Sixty-five years have passed since the murder of Emmett Till. In 2020, the movement he galvanized serves as a blueprint for others to take action.
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Emmett Till’s cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, retells his account of how Till’s kidnapping unfolded as the moon set over that early Delta morning over 60 years ago.
Three months have passed since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a former police officer kneeledÂ on his neck for nearly nine minutes.Â
Since video of the incident was widely circulated on social media, protesters have taken to the streets, demanding not only justice for Floyd, but change from both local and national government agencies to address racial inequality that has repeatedly come to the forefront.
Images and videos from marches and rallies that continue across the country have drawn parallels to the days following another high-profile death: Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was killed in the Mississippi Delta in 1955.Â
In this circa 1950 photograph taken in Argo-Summit, Ill., Emmett Till (left) sits on a bicycle beside his cousin, Wheeler Parker (right) with his passenger, Joe Williams. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Delta State University)
Aug. 28 marks the 65th anniversary of Till’s killing, which took place near Money, Mississippi. The brutality of Till’s killing, displayed to the world through a collection of images from his open-casket funeral service in Chicago, sparked a wave of outrage and galvanized what would eventually become the civil rights movement and leave its mark on American history.
Today, the events that came afterÂ Till’s killing serve as a blueprint for a new movement that has stretched across the nation and beyond, inspiring a new generation to take action.Â
But the past hasn’t passed. Till’s case remains open and no one has faced charges since his killers were acquitted by an all-white jury after just over an hour of deliberation. While people take to the streets demanding justice for Floyd and others who have become victims in the modern era, some members of Till’s family are standing up and demanding justice and closure for him as well.
Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money can be seen, first in 1955, and now today. It’s the store where Emmett Till was reported to have wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant. (Photo: AP/Rogelio Solis)
According to court testimony, Till was killed after allegedly making advances toward Carolyn Bryant Donham, who is white, while he visited the grocery store belonging to her then-husband, Roy Bryant. Donham testified he grabbed her hand and waist, and made suggestive remarks after asking her out on a date, though the account was later deemed inadmissible. Witnesses at the store that day said Till did whistle at Donham, but didn’t touch her.
Days after the incident,Â Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Till from his great-uncle’s home and he was severely beaten and lynched before being shot. His body was then dumped in the Tallahatchie River, weighed down by a 70-pound fan, and recovered several days later.
In 1956, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam sold their story to Look Magazine and admitted to murdering Emmett Till in an interview. Due to double jeopardy laws, they were never punished. Both men have since died. (Photo: Look magazine)
Till’s case drew international attention in 1955, not onlyÂ because both men charged with his murder were acquitted by an all-white jury, but because of the actions taken by his family in the wake of his death.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, famously had an open-casket funeral for her son in Chicago after telling the funeral director to « let the people see what I’ve seen ». ManyÂ filed past Till’s casket during the memorial, but imagery from the service, taken by David Jackson, spread like wildfire when it was published in Jet magazine,Â and later, several other Black publications.Â
In this 1955 file photo, Mamie Till Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral in Chicago. (Photo: File photo/Chicago Sun Times-via AP)
David Tell, a professor at the University of Kansas, author of « Remembering Emmett Till » and co-director of the Emmett Till Memory Project, said the graphicÂ images of Till’s beaten bodyÂ gave the public an undeniable view of what racism in the segregatedÂ AmericanÂ South looked like.
« That photograph played a major role in transforming the Till murder from one more 1955 Mississippi lynching that no one has ever heard of … into the national phenomenon that it was, » he said in an email.
Tell said the photo set the stage for the Till generation: a group of young Black men and women, including the late Rep. John Lewis, the Ladner sisters, and other iconic figures in the civil rights movement, who flooded Mississippi in the 1960s demanding action.
« When John Lewis recently claimed (in his posthumous NYT editorial) that ‘Emmett Till was his George Floyd’, he was talking about seeing the David Jackson photograph, » Tell said.Â « He saw it at age 14 and it changed the course of his life. »
A similar phenomenon happened in the wake of Floyd’s death when video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neckÂ went viral on social media. Public outcry led to protestsÂ around the nation andÂ overseas, with marchersÂ calling attention to social inequalities based on race and demanding measures be taken to correct themÂ â calls that continue to date.
Devery S. Anderson, author of « Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, » said momentum had been building for years following the death of Trayvon Martin, but Floyd’s death struck a painful chord with people around the country.
« We’ve been seeing things happen for the last several years, but this one here just sparked a movement, and that’s what the Till case did, » he said. « There had been outrage over Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and all these other cases. …Â that built up to what finally happened with what we see with the George Floyd case. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen. »
Devery Anderson is the author of « Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement. » He shares five enduring myths about the Till case.
Deborah Watts, a Till family member andÂ co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, said there are definite parallels between the images that galvanized the Till generation and the video of Floyd’s death.
