‘Let the people see what they did to my boy’

This year marks nearly seven decades since 14-year-old Emmett Till ,of the South Side, was killed in Mississippi. Here’s a look at how the Sun-Times covered his death in 1955, including Mamie Till Bradley’s decision to show the world the brutality he endured at the hands of white supremacists.

‘Let the world see what I’ve seen’

Monday marks the 68th anniversary of Emmett Louis Till’s brutal murder. The 14-year-old’s death galvanized generations of civil rights activists thanks to his mother’s insistence that the results of the grisly beating he endured not be hidden from the public.

“I couldn’t bear the thought of people being horrified by the sight of my son,” Mamie Till Bradley (who would later become Mamie Till-Mobley) said in an interview years after her son died. “But on the other hand, I felt the alternative was even worse. After all, we had averted our eyes for far too long, turning away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation. Let the world see what I’ve seen.”

Till’s murder was one of at least 4,743 lynchings from 1882 to 1968 carried out by white supremacists, according to the NAACP. More than 70% involved Black victims. The group has also labeled the murders of James Byrd in Texas in 1998 and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in 2020. as modern-day lynchings. Many have compared the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis to Till’s case. They said they hope Floyd’s murder, like Till’s, will become a tipping point toward societal change — especially as hate crimes of all types continue to increase in the U.S. The first story about Till to appear in the Chicago Sun-Times was on Aug. 31, 1955, when the boy’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River earlier that day. The story made page one on Sept. 1, 1955 — four days after the South Side boy, visiting relatives in Mississippi, was abducted from his uncle’s home and murdered. The paper ran a brief Associated Press story that carried a Greenwood, Miss. dateline. But the next day, the Sun-Times ran a front-page story with the headline, “Chicago Boy Found Slain in Dixie.” It quoted Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, calling Till’s killing a “lynching.”The story also quoted Till’s mother: “Someone is going to pay for this. The entire state of Mississippi is going to pay for that.”

September 1, 1955

Chicago Boy Found Slain In Dixie

Greenwood, Miss. — A 14-year-old Negro boy from Chicago has been murdered apparently because he made an “ugly remark” to a white woman.His body, beaten, bullet-pierced and weighed down with iron and barbed wire, was found by a fisherman Wednesday in the swift, muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River.He was Emmett Louis Till, who had come to Mississippi to visit an aunt and uncle and had been missing since early Sunday.He was the only child of Mrs. Mamie E. Bradley of 6427 S. St. Lawrence, Chicago. His father, Lewis, an Army veteran of the African and Italian campaigns, died in Europe in 1945. .Two half-brothers were in jail here charged with kidnapping and Dist. Atty. Stanny Sanders of Greenwood said they would soon be charged with murder. The suspects are Roy Bryant, about 35, a storekeeper in the village of Money, and J.W. Willem, about 45, a clerk in the store.Officers of the two counties are seeking Bryant’s wife — the white woman to whom the boy allegedly uttered the “ugly remark” Aug. 24 in the Bryant store.A neighbor said she had not been seen in Money this week, and law enforcement officers said they had no idea where she was.She is charged with kidnapping.The Bryant’s have two sons, Roy Jr., 3, and Lamar, 1.In New York, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the killing a “lynching.” He demanded action by Mississippi officials. “It would appear from this lynching,” Wilkins said, “that the state of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children.”

‘You didn’t die for nothing.’

Till entered the grocery store of Roy Bryant in the small town of Money, Miss., on Aug. 24 and supposedly uttered an “ugly remark” to Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, according to the story, four days later, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were seen as they took Till from his uncle’s home at night.

By the end of August, Bryant and Milam were charged with kidnapping. The murder charge came later.

Sun-Times reporters and photographers were at Central Station when Till’s battered body arrived home in Chicago by train on Sept. 2.

When she saw her son’s pine casket at the train station, Till’s mother fell to her knees and promised: “You didn’t die for nothing.”

