Emmett Till revisited: fresh evidence in the 1955 murder is just one reason for the renewed focus on Jim Crow-era lynchings

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Date: Apr. 3, 2017
From: New York Times Upfront(Vol. 149, Issue 11)
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,118 words
Lexile Measure: 1290L

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His lynching is one of the most infamous crimes in America's history.

In the summer of 1955, a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till was abducted at gunpoint by white men in Money, Mississippi, then beaten, shot in the head, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Till, who lived in Chicago and was in Mississippi visiting relatives, was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a store. At the murder trial, witnesses clearly identified the perpetrators, but an all-white jury in a deeply segregated South acquitted them, and the men walked free. Many experts say the brutal killing, as well as the gruesome photos that circulated of Till's mutilated body at his funeral in Chicago, helped galvanize the civil rights movement.

Now, more than 60 years later, Emmett Till's story has taken yet another disturbing twist: Carolyn Bryant Donham,* the now 82-year-old woman who had accused Till of offending her in the store, has admitted that a crucial part of her courtroom testimony--that Emmett "grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities"--was a lie.

"You tell these stories for so long that they seem true," she said in an interview with Timothy B. Tyson, who recounts Bryant's confession in his new book, The Blood of Emmett Till. "But that part is not true.... Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."

4,000 Lynchings

New evidence in the death of Emmett Till has his family seeking answers (see "A Guide to the Emmett Till Case," p. 19). And it's just one reason why lynching--killing in retaliation for an alleged offense, carried out without legal authority by one or more people--is getting renewed attention. In January, a police chief in LaGrange, Georgia, issued a public apology for the 1940 lynching of a black teenager accused of trying to assault a white woman. And researchers at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, recently published the most detailed study to date on lynching in the South. It was the result of more than five years of research and 160 visits to sites around the region, and it documented at least 800 more victims than had previously been reported.

From 1877 to 1950, the study found, more than 4,000 black men, women, and children were lynched in the 12 Southern states where lynching was most prevalent (see chart, p. 18). Such murders went unpunished in most cases, and were often carried out with the approval and even help of local officials. They continued through the 1960s and 70s, with blacks--and some whites--targeted for demanding equal rights for African-Americans.

That lynchings became common in the South after 1877 is no coincidence. The year marked the end of Reconstruction (1865-77), the period after the Civil War (1861-65) when former slaves briefly gained certain civil rights in America: The 14th Amendment (1868) gave blacks and former slaves citizenship and equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment (1870) gave them voting rights. For the first time, African-Americans cast ballots, sat on juries, and were even elected to Congress--with the help of federal troops sent down South to enforce the laws. But once the last of the troops withdrew in 1877, Reconstruction collapsed.

"It sent a signal that the North in general and the federal government in particular were tired of dealing with what was called the Negro problem," says David Pilgrim, a sociologist and the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum in Big Rapids, Michigan.

Second-Class Citizens

Pilgrim adds that resentment of Southerners toward the North after losing the bitterly fought Civil War fanned the flames of white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which began organizing campaigns of racial terror in the late 1860s.

"And now you're being told the black man is your equal," he says. "Well, your fear is that he's not going to be your equal, he's actually going to dominate you."

It was that mind-set, according to Pilgrim, that led state and local governments in the South to pass a series of "Jim Crow" laws, which systematically discriminated against blacks politically, economically, and socially. (The name Jim Crow came from a popular 19th-century minstrel character and was used in the South as a derogatory term for blacks.) The U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, a case involving segregated rail cars in Louisiana, essentially upheld Jim Crow by saying that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional. Jim Crow laws and the etiquette that governed black-white relations in the South turned African-Americans into second-class citizens.

One of the most pervasive and irrational fears during the Jim Crow era, according to EJI, was that black men were preying on white women. Nearly 25 percent of the lynching victims EJI documented were black men accused of sexual misconduct against white women. Other blacks were killed for minor social infractions, such as failing to say "mister" when addressing a white police officer, or for demanding basic rights, such as getting paid for the work they did.

