By Rohan Smith
Emmett Till was an innocent boy. He was curious about the opposite sex, cheeky even. But he didn’t deserve to die for it.
Emmett — known affectionately by his mother at “Bo” — was visiting Mississippi from Chicago on this day 60 years ago.
The 14-year-old told his cousins he had a girlfriend, which they found hard to believe. Showing off, he told them he would chat to a woman at the local grocery store.
The woman, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, was married. More importantly, she was white.
When Emmett was left alone with her, he did something he would come to regret. He wolf whistled at her.
As harmless as it seemed, the incident sparked one of the ugliest race-fuelled attacks in America’s history. When Mrs Bryant told her husband Roy what happened at the store that day, he and his brother-in-law promised to exact revenge.
Instead of scolding the boy, they did the unthinkable. They kidnapped him at gunpoint, marched him out of his uncle’s house, whipped him in the face with a pistol and forced him into their vehicle.
They drove him to the Tallahatchie River, a wide body of water that flows for hundreds of kilometres through the deep south, forced him to strip off his clothes, shot him in the head and dumped his body in the water where it swiftly sank to the bottom.
Roy Bryant and J.W. “Big” Milam were acquitted of murder in a trial that lasted less than 70 minutes. They claimed the boy put his hands on Mrs Bryant.
The violent nature of the crime and the lack of justice for Bo propelled black men and women across the US to push back against oppression. Rosa Parks, the woman who famously refused to sit at the back of a bus, cited Bo’s death as her inspiration.
Sixty years on, those who witnessed the young boy flirting with the married woman, say he did nothing wrong.
His cousin, Simeon Wright, was in the store that day. He told the Smithsonian Magazine that “he didn’t say anything out of line”.
“We went to the store that night. There was about less than a minute that he was in there by himself. During that time I don’t know what he said, but when I was in there, he said nothing to her. He didn’t have time, she was behind the counter, so he didn’t put his arms around her or anything like that,” Mr Wright said.
“While I was in there he said nothing. But, after we left the store, we both walked out together, she came outside going to her car. As she was going to her car, he did whistle at her. That’s what scared her so bad. The only thing that I saw him do was that he did whistle.”
He said he was in the same bed as Emmett when the two men walked in and demanded he get dressed and follow them.
“I was the first one to wake up because I heard the noise and the loud talking. The men made me lie back down and ordered Emmett to get up and put his clothes on. During that time, I had no idea what was going on.”
He said his mother entered the room, pleading with the men not to take Emmett.
“At that point, she offered them money. One of the men, Roy Bryant, he kind of hesitated at the idea but J.W. Milam, he was a mean guy. He was the guy with the gun and the flashlight, he wouldn’t hear of it.”
Mr Wright said Emmett’s story still resonates with Americans because there was no justice.
“I was shocked. I was expecting a verdict of guilty. I’m still shocked. I believe sincerely that if they had convicted those men that Emmett’s story wouldn’t have been in the headlines. We’d have forgotten about it by now.”
Instead, racial tensions continue to simmer today, fuelled by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray and encapsulated in three words: Black Lives Matter.
Thomas Adams is a lecturer in history and American studies at the US Studies Centre at Sydney University. He says there has not been another case since that so galvanised the African American population.
“It was incredibly significant back then and still is,” he told news.com.au.
“Mississippi was the worst place in the south in terms of racial tensions. The area (where Emmett was killed) was a particularly poor part of America. It was dominated by a small group of whites and surrounded by a large poor black population.”
Prof. Adams said Emmett’s death was so powerful largely because it was so visible. His funeral was broadcast on television and his casket was left open at the insistence of his mother.
He said the trial was a “sham” and that his murderers used the “imagined threat” against white women as their justification.
“There was clear evidence who did it. They were found not guilty by an all white jury. It was proof of the system of segregation and white supremacy that dominated from 1900–1960 and depended on state wide laws and norms of behaviour.”
Prof. Adams said Emmett’s murder is worth revisiting today. He said it provides context to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s an excellent reminder of the character and the direct violence that underpinned racism in America.”
The US Government reopened the Till case in 2007. It is the basis for a number of documentaries and, according to Variety, is expected to be made into a movie to be produced by Whoopi Goldberg.
This article was originally published at News.com.au