The Murder of Emmett Till: Revisiting an Infamous Trial
Investigators have announced they’re reopening the notorious 1955 case. Here, FOTO recalls a travesty of justice that helped ignite the civil rights movement.
Published July 19, 2018
Published a month ago
Editor's note: The historical records related to this case contain language that some may find offensive. Please be advised.
More than 60 years after the torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in rural Mississippi, the federal government has reopened the investigation, citing “the discovery of new information.” According to reports, revelations published in Timothy Tyson’s 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” may have led investigators to reexamine the case, which is widely seen as a driving force behind the civil rights movement.
Till, an African-American teenager from Chicago, was killed in savage fashion in 1955 after he was accused by a white woman named Carolyn Bryant Donham of making sexual advances toward her — a claim that Donham, now in her 80s, admitted to Timothy Tyson was false. Donham’s former husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were charged with Till’s murder, but at trial were found not guilty by a jury of 12 white men. The jury deliberated for just over an hour before delivering its verdict. Though Bryant and Milam later confessed to the killings in a 1956 article for Look magazine (for which they were reportedly paid $4,000), the two were never retried.
Here, original courtroom drawings and photographs piece together the 1955 murder trial that shocked not just the country, but the world.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveYOUNG EMMETTAt the time of his death, Chicagoan Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. On August 24, 1955, the teenager entered a grocery store owned by the Bryants, where he encountered 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham. Four days later, Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s house, severely beaten, shot in the head, and thrown naked into the Tallahatchie River. A 75-pound cotton-gin fan was lashed to his body with barbed wire, and helped sink his corpse.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveA MOTHER'S PAINUpon seeing her only child’s mangled corpse, Mamie Till-Mobley told the funeral director, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” The grieving mother brought Till home to Chicago, where tens of thousands of people filed past his open casket. Pictured: Till's mother sinks to her knees upon the arrival of her slain son’s body at the Chicago Rail Station.
Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty ImagesDIGNITY AND PAINMamie Till cries as she recounts her son's death to a crowd in Washington, D.C., October 1955. David Jackson’s photo of a stoic Mamie Till staring down at her murdered son, which was first published in Jet magazine, remains one of the most haunting portraits ever made of the horrors and degradation visited upon black Americans by centuries of racial violence. Mamie Till’s courage – fueled by rage and a hunger for justice – along with Jackson’s photo sparked the beginnings of a reckoning in America.Ed Clark/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty ImagesA GOOD PLACE TO RAISE A BOYThe five-day murder trial of Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam took place at the Tallahatchie County seat in Sumner, Mississippi. A prominent sign in Sumner heralded the town’s slogan, “A good place to raise a boy” – a grimly ironic sentiment not lost on reporters, who used the photo in their stories about Till’s lynching. Media from across the country attended the proceedings, including Chicago-based artist Franklin McMahon, who was hired by LIFE magazine to make the courtroom sketches shown here.
Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesPeople gather outside the Tallahatchie Courthouse prior to the opening of the trial, September 1955.Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesTHE WOMANAt the center of the case was Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman who, we now know, falsely accused Till of coming on to her. Donham’s description of her encounter with Till changed several times; in one version, she claimed that the teen verbally insulted her. In court (without jurors present), Donham claimed that Till had made physical contact with her and spoke to her using sexual language. “That part’s not true,” she told Timothy Tyson when he was researching his book. ”Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesCarolyn Bryant Donham pictured with her husband Roy Bryant and their two sons, Roy Jr. and Lamar.
Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesTHE DEFENDANTSIn the Southern papers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were initially represented as unrepentant and cold-blooded murderers, period. But that soon changed after Northern outrage over Till's death triggered many white Southerners to rally around the accused. White people in the area raised almost $10,000 (roughly $94,000 today) for a defense fund and hired five of Sumner’s best lawyers to represent them.Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesBryant (left) and Milam (right) listen to testimony during their murder trial.Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesTHE PROSECUTIONThe State of Mississippi prosecutors included District Attorney Gerald Chatham, former FBI agent Robert Smith, and Tallahatchie County prosecuting attorney Hamilton Caldwell. Together, the three men put forth an honest effort in a trial where the odds were stacked against them from the start. In his closing remarks, prosecutor Smith told the jury, "You know, gentlemen, we have a Constitution in the U.S. and in Mississippi which guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to everybody. Once we get to a point where we deprive any of our people of those, for whatever reason, then we cannot justify ourselves … and we cannot complain about what happens to us."
Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesProsecuting attorneys (from left to right) Chatham, Smith, and Caldwell.Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesTHE SHERIFFPresiding over the courtroom was Tallahatchie County Sheriff H. Clarence Strider, described by journalist John Herbers as "a big, fat, plain-talking, obscene-talking sheriff you would expect to find in the South." Herbers, who covered the trial for United Press International, concluded that the sheriff's actions “were not, I think, to seek justice, but to be sure that his courtroom was totally segregated."Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveStrider hands Mamie Till a subpoena to testify.
Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesPencil sketch of Strider with cigar in hand.Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesTHE SEGREGATED COURTROOMInside the courtroom, black reporters were relegated to a small card table off to the side of the proceedings (pictured). Sheriff Strider initially tried to refuse entry to black U.S. Congressman Charles Diggs, but allowed him to sit with the black reporters after being told by the presiding judge that he had to let in the Michigan representative. It was reported that every morning Strider would greet the group with a cheery “Hello, niggers."
Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesChicago History Museum/Getty ImagesMark McMahon/Corbis via Getty ImagesTHE JURYIn 1955, none of the black residents of Tallahatchie County were registered to vote, which also meant they were not eligible to serve as jurors. After six hours of jury selection, 12 white men, mainly local farmers and carpenters, were selected to hear the case.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveThe 12 members of the jury pictured at the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, September 1955.
Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesTHE EYEWITNESSDuring a surprise testimony, 18-year-old sharecropper Willie Reed (illustrated) testified that he heard screams coming from the Milam family shed and then saw Milam come out toting a .45 pistol. Reed never knew Till, but risked his own safety – indeed, his life – in order to testify in the trial. In a later interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Reed (who died in 2013 at the age of 76) told reporters, “Emmett was 14, and they killed him. I mean, that’s not right…. I knew that I couldn’t say no.”Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveWillie Reed (center) sits with District Attorney Chatham (right) and Walter Billingsley (left), another witness in the trial.Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesTHE UNCLEOne of the most dramatic moments of the trial came when Till’s great-uncle, Moses Wright, testified that he witnessed his nephew’s abduction firsthand. In the early morning hours of August 28, Wright said, Bryant and Milam pounded on his door with a pistol, demanding to see “the boy that did the talking.” Wright pleaded with the two men to leave Till alone, but they would not be denied. Wright led Bryant and Milam through his home, where they found Till asleep in his bed. Before leaving, Milam asked Wright, “How old are you, preacher?" Wright answered that he was 64, to which Milam replied, "If you make any trouble, you'll never live to be 65." At the trial, when asked to identify the men who’d come to his house and kidnapped his nephew, Wright reportedly stood up, pointed to Bryant and Milam, and answered, “There they are.”
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveWright identifies Milam and Bryant as the men who came to his home and took Till at gunpoint.Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesEMOTIONS RUN HIGHIn an even more emotional moment, Mamie Till took the stand and testified that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River was indeed her son. She wept in the courtroom while attorneys showed photographs of Till’s disfigured body.Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesMoses Wright and Mamie Till sit in the Tallahatchie Courthouse.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveWitnesses (from left to right): Walter Reed, his grandson Willie Reed, Mamie Till, U.S. Rep. Charles Diggs, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, and Amanda Bradley, another witness in the trial.Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesCLOSING REMARKSIn his closing statement to the jury, defense attorney Sidney Carlton (standing) urged the men to let Milam and Bryant off, saying, "Your ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I'm sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men."Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveTHE VERDICTIn the end – and after just 67 minutes of deliberation – the jury found Bryant and Milam not guilty. Reporters recounted that they heard laughs coming from the jury room, with one juror later quoted as saying, “We wouldn't have taken so long if we hadn't stopped to drink pop."
In 1962, Bob Dylan recorded “The Death of Emmett Till,” in which he recounted learning the news of Milam and Bryant's acquittal: “I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see/The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs/For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free/While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.” Milam (who died of bone cancer in 1981) and Bryant (who died of cancer in 1994) were never brought to justice. Pictured: Milam (left) and Bryant (right) light up cigars and hug their wives following their acquittal.
Scott Olson/Getty ImagesCASE NOT CLOSEDIn 2004, renewed interest in the case prompted the Justice Department to exhume Till’s body for an autopsy, but no charges were brought as the statute of limitation on federal civil rights violations had expired. Twelve years later, President Obama signed the Emmett Till Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, giving the federal government the power to reopen investigations into civil rights-era cold cases. Now, the 63-year-old case into Till’s death has been reopened once again.
Though Bryant and Milam aren’t alive to face another trial, many see the reopening of the case as a chance for the truth to finally be told. Upon learning the news that Donham had admitted to falsifying her initial statements more than 60 years ago, one of Till’s surviving cousins, Wheeler Parker, 77, told The New York Times, “I was hoping that one day she would admit it, so it matters to me that she did, and it gives me some satisfaction.” Parker went on, “It’s important to people understanding how the word of a white person against a black person was law, and a lot of black people lost their lives because of it.”