May 18, 2004
Half a century ago, the photo of the mutilated body of a young black boy gave many Americans their first shocking view of what life was really like in the state of terror known as the Jim Crow South. Now, nearly 50 years later, the Justice Department has announced that it is reopening its investigation of the murder of Emmett Till.
Till was a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago visiting relatives in Money, Miss., in August 1955 when he crossed a fatal color line. By some accounts, the trouble started when Till whistled at a white woman in a local store. According to Till's cousin, Emmett simply said "bye, baby" to the woman after being egged on by some local boys.
Within a few hours, Till was abducted from his uncle's home by Roy Bryant, the woman's husband, and her half-brother, J.W. Milam. Three days later, Emmett Till's mutilated and battered body was found in the nearby Tallahatchie River. Bryant and Milam were arrested and tried for the murder in a segregated courtroom before an all-white jury. "I'm sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men," one of the defense lawyers told the jury before their one-hour of deliberation.
He was right. Bryant and Milam were acquitted.
Unfortunately, the details of the Till case weren't unique. In the decades that followed the official end of slavery, thousands of blacks were kidnapped, tortured, brutalized and lynched.
Lynchings were often public spectacles: Crowds gathered and cheered on unspeakable acts of torture and savagery. Many parents brought their kids. Some participants would send postcards of the events back home. Others would vie for souvenirs like a finger or another body part. Few of the perpetrators of these acts were ever identified or brought to trial. Many of the victims remain anonymous to this day.
"Only the book in heaven knows how many Negroes have come up missing, dead and killed under the system in which we lived," said the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a longtime civil-rights activist.
What made the Emmett Till case so different was that graphic evidence of his violent murder was widely circulated in the media. When Till's body was brought back to Chicago for burial, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted that the casket be left open "so all the world can see what they did to my boy," she said.
Jet magazine, the black community's popular weekly newsmagazine, and other media outlets published the horrifying images of Emmett Till's disfigured body. "It burned the race problem into our consciousness," lawyer and author Chris Benson told the New York Times in 2002, adding that it was "the first international coverage, the first real media event of the modern civil-rights movement."
Although Bryant and Milam eventually confessed to the murder, they were never brought to justice. Both are now dead, as is Mamie Till Mobley, who campaigned until her death last year to have her son's case reopened.
Ironically, it took another media event, the release of two recent documentary films -- Keith Beauchamp's "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" and Stanley Nelson's "The Murder of Emmett Till" -- to convince prosecutors to reopen the investigation.
In fact, when asked by the Associated Press how many witnesses to the crime may still be alive, Joyce Chiles, the district attorney whose office will be handling the case, replied, "That number would probably best come from (filmmaker) Keith Beauchamp ... The only thing we're doing is following up on the statements of people who he has already located."
The stories of thousands of other unnamed victims who died under Jim Crow will likely remain hidden in a chapter of American history that many would rather deny or forget.
But at least in the case of Emmett Till, justice may finally be served.