For many of you, the name Emmett Till may not sound familiar. But what happened to him in 1955 stunned the nation. Emmett Till was a young Black boy who was murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman, and his death was a spark that ignited the civil rights movement in America. Two white men were put on trial for killing him. But in spite of strong evidence against them, they were acquitted in about an hour by an all-white jury.
Why are we telling you this now? Because this past spring, the US Justice Department opened a new investigation based on evidence suggesting that more than a dozen people may have been involved in the murder of Emmett Till and that at least five of them are still alive. Those five could face criminal prosecution. And before we tell you about them, let us tell you what happened to Emmett Till.
He was 14 years old when he was kidnapped, tortured, and killed. The two men who were acquitted of his murder were Roy Bryant and his half-brother, JW Milam. The failure to punish anyone for the crime made headlines across the country and around the world, exposing the racial hatred and unequal justice for Blacks that was pervasive in the segregated South, where laws dictated where Blacks could eat and drink and where they could sleep.
But Emmett Till wasn't from the South. He was from Chicago and just visiting relatives in Mississippi in August of 1955, when his nightmare began. Emmett's 16-year-old cousin traveled to Mississippi with him. The family was reluctant to let Emmett take the trip, afraid his free-spirited nature could get him into trouble in the deep South. That cousin who traveled with him is Wheeler Parker, Jr. now 65 years old.
He was the center of attraction. He loved pranks. He loved fun. He loved jokes. He just was there in the center of everything. He's kind of a natural-born leader.
Why would that be a problem?
In Mississippi, why would it be a problem? That would be a problem because the Mississippians, what he thought was just fun or a joke wasn't funny to them.
So before you went down, did anybody say, look, here are the do's and don'ts about going to Mississippi? You do this. You don't do that.
Oh, yes. That's routine. You're always prepared to go to Mississippi to stay alive. Because once you got to Mississippi, you had no protection under the law. You couldn't call anyone for help once you were there if you got in trouble.
For Emmett Till, the trouble started here, at Bryant's Meat Market and Grocery Store in Money, Mississippi. Back then, most of the customers at the store were Black workers from nearby cotton plantations. The store was owned by a white couple, Roy Bryant, and his 21-year-old wife, Carolyn, who was behind the counter the afternoon that Emmett Till and his cousins came in to buy some candy. As he was leaving the store, Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant, and she went to get a gun.
Simeon Wright, Emmett Till's cousin who lived in Mississippi, was 12 years old on that day, when they went to Bryant's grocery store. Today, at 62, he says the sound of Emmett whistling is as vivid to him now as it was 50 years ago.
When he whistled, we ran. We jumped in the car, and we got out of there.
Just because he whistled?
Oh, yes. It's like if you're a kid, you throw a rock and break a window, you don't hang around to see what's going to happen.
And you knew that in Mississippi at that time, 1955, that was something you didn't do?
That was something you didn't do.
Emmett Till and his cousins raced home that day and hoped nothing would come of what Emmett had done. But three days later, Carolyn Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother, JW Milam, went looking for Emmett Till in the middle of the night and found him and his cousins at the home of Reverend Mose Wright, Emmett's late great-uncle, who recounted what happened next.
Sunday morning, about 2:30, I heard a voice at the door, and I asked who was it. And he said, this is Mr. Bryant. I want to talk with you and the boy. And when I opened the door, there was a man standing with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other one.
Emmett Till and Simeon Wright, Mose Wright's son, were asleep together in one room, and Wheeler Parker was in another room, awakened by the sounds of angry voices.
Fear just gripped me because in my heart, I said, I'm getting ready to die. And at 16, I wasn't ready to die. And I could just feel like the whole bed was shaking.
And then these guys come with the pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other. And for some reason, I closed my eyes. Then I opened them, and they just passed right on by me, went to the next room.
I woke up, and I looked. I saw two men standing over the bed with the-- one had a gun, which was JW Milam. I saw Roy Bryant. They ordered me to lay back down and go back to sleep, and they ordered Emmett to get up and put his clothes on.
And my mother was pleading and begging with him not to take him. My dad was pleading with him. And my mother then, at that time, offered to give them money to leave Emmett alone.
And Roy Bryant kind of hesitated, but JW Milam, he didn't hesitate at all. He didn't even think about taking money. He came there to take Emmett, and that's what he perceived to do.
Before taking Emmett Till out of the house, Simeon Wright says JW Milam threatened his father, Reverend Mose Wright.
Before they left my room, he turned and asked my daddy how old was he. My daddy told him that he was 64. And JW smiled said, if you tell anybody about this, you won't live to get 65.
