Emmett Till in a photograph taken by his mother on Christmas Day 1954, about eight months before his murder.
A recent episode featured on NPR told the story of Abel Meeropol, a poet and teacher, who was moved to write the song “Strange Fruit,” after seeing a photograph of a lynched African-American. The song written in the late 1930s was eventually made famous by Billie Holiday and named the Song of the Century in 1999 by Time magazine.
This violent and disturbing chapter of American history has been documented in recent years with an exhibit, that is now also an online resource: Without Sanctuary. These murders were often not well reported at the time and many times no one was prosecuted or brought to trial for the deaths. As Without Sanctuary has documented, evidence of these crimes in the form of postcard photographs were openly sent, mailed, and displayed with no fear of prosecution by the participants or witnesses of these atrocities. Anti-lynching legislation was routinely introduced over the years, but from 1882 to 1968 only three bills were passed in the House of Representative only to be struck down in the Senate.
The murder of Emmett Louis Till in 1955 was one of three lynching in 1955, but his mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral and the subsequent attention surrounding Till’s case galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. Till was from Chicago and had been visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi when he reportedly flirted with a white woman. The woman, Carolyn Bryant, ran a grocery story with her husband, Roy Bryant. There are varying stories of what exactly occurred at the store, but a few nights later on August 28 Till was taken from his great-uncle’s home by Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam and then brutally beaten and murdered. The extent of Till’s injuries was so extreme that his mother Mamie Till Bradley asked for an open casket funeral to show the brutality of what had been done to her son. The funeral was documented in a Jet magazine story, published on September 15, 1955.
This article and the accompanying photo of Emmett Till’s mutilated body were seen by a young Henry Hampton. Hampton, who was the exact same age as Till, lived in St. Louis, Missouri–not that far from Money, Mississippi–and never forgot Till’s story. It had a lasting impact on him, and when he made his documentary, Eyes on the Prize he began telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement with Till’s murder. The Film & Media Archive has many documents, photos, and material relating to the history of lynching and the Emmett Till case. For this section of the documentary, Hampton interviewed Curtis Jones, Till’s cousin, journalist William Bradford Huie, who interviewed Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam for Look magazine, and journalist James L. Hicks, who covered the trial.
Mose Wright stands and points to J. W. Milam, a white man accused of kidnapping and murdering Wright’s 14-year-old great-nephew Emmett Till, during the murder trial in Sumner, Mississippi, September 1955.
Hicks described how Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright testified and identified Till’s killers,
He was called up on to testify as to, could he see anybody in the courtroom identify anybody in that courtroom that had come to his house that night and got Emmet Till out. He stood up and there was a tension in the courtroom because we had been told…that, hey, the stuff is going to hit the fan when they stand up and identify, when Moses Wright stand up and identified J.W. Milam and the other fellow…And he looked around and there was a tension and he says in his broken language, “Dar he.”
Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp who directed the 2004 documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, did extensive research at the Film & Media Archive. This film and subsequent publicity surrounding it led to the reopening of the Till case in 2005. Again the Film & Media Archive provided interview transcripts and documents to the Justice Department while they were investigating the case. Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam had been acquitted by an all-white jury in 1955, and no other people were prosecuted for Till’s murder, despite accounts uncovered by Beauchamp of more people than Bryant and Milam being at the scene.
For more information on the materials on this case, please contact the Film & Media Archive.