On the 30th Anniversary of Emmett Till's death, NBC News Rich Samuels looks back at the story of a young boy who was murdered by two white men who were acquitted of the crime.
30th Anniversary of Emmett Till’s Death
Rich Samuels, reporting: The sole monument to Emmett Till shows him standing in the shadow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Emmett Till never met Dr. King but Emmett’s violent death 30 years ago had a profound effect, not only on Dr. King, but on the movement that Dr. King led.
Emmett Till is buried near Chicago, his hometown. While Emmett was visiting a great uncle in the Mississippi Delta in August 1955 he whistled at a White woman, that whistle cost him his life. The country store where the whistling took place still stands, ten miles north of Greenwood Mississippi, it has long since been abandoned. But in 1955 it was run by the Bryant family, Carolyn Bryant was behind the counter, she is the woman at which Emmett Till whistled. Two White men subsequently kidnapped and killed Emmett Till. Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, and JW Milam, his half brother. Emmett’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River.
SIMON GARRETT: The body was very decomposed, very much…
Samuels: Those who saw it have never forgotten. Photographs of Emmett’s remains permanently etched themselves into the memories of a generation. At Emmett’s wake in Chicago, tens of thousands passed by his open casket. But the sorrow of a mother who lost her only child soon gave way to anger and outrage at what followed, after Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were indicted.
Their murder trial was held in the Tallahatchie County court house in Sumner Mississippi. The jurors were White, every one of them. Sherriff H.C. Strider gathered the evidence.
Sherriff H.C. Strider: We never had any problems until some of these niggers go up north and the NAACP talks to them and then they come back home.
Samuels: The trial was covered by the national press, but Black journalists sat at a segregated table. Simeon Booker was among them.
Simeon Booker: You could see the hostility, you could feel it, you could know it, but you had to be there.
Moses Wright: There was a man standing there with a pistol in one hand, and a flashlight in the other.
Samuels: Moses Wright, Emmett’s great uncle, was the key prosecution witness. The story of Emmett’s abduction he recited for the newsreels and later recounted in open court. Newsweek showed Wright, the 64-year-old Black sharecropper pointing the finger of guilt at two White men. The twelve White jurors never heard from the defendants, their defense attorney admonished them to use their Anglo-Saxon courage and set both defendants free. It did not take long for the jury to make up its mind. After hardly more than an hours deliberation it filed back into this courtroom. The foreman rose and read the verdict, “not guilty.”
REPORTER: Did you expect this verdict?
Roy Bryant: Well I was hoping for it.
WILLIAM BRADFORD HUIE: They committed the murder, and told me they did and told me how they did.
SAMUELS: But Author William Bradford Huie heard what the jurors did not. To Huie, Bryant and Milam admitted their guilt, but once acquitted, Bryant and Milam were never tried again.
MAMIE MOBLEY: Well this whole trial was just a farce…
SAMUELS: Two days after the verdict Emmett’s mother spoke at a massive rally in Harlem. Ten thousand Blacks gathered in protest.
MOBLEY: I hope that his death will certainly start a movement in these United States to clean up our own back ally’s before we start over seas to try and clean those.
UNIDENTIFIED BLACK POLITICIAN: Thank you and may God bless you…
Samuels: There was a movement. And two days ago in Greenwood, Mississippi it came a step closer to fulfillment, with the first Black elected officials in Greenwood, since Reconstruction, were sworn into office. All this happened just a few miles from the bend of the Tallahatchie River where the body of Emmett Till was found almost 30 years ago. For Today, this is Rich Samuels.
MONEY, Miss. — Two vans, escorted by local sheriff's deputies, traveled deep into the Mississippi Delta, a swath of poor agricultural towns separated by endless stretches of corn and cotton. It was early afternoon when they arrived at the dilapidated grocery store.