The Legacy of the Lynching of Emmett Till
Dispelling myths to learn how the Black response to racist murder transformed America
A woman from Raleigh called in 2008 seemingly to tell me how much she liked my 2004 book, Blood Done Sign My Name. I thanked her warmly for her kind words about my book but began to get off the phone. She interrupted: “I gave your book to my mother-in-law for Christmas and it is her favorite book ever. She is visiting next week and I was hoping you might have a cup of coffee with us.” Grateful but reluctant to spare the time, I simply pretended she had not said that and began to finish my goodbye in the most polite manner possible. Then she broke in again: “You might know about my mother-in-law. Her name was Carolyn Bryant.”
I knew, of course, what every historian in my field knew: that Bryant was the white woman at the store counter in Money, Mississippi in 1955, in whose name her kinsmen lynched fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who lived with his mother in Chicago and was visiting family in Mississippi. And I knew that she had not spoken to any writer or historian in the intervening fifty-three years. She went on to say that Carolyn hoped that I would be willing to interview her. I allowed as how I might actually have time for that coffee after all.
Not because I had any inclination to write a book about the Till case; I was happily working on a different book and hardly shopping for another project. But my sense of a historian’s duties has always included that scholars preserve valuable sources by getting them into the archive for posterity, whether or not we as individual scholars intend to use them.
The first time I heard about the lynching of Emmett Till, I was a teenager. I instantly thought, “That is what happened to Henry Marrow. That is why outraged Black folks burned the tobacco warehouses downtown. Why we had to move away.” The summer of 1970, you could see the fires in the night sky from fifteen or twenty miles, and my family lived four blocks away. Oxford burned in my memory, a fire in my mind that would one day send me back to make sense of what happened the summer I turned 11 and write what would come to be Carolyn Bryant's favorite book.
My research for that book began when I was 11, the day after Henry Marrow's murder. A neighbor boy told me that his father, Robert Teel, and his two older brothers, 18 and 23, respectively, had killed a Black man in public. Henry Marrow, a 23-year-old hospital orderly, had come home from the Army two years earlier. He and Willie Mae Sydney, a local young woman, fell in love, married, and quickly became parents to two girls, then toddlers, with a third girl on the way. Marrow walked up to the store to get a Pepsi for his aunt, who was recovering from surgery, and "said something" to the white woman behind the counter at Robert Teel’s store on the outskirts of Oxford, North Carolina, a tobacco market town of not quite ten thousand.
Robert Teel and his two sons armed themselves and chased Marrow from the store. A shotgun blast hit him in the buttocks over 150 feet off their property. He skidded onto his face in the dirt and gravel. “When we run around the building,” Teel later told me, “the boy was laying flat on his stomach.”
Marrow began to plead for his life. “Okay, okay, man, you got me,” he wept. “Let’s just forget about it.” .
“He started getting up on his elbows,” Teel recounted, “And I taken the [shotgun] and hit him with the butt across his head. Broke the gun butt half in two, and it wheeled him over on his back.” The blow fractured Marrow’s skull and flipped his body like a pancake. The three men began kicking him and beating him with a rifle stock and a length of packing crate. Marrow might have died from the skull fracture anyway, but whichever one had the rifle pointed the barrel at his prostrate and bleeding head. “They were right down on top of him,” recalled witness Boo Chavis. “The barrel [of the gun] was down on his head, touching it.” And then the sharp report of the final shot.
“They shot him like a hog,” William Burgwyn, the prosecutor at the Teels’ murder trial, told me many years after Henry Marrow died. “They killed him like you or I would kill a snake.”
As a college freshman, I returned to Oxford to ask Robert Teel, the man most responsible for Henry Marrow’s murder, why they had killed Henry Marrow. His first sentence: “That n— committed suicide, coming in my store wanting to f— my daughter-in-law.”
I soon met Eddie McCoy, head of the local NAACP, who introduced me to the Black veterans who had torched much of downtown Oxford after their comrade’s murder. They told me what he did not—that he had been their ringleader. Twenty years later, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the stories of that murder and the ensuing riots, protests, arson and acquittals in my hometown began to pour out of me. The resulting hybrid of history and memoir uses these stories as a plumb line down through the historical depths of racial violence and white supremacy in America. Which is a good place to meet Emmett Till, too.
