The crumbling, almost overgrown, wreck of a building in the photo above is the site where a story of the most extreme racial violence and injustice began to unfold in the summer of 1955: the Bryant Grocery in Money, Mississippi. In August of that year, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was lynched for supposedly "offending" a white woman there. Emmett was visiting relatives in Mississippi and had gone with his cousins to the grocery market, which was owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Roy Bryant was out of town, and Carolyn Bryant was working the store. What happened between Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant -- or if anything happened at all -- has never been clear, but he was accused of having spoken to her and grabbed her.
A few days after the encounter at the store, Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law John Milam showed up at the home of Emmett's grandfather in the middle of the night and demanded that the boy be brought out to them. The two men kidnapped Emmett Till and beat him brutally, then shot him and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Such horrific lynchings were not uncommon, nor was it uncommon to such crimes to go unpunished. But, thanks largely to the actions of Emmett's mother, this case took hold in the public imagination, especially among African Americans. When Emmett Till's body was pulled from the river, he was unrecognizable -- between the beatings and the time in the river, his face and body were grotesquely distorted and bloated. He could be identified only because of his father's ring, which he wore. At Emmett's funeral, his mother, Ms. Mamie Till, insisted that his casket be left open, with his face in full view, in order to lay bare to the world what her son had suffered. Jet Magazine, an African American magazine sold nationwide, published photographs of Emmett's disfigured body, bringing the horror of the violence home to African Americans across the country. Many civil rights activists cite Emmett Till's murder as the turning point moment that led them to join the freedom movement.
While we were in Mississippi, Michael, Stone, and I visited the site of the Bryant grocery store, which is rapidly falling to pieces along a two-lane country highway. While there, I asked Michael and Stone to reflect on the Emmett Till murder and what it meant to them at the time.
Michael was 10 years old in 1955 and living with his parents in Philadelphia, where he was born. Michael's recollection:
After filming Michael, I took a minute to capture the scene on video:
Donald Stone, who was born and raised in Alabama, was 20 years old and living in New York at the time of Emmett Till's murder. Stone's reflections:
As we were getting into the car, Michael was continuing to talk about the murder and the aftermath. I grabbed my camera and started recording, just to capture it on video. This was completely impromptu, so this video is a bit rougher than the others, but the content is equally good:
As Stone mentions in his video, to add insult to injury, just four months after Emmett Till's murderers were acquitted, they sold their story to Look Magazine, which paid them $4000. In the story, they admitted openly to the killing.
To read more about the case, I would recommend the excellent website of an American Experience (PBS) documentary on the Emmett Till case. The website includes a full transcript of the documentary, a timeline of events, and even a reprint of the Look Magazine article.