Home History Behind The Trial: Chicago Southsider Teen, Emmett Till, Brutally Murdered for Allegedly...

Behind The Trial: Chicago Southsider Teen, Emmett Till, Brutally Murdered for Allegedly Flirting with White Woman

Trial in the Delta reenacts the trial that led to two white men being acquitted for Emmett Till's murder.

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Reach for Emmet Till house Chicago Southsider
Emmett Till's childhood home on 6427 South St. Lawrence; Source: Chicago Southsider

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“There should be no child on the South Side of Chicago who doesn’t know Emmett Till’s story.”

Monique A.L. Smith, LCSW

It was August 1955.

Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black teen from Chicago’s South Side, traveled to Money, Mississippi to visit his relatives. But he never returned home.

Till’s life ended after he was accused of whistling at a white woman at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market on August 24, 1955. Carolyn Bryant, the 20-year-old white woman who owned the store, testified in front of an all white jury, stating that Emmett Till came on to her in an inappropriate way. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Emmett Till from his great uncle’s home on August 28, 1955.

A few days later, the body of Emmett Till was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River in northern Mississippi. He was tortured and killed. Till’s face was beaten so badly that he was barely recognizable when his body was shipped from Mississippi to Chicago for the burial.

The north vs. the south in the 1950s

Before leaving Chicago, Emmett’s mother instructed him to be cautious when interacting with white people in the south. She urged him to always address them properly by saying “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” and to lower his head in their presence.

His mom, Mamie Till-Mobley, knew that the South had different cultural standards than Chicago.

Emmett Till was raised in the Woodlawn community at 6427 South St. Lawrence Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. This area, known as the Black Belt, had transformed from a majority white to a predominantly Black community. As more Black people migrated from the Jim Crow south to explore opportunities in the north, they found housing in the overcrowded communities of Chicago’s South Side. Although Chicago was segregated and filled with housing restrictions for Black people, the intense race relations in the South were something that young Emmett Till was not prepared for.

A Trial In The Delta

On Friday, February 10, 2023, Chicago Southsider attended collaboraction’s world premiere of Trial in the Delta: The Murder of Emmett Till. It took place at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center located at 740 E. 56th Place on the South Side of Chicago. The production was directed by Dana N. Anderson and Anthony Moseley. It was adapted from the court transcripts by G. Riley Mills and Willie Rounds.

Emmett Till’s death in 1955 attracted national attention. It shed light on the racial injustice and violence that stripped Blacks of respect and humane treatment in the South. Trial in the Delta brings Emmett Till’s murder trial to life by digging up the stories of the individuals who were brought to the witness stand.

Moses Wright, Emmett Till’s 64-year-old great uncle, testified at the trial of the defendants, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam.

When Emmett Till arrived in Money, Mississippi on August 21, 1955, he stayed with his great uncle and cousins. Three days later, Emmett Till’s final days of life were approaching after he went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market with his cousins to pick up some bubble gum. His encounter with a white woman at the store fueled a series of emotions. On August 28, 1955, Moses Wright witnessed two white men with pistols abduct Emmett Till from his home.

While on the witness stand, Moses Wright recalls the men asking if there was a boy from Chicago in his home, and watching the men search the rooms to find Emmett Till. But the defense attorney was focused on one thing: Could Moses Wright prove the mutilated body found in the Tallahatchie River on Wednesday, August 31, 1955 was Emmett Till?

When Emmett Till’s mom, Mamie Till-Mobley, gave her testimony, she was confident that the dead body found in the river was her son. The body may have been unrecognizable to the world, but her words conveyed a strong and unyielding belief that her son had become a victim to the horrific violence Blacks endured in the South.

Another key witness, Chester Man, a Black male undertaker who picked up the body in the river, noticed a ring on the finger. This became one of the biggest clues that linked the body to 14-year-old Emmett Till. Before Emmett Till left Chicago, his mom let him wear a ring that belonged to his late father, Louis Till. These were the same initials engraved on the ring found of the boy floating in the river.

The Trial in the Delta exposed the world to the different stories shared by everyone on the witness stand. From investigators to bystanders, everyone on the witness stand had to recall the heinous incident. The white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who accused Emmett Till of whistling at her, discussed her encounter with him at the store. She recalled him using the word “baby” towards her and touching her inappropriately. Her concerns following the incident caused her husband Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam, to take action.

The conclusion of the trial at the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Mississippi was not what many expected. In September 1955, an all-white jury acquitted the two white men accused of murdering Emmett Till.

Sharing Emmett Till’s story with the world

Emmett Till’s mother requested an open casket at the funeral. She wanted the world to see what happened to a young boy from the South Side of Chicago because of racial discrimination in the South.

The Trial in the Delta: The Murder of Emmett Till continues the story. The production gives the world a behind the scenes look at the hidden court trial that divided America. A discussion following the event urged everyone to “connect with what they felt inside their body”.

Audience members started sharing their initial thoughts, describing feelings of numbness and anger.

One woman shared, “This story is not over. It’s important because it’s happening through Breonna [Taylor], Trayvon [Martin], and many others.”

A man sitting in the seat reminded the audience to lead with love. “Love is greater than fear. Love never fails in all situations,” he said.

Monique A.L. Smith, a family member of the late Margaret Burroughs, who was the co-founder of the Dusable Museum of African American History, shared her thoughts:

This is why history is important. We can’t let anyone stop us from sharing stories like this with young people. There should be no child on the South Side of Chicago who doesn’t know Emmett Till’s story.”

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