"The Jim Crow system could not have existed without violence," says Pilgrim.

Lynchings were often publicized in newspapers and carried out in black neighborhoods to terrorize residents. They frequently attracted large white crowds, including public officials. People sometimes picnicked as they watched. Blacks were sometimes forced to watch too.

Few whites were ever brought to justice: Of all the lynching cases after 1900, only 1 percent resulted in a criminal conviction, according to EJI. Its study concluded that the communities where lynchings took place have done little to reconcile their violent pasts--and the lingering trauma that remains for black members of their communities.

"There is an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching," the report states. "There are very few monuments or memorials that address the history and legacy."

'I'm Profoundly Sorry'

But the town of LaGrange, Georgia, population 31,000, recently became an exception. In January, Police Chief Louis M. Dekmar, who is white, issued a rare apology for the 1940 lynching of Austin Callaway, who is believed to have been 16 or 18 years old when he was killed.

Many of LaGrange's residents had never heard of Callaway's lynching because local newspapers at the time attributed his death to "the result of bullets fired by an unknown person or group of individuals." But in 2014, Jason M. McGraw, a student at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, uncovered the real story while doing a research paper about the teenager's death.

On Sept. 7, 1940, Callaway was arrested and charged with trying to assault a white woman. That night, a band of white men dragged him from his jail cell, drove him 8 miles away, shot him in the head and arms, and left him for dead. Callaway was later found on the side of a road and taken to a hospital, where he died.

As Chief Dekmar learned more about the case, he decided that something must be done to acknowledge it. He approached the president of a local N.A.A.C.P. chapter about helping to set up a public apology for the lynching.

"I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin's lynching, both through our action and our inaction," he told a crowd at a traditionally black church. "And for that I'm profoundly sorry. It should never have happened."

Chief Dekmar said that, in the age of Black Lives Matter, he hoped his apology could also help ease the mistrust that exists today between minorities and the police. Some white residents, however, were skeptical that the apology would have any practical effect.

"I don't care if they apologize or don't," said Jessie East, 74, who works at a local furniture and appliance shop. "It's not going to change a thing that happened 77 years ago."

But Deborah Tatum, a relative of Callaway's, thought the apology was a step toward healing. "I believe God when he tells us that there is power and freedom in forgiveness," she said.

Hank Klibanoff has spent years delving into civil rights-era crimes, as a reporter and now as head of the Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University in Atlanta. He also thinks the apology is enormously important, even after so much time has passed.

"I think he's just saying what we did was wrong, what we as a people did," says Klibanoff. "We weren't here, we didn't do that, but it was wrong. And I think it gives people cover to [apologize] more. And I hope it will."

A guide to the Emmett Till Case

The most notorious lynching of the 20th century has gone unpunished for 62 years. Here's how it unfolded.

Aug. 24, 1955: Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago visiting his relatives in Money, Mississippi, goes into Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market to buy some bubble gum. A white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who owns the store with her husband, Roy, will later testify that Emmett grabbed her waist and uttered obscenities. Teenagers will testify that they heard Emmett whistle at the woman.

Aug. 28: Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam abduct Emmett from his uncle's home, then brutally beat him, shoot him, and fasten a large metal fan to his neck before tossing him into the Tallahatchie River.

Aug. 31: Emmett's body is pulled from the river. It's so mutilated that the ring he's wearing, bearing the initials of his father, Louis Till, is used to identify him.

Sept. 3: Emmett's mother holds an open-casket funeral in Chicago, insisting "the whole nation had to bear witness to this." Thousands line up to see Emmett's disfigured body; a photo of it published by Jet magazine is widely circulated, galvanizing the civil rights movement, then just beginning to gather steam.

Sept. 23: An all-white jury (blacks were prevented from serving in many parts of the South) acquits Bryant and Milam, despite accounts by black witnesses pointing to them.

January 1956: Bryant and Milam admit to killing Emmett to Look magazine, which pays them $4,000. (Under U.S. law, the men couldn't be tried twice for the same crime. Both are now dead.)

