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The Most Important and Horrifying Pieces of Our History: Emmett Till

In the spirit of Greenwood, Mississippi’s unveiling of a new Emmett Till statue this last Friday, it only made sense to once again review the impact that Emmett Till’s death had on Black American history. The very tall, bronze statue was erected in Greenwood’s Rail Spike Park, and depicts Till in slacks, a dress shirt, and tie with a hand tipping the brim of his hat. The unveiling drew a very large crowd, and the blues song “Wake Up, Everybody” played as a tarp was pulled off the statue, and hundreds of people flooded in to take pictures and videos.

Till’s death was one of the most notable to fuel the Civil Rights Movement. Before his horrifying murder, Till grew up in a middle class neighborhood in south Chicago. While his mother warned him of the extra threats in the world due to his race, he nonetheless enjoyed pulling pranks. On August 24, 1955, he was standing with his cousins and friends outside a country store in Money, Mississippi. Since Emmett bragged that his girlfriend back home was white, his cousins and friends dared him to ask the white woman sitting behind the store counter out on a date. He proceeded to enter and buy some candy, and on the way out was heard saying “Bye, baby” to the woman. While there were no witnesses, the woman, Carolyn Bryant, later claimed that he grabbed her and whistled on his way out.

Roy Bryant, the woman’s husband, returned from a trip a few days later to hear the news from his wife. In a rage, he ventured to Till’s great uncle’s home with his half-brother J.W. Milam on August 28th. The two men demanded to see Till, and forced him into their car despite pleas of mercy from Till’s uncle. After driving around through the night, and likely beating Till in a toolshed behind Milam’s house, the two drove Till to the Tallahatchie River. At the river, his assailants made Till carry a 75-pound cotton gin fan to the bank of the river and ordered him to take off his clothes. They then beat him nearly to death, shot him, and threw his body, tied to the cotton gin fan with barbed wire, into the river.

Till’s corpse was found three days later, but was so disfigured that his uncle only recognized him by an initialed ring. While authorities wanted to bury the body fast, Mamie Bradley, Till’s mother, requested it be sent to Chicago. She ultimately decided to have an open-casket funeral so that the world could see what the racist men did to her son. Jet, an African American weekly magazine, even published a photo of Emmett’s corpse so that the mainstream media would also be forced to pick up the story.

With Mose Wright, Till’s uncle, being the only witness to identify the murderers, and an all-white jury carrying out deliberations on the case, Milam and Bryant were found “not guilty,” even on the separate charge of kidnapping. The jury explained that they believed the state had failed to prove the identity of the body. Many people around the country were outraged at the decision at the time, and more still are today.

Ultimately, Carolyn Bryant recanted her testimony in Tim Tyson’s 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till. She finally admitted nearly 70 years later that Till had never touched, threatened, or harassed her. She said that “Nothing that boy did could every justify what happened to him.” In 2022, a Mississippi grand jury decided against indictment of Bryant for her role in the crime. This March, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law, which makes lynching officially a federal crime.

Though Mississippi is slowly ridding its cities of confederate statues, few statues still properly represent the state with the highest black population in the country. This new monument is certainly a start and is a refreshing depiction of Till. Rather than focusing on his cuts and bruises, this statue showcases the happiness, joy, and politeness that truly made Till the fun, young man that he was.

While the creation of the statue was indeed meant to depict Till in a new light, it in no way was meant to overshadow the seriousness of his death and its implications. Our country is certainly turning in the right direction as we continue to memorialize the black men and women that have shaped this country’s history. However, we continue to see far too many inexplicable and unjustifiable innocent deaths in the black community and acknowledging them as wrong after the fact simply doesn’t cut it.

Just like Emmett Till, people can certainly make a difference in death, but this difference has no comparison to what they can do in life. Just as murder like Till’s needs to never happen again, so do the many other killings of black Americans around the country. Only in that fight can we find true progress and peace as a country.

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