The Emmett Till photograph has entered American folklore. It shows a young Black boy who is naive but has intelligence far above his years. He is smartly attired with a white shirt, a thin, loosened black tie, and a fedora on top of his head. He is joyfully looking out over the world from a life he couldn't possible have known would be cut short so brutally and senselessly, and his expression is open, confident but not smug. He was 13 years old when his mother took this photo on Christmas Day in 1954. It was taken just eight months before he was killed in a brutal kidnapping, torture, and lynching.
With "Till," which will be released on October 14 and recounts the true account of Emmett's mother Mamie Till-(Oscar Mobley's nominee Danielle Deadwyler) tenacious quest for justice some 67 years after the incident that provided significant impetus for the nascent civil rights movement, there is renewed interest in both the horrifying reality of what occurred and in remembering the young man who was involved.
Emmett was the son of Mamie Carthan and Louis Till and was born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago. He spent much of his childhood there as well. Mamie moved to Argo, Illinois, close to Chicago with her family as part of the Great Migration of rural black families from the south to the north in order to flee violence and persecution. Mamie was born in the small hamlet of Webb, Mississippi. She married Louis Till, but after discovering his infidelity in 1942, they divorced. Later, abuse-related accusations also surfaced. Louis was ultimately put to death in 1945 for the rape and murder of two women.
Emmett developed a persistent stutter after contracting polio at the age of six due to his already harsh upbringing. In 1951, his mother got remarried and went to Detroit with her new spouse. But Emmett decided to remain in Chicago and stayed to live with his grandmother there until the next year, when Mamie remarried, got a divorce, and moved back to the South Side of Chicago to be with her son. Mamie's second ex would stalk her over the ensuing years, leading Emmett to threaten him with a butcher knife. It wasn't exactly a carefree youthful life. However, according to reports, Emmett was primarily a lovable prankster who enjoyed playing pickup baseball and had a big network of relatives and friends. He was also well-dressed, as evidenced by his well-known teen portrait.
When Emnmett's great uncle Mose Wright visited him and Mamie in Chicago in the summer of 1955, he made plans for his great nephew to travel with him to the little Mississippi Delta hamlet where he resided. On August 24, Emmett and his cousin Curtis Jones visited Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market in the town of Money, run by 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his 21-year-old wife, Carolyn Bryant, who had been picking cotton in the scorching sun all day. Carolyn was joined in the store that day by her sister-in-law even though her husband was gone. Nothing that happened can ever be fully understood. Emmett allegedly wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant, aggressively flirted with her, or caressed her hand before either grabbing her by the waist or any combination of these actions.
Till was taken from Mose Wright's house by Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam four days later, at around 2:30 in the morning on August 28. Emmett was allegedly subjected to torture, shot in the head, and had his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Mamie boldly insisted on an open-casket funeral to make sure such heinous brutality could no longer be ignored and to make the nation witness what had been done to her son. When the image of Till's body appeared on the cover of Jet magazine, it sparked a fierce uproar around the globe.
Bryant testified during the ensuing murder trial that Emmett Till grabbed her hand while she was stacking candies in the supermarket and started making sexual advances on her. In a 2008 interview, she acknowledged that her sworn claims of verbal and physical advances were false and would much later retract her trial testimony.
The all-white, all-male jury swiftly found the defendant not guilty in that trial, which took place in September 1955. After a pitifully brief 67-minute deliberation, both defendants were declared not guilty. If we hadn't paused to drink pop, a jury member said, "It wouldn't have taken that long."
The new motion picture centres on Mamie Till's fight for some semblance of justice following the murder of her son, played in the movie by Jalyn Hall, an incident whose effects can still be felt today. That was demonstrated just this past summer. For her conduct that contributed to Till's lynching, Carolyn Bryant, now 88, was not indicted by a grand jury in Mississippi in August. She was implicated in his kidnapping and death, according to testimony, but there was not enough proof to proceed. Justice continues to be denied when it is delayed.
Even though Emmett Till only lived for 14 years in the flesh, his memory continues to this day in our hearts and minds and is now being brought to the big screen.