The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Emmett Till’s brutal murder changed America. Now his home is a historic landmark.

Emmett Till, 14, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a White woman, who later said she lied about the encounter. (AP)

More than 65 years after Emmett Till packed his bags to visit relatives in Mississippi, the red brick Victorian house where he grew up has been designated a historic landmark by the Chicago City Council.

The 14-year-old Black boy was brutally tortured, beaten and killed just days after he arrived in Money, Miss., in the summer of 1955. His body was found in the Tallahatchie River, with a cotton-gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire, a gruesome lynching that sparked the modern civil rights movement.

Emmett Till’s mother opened his casket and sparked the civil rights movement

“Last year, we celebrated the 65th anniversary of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till and a lot of times history that happens for African Americans are forgotten about,” Alderman Taylor Jeanette B. Taylor told the Chicago City Council on Wednesday after the vote approving the ordinance designation. “So before there was Trayvon Martin, before there was Eric Garner, there was Emmett Till. We still have a real problem in this country of not addressing the brutality that has happened to Black folks, but also making sure we apologize and recognize it and do things to move forward. I’m excited the Emmett Till home is going to be preserved.”

The murder demonstrated the grip of racism, segregation and white supremacy on the country.

“The death and funeral of Emmett Till in late August and early September 1955 were major early catalytic events in the nationally important civil rights movement in 1954 and 1955, the others being the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 and Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955,” according to the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

In August 1955, when his mother Mamie Till-Mobley put her only son on a train to visit relatives for a summer vacation in Mississippi, she warned him that Mississippi was a cesspool of racism. She reminded Emmett, who had grown up in Chicago and moved when he was 10 to the red-brick house on South St. Lawrence Avenue, that he should be careful around White people and to obey his uncle. But having lived in Chicago, he had not seen the horrors of lynchings in the South.

A few days after Emmett arrived in Mississippi, he and his cousins went to buy candy at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Emmett allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a White woman who worked at the store.

“Emmett went into the store and asked for some bubble [gum] and left after telling the women ‘goodbye.’ Outside, Emmett gave a ‘wolf call,’ " Maurice Wright, 16, Emmett’s cousin, told the United Press in a report published Sept. 1, 1955. “I told Emmett to be careful of what he said in the store.”

That night, on Aug. 28, 1955, the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, drove to the home of Emmett’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, and demanded the boy come out.

Mose “pleaded with the men to leave Emmett alone,” according to PBS. “‘He’s only 14, he’s from up North. Why not give the boy a whipping, and leave it at that?’ ” His wife, Elizabeth Wright, “offered money to the intruders, but they ordered her to go back to bed.”

Emmett’s uncle “led the men throughout his home with flashlights until they found Emmett in a bed, sleeping,” according to the PBS report. “They woke him up and told him to get dressed.”

On Aug. 31, 1955, the Associated Press reported a fisherman had found the body of Emmett in the Tallahatchie River. “The youth had been visiting an uncle at a nearby community before his disappearance early Sunday,” the wire service wrote. “Officers said he apparently was killed by a blow on the head. The body was weighted with a cotton gin pulley fastened with barbed wire.”

The Justice Department has reopened an investigation into the 1955 killing of black teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi. (Video: Reuters)

When Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley heard the news her only child had been lynched, she insisted authorities send his body home to Chicago.

When she went to the train station to see his body, she collapsed. “Lord, take my soul,” she cried, according to a 2003 interview with The Washington Post.

Emmett Till’s body was swollen beyond recognition. His teeth were missing. His ear was severed. His eye was hanging out. The only thing that identified him was a ring.

In her grief and outrage, the mother called the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s leading Black newspapers. She called Ebony and Jet magazines, telling reporters she wanted the world to see the barbaric act committed against her son by White men in Mississippi.

Then the mother asked for an open casket at his funeral.

“I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till,” Till-Mobley said.

Black History Month 2021: Stories, quotes and photos

Till’s funeral “and extended visitation” was held from Sept. 3 to Sept. 6, 1955, at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, which has also been designated a Chicago Landmark. The funeral was a pivotal event in the history of the civil rights movement. Thousands of people lined up to see Emmett’s mutilated body. Photographs published in Jet magazine shocked the world.

Bryant and Milam were charged with murder and kidnapping, and tried in Sumner, Miss., later that month.

The men were acquitted by an all-White, all-male jury after about an hour of deliberations. The acquittal shocked the world.

Several months later, on Jan. 24, 1956, Look Magazine published their confessions.

In 2017, Emmett’s accuser, now known as Carolyn Donham, revealed she lied about her interaction with Emmett. Timothy B. Tyson, a professor at Duke University who published the book “The Blood of Emmett Till” wrote that in an interview, Donham conceded Emmett did not make a sexual advance toward her. Her statement directly contradicted her testimony decades before, when she told a jury that Emmett had grabbed her waist and said crude things to her.

The revelation prompted the Justice Department to reopen the investigation into his death.

Emmett’s mother, who taught special education in Chicago elementary schools, continued to live in the house on South St. Lawrence Avenue “until 1962 while she worked tirelessly to advance the civil rights agenda and honor the legacy of her only child,” according the Chicago planning department.

She died in Chicago in 2003 at the age of 81.

The 125-year-old house was falling into disrepair when it was purchased by a developer in 2019, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Now it is owned by Blacks in Green, a nonprofit that plans to turn it into a museum.

“Achieving Landmark status for the Till-Mobley House is an important step in recognizing that Black cultural heritage sites long overlooked by the city are a vital part of Chicago’s past, present and future,” Naomi Davis, founder and CEO of Blacks in Green, told the Sun-Times. “Emmett Till’s tragic murder is a part of Chicago and America’s Great Migration story that needs to be remembered and retold for generations to come.”

Read more Retropolis:

This Emmett Till memorial was vandalized again and again. Now, it’s bulletproof.

‘Fearless’ Ida B. Wells honored by new lynching museum for fighting racial terrorism

Unsolved and overlooked murders: Investigating cold cases of the civil rights era