Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mississippi Madness: The Story of Emmett Till

A Mother's Grief

"Oh God! Oh God! My only boy!" Mrs. Mamie Bradley wailed as five men lifted a soiled paper wrapped bundle from a huge, brown wooden mid-Victorian box at the Illinois Central Station in Chicago Friday and put it into a waiting hearse." This was the opening paragraph in the front-page story in the Chicago Defender on September 1, 1955. The body was interred at A.A. Ranier Funeral Parlor on the South Side for four long days. The coffin was intentionally left open, a decision made by Mamie Till who was determined that the world should see that was done to her son. It was a decision that had a profound effect, not only on the many thousands who viewed the mangled corpse, but on the civil rights movement in America as well.

Mamie cries at her son's funeral
Mamie cries at her son's
funeral

"Approximately 250,000 persons viewed and passed by the bier of little Emmett Till," wrote The Defender, "All were shocked, some horrified and appalled. Many prayed, scores fainted and practically all, men, women and children wept." The grotesque appearance of the body, made worse by the waters of the Tallahatchie River, was difficult to look at and those who did would never forget the sight. "As thousands passed the bier at Roberts Temple church," another newspaper wrote, "stern men gritted their teeth and turned tear-filled faces away from the ghastly sight, while women screamed as they viewed the torn and twisted features of the harmless boy."

Mangled face of Emmett Till and open coffin at Till's funeral
Mangled face of Emmett Till and open cof-
fin at Till's funeral that Mrs. Till wanted the
world to see

In their September 15 issue, Jet magazine published an unedited photo of Till's face as he lay in his coffin. It had a devastating impact upon black America. For the first time, the public saw the terrifying reality of racial killing. Soon, other publications followed Jet magazine's lead and also published the shocking photograph of Till lying in his coffin. "The whole state of Mississippi is going to pay for this thing," Mamie Till told reporters, "he was a good boy. I know he didn't do anything to deserve that." Roy Wilkins of the New York chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. announced that "the state of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children."

But in the delta, local resentment was already building and their anger was focused on ill-defined "rabble-rousers." One resident said, "We don't like meddling from outsiders!" Special rage was directed toward black groups like the N.A.A.C.P. which was frequently described as communist-led and composed of people who wanted to "mongrelize" the races. A rumor began, which originated from the local sheriff's office, that the body retrieved from the Tallahatchie was actually not Emmett Till at all. He was alleged to be alive and hiding in Chicago while the body in the coffin was that of an unknown victim. This rumor was kept alive for weeks, fueled by vague quotes of law enforcement officials in Mississippi newspapers. Even the New York Times reported on the persistent story of mistaken identification. "There have been widespread reports," said a story in the Times on September 18, "that local law-enforcement officers have developed doubts over the identification of the body."

In the meantime, Sheriff Strider decided there was enough evidence to arrest J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant for Till's murder. On September 6, the same day that Till was buried in a Chicago cemetery, Milam and Bryant were indicted in Mississippi on charges of murder in Tallahatchie County Court.

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