This interview with Carolyn Bryant needed to be done right and safely archived. So I began doing some basic research to prepare for our interview. Among other things, I read the transcript of her husband and brother-in-law’s 1955 murder trial, which had lain hidden and perhaps forgotten in a Mississippi attic for several decades. The FBI had posted it on their website only recently. No one had published anything using this crucial new source, so I had no idea what the transcript might reveal.
When I read Carolyn’s trial testimony, I learned two important things. First, the jury had not even heard Carolyn’s testimony. Judge Curtis Swango, whom Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and the entire African American press corps at the trial, regarded as fair-minded, refused at first to allow Carolyn to testify at all. Anything that may have happened three days before a murder, he reasoned, could not possibly have any bearing on the guilt or innocence of the accused. Pressed by the defense, Judge Swango allowed her to testify. Sticking by his logic, however, he dispatched the jury from the courtroom. Secondly, the words spoken by her 21-year-old self on the stand made it pretty clear to me that she had been lying and had been well-coached to do so. That revelation did not shock me, but Carolyn’s confirmation of it was a little more surprising.
A few days later, as we drank our first coffee, Bryant first muttered, as if talking to herself, “They’re all dead now anyway.” And then explained, referring to her courtroom testimony that Emmett had sexually assaulted her, “That part’s not true.”
My next question was the one that most anyone would have asked: If “that part” wasn’t true, what was true? “I want to tell you,” she said. “Honestly, I just don’t remember. It was fifty years ago. You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true. Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
Her confession to perjury did not strike me as breaking news. The statute of limitations for perjury was two years, so Carolyn had been free from legal consequences on that score since 1957. Nor was I aware of anybody who ever believed she was telling the truth. What new fact had I learned, really? Her say-so would surely not change anyone’s mind.
It was no big secret that her contrived witness-stand tale of the “Black Beast Rapist” and the “Bruised Lily of White Womanhood” had been the shopworn rationale for white mob violence against African Americans for almost a century. I knew the tired old tale well; these were the same dynamics that killed Henry Marrow—the young Black male, cast as the “Black Beast,” and his threat to “White Womanhood” by allegedly "saying something" even faintly sexual towards a white woman.
The murderers in both cases felt justified by what the journalist W.J. Cash called “the Southern rape complex,” their minds inflamed by menacing shadows of racial integration after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 and 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decisions and by the threat of rising Black political power. “The closer a Black man gets to a ballot box,” grinned a grim joke on the Black side of the color line, “the more he looks like a rapist.”
It turned out there was a book for me to write about Emmett Till, but the lurid and comparatively unimportant issue of Carolyn Bryant's culpability would only be a small part of it. The lasting importance of the Till case was the remarkable political achievement of Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Mobely, her friends and her allies, and the dozens of community organizations and institutions of Black Chicago that they were able to mobilize, to launch a huge national protest movement. What matters most about the men who tortured and murdered Emmett Till and the jury in Sumner who acquitted them is not their brutality or their short-lived victory, but instead what African American activists and their allies across the country were able to build from these outrages. The movement mobilized hundreds of thousands of people over the course of almost two years, raised an immense amount of civil rights money, including substantial startup funds for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and greatly expanded the size and strength of the NAACP. Mamie Till Mobley and her friends and allies brought together a national network of powerful organizations that became some of the most important support for Martin Luther King, Jr. and what became a national mass movement for Black citizenship and equality, which really did not exist prior to the Till case.
The reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, gave me a copy of Carolyn’s attorney’s careful notes on her account of her encounter with Emmett at the store. Taken only a day or two after a teenaged fisherman found Emmett’s mangled corpse in the Tallahatchee River, her credible interview—in private, soon after the murder, to her attorney, who could never testify against her—contained not one mention of anything physical or sexual. The boy had “insulted” her, she told him, which, in 1950s white Southern race parlance, meant that he had somehow violated her racial sensibilities—in this instance, with words only.