September 2, 1955

Battered Body of Till Boy Arrives Here; Murdered Youth’s Kin Hysterical at Station

The bludgeoned body of Emmett Louis till arrived at the Central Station and set off a hysterical scene. Mrs. Mamie R. Bradley, 33, of 6427 St. Lawrence, mother of the 14-year-old Negro boy who was murdered because he whistled at a Mississippi Woman jumped from her wheelchair Friday when the Illinois Central R.R.’s Panama Limited pulled in. She sprinted across three sets of tracks to the baggage car in which the body lay in a pine box. When it was lifted out, she fell to her knees and sobbed hysterically.

Kin Ring Body

“My darling, my darling,” she said. “I would have through a world of fire to get to you.” Weeping relatives formed a ring, and a hearse backed into the scene. Above the loud sobbing the voice of Mrs. Bradley could be heard again. “My darling,” shed cried. “I know I was on your mind when you died. Oh, my baby…” As the pine box was rolled into the hearse, she said softly: “you didn’t die for nothing.” Spurred by demands for justice from Gov. Stratton, Mayor Daley and Gov. Hugh White of Mississippi, authorities in Tallahatchie County (Miss.) moved quickly.

Face Murder Charge

Roy Bryan, storekeeper in the village of Money, Miss., and his half-brother, J. W. Milam of nearby Glendora, will be charged with murder on Monday, said District Atty. Gerald Chatha,. On Tuesday, a grand jury will meet to consider murder indictments. The two men now are held on kidnapping charges. They admitted taking the visitor fro Chicago on a pre-dawn “ride” for whistling at Bryant’s wide. Later the boy’s body was found in the Tallahatchie Rive, weighted down with iron and barbed wire. Young Till had been shot once through the head and beaten about the face. The two ex-soldiers denied the killing. The body was taken to a funeral home at 41st and Cottage Grove, where the still hysterical mother demanded that the pine box be opened. ”Open it up,” Mrs. Bradley shouted. “Let the people see what they did to my boy.” The box was opened.

Brutally Beaten

Condition of the boy’s face indicated a beatig far more brutal than first reported in dispatches from Mississippi. Almost all of the boy’s teeth were knocked out. The entire right side of the face was caved in. There was a small bullet hole through the temple. “Leave it like that,” said Mrs. Bradley. “Let the people come and see what they did to my boy.” Services were set for 11 a.m. Saturday from Robert’s Temple of the Church of God in Christ, 4021 S. State. Eulogy will be delivered by Bishop Louis II. Ford, pastor of St. Paul’s Chirc of God in Christ. Burial will be in Burr Oaks Cemetery.

Later that day, Bradley directed the funeral home morticians not to cover her son’s mutilated body, saying: “Leave it like that. Let the world see what I’ve seen.” Nor, she said, should the casket be closed: “Open it up. Let the people see what they did to my boy.”Bradley also allowed her son to be photographed in the casket, and most mainstream white newspapers, including the Sun-Times, did not run the photo. But many Black publications, the first of which was Jet magazine, did — a move that historians say started the organized modern civil rights movement.The Jet photo truly captured the severity of Till’s injuries: He had been beaten nearly to death, and one of his eyes was gouged out. He was also shot in the head, and then his body, weighted down by a large cotton-gin fan tied with barbed wire, was dumped into the Tallahatchie River.

Emmett Till’s mother looks down on the brutalized body of her 14-year-old son as he lies in the morgue on Sept. 15, 1955. The picture first appeared in Jet magazine and throughout African-American news outlets but it did not run in the mainstream white press. Standing with Mamie Till Bradley is her fiance, Gene Mobley. She handpicked the photographer, David Jackson, to take this picture for the work he had done in chronicling racial hatred and violent treatment of Blacks. Photos of the lynched boy in his casket were a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement. | David Jackson of Jet magazine

Also on Sept. 2, a Sun-Times editorial denounced the killing, calling it a “revolting crime … [done] in the name of ‘white supremacy.’” The paper was one of the few mainstream outlets that adopted the NAACP’s characterization of the killing as a “lynching” in its initial editorials about the case.Although it did not run a close-up photo of the boy in the casket, the paper did not hold back in describing what happened to Till: “A Communist or Nazi torture chamber could not produce a worse tale of man’s inhumanity to man. … The senseless killing of Emmett Till is a shameful blot not only in Mississippi but on America.”The editorial also suggested that if “an all-white jury should be lenient toward the lynchers,” federal anti-lynching laws should be passed. In March 2022, after multiple failed attempts, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law.

