Nation/World

How Emmett Till’s mother defied threats to her life and fought for justice

film-till-review

Twenty-four days after her son’s swollen body was found in the Tallahatchie River, tied to a cotton-gin fan and bound in barbed wire, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley made up her mind to travel deep into the racist South to testify at the trial of the two White men accused of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till.

She had to be smuggled into Mississippi because of threats against her life. But Till-Mobley was determined to identify the body in court and let the world know what Mississippi had done to her only child. She hoped that even in Mississippi, 12 White people might consider the testimony of a grieving Black mother.

“They were going to turn the murder of my son into a case of self-defense, the self-defense of the Mississippi way of life,” Till-Mobley wrote in her 2003 memoir, “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.”

In stifling heat in September 1955, Till-Mobley walked into the crowded courtroom in Sumner, Miss., passing Roy Bryant, 24, and J.W. Milam, 36, the men on trial for murder, and Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, whose accusations of assault had led to the brutal killing of Till-Mobley’s son.

More than 60 years after Till-Mobley’s riveting testimony during that trial, the film “Till” opened in the Washington D.C. area this week, with a nationwide release later this month. Directed by Chinonye Chukwu and featuring Danielle Deadwyler as Till-Mobley, Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till and Whoopi Goldberg as Till’s grandmother, the film tells the story of Till-Mobley’s fight for justice and the sensational murder trial.

“The crux of this story is not about the traumatic, physical violence inflicted upon Emmett - which is why I refused to depict such brutality in the film - but it is about Mamie’s remarkable journey in the aftermath,” Chukwu said. “She is grounded by the love for her child, for, at its core, ‘Till’ is a love story.”

During the trial at the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, Till-Mobley took her seat on the witness stand. She had been born in Webb, Miss., two miles south of Sumner. Although she had moved with her family to Chicago when she was 2, she knew the dangers of the South for Black people. So, as Emmett packed for a trip to visit relatives in Mississippi, she testified, “I told him when he was coming down here that he would have to adapt himself to a new way of life. And I told him to be very careful about how he spoke and to whom he spoke, and to always remember to say ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, ma’am’ at all times.”

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Emmett arrived in Money, Miss., on Saturday, Aug. 21, 1955, to stay with cousins and his great uncle, Moses Wright. It was the beginning of the cotton harvest season, and his cousins were excited to teach him about life in Mississippi. “And when he arrived, we weren’t disappointed in him,” his cousin Simeon Wright told the Southern Oral History Program in a 2011 interview, “because he was a great storyteller and he told us about Chicago.”

They showed him how to work in the cotton fields and swim in Mississippi rivers. On the fateful day of Aug. 24, Wright recalled, Emmett and his cousins picked cotton from “sunup to not quite dusk.”

Then they decided to go into the town of Money. Simeon’s 16-year-old brother, Maurice, drove to Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market. “We were in Money less than 20 minutes,” Simeon Wright said.

According to Wright, Emmett “didn’t say anything out of line” in the store. But after they left, Carolyn Bryant walked out toward her car, and Emmett whistled at her.

“It scared us half to death,” Wright said. “And we couldn’t get out of town fast enough. We ran to the car. And Emmett saw our reaction, and it scared him.”

Three days passed. “Nothing happened; we forgot all about it,” Wright said. But early in the morning on Aug. 28, “our world was turned upside down.”

Around 2 a.m., Roy Bryant and his half brother Milam marched into Moses Wright’s home, shouting that they were looking for the boy from Chicago. Milam was carrying a gun. They made Emmett dress and put him in their truck.

Wright remembered hearing the men ask, “Is this the right one?” A woman responded, “He is.” Wright believed it was Carolyn Bryant. “And we never saw Emmett alive again,” he said.

Three days later, Emmett’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River. It was beaten beyond recognition. His teeth were missing. An ear was severed. An eye was hanging out of its socket.

Till-Mobley demanded that her son’s body be sent to Chicago. When she went to the train station in Chicago to meet the body, she collapsed. Later, she declined to allow the mortician to change the appearance of her son’s body. “I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till,” she said later.

She asked for an open casket at his funeral, and the photos of his body became a catalyst in the civil rights movement. On Sept. 3, 1955, more than 50,000 people began lining up at a South Side Chicago church for a viewing of Emmett. When Jet magazine ran photos of the body, Black Americans across the country mourned.

“Mamie empowered the media to nationalize the lynching,” the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. wrote in the introduction to her memoir. “It was an earthquake and Mamie used the aftershocks of that earthquake to awaken, to transform a people and to redirect our course.”

More than two weeks later, the trial of Bryant and Milam began in Sumner.

Moses Wright was asked to identify the White men who had kidnapped Emmett from his home. Wright, whom Milam had threatened, did not hesitate. “There he is,” he testified, pointing at Milam. “That’s the man.” He also identified Bryant. Wright fled Mississippi that night.

One of the most powerful moments in the trial belonged to Till-Mobley, when she identified her son by the ring he was wearing, which had belonged to his father.

Despite the evidence, the all-White jury deliberated just 67 minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty. One juror said, “We wouldn’t have taken so long if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.”

On Jan. 24, 1956, Look magazine published the confessions of Bryant and Milam. The murderers recounted that they beat Till with a gun, shot him and threw his body in the river with a cotton-gin fan attached with barbed wire to weigh him down.

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In an unpublished memoir, Carolyn Bryant, who now goes by Carolyn Bryant Donham, called herself “a victim” and declined to retract her disputed account of the events leading to Emmett’s murder. In June, relatives of Emmett Till called for Donham’s arrest after the discovery of a 1955 warrant for “Mrs. Roy Bryant” that was never executed. But in August, a grand jury in Leflore County, Miss., declined to indict her.

After the 1955 trial, Till-Mobley returned to Chicago, becoming a teacher and civil rights activist. She spoke across the country against injustice. “So far as the healing is concerned,” she said in the 2022 ABC documentary television series “Let the World See,” “I will never get over that. I will take that hurt to my grave. That influenced everything I’ve done.”

Before she died on Jan. 6, 2003, she explained why she wanted the case reopened. “It would be sending out a message to everyone that truth crushed to Earth will rise again,” Till-Mobley said. “You don’t escape the evil you’ve done.”

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