Well, what did you think of that?
This man wasn't afraid of the law. He marched into my home, take out my cousin, and wasn't afraid the law was going to bother him.
This must have been terrifying for you. I mean, you were just-- you weren't 13 yet. You're 12 years old.
12 years old.
Lying in bed in the middle of the night, two white men come in, one with a gun, and tells your cousin to get up and get dressed.
I'd have been scared to death.
Not only afraid, but there was a sorrow, sadness over the whole house. It looked like you could cut the grief in the house. Because after they left, no one said anything, hardly. All I could hear my dad say was, mhm, mhm, mhm.
On August 31, 1955, three days after he'd been abducted, Emmett Till's mangled body was found by a boy fishing in the waters of the Tallahatchie River, not far from Money. His body had been weighted down by a 75-pound fan from a cotton gin, attached to his neck by barbed wire.
He'd been badly tortured. An eye was detached, an ear cut off, and he appeared to have been shot in the head. His death was the birth of a powerful and lasting symbol of Southern racism in the 20th century.
The local sheriff, HC Strider, a plantation owner and ardent segregationist, tried to have the body buried immediately in this small cemetery in Money, Mississippi, hoping no one in the outside world would ever find out what happened to Emmett Till.
But Emmett's mother, Mamie, battled with Mississippi authorities and was able to have her son's body returned to Chicago, so she could identify him before she buried him. Mamie Till was determined never to let anyone forget the brutal way in which her son was killed. She described the chilling story in one of the final interviews she gave before her death last year at age 81.
I looked at the bridge of his nose, and it looked like someone had taken a meat chopper and chopped it. I looked at his teeth because I took so much pride in his teeth. His teeth were the prettiest things I'd ever seen in my life, I thought.
I only saw two. Well, where are the rest of them? They'd just been knocked out. And I was looking at his ears. And that's when I discovered a hole, about here, and I could see daylight on the other side. I said, that wasn't necessary to shoot him.
Some 50,000 people, nearly all of them Black, turned out for Emmett Till's funeral in an enormous public display of grief and solidarity. Mamie Till ordered the funeral director to place her son in an open casket and permitted this shocking photograph of Emmett's corpse, which was published in Jet magazine and seen across the country.
Advance toward the group.
It ignited protests, civil disobedience, and backlash that would consume the South through the '60s.
I said, I want the world to see this. Because when people saw what had happened to this little 14-year-old boy, they knew then that not only were Black men in danger, but Black children as well.
The same day that Emmett Till was buried, Roy Bryant and JW Milam were indicted on charges of kidnapping and murder. Their trial was held in the small Mississippi town of Sumner, billed as "a good place to raise a boy." The star witness was Emmett Till's late great-uncle Mose Wright, who bravely stood up in the courtroom and pointed his finger at Milam and Bryant as the ones who had come to his home and abducted Emmett Till at gunpoint.
Another key witness was an 18-year-old sharecropper named Willie Reed, who said that on the morning after Emmett Till was abducted, he saw Emmett on a truck with six people, Roy Bryant, JW Milam, two other white men, and two Black men who worked for Milam.
Soon after, Reed said he saw the same truck parked in front of a barn, managed at the time by Milam's brother, and heard the screams of a young boy he presumed was Emmett Till. Today, at age 67, Reed says he still cannot get those sounds out of his mind.
I heard the screaming, beating, screaming, and beating. And I said to myself, I said, Milam's beating somebody in the barn. I could hear him beating. I mean, it looks like it. I could hear the licks.
You could hear the licks?
Yes, you could. You could.
According to Willie Reed and another witness, four white men came out of the barn, including Milam, who walked right up to Reed carrying a .45 caliber pistol.
Milam was coming out of the barn. So he actually said, listen. He said, did y'all hear anything? I said, no. I haven't heard anything.
Why would you say that? I mean, you had heard something. You had heard screaming. You had heard somebody being beaten.
Yeah, I saw somebody was being beaten. But then, you see, Milam coming on with, well, like I said, with khaki pants on and in green, shooting a .45 on his side, then he asks you again, what are you going to say?
You didn't hear anything.
I didn't hear anything.
You knew that's what he wanted to hear?
When they found the body, did you put two and two together and think that what you had heard going on in that barn, that that was Emmett Till?
I was sure. I was sure then. I was sure then.
Fearing for his life after testifying against Milam and Bryant, Willie Reed was smuggled out of Mississippi. He went to Chicago, where he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.
You're a good man. You had a lot of courage for 18-year-old. I think there are a lot of people who would have walked away from it, wouldn't said a word.
