Emmett Till: Tragedy in Mississippi
You’re a 14-year-old boy growing up in Chicago. It’s summer and you ask your mother if you can go spend some time with your cousins a couple of states away.
She agrees. Gives you very specific instructions on what you should and shouldn’t do, tells you to be on your best behavior and sends you off.
For the most part you follow those instructions but, you’re a young boy and a bit precocious.
One day, you and your cousins stop by the country store in the town where they live to buy a couple of sodas. On the way out you send a wolf whistle in the direction of the store owner’s pretty wife.
You thinking you’re being funny, showing off a bit for your cousins.
They quickly hustle you away and down the road before any real consequences come to pass.
Or at least that’s what you all think.
You see, there’s a problem. It’s 1955, you’re in Mississippi, and you’re black.
Your name is Emmett Till.
A few nights later the store’s owner along with his half-brother enter your great-uncle and -aunt’s home where you are spending the summer.
It’s three in the morning. The men are armed. Your great-uncle and -aunt plead with the men but they ignore them, taking you from your bed and into the dark night.
You’re tied up, thrown into the back of a pickup truck, taken to a barn where you are beaten and tortured.
You’re barely able to move but the abductors aren’t finished. They toss you back into the truck bed and take you to a cotton gin where they pick up a large 70-pound metal fan.
From there they drive down to the river, shoot you above your right ear, tie the fan around your neck with barbed wire and throw you in.
Your body is found three days later by two boys out fishing.
Your face is unrecognizable, but your body is identified because you’re wearing your late father’s ring with his initials, LT.
The local sheriff attempts to arrange for a quick funeral and burial so the public can’t see what’s been done to you, but your mother defiantly refuses. She brings you back to Chicago where an open casket forces everyone to bear witness to the horror you went through.
The store owner, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, JW Milam, are arrested and put on trial.
Everyone knows they did it, but this is Mississippi, the South, and the jury finds them not guilty.
The next year, Bryant and Milam, knowing they can’t be tried a second time for the crime, sell their story to Look magazine for somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000, about $40,000 in today’s money, and confess to the crime.
Emmett Till’s death is looked upon by many as a turning point, the point at which the Civil Rights movement was born. Photos of Till’s disfigured body, lying in his casket, were seen all over the world and it sparked outrage.
My account of the story here is a very abbreviated overview of what occurred back in 1955. If you’re interested in details there are countless sites online in which you can go to learn more.
There are also a number of places you can physically go and learn about Till’s story.
I recently visited Mississippi’s Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, as well as what remains of Bryant's Grocery where those fateful events began a few miles away, a statue of Till in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.
Timing didn’t allow me to visit another museum, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, in Sumner.
Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center
Ironically, maybe fittingly, the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center (ETHIC) is inside the old cotton gin building owned by JW Milam. The same JW Milam, the step-brother of Roy Bryant, who abducted and killed Till.
The museum claims the fan tied around Emmett’s neck that horrific night came from this building, though that is disputed by others. It sits maybe the length of a football field from where Milam’s home once stood.
Milam, after being found not guilty of the crime, admitted to a journalist that he and his half-brother beat Till in the barn behind his home.
ETHIC is in Glendora, Mississippi. A narrow, pot-hole-filled dirt road leads you from the main highway into town.
Glendora is a small community of less than 200 people, two-thirds of whom live below the poverty line. Only a handful of store fronts make up what was once a downtown and nearly all of those are boarded up.
Driving up to the museum you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking its contents and displays will be more than a little amateurish.
You’d be wrong.
ETHIC was the brainchild of Glendora Mayor Johnny B. Thomas.
Back in 2005, Mayor Thomas managed to get a $325,000 grant from the USDA to bring broadband internet connectivity to Glendora. A computer lab was built inside the old cotton gin building and somehow, some of the money was used to create the museum and its displays.
After that initial grant ran out the computer lab ceased operations but the museum lives on through support of the town and some federal dollars.
I won’t go into all those details but if you’re interested in a deeper dive about Glendora and ETHIC, there’s a great story on The Conversation website.
Thanks to those dollars and Mayor Thomas’ vision, the displays inside the museum are all professionally done. You won’t find any multimedia presentations but everything is well designed, crisp and clean.
ETHIC tells more than the Till story. The first displays visitors encounter provide historical perspective of slavery and work on the plantations, followed by Glendora’s history and how it moved forward following slavery.
A large section is later devoted to memories one of the area’s most famous residents, Sonny Boy Williamson. Williamson was known as the “King of the Blues Harmonica,” recording more than 70 songs and traveling throughout the country and even overseas in the 1950s and 60s.
From there, the museum walks you through the Till story. There’s a cutout of Emmett standing alongside his mother, recreations of Bryant's Grocery, the bedroom he slept in at his great-uncle and -aunt’s home, the “Truck of Torture” in which he was carried around that night, and pieces of evidence used in the trial.
At the end is archival black-and-white video footage of his mother and the funeral. Beneath it is an open casket, replicating Emmett’s body. Many will find it disturbing to see this realistic depiction, but when taken in the context of what his mother wanted, an open casket showing the world what had been done to her son, it is appropriate.
Bryant's Grocery, where Emmett Till’s actions set tragedy in motion, is an old, crumbling-away building.
It wouldn’t seem there’s much more to say than that. But, there’s so much more happening around it and its history, it’s hard to even know where to begin.
Let’s start with the basics. First, the geography, it’s located in what remains of Money, Mississsippi, a town of less than 100 people, where Emmett was staying with his great-uncle and -aunt. It’s 18 miles from where ETHIC is and where Bryant’s half-brother, Milam, lived in Glendora.
