1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email

A Biography of Emmett Till

By

Key Dates

  • July 25, 1941: Emmett Till is born.

  • August 24, 1955: Till goes to Bryant Grocery and Meat Market where he allegedly whistles at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who was manning the register.

  • August 28, 1955: Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam kidnaps and kills Till.

  • September 15, 1995: Jet magazine publishes a photo of Emmett's battered body.

  • September 23, 1955: Despite the strong evidence against them, Bryant and Milam are acquitted.

  • January 24, 1956: Look magazine carries the confessions of Bryant and Milam.

Emmett Till was only 14 years old when two white Mississippians killed him for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His death was brutal, and his killers' acquittal shocked the world. His lynching galvanized the Civil Rights Movement as activists dedicated themselves to ending the conditions that had led to Till's death.

Early Childhood

Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941, in Argo, Illinois, a town outside of Chicago. Emmett's mother Mamie left his father, Louis Till, while he was still a baby; in 1945, Mamie received word that Emmett's father had been killed in Italy. She did not learn of the exact circumstances until after Emmett's death, when Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, in an effort to dampen sympathy for Mamie, revealed to the press that he had been executed for rape.

In her book, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, recounts her son's childhood. He spent his early years surrounded by a large family. When he was six years old, he contracted polio. Though he recovered, it left him with a stutter that he struggled to overcome throughout his youth.

Mamie and Emmett spent some time in Detroit but moved to Chicago when Emmett was around 10. She had remarried at this point but left her husband when she learned of his infidelity. Mamie describes Emmett as adventurous and independent-minded even when he was a young child. An incident when Emmett was 11 also reveals his courage: her estranged husband came by their home and threatened her. Emmett stood up to him, grabbing a butcher knife to defend his mother if necessary.

Adolescence

By his mother's account, Emmett was a responsible young man as a preteen and teenager. He loved to cook--pork chops and corn was his favorite meal to prepare. He often took care of the house while his mother was at work. Mamie calls her son "meticulous": he was proud of his appearance and figured out a way to steam his clothes on the radiator.

But he also had time for fun: he loved music and enjoyed dancing. He had a strong group of friends back in Argo whom he would take the streetcar to see on the weekends. And, like all kids, he dreamed of his future. Emmett told his mother once that he wanted to be a motorcycle policeman when he grew up. He told another relative he wanted to be a baseball player.

Trip to Mississippi

Till's mother's family was originally from Mississippi--they moved to Argo when she was two--and she still had family there, specifically an uncle, Mose Wright. When Till was fourteen, he went on a trip during his summer vacation to see his relatives there. He had spent his entire life in or around Chicago and Detroit, cities that were segregated but not by law. Northern cities like Chicago were segregated because of the social and economic consequences of discrimination. As such, they did not have the same sort of rigid customs relating to race that were found in the South.

Emmett's mother warned him that the South was a different environment. She cautioned him to "be careful" and "to humble himself" to the whites in Mississippi if necessary. Accompanied by his 16-year-old cousin, Wheeler Parker, Jr., Till arrived in Money, Mississippi, on August 21, 1955.

Till's Death

On Wednesday, August 24, Till along with seven or eight cousins, went by Bryant Grocery and Meat Market, a white-owned grocery that mainly sold goods to the African-American sharecroppers in the area. Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman, was manning the cash register while her husband was on the road, working as a trucker.

Emmett and his cousins were in the parking lot, chatting, and Emmett, in a youthful boast, bragged to his cousins that he had a white girlfriend back in Chicago. What happened next is unclear: his cousins do not agree whether someone dared Emmett to go into the store and get a date with Carolyn.

But Emmett did go into the store and purchase bubble gum. To what extent he attempted to flirt with Carolyn is also unclear: Carolyn changed her story on several occasions, suggesting at various times that he said, "Bye, baby," made lewd comments or whistled at her as he left the store.

His cousins reported that he in fact whistled at Carolyn, and they left when she went to her car, apparently to get a gun. His mother suggests that he may have whistled in an attempt to overcome his stutter; he sometimes would whistle when he became stuck on a word. Whatever the context, Carolyn chose to keep the encounter from her husband, Roy Bryant. He learned of the incident from local gossip--a young African-American teenager apparently being so bold with a white woman was unheard of.

At around 2:00 a.m. on August 28, Roy, along with his half-brother John W. Milam, went to Wright's house and pulled Till out of bed. They kidnapped him, and local farmhand Willie Reed saw him in a truck with around six men (four white men and two African-American men) at around 6:00 a.m. Willie was on his way to the store, but as he walked away he heard Till's screams.

Three days later, a boy fishing in the Tallahatchie River, fifteen miles upstream from Money, found Emmett's body. Emmett had been tied to a fan from a cotton gin, weighing around 75 pounds. He had been tortured before being shot. Till was so unrecognizable that his great-uncle Mose was only able to identify his body from the ring he was wearing (a ring that had belonged to his father).

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. African-American History
  4. Biographies
  5. Emmett Till--A Biography of Emmett Till

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.