Emmett Till: They Can't Bury the Truth

Revolution #006, June 19, 2005, posted at revcom.us

The body of Emmett Till was taken from its grave on May 31.

A backhoe dug into a suburban Chicago cemetery on orders from the Department of Justice. As his surviving family watched, Emmett's body was whisked away for an autopsy in the Cook County Medical Examiner's office.

It is fifty years since Emmett's naked and tortured body was pulled from the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River.

The Department of Justice now claims that a new investigation into this murder has opened, and that new forensic tests may put them back on the trail of his killers.

But, in truth, this system—from the White House to the Mississippi courthouse—has denied and prevented justice in this terrible murder.

And, fifty long years later, the attempts to whitewash that injustice are still going on.

The Last Days of Emmett Till

"A 14 year-old Black boy lynched. For what?! For whistling at a white woman."

Bob Avakian, Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About1

It was August 1955, and Emmett Till was only 14 and full of life as he arrived in the small dusty cotton town of Money, Mississippi. His family had migrated from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago—and like many Black youth, Emmett went "down home" during his summer vacation to stay with family. On August 24, after a day spent picking cotton, Emmett and his teenage friends went over to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market where Roy and Carolyn Bryant mainly sold fatback and snuff to the Black sharecroppers of the town. There Emmett reportedly whistled at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant.

Four days later, Roy Bryant and his older half brother, Big J.W. Milam, showed up armed in the middle of the night, to take Emmett away. His uncle Moses Wright begged for Emmett's life. Big Milam, a hard-bitten plantation foreman, snapped back, "You n*ggers go back to sleep!"

Describing these events in his 2003 filmed talk, RCP Chairman Bob Avakian said:

"[Emmett's] relatives began looking for his body along riverbanks and under bridges. 'Where Black folks always look when things like this happens,' as his uncle put it. Think about that. Think about what it means: 'Where Black folks always look when this kind of thing happens.' Think about what that tells you about this country!"

When Emmett Till's body was found, he had been beaten beyond recognition. One eye was gouged out. He had been chopped with an ax and shot with a 45 in his ear. A 75-pound cotton gin fan was tied around his neck with barbed wire—to weigh him down in the waters.

Fifty years later, no one has ever been punished for this crime—even though everyone in Money, Mississippi knew who killed him.

Facts About the Murder, Truth About America

Bryant and Milam did not even hide their faces that night. They were that confident they would be protected. Such things had happened many times before.

But Emmett's mother acted with great courage and insisted on an open casket at his Chicago funeral—so that everyone could see what had been done to her son. Tens of thousands of people filed in to view him, and photographs of his mutilated face were printed in Jet magazine.

Bob Avakian notes:

"The story of what happened to Emmett Till aroused deep anger among Black people all over the country. It shocked many white people in many parts of the country. And it became an international news story and outrage. But back in Mississippi, white people rallied to the defense of the men who had kidnapped and brutally murdered Emmett Till. These men were put on trial only because of the outrage around the country and around the world."

The defense lawyers mocked Emmett's family, claiming that his body could not have been reliably identified, and that he was really alive in Detroit, and that the whole affair was a scheme cooked up by the NAACP. At great risk, Moses Wright stood up in that segregated courtroom, and pointed out the two men who had taken his nephew Emmett that night.

And yet, still, there was no justice.

The all-white jury took only 67 minutes to find Bryant and Milam not guilty of murder. One jury member joked that they took a "soda break" to stretch it over an hour.

There were demands that the Mississippi courts retry Milam and Bryant—this time on kidnapping charges. Witnesses traveled to Greenwood, risking death to give detailed new testimony before a grand jury in November 1955.

And yet, still, there was no justice.

The grand jury simply refused to re-indict the two men.

Then, Milam and Bryant agreed to an interview with Look magazine for $4,000 each. It appeared on January 24, 1956. In it, they coldly described pistol-whipping Emmett and carving up his eye.

"We were never able to scare him," Milam told the reporter from Look."They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.. I like n*ggers. In their place. I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people were put on notice."

Big Milam described forcing the barely conscious Emmett Till to strip and stand there on the bank of the Tallahatchie—and then Milam, a combat veteran of Patton's World War 2 Division, shot Emmett in the head with his military 45.

"I just made up my mind," Milam said. "Chicago boy, I said, I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddamn you, I'm gonna make an example of you, just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand."