That the accusation had never been physical assault until Carolyn lied in court was already obvious in the accounts of all eight witnesses asleep inside the sharecropper’s cabin where Emmett was staying with Rev. Moses Wright and Elizabeth Wright, his mother’s aunt and uncle. At 2:00 in the morning on August 28, 1955, when Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, Carolyn’s husband and brother-in-law, stomped onto their front porch, J.W. Milam bellowed, “Preacher! Preacher!” Rev. Wright sat up in bed. Roy Bryant said loudly, “This is Mr. Bryant. We’re here to talk to you about that boy from Chicago, the one that done the talking up at Money.” The two large, angry white men, carrying heavy U.S. Army .45-caliber pistols and reeking of whiskey, awakened and terrified them all. When they found Emmett in bed in the back room, Milam demanded, “Are you the one who did the smart talking up at Money?” Throughout their ordeal, the invaders reportedly said nothing about Emmett putting his hands on Roy Bryant’s wife.
After their acquittals, Milam and Bryant fabricated their story of kidnapping and killing Emmett Till to William Bradford Huie, an ambitious and sensationalist white Southern journalist; he offered them a lot of money for the interview but they had to confirm their obvious guilt. Scarcely a word the two brothers told Huie was factual; they covered up for relatives and friends who had helped kill the boy. They also sought to justify the murder by rolling in the antique artillery piece, the stock tale of the “Black Beast Rapist.” But their account never mentioned the victim’s touching Carolyn, inevitably cast as “the Bruised Lily of White Womanhood.” During both the kidnapping and their interview with Huie, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant made their case against Emmett Till, but, just as they had while kidnapping him from the Wright home, never accused him of anything but “the smart talking.” Had the Black boy so much as laid a finger on Roy Bryant’s wife, there would have been no mention of anything he might have said, either at the Wright home or in their rationale for public consumption.
It is possible that jurors heard about Carolyn’s testimony through the grapevine, but unlikely that it influenced them. Hugh Stephen Whitaker, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, who had become a graduate student at Florida State, came home and interviewed all of the living jurors—nine of the twelve—for his master’s thesis a few years later. Each one of them told Whitaker that nothing said at the trial influenced their verdict; they knew that the defendants had killed Emmett Till, but they would have voted to acquit regardless. They said, in so many words, that white people needed to stick together because their way of life was at stake, and Mississippi had been scapegoated by scornful outsiders.
When my book came out, the best of the reviews saw clearly that The Blood of Emmett Till reframed the usual Southern gothic, which was largely based on the lies the two acquitted murders told William Bradford Huie, lies that starred two white-trash Southern monsters and an invisible Black boy who virtually “committed suicide by redneck”—a boy so dim, or so innocent of racial tension, that he taunted his kidnappers with stories of having sex with white women in Chicago and his intention to do so again, and proclaimed his own equality to them. The fiction that Milam and Bryant told Huie and that sold six million copies of Look magazine and eleven million more when reprinted by Reader’s Digest. Much of it carried into the Emmett Till story told in the otherwise reliable documentary film series, Eyes on the Prize, which has reached millions more.
The FBI reopened the Till case to see if my research, which I quickly turned over to them, would help them undertake further prosecution, presumably of Carolyn; with the four Milam-Bryant relatives who lynched Emmett Till all dead, as well as any combination of the two or three friends who might also have taken part, Carolyn was the only potential target.
The focus on Carolyn in much of the press coverage of my book serves the popular, false, horror movie narrative of the deep, dark, exotic South—the heart of darkness out on the frontier of American culture and politics, where our shining moral values and sense of justice had yet to reach—a horror movie starring Redneck Frankenstein.
Since few of us favor butchering innocent Black children, the mythic tale allows us to feel a bracing jolt of indignation, secure in our own moral rectitude, smelling ourselves like a rose. Such self-exoneration flies in the face of reality—not only in Mississippi but in Chicago and across the country—the reality of a racial caste system that differed in its expression but maintained white domination.
In the cities of the Northeast and Midwest, racial clashes usually flashed along invisible racial boundaries. In Chicago, those lines hardened in the 1910s and 1920s as the number of Black Chicagoans more than doubled. In 1919, a city report on race relations noted that “a kind of guerilla warfare” raged along perceived racial boundaries. Between July 1917 and March 1921, the city reported fifty-eight bombings of properties rented or purchased by Blacks in white Chicago neighborhoods. By the 1940s, Chicago led the country in racial covenants that kept homeowners from selling to Black families. The lines of racial separation were drawn by dozens of unsolved residential bombings, unremitting police violence and frequent white mob violence.