2004: The Justice Department reopens the case to find out whether anyone still alive might have been involved in Emmett's death. The case is closed again in 2007 without any new charges.

2017: Timothy Tyson's new book, The Blood of Emmett Till, recounts Carolyn Bryant Donham's confession that she lied about Emmett grabbing her waist and uttering obscenities. I She has also written I a memoir, which she has instructed Tyson not to publish until 2038. Emmett's family is asking authorities to reopen the investigation his death, according the Associated Press.

Additional reporting by Alan Blinder and Richard Fausset of The New York Times.

* Carolyn Bryant was her name at the time of Emmett's murder, but she later remarried.

Caption: Emmett Till (below) was lynched In Mississippi for allegedly offending Carolyn Bryant (inset); his open casket (right) helped spark the civil rights movement.

Caption: A crowd gathers to watch a lynching in Paris, Texas, 1997.

Caption: Police Chief Louis Dekmar (left) asked local N.A.A.C.P. president Ernest Ward (right) to help him set up a public apology for the 1940 lynching of a black teen in LaGrange, Georgia; a 1940 New York Times article about the lynching (above).

Caption: A segregated theater in Leland, Mississippi 1937 (above, left); an anti-integration sign in Florida, 1959 (right); segregated water fountains in North Carolina, 1950 (below).

States Where
the Most Lynchings
Occurred, 1877-1950

1. Mississippi       614
2. Georgia           595
3. Louisiana         559
4. Arkansas          491
5. Alabama           363
6. Texas             344
7. Florida           307
8. Tennessee         238
9. South Carolina    184
10. Kentucky         170
11. North Carolina   122
12. Virginia          88



Lexile level: 1280L

Lower Lexile level (available online): 1010L

Before Reading

1 Set Focus: Pose an essential question to guide discussion: How might you explain the inaction of police and other officials as thousands of African-Americans were killed in lynchings?

2 List Vocabulary: Share some of the challenging vocabulary for this article (see right). Encourage students to use context to infer meanings as they read.

3 Engage: Study the photos on pp. 16-17 and discuss the emotions the images evoke.

infamous (p. 16)

acquitted (p. 16)

systematically (p. 18)

minstrel (p. 18)

pervasive (p. 18)

attributed (p. 19)

Analyze the Article

4 Read and Discuss: Ask students to read the Upfront article about the renewed spotlight on lynchings. Review why the article is a secondary source. (It was written by someone who didn't personally experience or witness the events.) Then pose these critical-thinking questions:

* Based on what you've read, why were Emmett Till's murderers allowed to walk free? (One likely reason is that although witnesses were able to identify the men who lynched Till, the jury was all white and acquitted the men anyway. In addition, the white woman who accused Till of offending her insisted that Till had grabbed her and uttered obscenities, something she later admitted was a lie.)

* Why was 1877 a pivotal year for African-Americans in the South? (That year marked the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. After enforcing voting and other civil rights for blacks in the South for 12 years, federal troops withdrew in 1877, leaving the Southern states to their own devices. This led to the suppression of rights and the creation of Jim Crow policies.)

* Did the federal government have a role in perpetuating the South's Jim Crow policies? Explain. (In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that providing "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites was constitutional. This meant that rail cars and other facilities could continue to be segregated by race.)

* What does sociologist David Pilgrim mean when he says that the "Jim Crow system could not have existed without violence"? (Pilgrim likely means that acts of violence against African-Americans terrorized black citizens and made them fearful of speaking out against racist and unjust Jim Crow policies.)

5 Integrate the Primary Source: Project or distribute the PDF "Rule of the Mob" (p. T14), which features a letter about lynchings written by Booker T. Washington in 1904. Discuss what makes this text a primary source. (It provides direct, firsthand evidence concerning the topic.) Have students read the letter and answer the questions below (which appear on the PDF without answers).

* Does Washington take a stand on the guilt or innocence of the three lynching victims? Explain. (No. Washington emphasizes that the lynching victims were never given the opportunity to stand trial. This disturbs him greatly. He writes, "the only protection of our civilization is a fair and calm trial of all people charged with crime and in their legal punishment if proved guilty.")