Today, the store is beyond saving. The walls have crumbled inward, the entire structure overtaken by vines and other vegetation.
Oddly, directly next door to it, is a completely restored 1950s-era gas station. It appears to be of some historic significance if, for no other, simply as a testament to days gone by. Interestingly though, there’s no signage or information to be found anywhere around it letting visitors know what it’s about.
This might be what would pass for a plot twist in a fiction novel.
The station is known as Ben Roy’s Service Station and it is owned by the Tribble family.
The patriarch of the Tribble family, Ray Tribble, was one of the jurors in the Till trial who declared Bryant and Milam innocent of the crime.
In the years following the trial, Tribble became a pretty successful guy, buying up a good portion of the farmland around Money and nearly all of the community, itself. In fact, the only thing the family doesn’t now own there is the Baptist church and a decommissioned post office.
Yes, they own everything else, including Bryant's Grocery. The store was purchased by Tribble’s sons, Harry and Martin, in the 1980s.
Ben Roy’s Service Station was purchased years later, in 2003, by Harry and sister Annette. The pair then restored the building in 2013 while the Bryant Store has been allowed to wither to death.
But wait, the story gets better.
The pair received government funding for the restoration of the gas station via a Mississippi Department of Archives and History Civil Rights Sites Grant, money set aside for Civil Rights restoration, because the building was located beside an historical site, Bryant's Grocery. Even though the gas station played absolutely no role in the Till case and the events at the store.
Total cost of the restoration that included roofing, painting and interior finishes, was $150,000.
The Tribbles are willing to sell Bryant's Grocery, if you happen to have $4 million extra lying around you’re not using. That was the asking price they put on it back in 2018.
Some say they are waiting for a building that has come to symbolize hatred to fade away and, perhaps, some of the hatred with it.
Some believe the Tribbles want the store gone, and the role their father played in the events, gone with it. Knowing the challenges that would come with tearing down such an historical structure, they have priced it higher than anyone or group is willing and able to spend, simply waiting for Father Time to bring the building to the ground.
Still others believe they are trying to strike it rich, raking in millions of dollars from a terrible tragedy.
I’ll let you decide.
A pair of official Mississippi Freedom Trail signs stand by the road, near the front of the store, noting the building’s significance. Regardless of what eventually becomes of the property, the story will not be forgotten.
Emmett Till Statue
About ten miles down the road from the Bryant Store, in the heart of Greenwood, Mississippi, is a nine-foot-tall statue of Emmett Till. Greenwood, population 14,000, is the largest nearby community.
The statue is less than a year old, unveiled in October of 2022. It is believed to be the only official statue honoring Till in the United States.
The effort to erect the statue was led by Mississippi State Senator David Lee Jordan who, as a college freshman, attended the trial of Emmett’s murderers.
The statue’s inscriptions reads:
“The Emmett Till Memorial Statue is the only statue in the world that pays homage to the slain Chicago teenager. His murder inspired the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till left Chicago, IL for a summer visit with his relatives in Money, MS., After being falsely accused of whistling at and touching a white woman, Emmett was kidnapped and murdered on August 28, 1955. After four days of testimony from eyewitnesses, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted his murderers of all charges. No one has ever been convicted of the kidnapping and murder.
“The Mississippi Legislature, in conjunction with the Leflore County Board of Supervisors, and the Greenwood City Council, pay homage and recognize the great sacrifice that inspired the Civil Rights Movement in America. We will always remember the lives of Emmett Till, his mother Mamie Till-Mobley and the entire Till-Mobley family.”
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
Related but unrelated to Emmett Till is the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi.
It’s unrelated because it’s about all of Mississippi’s Civil Rights history from the beginnings of slavery to today, not just Emmett Till. It’s related because it is all about the state’s Civil Rights history, providing a context for the times in which Till’s death occurred and also includes a specific section with his story.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is connected to, and shares conference rooms, a gift shop and other spaces with Jackson’s Museum of Mississippi History.
Looking from the outside it’s quite obvious which is which. The Museum of Mississippi History is a classic off-white marble building with large columns in front. The attached Civil Rights Museum is much more sleek, with darker tones and an angular design.
Opened just a few years ago, in December, 2017, the Civil Rights museum features nearly every bell and whistle modern museum design has to offer, videos, interactive displays and much more. (The same can be said of the History Museum as well.)
At more than 70,000-square-feet, the museum is amazing. Really, I mean that. It would be so easy to spend a full day there, lost amongst its many features and displays.
It pulls no punches. There’s no attempt to hide some of the dark side of what has happened through the years. Not that Mississippi is the only state with a Civil Rights history but, because it is such an integral part of that history, the stories the museum tells are entirely representative of our country’s Civil Rights history.
One especially moving section features the names of those who were lynched. A long list of names shining from a half dozen or so tall display walls.
As you walk between the walls, visitors are jolted with surprise as loud cracks of audio flash out from above. The cocking of a gun, voices telling you you’re not welcome here, your kind isn’t allowed.
It would take the entirety of a separate blog post to share everything you’ll see at the museum. Because this post is really about Emmett Till, I’ll focus on that section.
The display includes the original doors from Bryant's Grocery, so even though that building is falling into decay, a part of it will always live on. Till’s story is told in a small black box-style theatre, video images flashing onto different screens in front of the viewer.
Near the end a small door opens near the middle of the screen, displaying a lighted shelf with a copy of Jet magazine from the time. The magazine straightforwardly printed a photo of the accused killers beneath one of Emmett Till lying in his open casket.
If you’re ever in the Jackson area I encourage you to take time to stop by the museum, it’s worth the stop.
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