On a chilly evening of 1 December 1955, at Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, an African American woman in her early 40s, boarded a city bus to return home after a long day at work. In those days, the buses were segregated, with the first four rows reserved for the whites, while the Black or the “coloured” passengers had to sit at the rear end of the bus even though Blacks composed more than 75% of ridership at the time. As the white section of the bus started filling up, the bus driver ordered Rosa and the three other Black passengers to give up their seats to the whites and to stand the rest of the ride. While the three Black passengers complied, Rosa refused and stayed pinned down to her seat. Angry and flustered, the driver retorted, "Well, I'm going to have you arrested then." Rosa, still clamped to her seat, replied softly, "You may do that Sir." Amidst the chaos, Rosa remained calm and determined. She looked out of the window and thought of Emmett Till, who in the same year faced a fate that no other human or child deserved. Today I write you the story of Emmett Till.
Once upon a time, in the land of opportunities, a beautiful boy named Emmett Louis Till was born. He grew up in a working-class Black neighborhood in Chicago and was a kind, gregarious, intelligent and a fun-loving kid. While segregation laws were still intact at the time all over America, Chicago and few other states offered its Black people the little freedom and human dignity that the coloured people elsewhere in the other states of America, especially in the south, could only dream of. In August 1955, when Emmett’s great Uncle, Mose Wright, visited the family in Chicago, Wright shared stories about life in Money, Mississippi, a small town in the south where he resided. Emmett was so intrigued by the stories, he begged his mother, Mamie Carthan, to let him go to Mississippi with Wright. Mamie opposed the idea at first, knowing of the history of racial atrocities executed in Mississippi, which was one of the South's most tumultuous. However, she later relented and let him go, unaware that this decision would, later on, have a grave impact on their lives and in the course of American history.
On 24 August 1955, three days after arriving in Mississippi, fourteen-year-old Emmett and his cousins walked into a local grocery store to buy some sodas and candies. The store was owned by a white couple, Roy Bryant, 24, and his wife, Carolyn, 21 at the time. On their way out, Emmett whistled at Carolyn Bryant jokingly, and in response, Carolyn, enraged, went to get her gun. Now you must be wondering why the overreaction? At the time, in the 1950s, a Black man showing any kind of interest in a white woman was not at all tolerated, especially in the south, and was met with rage and violence. So a Black boy whistling at a white woman? In Mississippi? That is a big NO. Emmett did not know that being a Black boy of the American South could be so perilous. His cousins panicked and they all raced back home hoping nothing would come of the incident.
That entire day they were dreading a retaliation from the Bryants, but nothing of that sort happened and gradually their fear subsided. However, three days after the incident, in the early morning hours of 28 August, Roy Bryant and his half-brother JW Milam drove to the house of Mose Wright and demanded to see Emmett. Despite pleas from the Wrights, Emmett was forcibly seized and was tied at the back of their truck. He was then taken to a barn where the pair had brutally beaten him all night, shot him, strung a barbed wire and a 75-pound metal fan around his neck, and then dumped his lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River. While Emmett was being inhumanely tortured, people outside the barn could hear his screaming and wailing, but everyone turned a deaf ear, for they knew the boy’s fate had already been decided. Three days later, his mangled body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River. Wright and Emmett’s mother, Mamie, was called in to identify her son since the body was severely swollen and mutilated beyond recognition. He had been shot in the right ear, his nose chopped off, his right eye gouged out of its socket, the left side of the head was smashed, his tongue grotesquely swollen, his teeth knocked out of its jaw and his back and hips heavily bruised from the beatings.
Mamie, determined to let the world know of the atrocity and brutality her baby faced, decided to hold an open-casket funeral in Chicago. More than a hundred thousand people showed up at the funeral and their reaction after seeing Emmett’s corpse was so visceral. The shock of his death was compounded by the brutality of the death. The Black people knew they were under attack, but how gruesome the attack was going to be was staring right at their faces as they walked past Emmett’s casket. The prime suspects, Bryant and Milam, were indicted for murder and were tried before an all-white, all-male jury. The entire trial was a mockery and the pair was acquitted soon after. Four months after the trial, Milam, who was then a free man, confessed to killing Emmett Till to a reporter and shared the gruesome details of the murder. Unfortunately, this chilling confession made after the trial made no difference because the two men accused of the murder of Till were protected by what is called the“Double-Jeopardy Rule”, which meant that they cannot be tried at the court of law for the same thing twice.
Even though the murderers of Emmett Till walked free, the graphic photos of the fourteen-year-old child’s ravaged body circulated in the mainstream media went viral and evoked outrage among people around the country. People were forced to reckon with the barbarousness and brutality of American racism. They could no longer pretend to ignore what they could not see and everyone started speaking out. Emmett Till’s death suddenly gained national visibility. It incited revolution and was one of the most galvanizing moments for the civil rights movement of the country. Hence, on the eve of 1 December, just three months after the murder of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks refused to yield her bus seat to a white man in the Montgomery city bus. She could not keep the image of Emmett’s brutalised body off her mind and knew at that moment that her defiant decision to not give up her seat was the right thing to do. She had to do it for Emmett.
Author’s note: This article is written in the loving memory of Emmett Till, who would have turned 80 this 25 July 2021.