Between 1949 and 1953, six episodes of ongoing riots, each involving between one and ten thousand people, followed efforts by Black families to buy or rent in white neighborhoods. The worst and longest-running Chicago racial housing conflict raged from August 1953 to well into the fall of 1955—from the time Emmett turned twelve until his murder. The South Deering Neighborhood Association kept the mobs and bombs and gunfire rolling. Some of their concerns were quite similar to Till’s own lynch mob. The South Deering Bulletin declared, “White people built this area and we don’t want no part of this race-mixing.” A housing inspector sent to South Deering reported that white residents insisted, “It won’t be long and Negroes and whites intermarrying will be a common thing and the white race will go downhill.”
The rural South and the urban North were distinctive, of course, but they shared more than they would have admitted, including the willingness to commit any level of violence against Black citizens to preserve white dominion. Most Americans did not want to know what went on in the South and failed to care when they did know. Except for Black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, the Amsterdam News and a few others, the national press did not even have stringers in the South, much less regional news bureaus. There were no "civil rights beats” until the Till case called them into being.
Before the response to Emmett Till, "the civil rights movement" was a far-flung network of local movements across the South that were very loosely affiliated only in that they knew about each other: Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta, Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, Nashville, Columbia, Jackson and the broad networks that honeycombed Mississippi, all of them operating almost entirely independently.
Mamie Till Mobley and her family and friends were able to leverage Black Chicago's political and cultural muscle, which in turn became an organizing engine of a national movement. They mustered the Dawson machine, one of the most powerful urban politics machines in America (soon to become known as the Daley machine); the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which became an important and persistent backbone for the movement; the United Packinghouse Workers and the United Steelworkers of America, both of which continued to be powerful civil rights unions that gave a lot of financial support to Dr. King; the Chicago Defender—the largest circulation Black newspaper in the country—and the Johnson Publishing Company, which published Ebony, several other national publications and, of course, Jet. Jet published the agonizing photograph of Emmett Till’s mangled corpse, which transformed many thousands of young African Americans into what they called "the Emmett Till generation," who poured into the ranks of the sit-in movement in 1960; into a robust Chicago NAACP branch led by labor union militants; into networks of progressive churches; and into a host of other vibrant institutions. Had her son not been from Chicago, or if local activists over six decades had not organized these organizations and institutions, Emmett Till’s name would not still echo in the streets and hearts of America.
These local institutions had national reach. They rallied hundreds of thousands of people across the country, raised vast sums and built a national base for the civil rights movement. This Till case compelled the national media to look south and influenced the foreign policy and federal role of the U.S. government. These labor unions, in particular, became part of the infrastructure for a national movement that won the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and elevated Martin Luther King, Jr. to world-historical status.
To understand our American predicaments, writes Melville, “Deep, Deep, and still deep and deeper must we go.” This child who will not stay dead, this atrocity that has clung like a burr to the brain of generations of Americans—they speak up from the abyss where the bones of millions of dead Africans settled into the sand in the vast death machine of the Atlantic slave trade. Emmett Till’s suffering and death take us to equal depths, but on a scale our minds can fathom.
It is this “sunken place,” as filmmaker Jordan Peele calls it, not Monticello or Constitution Hall, that is our strange national birthplace. It calls to us, but it will never be our home. Our self-evident truths will carry us where we have to go.
American history is a river of innocent Black blood; the nation's racial caste system rested upon violence from the very beginning. Anti-Black violence and gross injustice were nothing new in Jim Crow Mississippi, nor are they today. What matters is what we do with these unspeakable crimes along the color line and the perennial lack of accountability for them.
This is the important legacy of the lynching of Emmett Till and what people did in its aftermath: the lessons about what we can do when confronted by white supremacy and its attendant violence and exploitation.
Timothy B. Tyson is Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and adjunct professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina. He is the author of The Blood of Emmett Till; Blood Done Sign My Name; and Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. He serves on the executive board of the North Carolina NAACP and the UNC Center for Civil Rights.