Sixty years ago Monday, Emmett Till flirted with a white woman to impress his friends — setting in motion his brutal murder that propelled the civil rights movement into action.
The 14-year-old was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he and some other boys, finished picking cotton, stopped Aug. 24, 1955, outside a country store in Money.
The teen, whose mother called him “Bo,” bragged to the other boys that he had a white girlfriend back home in Chicago — and his friends dared him to speak to the woman working behind the counter.
A 12-year-old cousin briefly went inside but left Emmett alone with the woman — the wife of the store’s owner — for about a minute.
Carolyn Bryant, then 21, claimed Emmett had grabbed her, made lewd comments and wolf-whistled at her as he left the store, but cousin Simeon Wright recalled decades later that couldn’t have been possible.
“I don’t know what he said, but when I was in there, he said nothing to her,” said Wright, now 72. “He didn’t have time, she was behind the counter, so he didn’t put his arms around her or anything like that. While I was in there he said nothing, but after we left the store, we both walked out together, she came outside going to her car. As she was going to her car, he did whistle at her. That’s what scared her so bad. The only thing that I saw him do was that he did whistle.”
The boy, whose mother had warned him about the “Jim Crow” South, understood what he had done after he saw how terrified the other boys were and he begged them not to tell his uncle, Wright said.
Bryant told her husband about the incident when he returned home from a business trip a couple of days later, and Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, went early on Aug. 28, 1955, to the home of Emmett’s great-uncle and kidnapped the boy.
“My mother came in there pleading with them not to take Emmett,” said Wright, who had been sleeping alongside his cousin. “At that point, she offered them money. One of the men, Roy Bryant, he kind of hesitated at the idea, but J.W. Milam — he was a mean guy. He was the guy with the gun and the flashlight, (and) he wouldn’t hear of it. He continued to have Emmett put his clothes on. Then, after Emmett was dressed, they marched him out of the house into a truck that was waiting outside. When they got out to the truck, they asked the person inside the truck, ‘Was this the right boy.’ A lady’s voice responded that it was.”
The pair pistol-whipped Emmett in a tool shed and then forced him to carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the back of the Tallahatchie River, where they ordered him to strip off his clothes.
The men continued beating Emmett, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head and dumped his body — tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire — into the river.
His mutilated body was recovered three days later, and his great-uncle was able to identify his remains only by spotting an initialed ring the boy had worn.
Local authorities tried to quickly bury his body, but Emmett’s mother, Mamie Bradley, requested her son’s remains be sent home to Chicago — where she held an open-casket funeral to show the world what had happened to her son.