* Why does Washington argue that lynchings are detrimental to the white community? (He argues that "If the law is disregarded when a Negro is concerned, it will soon be disregarded when a white man is concerned." He notes that lynching destroys relations between the races and has economic consequences; he writes that it "interferes with the material prosperity of the communities. ")

* What irony does Washington point out in paragraph 7? (In this paragraph, Washington notes that lynchings are taking place in "communities where there are Christian churches" and "where collections are taken up for sending missionaries to Africa. " His remarks suggest that religious beliefs and actions are at odds in such communities.)

* What does Washington mean by "pulpit and press"? What does he hope these forces will do? (By "pulpit and press," Washington means religious leaders who deliver sermons at church pulpits as well as journalists. He wants these leaders and journalists to speak out against lynchings in order to sway public opinion against the practice.)

* Based on the Upfront article and the letter by Booker T. Washington, describe why you think lynchings were fairly common in the South for many decades. (Answers will vary but should touch on the facts that public officials were often complicit in lynchings, that black communities were terrified to speak out, and that some white communities saw lynchings as social events, even gathering and picnicking as the murders took place.)

Extend & Assess

6 Writing Prompt

Why do you think there are so few monuments and memorials addressing the history of lynchings in this country? Write a brief essay, supporting your ideas with evidence from the article.

7 Quiz

Use the quiz on p. T10 to assess comprehension.

8 Classroom Debate

Is there any point in government officials apologizing for lynchings that happened long ago?

9 Literature Link

Pair the article and letter with Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Draw attention to the attempted lynching of Tom Robinson (chapter 15), and discuss what the novel adds to students' understanding of the Jim Crow era.

Additional Resources upfrontmagazine.com

Print or project:

* Article Quiz (online and on p. T10)

* 'Rule of the Mob' (primary source; online and on p. T14)

* Analyze the Photo (online and on p. T16)

* Get a Clue (vocabulary; online only)


* The Jim Crow South


Choose the best answer for each of the following questions. For the analysis section, refer to the article as needed.


1. What is a lynching?

a any racially motivated killing

b a particularly violent murder that takes place in front of a crowd

c a killing in retaliation for an alleged offense, carried out without legal authority

d any unsolved murder from the Jim Crow era

2. Fourteen-year-old Mississippi lynching victim Emmett Till had been accused of

a running from a police officer,

b offending a white woman,

c robbing a local grocery store,

d trespassing on a white person's property.

3. In the years immediately following the Civil War, federal troops in the South

a carried out hundreds of lynchings.

b organized racial hate groups,

c enforced civil rights laws,

d enforced Jim Crow laws.

4. What ruling did the Supreme Court make in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson?

a African-Americans deserved equal protection under the law.

b African-Americans had full voting rights,

c It was unconstitutional to keep African-Americans from sitting on juries,

d It was constitutional to have separate but equal facilities for black citizens and white citizens. analyze the text

5. Which sentence from the article demonstrates that there is a "renewed focus" on lynching?

a "In January, a police chief ... issued a public apology for the 1940 lynching of a black teenager."

b "... the Egual Justice Initiative ... published the most detailed study to date on lynching ..."

c "New evidence in the death of Emmett Till has his family seeking answers."

d all of the above

6. You can infer from the article that perpetrators of lynchings were rarely convicted, in part because

a local officials were often complicit in the lynchings.

b lynchings were carried out in secret locations,

c lynchings were perfectly legal,

d none of the above

7. When the author writes that "Reconstruction collapsed" in 1877, you can infer she means that

a the 14th and 15th Amendments were repealed,

b the economies of Southern states failed,

c many Southern states stopped granting African-Americans their civil rights,

d the South gave up on rebuilding its infrastructure.

8. The author's main purpose in the section "I'm Profoundly Sorry" is to explain why

a the federal government has apologized for lynchings.

b one small-town police chief has apologized for a 1940 lynching,

c a witness to the Emmett Till lynching lied about the case,

d none of the above

IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS Please use the other side of this paper for your responses.