No, I couldn't have walked away from there like that. Because Emmett was 14, probably never been to Mississippi in his life, and he come to visit his grandfather. And they killed him. I mean, that's not right. When he in the picture, I saw his body, what it was like. Then I knew that I couldn't say no.
As the trial drew to a close, attorneys for JW Milam and Roy Bryant warned the all-white jury that if they voted to convict, quote, "your forefathers will turn over in their graves." It took the jury just an hour and seven minutes to return a verdict of not guilty. One juror said it wouldn't have taken that long, but they stopped to take a soda pop break to make it look good. Milam and Bryant were congratulated by their many supporters and kissed their wives in celebration.
How do your folks feel now that it's all over? Roy, how about you?
I'm just glad it's over with.
Four months after the trial, knowing that double jeopardy protected them from being tried again, Roy Bryant and JW Milam admitted to a reporter from Look magazine that they had, in fact, tortured and murdered Emmett Till. They were paid $4,000 for their story.
In it, Milam said, "I just made up my mind. Chicago boy, I said, I'm tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Damn you, I'm going to make an example of you.
Emmett Till's family has had to live with that for nearly 50 years, that his killers confessed and nothing ever happened to them. Now, with a new government investigation underway, Simeon Wright hopes someone will finally be held accountable for the murder of his cousin.
JW Milam, Roy Bryant confessed that they killed Emmett. The people of the state of Mississippi said they didn't. We need to reconcile that statement, and we need to send a message to those who are committing crimes against Blacks like this that you can get by, but you can't get away, that justice eventually is going to find you.
The US Justice Department says a number of other people who may have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till are still alive today. We spent much of the past five months tracking them down. When we come back, we'll tell you who they are and what they and, in one case, a family member have to say.
I said, goodbye.
When the US Justice Department announced recently that it was opening a new investigation into the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, it said the case was a quote, "grotesque miscarriage of justice" and that it is examining evidence pointing to the possible involvement of more than a dozen people in the crime. Roy Bryant and JW Milam, who were tried and acquitted are dead, but a number of others are still alive and could face criminal charges for their role in Emmett Till's abduction, beating, murder, and attempts to cover it up.
The Justice Department says it is largely because of this young man that the case has been reopened. His name is Keith Beauchamp, an amateur filmmaker from Louisiana. Like a lot of people in this country, he was moved by the shocking photograph of Emmett Till's corpse that he saw while looking through old magazines when he was just 10 years old. And ever since, Beauchamp has devoted much of his life to uncovering the truth about what happened to Emmett Till.
After seeing the photograph, it shocked me tremendously. And my parents came in and sat me down and explained to me at that time the story of Emmett Till. And it hit me hard. It really hit me hard.
I heard the same story. I mean, I remember seeing this picture in that Jet magazine when I was a kid. I think Emmett Till and I were probably about the same age in 1955, 14 years old.
And growing up in Philadelphia, you knew vaguely about the south. But like others, my parents had protected me from the realities of the South. When I saw that picture and I said, hey. That's when I got my first lesson about the South.
Everyone has a story when they first saw that photograph. It stuck with me that, how could this person be killed this way, a youth? He was like me. It was amazing to me that something like that could happen.
Keith Beauchamp told us that after reviewing thousands of old documents and talking to numerous witnesses with knowledge of the crime, he believes that at least 14 people may have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till and that five of them are still alive.
You described much of this to federal and state investigators.
And their reaction to that information?
Their reaction was overwhelming. They couldn't believe that a person this young would be so interested in finding out the truth. I guess they were really stunned that I did so much research on this case.
So was Senator Charles Schumer, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Justice Department. After meeting with Keith Beauchamp and his Attorney, Ken Thompson, and examining the research Beauchamp was gathering for a documentary film he was working on, Senator Schumer urged the department to reopen the Emmett Till case, saying it was never fully investigated 50 years ago.
How would you characterize the conduct of the federal law enforcement agencies, the 50 years of this?
Well, federal law enforcement back then and even many years later reflected the attitude of America. Oh, these things happen. This is how it is down there. It is a stain and will be a stain on both the Mississippi law enforcement officials and the United States federal government Justice Department, that it took a young filmmaker to bring to light what they should have brought to light.
In 1955, Emmett Till's mother, Mamie, tried to get her government to bring the truth to light. She sent a telegram to President Dwight Eisenhower, urging that justice be "meted out to all persons involved in the beastly lynching of her son." In spite of FBI records and news reports at the time citing specific individuals, President Eisenhower didn't take any action.