After these two men confessed to the national media, in gruesome and shameless detail, there was a great outcry for federal indictments against them.

And yet, still there was no justice.

Bob Avakian describes what happened:

"Despite a massive campaign calling for the federal government to indict these two men, the government refused. Sound familiar? Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was President of the United States at the time, never even answered a telegram sent to him by Mamie Till. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, called this brutal lynching of Emmett Till an 'alleged murder,' and he gave much more attention to investigating the involvement of communists in protesting this lynching than he ever did to the lynching itself."

The protection of this Mississippi lynching party was not just some local, backwoods, Southern throw-back. The active deliberate denial of justice came from the highest offices of the land—from the White House itself and the leadership of the FBI.

Emmett Till's lynching revealed, for people all over the U.S. and the world, the raw terror Black people were subjected to. The way his murder was handled, and the way his murderers were freed, revealed to all that the lynch law against Black people had been nurtured as a key pillar of power within the plantation system that exploited Black farmers in the Deep South for a hundred years. Such brutal oppression of Black people has always, in different ways and forms, been woven into the deepest fabric of the American Way of Life—right down until today.

J.W. Milam died in 1980, and Roy Bryant in 1990. Both lived out their lives without ever serving a day in prison.

Mamie Till died at age 81 on January 6, 2003—and never saw any justice.

Reopening the Whitewash

Emmett's blood is still crying out all over the world."

Simeon Wright, Emmett Till's cousin, who was sleeping in the same bed with him on August 28, 1955

Decades have passed.

Then, suddenly, on May 10, 2004, the United States Department of Justice announced that it was reopening this case.


Because while making his documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp uncovered evidence that as many as 10 people may have been involved in the murder. And after that film aired, the Department of Justice felt exposed and embarrassed. It claimed its FBI agents were, again, hot on the trail of the killers.

Of course, the evidence Beauchamp discussed could have been found any time over the last fifty years.

To whitewash itself, the FBI went through the motions. They said they would use new DNA tests to confirm that this body is, in fact, Emmett Till—something Mamie Till fully confirmed fifty years ago. They plan to examine bullet fragments in his head. They claimed to have hope that DNA evidence might now finger some surviving killer.

But, of course, chances of justice have evaporated with time. And the federal statutes of limitations have expired. Even if they found some of the lynchers still alive, even if they managed to indict them in Mississippi's state court—would these unlikely events bring justice after fifty years of official cover-up and insult?

As Emmett Till's coffin was being dug up on May 31, a Black FBI agent was assigned to say, at the graveside, that this new operation proves how times have changed. The justice system turns slowly, he said, but it still turns.

A lie, that is yet another injustice heaped on Emmett Till.

Why is Emmett Till now being dragged from his grave?

Because, for fifty years since his terrible murder, this vicious system denied justice, over and over and over — and it still wants to hide that truth from the world.

The American Way of Lynching

"This experience of lynching and its effect on the masses of Black people can, in a real sense, be taken as representing and concentrating the experience of Black people as a whole, long after literal slavery (with all its horrors) had been ended in the 1860s."

Bob Avakian, Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About

At any moment, in a long century between reconstruction and the 1960s, any Black man could be taken by a mob, beaten, castrated, hung, and burned for nothing more than a rumor. Lynchings have been documented in 46 states, but especially in the Deep South this was an ever-present fact of life, inflicting a constant and unrelieved fear on Black people. And for the oppressors of Black people, it was felt as an awful and awesome power that was always there to be used, whenever they chose.

The numbers of Black people lynched in these ways is simply not known.

From the beginnings of slavery to 1882, no one even bothered to count the numbers of lynchings.

Between 1882 and 1930 the documented lynchings of Black people numbered 3,386 —sometimes reaching over a hundred a year (about the number of counties in the Deep South). And many lynchings, obviously, were just never publicly documented in the press.

Lynching declined as mechanization, migration, and the great struggles for Black liberation undercut the plantation "way of life." But even then individual lynchings have continued right up to the present (including, for example, the horrific 1998 murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas).

And, if anything, the threat of murder facing Black people has hardly disappeared, but has shifted with changes in U.S. society—from vigilante mobs of white "citizens" to the constant murder of Black youth by police acting "under the color of law."



1. A film of this talk is available on DVD at threeqvideo.com

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