A New Narrative: Recognizing Changes in the Story of Emmett Till
By Kieran Robertson
Content Warning: This post contains discussions of racial violence and sexaul assault.
Sometimes history changes. It is not uncommon for historians to discover that we have been missing a portion of a story for many years, or for new information to surface that changes our perspective. These changes and new perspectives are the reason textbook companies continue to publish new editions and historians continue to put more books on the shelves. At the Ohio History Connection, one such change has recently caused us to rewrite a label in an exhibit.
When visitors leave the Ohio History Center, they have the opportunity to fill out comment cards and let us know how the visit went. Recently, one visitor commented that a panel in our 1950s exhibit needed to be updated to reflect new information that has recently been released. The 1950s exhibit is a long-term installation, meaning visitors to the Ohio History Center will be reading this label for many years to come. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still be reading up to date information. So, we are doing our research and rewriting the panel.
This particular panel tells the story of Emmett Till. Till was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, but in 1955 he was scheduled to spend the last bit of his summer vacation hanging out with his cousins in Mississippi. Like many African American families in the post World War II period, Emmett Till’s relatives had been spread across the country by the Great Migration. On August 20th, Emmett’s mother took him to the train station in Chicago, where he boarded a train to Money, Mississippi.
On August 24th, in Mississippi, Emmett Till and his cousins went to a store owned by the Bryants, a white family. Till went inside to pick up some candy, and on his way out he whistled at Carolyn Bryant. Till was used to living in Chicago, where this action put him in little danger. However, his cousins were immediately terrified at the retribution such an act could carry.
In the early morning hours of August 28th, Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband) and J.W. Milam arrived at the home of Moses Wright, Emmett Till’s great uncle. With his cousin, Simeon Wright, in the same bed, Till was made to wake up and get dressed. Despite the urgent pleas of his aunt, Bryant and Milam took Till away. Till was brutally murdered, his body later found in the Tallahatchie River.
By the first week of September, Emmett Till’s body was on a train to Chicago, accompanied by his aunt. He was nearly unrecognizable, except for a ring on his finger bearing the initials L.T., for his father, Louis Till. Emmett’s parents had separated when he was very young, and his father died while serving in World War II. Before Emmett left for Mississippi in the summer of 1955, his mother, Mamie Till, had passed the ring on to him.
When Emmett Till arrived back in Chicago, Mamie Till made a decision that would change the course of history. Angry at the senseless racial violence that had ended her son’s life, she decided to host an open casket funeral, despite the state of Till’s body. A special casket with a glass top was designed specifically for the funeral. Thousands of Chicagoans came to Roberts Temple Church of God on September 3, 1955, to bid farewell to Emmett Till.
Less than two weeks later, Jet magazine, a national African American publication based in Chicago, published photographs of Emmett’s funeral and his body. A few days later, Chicago’s black newspaper, The Chicago Defender, followed suit. African Americans around the nation mourned Emmett Till and grew angry on his behalf.
The Cleveland Call and Post, a well known African American newspaper in Ohio, also covered the Emmett Till case as it unfolded.
On September 19, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam went to trial in Mississippi. During her testimony, Carolyn Bryant stated that Emmett Till physically grabbed her and threatened sexual assault. Moses Wright famously took the witness stand, and when asked to identify the men who had murdered his nephew, he pointed directly to Bryant and Milam. On September 23, 1955, Bryant and Milam were acquitted of murder charges by a jury of all white men. Soon after, Moses Wright and his family left Mississippi for good, moving North to Chicago. On January 24, 1956, Bryant and Milam were paid $4,000 by Look magazine to publish an outright confession.
Many African American owned publications and organizations, including the NAACP, named Emmett Till’s murder for what it was: a lynching. Unfortunately, this form of racial violence had a long history in the United States, even before Emmett Till was born. Racial violence was one part of a larger system used to maintain a black labor force in the United States after Reconstruction. Between 1889 and 1918, there were 2,522 African Americans lynched across the country.
As Herbert J. Seligmann pointed out in his 1920 publication, The Negro Faces America, “The Negro who dares to ‘preach’ social equality will be done to death,” because he lives in a society that “depends for its economic foundation upon cheap and ignorant labor.” Racial violence, combined with racial discrimination and segregation, became common in the United States as a way to keep African Americans in a lower social class forced to work long hours for little pay, replacing the workforce that was lost when their ancestors were released from slavery.
But why lynch a boy like Emmett Till who lived out of town and wasn’t needed to work in Mississippi’s fields? As Seligmann also astutely pointed out, “If the Negro progresses, acquires a competence and the means to leisure and education…he threatens to become fit to associate with white men on the basis of any test which white men may erect, except ancestry…” Essentially, many white Americans feared miscegenation, or a mixing of two races. In a world where white ancestry was considered superior, maintaining a perfectly white family tree was important, especially for lower class white families searching for a claim social power.
From 1914-1918, only about 19.8 percent of African American lynching victims were accused of sexual violence against a white woman. However, the national narrative that emerged would have us believe this number to be much higher. Through the language of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and films like Birth of a Nation (1915), white womanhood gained a sort of divinity, marking it as a thing that needed to be protected at all costs.