Emmett Till's mother died before the government reopened the case this past spring, a case based largely on the research of Keith Beauchamp. Among his discoveries was Henry Lee Loggins, now 81 years old and living in Ohio. At the time of the murder, Loggins was working for JW Milam. FBI files from 1955 refer to witnesses who claimed they saw Loggins on the truck with Emmett Till after he was abducted.
One respected Black newspaper at the time even reported that Loggins allegedly held Emmett Till down as Milam and Bryant tortured him. Loggins was also reportedly ordered by them to attach the fan from a cotton gin around Till's neck just before tossing him into the Tallahatchie River. Henry Lee Loggins is now under investigation by the Justice Department. When we talked to him recently, he denied the allegations that have dogged him for half a century.
I wouldn't sit here and tell a lie. I wasn't with them peoples. I saw nothing.
How do you think your name came up? I mean, not just in newspaper articles, but also with the FBI. Why did people say that Henry Lee Loggins was there?
I can't figure that out. I couldn't figure that out till today.
Henry Lee, how do you explain all these stories that just won't go away?
Such as what?
Such as you were there on the back of the truck--
--which I wasn't.
--that you participated in the abduction, the kidnapping, and the murder of Emmett Till--
--which I wasn't.
--that you tossed his body in the river--
--which I wasn't. What's your name?
Ed. Mr. Ed, I wouldn't sit here and tell you no lie. I don't know nothing about that case.
What are you going to do when the FBI comes knocking at your door?
I'll tell them the same thing, that I wasn't there. And that's them too. Lord knew I wasn't there.
Five other Black men, now dead, have also been implicated in some way in the abduction and murder of Emmett Till. If any of the allegations are true, the question is why.
Knowing now that Black men could possibly have been involved, I just keep thinking about what could have been going through Emmett Till's mind seeing this.
And how do you explain that, that they would turn on one of their own?
We believe that they were forced to participate in the crime. It was going to even be them or Emmett Till. It was shocking at first. Because for so long, you've heard white men were involved. And that was it. A white and Black thing, you couldn't help but be amazed.
It seems clear that Black men were involved. Emmett Till's late great-uncle Mose Wright said there was a Black man on the porch when JW Milam and Roy Bryant came to take Emmett Till.
He also said he heard a woman's voice that night coming from a truck parked outside. He believed it was Roy Bryant's wife, Carolyn, the woman Emmett Till had whistled at several days earlier inside her husband's grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Mose Wright's son Simeon, Emmett's cousin, says his father told him the same thing.
Oh, yes. There was another man standing on the porch. My dad talked about it. There was another person in the truck. Because when they marched Emmett out to the truck and they asked the person inside the truck, "Is this the one?" my dad said he heard a woman's voice identifying Emmett as the boy that did the whistling.
So that must have been Bryant's wife, Mrs. Bryant?
At that time, we believed that was Bryant's wife. And after 48 and some odd years, nothing has arisen to dispel that belief.
Apparently, the local authorities back then believed it, too, and, according to FBI communiques, issued an arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant on suspicion of kidnapping, but she was never arrested or charged. Today we've learned that Carolyn Bryant is a focus of the Justice Department's new investigation, suspected of having assisted her husband, Roy, and JW Milam in the abduction of Emmett Till.
She was divorced in 1979 and has since remarried and moved several times. She had all but disappeared from public view until we found her, now aged 70 and known as Carolyn Donham, living in Greenville, Mississippi. While our cameraman was able to take these pictures of her, when I went to her house, she wouldn't answer the door.
Moments later, her son Frank Bryant arrived, and we tried to talk to him.
Can we talk to Mrs. Donham?
You can talk to me.
Can I tell you, get her to come out?
I have some questions I'd like to ask her about Emmett Till.
Will she come out and talk to us?
What did I just tell you?
Tell me again.
I said, goodbye.
Yeah, I'll go.
We called the house later in the day, and neither Frank Bryant nor his mother, Carolyn, would discuss the Emmett Till case any further. We've learned that the Justice Department could complete its investigation within a year, and criminal charges against at least five people could follow. But the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment.
What would justice be in this case?
In my opinion, there ought to be a full trial. And if there are convictions, even though the people are old who did it, they ought to go to jail.
While that may finally bring a measure of justice to the family of Emmett Till, it also brings back the pain.
These memories are still sharp after 50 years?
Oh, yes. That would never go away. I'm still saying, how could that happen? Why would anyone hate anyone to beat him and kill him and to torture him like that? How can a human being do that to another, all because of a whistle?