam went on trial for Till’s murder. Heard by an entirely white, male jury, the trial lasted four days. The teenager’s uncle confirmed the pair were his kidnappers. And Carolyn gave her notorious testimony, as well. It took the jury around an hour to reach their verdict. Indeed, they would have reached it sooner, apparently, if they hadn’t paused for refreshments. Their decision? Not guilty. Bryant and Milam walked free.

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Shortly after that, Bryant and Milam allegedly sold their story to Look magazine for $3,000. The U.S.’s double jeopardy meant the pair would not face trial for Till’s murder a second time, so they went into every nasty detail of that night. Apparently, they had only intended to scare him. But he wouldn’t play ball – no matter how much they beat him, he refused to cry or plead.

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“Well, what else could we do?” Milam told Look magazine in January 1956. “He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a n***** in my life. I like n*****s – in their place – I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, n*****s are gonna stay in their place.”

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“Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that n***** throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you – just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”

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The teenager’s murder was an act of profound injustice which sent shockwaves through the nation. Around three months after his death, Rosa Parks, a civil rights activist from Alabama, famously defied segregation laws and refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man. In fact, she had considered complying with the bus driver’s demand, but then she remembered Emmett Till.

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Today, Till’s murder continues to be a symbol of “enduring American injustice” according to Timothy Tyson, a Duke University historian who wrote the award-winning 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till. Speaking at a news conference in 2018, Tyson announced that he had personally spoken with the cashier in 2008. And furthermore, she appeared to be in a “sorrowful state of mind.”

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Carolyn apparently admitted to Tyson that she had made up the story about Till grabbing and threatening her. However, the truth about the events in the store that day remains unknown. Till may have whistled at her. But he may have done nothing at all. Meanwhile, Carolyn herself – who is still alive and in her early 80s – claimed to be unable to remember.

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Nonetheless, Carolyn appeared to express regret. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she apparently told Tyson. Furthermore, according to the author, Bryant felt “tender sorrow” for his mother’s loss, partly because she herself lost a son. Was this confession too little too late? Perhaps. But it is still relevant in the present-day context of a resurgent far-right.

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Indeed, in 2018, on the basis of “new information,” the U.S. Justice Department announced the reopening of the Emmet Till case. In fact, the legal precedent for re-examining the murder is the 2007 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. This is a U.S. law which aims to redress criminal injustices dating to the pre-Civil Rights era.

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Tyson, however, was cynical of the announcement. Indeed, the author suggested that the fevered state of domestic politics may have had more to do with reopening the case than the pursuit of justice. “It makes a good announcement and yet there’s no one to prosecute,” he told CNN in July 2018. “This is a low-cost thing and they’re in desperate need of political cover for their essentially neo-Confederate race politics.”

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Indeed, with the deaths of both Bryant and Milam, justice seems to have run out of options. But is there a chance that Carolyn could face charges for her part? One person who hopes she can is Till’s cousin, Priscilla Sterling, who founded the Emmett Till Justice for Families Foundation. However, that seems unlikely. To date, similar cases have not resulted in any new prosecutions.

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Regardless of the legal outcome, reopening the case has helped to reinvigorate public debate. “I’m glad it’s being talked about and discussed,” Sterling told CNN in 2018. “With the division this country is experiencing and white supremacist guys thinking they can do everything. If this case is talked about and discussed maybe they will be stopped.”

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Meanwhile, responsibility for what appears to be the deterioration of race relations in America goes right to the top, according to Heidi Beirich, director of S.P.L.C. “President Trump in 2017 reflected what white supremacist groups want to see,” she told the Al Jazeera news network in 2018. “A country where racism is sanctioned by the highest office, immigrants are given the boot and Muslims banned.” Indeed, storm clouds appear to be gathering, and it is the responsibility of decent folk to stand up and voice their protest.

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