9. The author notes that in some communities where lynchings occurred, black community members still deal with "lingering trauma." What do you think she means?

10. Should local governments do more to acknowledge lynchings that took place long ago? Explain.


1. [c] a killing in retaliation for an alleged offense, carried out without legal authority

2. [b] offending a white woman.

3. [c] enforced civil rights laws.

4. [d] It was constitutional to have separate but equal facilities for black citizens and white citizens.

5. [d] all of the above

6. [a] local officials were often complicit in the lynchings.

7. [c] many Southern states stopped granting African-Americans their civil rights.

8. [b] one small-town police chief has apologized for a 1940 lynching.


'Rule of the Mob'

From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, thousands of African-Americans were lynched in the South. In many cases, victims were falsely accused of crimes or were guilty of merely minor social infractions against white citizens; instead of having a trial, these victims died at the hands of vigilante mobs. One African-American who spoke out against the atrocity of lynching was educator Booker T. Washington. Below is a letter he wrote to an Alabama newspaper in 1904. Read it along with the Upfront article, then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.

Letter to the Birmingham Age-Herald

Within the last fortnight* three members of my race have been burned at the stake; of these one was a woman. Not one of the three was charged with any crime even remotely connected with the abuse of a white woman. In every case murder was the sole accusation. All of these burnings took place in broad daylight and two of them occurred on Sunday afternoon in sight of a Christian church.

In the midst of the nation's busy and prosperous life few, I fear, take time to consider where these brutal and inhuman crimes are leading us. The custom of burning human beings has become so common as scarcely to excite interest or attract unusual attention.

I have always been among those who condemned in the strongest terms crimes of whatever character committed by members of my race, and I condemn them now with equal severity; but I maintain that the only protection of our civilization is a fair and calm trial of all people charged with crime and in their legal punishment if proved guilty.

There is no shadow of excuse for departure from legal methods in the cases of individuals accused of murder. The laws are as a rule made by the white people and their execution is in the hands of the white people; so that there is little probability of any guilty colored man escaping.

These burnings without a trial are in the deepest sense unjust to my race; but it is not this injustice alone which stirs my heart. These barbarous scenes followed, as they are, by publication of the shocking details, are more disgraceful and degrading to the people who inflict the punishment than those who receive it.

If the law is disregarded when a Negro is concerned, it will soon be disregarded when a white man is concerned; and, besides, the rule of the mob destroys the friendly relations which should exist between the races and injures and interferes with the material prosperity of the communities concerned.

Worst of all, these outrages take place in communities where there are Christian churches; in the midst of people who have their Sunday schools, their Christian Endeavor Societies and Young Men's Christian Associations, where collections are taken up for sending missionaries to Africa and China and the rest of the so-called heathen world.

Is it not possible for pulpit and press to speak out against these burnings in a manner that shall arouse a public sentiment that will compel the mob to cease insulting our courts, our Governors and legal authority; cease bringing shame and ridicule upon our Christian civilization.

Booker T. Washington

Tuskegee, Alabama

February 29, 1904

* A fortnight is a period of two weeks.


1. Does Washington take a stand on the guilt or innocence of the three lynching victims? Explain.

2. Why does Washington argue that lynchings are detrimental to the white community?

3. What irony does Washington point out in paragraph 7?

4. What does Washington mean by "pulpit and press"? What does he hope these forces will do?

5. Based on the Upfront article and the letter by Booker T. Washington, describe why you think lynchings were fairly common in the South for many decades.


Analyze the Photo

(Photo appears on p. 16 of the magazine.)

1. What details do you notice about the coffin itself? What do you think the photos attached to the coffin lid show, and why might they be there?

2. How would you describe the expression on Emmett Till's mother's face? How does this image make you feel?

3. What effect did this photo-and others of Emmett Till's open casket that showed his body--have on the public at the time? Why do you think Emmett Till's mother wanted the world to see what her dead son looked like?

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A491256954