A Death In The Delta: The Story of Emmett Till by Stephen J.Whitfield
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Slavery and Mississippi during the nineteenth and twentieth century went hand and hand. Along with this slavery came prejudice, bigots, racism, and perhaps the worst of all; lynching. Lynching was commonly accepted in the south during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Governors approved, sheriffs turned a blind eye, southern blacks accepted, and for the most part the rest of the United States ignored it. Lynching in the south was seen as check on society, not a criminal offence it helped keep ‘those niggahs in order.’ However, there was one lynching in the summer of 1955 that the nation could not ignore; the press, NAACP, and Mrs. (Mammie) Till Bradley made sure of this. The lynching sent shock waves through most of the United States provoking the first signs of the Civil Rights movement. The young man that was lynched during the summer of 1955 was Emmett Till, his crime was boastfulness, cockiness, and having a picture of a white girl in his wallet. For this he died, and unfortunately it took his death to wake up a nation that was caught up in it’s own self righteousness.
Lynching in the south was not simply an act of hatred against blacks. It was an act of paranoia. Whites in the south had a belief that black men could not keep their hands off white women. The most common reason for a lynching was the accusation of rape of a white woman by a black man. Southern whites believed race mixing would lead to a weak society. They saw blacks as inferior humans that were obsessed with sex. Therefore, lynching was seen as a necessary act that was intended not only to protect the white woman of the south, but also save society from ruin.
The reason for Emmett Till’s lynching has many interpretations. What we do know is that Emmett Till was black youth from Chicago who came to Mississippi in the summer of 1955 to visit his cousins for two weeks while his mother relaxed in Chicago on two weeks vacation from work as a voucher examiner in the Air Force Procurement Office. Emmett Till was known as a prankster, a risk taker, and a smart dresser. He was much different from his cousins in the way he was brought up, he did not fear whites and even boosted about having a white girlfriend back in Chicago whom he was intimate with. In fact, he had a picture of her in his wallet. These facts are what lead to his kidnapping and eventual death.
One afternoon Emmett, his cousins, and several other black youth piled into an old car and drove to a convience store in Money, during the ride Emmett had been bragging about the white woman he had been with. Tending to the store was Carolyn Bryant, a petit woman of five feet, about a hundred pounds and a former beauty champ. One of the youths dared Emmett to proposition the store keeper hoping to call his bluff. Emmett was not bluffing. He went into the store brought a piece of bubble gum and asked Carolyn on a date. This is were many of the interpretations differ, some say Emmett grabbed her around the waist while other say he simply whistled at her as he left the store; either way his actions in the store were the determining factor of his lynching. The youths outside could not believe what they had just seen. One was said to have predicted Emmett’s death.
Carolyn Bryant was embarrassed by what had happened. She did not want her husband to find out. Unfortunately, it did not take long until Roy Bryant found out. However, once he did he immediately acquired the assistance of his half brother J.W. Milam. At first according to their testimony the two were simply going to get the boy and beat him. However, after dragging Emmett out of bed and beating him, Emmett continued to boost of his conquest with white women even showing the two the picture in his wallet. Roy Bryant said ‘he had never met a nigger like that boy, and he needed to be taught a lesson’ This is when the two decided to find a cliff and scare Emmett. After driving around for quite some time without finding the cliff the two half brothers brought Emmett to a barn and beat severely and eventually fired a bullet into his head killing him instantly. The two then tied a hundred pound fan to Emmett’s neck and tossed the body into the Tallahachie river. A few days later a white man found Emmett’s body miles down from were he had been thrown in.
The body was so badly mutilated the only way it could be identified was by the ring on this finger. Sheriff Strider ordered the body to be buried immediately. Mrs.(Mammie)Bradley Till insisted the body be flown back to Chicago for proper services. The sign of Emmett caused Mrs.(Mammie) Bradley to collapse and cry ‘Lord, take my soul’. Thousands of Chicago blacks filed past the open casket at the funeral home soon thereafter. Mrs. Bradley vowed that this murder would not go unnoticed.
Back in Mississippi Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. Mrs. Bradley’s vow came true as every major Newspaper, Television Network, Radio Station, and Black Organization (NAACP) was present at the trial and reported the happening to all of the Nation and many European Nations as well. Right from the beginning the trial was smeared by prejudice, and propaganda. The jury consisted of all white males because they were the only people in Mississippi that were registered to vote. Jury duty and registration to vote went hand and hand. Immediately the segregation of Mississippi was brought to the eyes of the Nation, the NAACP used this as fuel to strengthen their organization and purpose through propaganda. The large media representation at the trial was seen as unnecessary by local whites. They felt Mississippi was being made an example of and they should show the rest of the world how life was in Mississippi and how good it was. The only thing the world saw was the massive racism in the State of Mississippi.
The State of Mississippi from the governor to the local white farmer supported the defendants. The Sheriff refused to collect evidence to support the prosecution, the governor and the rest of the government including President Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover the leader of the FBI refused to get involved, the affluent in Mississippi set up trust funds to pay for the defence. Needless to say the defendants were acquitted of the charges based on the theory of the defence that the body found in the river was not that of Emmett Till’s. The nation was outraged by the verdict and many organizations and individuals found strength to fight for desegregation and equality in the United States, hence the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
Many of these groups called for the rise of black leaders to lead the charge to equality and desegregation. From these calls many black authors and leaders (Dr. King Jr., Malcolm X) wrote and spoke of revolution. A revolution of ideals, morals and humanity not one of violence, anarchy, and overthrows. Both blacks and whites in America felt equality of the races was vitally important to the survival of the nation as a strong leader in the global community. Although this revolution took some time and lives were lost it was necessary in the States during a time when a new identity was being forged in the country.
In the two decades of the 1950’5 and 60’s the United states moved from a nation in which sex was viewed as private and sacred to open and fun. Emmett Till’s death was based primarily on sex and race and myth that black men were uncontrollable attracted to white woman and the fact that Emmett had a picture in his wallet of a white girl was viewed as a reason to kill him in order to protect the sanctity of the white woman. When this fact is examined closely it is ludercris and a movement was bound to occur. In the 1950 the best selling book was Norman Vincent Peales The Power of Positive Thinking. It’s successor was Dr. Alex Comforts The Joy of Sex. The nation moved from the idea of sex being some big secret to that of have sex if you want to and don’t be embarrassed by it. The realization of sex being too sacred and at times cause for undue stress could be attributed to the publicity the Till case received.
After the Till case black’s gained the courage to stand up for themselves just like Uncle Bradley did during the trial when he testified against Bryant and Milam. Blacks all over broke into white dominated schools and job’s. With this new found power these black’s helped to further the advancement of other blacks through education. Even whites in Mississippi who once supported lynching and segregation turned around and accepted blacks as humans and shunned Bryant and Milam forcing them to leave the State. The advancement of blacks in the United States can be directly attributed to the Till case. To bad it took a death of Chicago youth in Mississippi to wake the nation after sleeping through years of prejudice and of southern blacks being lynched.