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1955 Killing Sparked Civil Rights Revolution : Emmett Till: South's Legend and Legacy

October 07, 1985|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

MONEY, Miss. — He only whistled. But the woman he whistled at was white. He was black. A few days later, her angry husband roused him from bed, told him to hurry up and dress. Three days later, his terribly battered body surfaced in the muddy Tallahatchie River where it straightens out for a stretch through the cotton-rich flatlands of the delta.

His name was Emmett Till. He was 14 years old.

An all-white jury acquitted the husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, of killing the boy, even though the pair had admitted to the kidnaping. But in that fall of 1955, with the civil rights movement just emerging, headlines carried the trial's result around the world and prompted a harsher verdict against a South where racial injustice seemed like an accepted way of life.

Today, while most of the world may have forgotten him, Emmett Till is remembered in this region of the delta. His memory has grown strong roots here, both as a legend and a legacy: Grandparents pass his grim tale on to their descendants, and black politicians say it still goads them in their fight to share local power. Even now, his name seems to haunt local whites.

Rosa Parks, a seamstress who started the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott on Dec. 1, 1955, by refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man, has become far more famous. The boycott is widely considered the start of the modern black movement.

But some historians, political figures from the time and veterans of the movement now say the Till case had an impact on the nation far beyond today's faded memory. They contend that it and the bus boycott belong to the same progression of events. If Rosa Parks showed the potential of defiance, they say, Emmett Till's death warned of a bleak future without it.

The Sept. 23, 1955, verdict was front-page news in Los Angeles, propaganda in Moscow. In Chicago, where 10,000 mourners had viewed the body, 20,000 protested after the acquittal, along with another 10,000 in Harlem. The NAACP, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters all held demonstrations. Hearing of the trial's outcome while in Paris, Nobel Prize-winning author and Mississippi native William Faulkner cast a pessimistic glance homeward, speaking of "our desperate culture."

'Ugly Side' of America

"I think it was a major incident when it came to showing one part of America the ugly side of another part," said Robert Fredrick Burk, who wrote a 1984 book entitled "The Eisenhower Administration and Black Civil Rights."

Burk and others say the case gave civil rights advocates a martyr and ambivalent politicians an impetus to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and laid the foundation for a series of historic voting rights laws.

"It certainly strengthened my hand in the day-to-day effort to get the Administration to speak out and do something on civil rights," said E. Frederic Morrow, who advised President Dwight D. Eisenhower on black affairs. "I can still see the sacks and sacks of mail the White House received about Emmett Till."

A Look magazine free-lancer named William Bradford Huie wrote that after the verdict, for an undisclosed sum, Bryant and Milam had confessed to him. In the Look story, the men described how they beat and shot the boy, then dumped his body in the river. Huie quoted Milam as saying the killing was his contribution toward keeping blacks "in their place."

Quick Verdict

The verdict, which followed the killing by about a month, was returned in an hour. A juror afterward told a reporter it would not have been that long if the jury had not stopped to drink sodas.

The emotions of the case lingered into a time crowded with protests and sacrifices. Bob Dylan wrote an angry ballad in 1963 called "The Death of Emmett Till."

In Mississippi today, aged former sharecroppers compare the boy's death to Christ's return from the dead. They tell their children how he was abducted early on a Sunday morning, how the body bobbed out of the Tallahatchie after three days and how the event struck deep in the national conscience and helped bring them a better life.

They recall how the body came up although the killers sank it with a large, wheel-shaped instrument used to gin seeds from cotton, tied to Till's neck with barbed wire. (The river's water level probably had dropped in the dry season, making the corpse appear to rise.)

'God Sent That Boy'

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