The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Emmett Till

Emmett Till loved to laugh."He would pay people to tell him jokes," according to his cousin, Wheeler Parker. He also "loved to tell jokes," said childhood friend Richard Heard, who remembered Emmett being "a funny guy all the time." An avid prankster, he enjoyed pulling the school fire alarm to get out of class, per Smithsonian magazine. Also a thoughtful son, Emmett tried to make life easier for his hard-working mother, Mamie.

As Biography details, Emmett Till was born in July 1941, and his parents split in 1942. He never met his father, Louis, who was executed while serving in WWII. Meanwhile, most people had probably never met a woman like his mother. An academic dynamo, Mamie had attended a predominantly white high school in an era of widespread segregation, becoming the fourth black student to graduate and first to achieve "A" Honor Roll status. She would later work 12-hour days as a clerk who handled confidential files for the Air Force. Emmett volunteered to "take care of the house" so she "could go out and make the money." He cooked, cleaned, and did laundry so she didn't have to.

One can only imagine how life might have unfolded for Emmett Till if he had reached adulthood, what he could have achieved under the guidance of his gifted mother, how much joy his relentless laughter could have created. But he was murdered a month after his 14th birthday.

A fateful trip to Mississippi

In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till begged his mother for permission to go on a trip to Mississippi with his uncle and cousin to visit relatives. She balked at the idea and asked him to travel with her to Nebraska instead. Mamie even tried to steer his plans in her direction with the promise of driving lessons. But he persisted, and she gave her hesitant blessing. PBS writes that on the eve of his departure, Mamie gave Emmett his father's signet ring. The next day she kissed her son goodbye and never saw him alive again.

He had no idea how much danger he was in. Emmett lived in what Biography describes as a middle-class "haven for black-owned businesses." He had experienced segregation, but not the violence and viciousness that he would encounter in the Jim Crow South, according to History. That changed after a fateful trip to a country store in Money, Mississippi. Accompanied by cousins and friends, Emmett bragged that back home he had a white girlfriend. Incredulous, they dared him to ask out the white woman behind the counter. That woman was Carolyn Bryant, the store owner's wife.

A two-man lynch mob

There were only two witnesses to what happened in that country store. One of them was a black child who had committed the grievous offence of existing in the vicinity of a white woman in the Jim Crow South. The other was Carolyn Bryant, who would accuse Emmett Till of crassly harassing her, grabbing her, and whistling flirtatiously. Decades later, author Tim Tyson claimed that she confessed to lying. But really, it doesn't matter. As Bryant was quoted as saying, "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."

What happened to him was Bryant's husband, Roy, and Roy's half-brother J.W. Milam. The men abducted Emmett, beat him beyond recognition, gouged out his eye, and shot him in the head. Then they tied his body to a cotton-gin fan with barbed wire and dumped it in the river like garbage. Emmett's mother wanted the world to see the virulent racism her son had endured, so she insisted on having an open-casket funeral. Two weeks later, an all-white jury took less than an hour to declare his murderers not guilty.