« The biggest parallel, I think, there is that we witnessed George Floyd losingÂ his life, » she said. « With Emmett, we saw the results of it. [Mamie] showed what hate looked like. But with George’s, we actually could see. »
Though the Black Lives Matter organization was foundedÂ in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman and has had a presence throughout several other high-profile cases involving Black Americans like Brown, Sandra Bland and Walter Scott,Â it has regained notoriety this year as a national movement following Floyd’s death.Â Â
« From Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown forward, every police killing we associate with BLM has put Emmett Till back in the news, » he said. « BLM has put racial injustice front and center, and the Till story has become one of the primary ways people make sense of such injustice. »
Tell, who is also a co-creator for the Emmett Till Memory Project app, said downloads for the app increased fourfold in the weeks after Floyd’s death, showing people look to Till’s case in order to understand more about how racial inequalities have impacted Black Americans during the course of history.
Since advocates such as actors Taye Diggs, Danny Glover and Aunjanue Ellis have begun promoting the ETLF to bring awareness of the case to aÂ new generation, their social media has grown exponentially. Watts said their followers on Twitter have grown from 3,400 to over 40,000 and they hope to see more people come to them to learn about the case and find out how to help.
The ETLFÂ launched a new petition in July calling for government agencies to publicize any progress in the investigation and bring charges againstÂ Donham, the last known surviving accomplice.
Carolyn Bryant Donham, 84, seen in this image from video taken in 2004 by a « 60 Minutes » video crew, is quoted in a 2017 book, âThe Blood of Emmett Till,â as saying she lied about Till accosting her in 1955. (Photo: AP)
« We’re trying to appeal to from the top levelÂ of our government down to the local authorities to push forward this 65-year-old murder case, » Watts said.
The petition appeals toÂ Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and District Attorney of the 4th Circuit Court W. Dewayne Richardson, as well as U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Watts said similar petitions have been launched by outside parties in the past that called for more information or judicial movement in the case, but this is the first time a member of the Till family has led one themselves.Â
« It’s always been something that others have taken on for us and I believe there has been some wonderful results and responsesÂ to it, » she said. « We just have not put our energy or put our face into it or stood there and said ‘This is our family. We’ve been waiting and we deserve answers and we deserve justice.’ And so we wanted to be part of that push as well. »
The petition was originally meant to launch earlier in the year, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the plan on hold. Watts said the ETLF focused on other aspects of its Justice for Emmett Till campaignÂ until they were able to finally launch the petition on Emmett’s birthday, July 25. At time of writing, the petition had over 3,900 signatures.Â
Watts said she has requestedÂ meetings with both Attorney General Fitch and AD Richardson to discuss the case, but has not yet heard back.
Seeing charges come down in the case may be difficult. In 2007, a bi-racial federal grand jury issued a « no bill » in a case against Donham seekingÂ manslaughter charges, meaning the jury at that time found insufficient evidence of the allegedÂ crime. Federal authorities also declined to press charges in 2006, saying the statute of limitations had run out.Â
Anderson said he isn’t sure the current amount of evidence will allow any charges to come to fruition.
« Between what they knew before, unless they have more evidence for a manslaughter charge, I don’t know that they could make anything stick, to be honest, » he said. « I just don’t see where the evidence is that would get them to indict. »
Donham, now 86, is also legally blind and in a wheelchair, adding to the difficulty of seeing possible charges because a jury may sympathize with the state of her health, Anderson said.
« I do think that if there’s someone alive who participated in this, no matter how old they are or anything, I think they should be brought to justice, » he said. « But I really don’t think the evidence is going to be there. »
In 2019, the memorial sign marking the site of Emmett Till’s murder that was subject to multiple acts of vandalism over the years was replaced by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission with a new sign that is reportedly bulletproof. (Photo: Courtesy/Emmett Till Memorial Commission.)
Watts said, however, the ETLF is looking for more than just charges being filed in the case.
« We want to hear from Carolyn Bryant, » she said. « That’s justice, as well. And then we also feel strongly that … we need an apology to our family from the top levels of our government down to the municipalities there in Mississippi. There’sÂ so many things we can point to that went wrong. So we want the wrongs righted. We want the appropriate apologies.Â We want them to join up with us to make sure this doesn’t happen again to any other family. »
Separate from the petition, Watts said the foundationÂ is alsoÂ pursuing the creation of policies tied to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 that can empower the families of victims of raciallyÂ motivated crimes dating back to the civil rights era.
« With this new administration, we want to remind them that this is under their watch, » she said. « The cold cases and the 120 or so other families deserve the truth and they deserve justice. »
Watts said Mississippi has long wanted to move toward reconciliation with the Till family regarding the case, but she said she finds the concept difficult to imagine unless the case comes to a satisfactory conclusion.
« It’s impossible, I think, for any of us in our family to even talk about that until justice prevails. »
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