This sort of lynching was not just a Southern problem. Racial violence pervaded the entire nation. In fact, in 1897, in Urbana, Ohio, Charles Mitchell, an African American man, was lynched on accusations that he had robbed and assaulted an elderly woman in the community. Mitchell pled guilty, but as one commenter noted, Mithchell’s plea, “carried with it no evidence of guilt. Any innocent Negro man in a similar situation, would have confessed guilt, to hasten conviction, and get behind the walls of the Penitentiary. The only place of safety, in this Christian land, for a Negro, charged, guilty or innocent, with a great crime.” After his death, Mitchell’s body was laid out in the courthouse yard for over twenty four hours, so that locals could come and celebrate the event.
With this sort of violence common across American history, when Emmett Till was accused of assaulting Carolyn Bryant, many white Americans believed that his murder was a proper punishment for a terrible crime. He had dared get too close to a white woman and had paid the price.
However, things changed when Mamie Till decided to leave her son’s casket open. Young African American men and women around the country, even boys and girls still in school, saw the images of the funeral, the vicious words of the trial, and began to grow angry at the inequalities facing them. After such an emotional funeral and such obvious evidence, it was hoped that Till’s murderers would be found guilty. When the not guilty verdict was read, even Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright was shocked. Of his father, Moses Wright, who pointed out the murderers in the courtroom, Simeon has said, “He said that was enough. He just didn’t want no part of Mississippi anymore.”
The leaders of America’s Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s nearly all cited memories of Emmett Till’s murder as an influential moment in their adolescence. Till’s murder ignited a nation of young people to push for change and create a world where a whistle wasn’t a death sentence and men who murdered boys like Emmett Till were sent to prison.
Today, a comparison has been drawn between the influence of Emmett Till’s death and the many young men and women whose deaths have inspired the Black Lives Matter Movement. In fact, many comparisons have been drawn between Emmett Till and Tamir Rice, of Cleveland, Ohio.
So why did we need to rewrite the exhibit label about Emmett Till? In 2004, the United States Justice Department reopened his case. Bryant and Milam were deceased by this point, but evidence had surfaced suggesting that other living individuals may have been involved. To reopen the case, an autopsy had to be performed, so Till’s body was exhumed. During this process a new casket was made, meaning the casket that Mamie Till originally left open was free to make its way to a place of permanent preservation at the Smithsonian. In 2007, the case was closed again with no new verdict.
However, in 2017, Carolyn Bryant spoke to author, Tim Tyson, for his book The Blood of Emmett Till, and she changed her story. Over sixty years after her original testimony, Bryant admitted that Emmett Till had never grabbed or assaulted her. She didn’t comment on the whistle, which other witnesses generally confirm, but she is certain that Emmett Till never physical threatened her. As Carolyn Bryant told Tim Tyson much too late, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
The Justice Department notified Congress in March of 2018 that they have again reopened Emmett Till’s case, “based upon the discovery of new information.” It is yet unclear if this new information came from Carolyn Bryant or another knowledgeable source.
While many historians assumed that Carolyn Bryant was lying about the threatened assault, it is important to the historic record to know without a doubt that her story was a fabrication. This information adds to our understanding of the relationship between racial violence, control, and the sanctity of white womanhood. The three have become inextricably linked in any study of twentieth century America, forming a treacherous feedback loop. It is important to know that Carolyn lied, because this helps us understand why Emmett Till was actually murdered. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam weren’t actually afraid that Emmett Till, a boy of fourteen, would hurt Carolyn. Her honor was used as an excuse to maintain control through fear and violence.
Thanks to the careful eye of a visitor, the Ohio History Center’s 1950s exhibit will now reflect this important change in our understanding of American history. History is always changing- it’s important to pay attention or we might just miss it.
For more information…
The history of Emmett Till still hangs heavily over the town of Sumner, Mississippi, where attempts have been made to tell this story.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in April 2018, becoming the nation’s first memorial to honor the legacy of lynching victims.
Update November 2019:
Not long after we made the changes described in this blog post, another visitor to the Ohio History Connection noticed this panel in the 1950s exhibit. She observed that it wasn’t fitting for the panel to only include a photograph of a smiling Emmett Till when Mamie Till had so bravely forced the world to face her son’s open casket. To visitors who did not closely observe the text on the panel, there was not a clear visual communication of the tragedy of Emmett Till’s story.
I was actually in the gallery with the visitor that day, and we had a very good discussion about this point. I walked away realizing that we needed to make another change to this panel to get it right. So we got to work.Displaying a topic like Emmett Till’s murder can be complicated in a museum. We knew that we could not simply add an image of Till in his casket to this panel. Displaying direct images of racial violence and death in any manner deserves a space of reverence that the 1950s exhibit does not provide. In addition, this type of imagery should be placed in a way that allows those who might have a PTSD reaction to violent imagery to be forewarned.
The Smithsonian came across similar issues when they took Till’s casket into their collections.We made the decision to add the below image to the panel, next to the image we originally included of Till and his mother on his last Christmas. We chose this image, because it puts the photograph of a smiling Till in context. In fact the Christmas photo can be seen in the second photo, inside his casket. The emotion in this new photo visually communicates the tragedy of Till’s death. It should inspire frustration and a desire for change from the viewer. It is our hope that the addition of this new photograph will compel visitors to think about Emmett Till and his legacy in the ways Mamie Till wished.