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‘Men shielded their eyes...’

Emmett Till’s story was back on page one on Sept. 4, 1955, chronicling the boy’s funeral. Thousands of people — primarily Black but some whites — lined up outside the Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ, 4021 S. State St., to pay their final respects.

“Men shielded their eyes, and three women fainted at the sight of the boy’s crushed head,” the paper reported. Till was to be buried that day, but the plans were changed by Bradley when she saw the crowds. She wanted more people to have the chance to pay their respects.

The crowd ranged in size from 10,000 people on the first day to as many as 125,000 leading up to the boy’s burial on Sept. 6, the White House said in July of this year after Biden designated 5.7 acres of land in Chicago and Mississippi to serve as the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument Boundary.For the burial, dozens of Chicago police officers were sent to keep order, but the Sun-Times reported that “the mood of the crowd appeared only to be sadness and lamentation.”Two days later, the Sun-Times’ page one headline read: “Slain Boy’s Mother Going to Mississippi.” Bradley planned to testify at the trial of the two men accused of murdering her son. The Sun-Times sent reporter Ray Brennan to cover it.

September 8, 1955

Slain Boy’s Mother Going to Mississippi; She Will Testify at Death Trial

A Chicago mother will go to Mississippi to testify against two men accused of murdering her Negro son.Dist. Atty. Gerald Chatham announced Thursday at Sumner, Miss., that he was preparing a telegram inviting her.In Chicago, Mrs. Mamie Bradley, 33, of 6427 St. Lawrence, said she would accept her lawyer’s advice on whether to go.The lawyer, William Henry Huff, promptly said he wanted her to be at the trial, if she would be “adequately protected all the way.”

Protection Promised

The Mississippi prosecutor said he would see that no harm befell her, so the matter apparently was settled.Mrs. Bradley is the mother of 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till, beaten and shot to death after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Money, Miss. The district attorney said he believed her testimony would be important in the murder prosecution of John W. Milam, 35, and Roy Bryant, 24.They had accused the Chicago boy of “wolf whistling” at Bryant’s young, pretty wife.“I will assure Mrs. Bradley of any reasonable protection she may request in Mississippi,” Chatham said.

Crowds arrive at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ as Emmett Till’s casket departs for burial on Sept. 6, 1955. Sun-Times Photo by Ralph Walters.

“Twelve men on an all-white jury took one hour and five minutes Friday to decide that Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were innocent of the charge,” Brennan reported on Sept. 24. “They still face legal action on a kidnapping charge.“The two defendants kissed their pretty wives for the movie cameras after the verdict until lipstick smeared them from chins to eyebrows.”Three days later, a Sun-Times editorial highlighted how racism clouded the official investigation of Till’s death: “Because the murdered boy was a Negro, police work was indifferent and inadequate almost to the point of being nonexistent.”

Mamie Till Bradley, the mother of Emmett Till, prays at her son’s service at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, 4021 S. State St. Sun-Times Photo by Ralph Walters
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Mississippi had one more chance at justice, and the paper wrote: “Kidnapping charges are still pending against Bryant and Milam. If they are tried, convicted and jailed, America’s conscience will be clearer.“But calling murder kidnapping does not make it so. People of goodwill everywhere know the truth about the Till case, and they are heartsick at the outcome.”In November of 1955, an all-white grand jury of 20 men refused to indict Bryant and Milam on kidnapping charges even though they previously admitted they took Till from his uncle’s home. The following year, the two men confessed to the murder and kidnapping in a magazine article. With everyone involved in the crime now dead, no one was — or ever will be — held responsible for Till’s murder.

Mamie Till Bradley views her son’s open casket at his funeral service on Sept. 3, 1955. Sun-Times Photo by Ralph Walters

Richard Cahan and Michael Williams are journalists and owners of CityFiles Press, a media company that has published three books about the Chicago Sun-Times, including “Chicago Exposed: Defining Moments from the Chicago Sun-Times Photo Archives.”