Expanded edition of an original article
first published in rec.music.dylan, Apr 1996,
reprinted in "Dignity," No. 7, Nov-Dec 1996, pp. 11-14;
Original Content © Manfred Helfert, 1996-2011.
She told her boy not to fool with white people down there: "If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly."Just little over a year ago, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court had ordered all schools desegregated. On May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its 1954 decision, calling for "deliberate speed" in the desegregation of all school in the country, resulting in the organization of White Citizens' Councils by angered Southern whites to counteract the court order.
Juan Williams, Eyes On The Prize, New York, NY, 1988, p. 41.
The Jackson "Daily News" openly declared in an editorial, "YES, WE DEFY THE LAW." Throughout the summer of 1955, coinciding with the blacks' growing political boldness in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling, there had been an alarming increase in the number of violent acts and even murders committed by whites against blacks.
While staying with Moses Wright, Curtis Jones' grandfather (a preacher), Emmett Till and his cousin drove Wright's '41 Ford into Money to buy candy at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market. Emmett made friends with some local boys his age hanging around the store and showed them a picture of a white girl, claiming that the girl in the picture was his "sweetheart."
One of the local boys then dared Emmett Till to speak to the white woman (Carolyn Bryant) in the store. According to Curtis Jones, Emmett went back inside the store and bought more candy, saying "Bye, baby" to the white woman as he left. Curtis Jones, Emmett Till and the other boys jumped in their car as Carolyn Bryant came out the swinging screen doors and sped out of town.
News of the incident quickly spread among the local black youth and Emmett and Curtis were warned to leave town before the woman's husband found out. But a week passed without the threatened retribution.
Then, in the "wee hours of the morning" of August 28, 1955, Mose Wright was awakened by a knock on his door. Upon opening, two white men (later identified as J. W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant) asked him for the "nigger here from Chicago", the boy "that did all the talking." Emmett Till then was abducted at gunpoint. Mrs. Wright, trying to come up for his defense, was struck in the head with the side of a shotgun.
Up until his [Emmett Till's] death, I had heard of Negroes found floating in a river or dead somewhere with their bodies riddled with bullets. But I didn't know the mystery behind these killings then. I remember once when I was only seven I heard Mama and one of my aunts talking about some Negro who had been beaten to death. "Just like them low-down skunks killed him they will do the same to us," Mama had said. When I asked her who killed the man and why, she said, "An evil spirit killed him. You gotta be a good girl or it will kill you too." So since I was seven, I had lived in fear of that "Evil Spirit." It took me eight years to learn what that spirit was.
Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi, New York, NY, 1968, p. 121.
March 1968... "Life" Magazine showed a full-page photo of long-haired Bobbie Gentry walking across the Tallahatchie Bridge, which figured in her song, "Ode to Billie Joe." And some of us did a double take. The location is Money, Mississippi -- a mile or two from where Emmett Till's body was found! Last year, there was a joke among black Americans. They knew what was thrown off that bridge.
Pete Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger, New York, NY, 1972, p. 307.
The sight of Emmett Till's mutilated body not only shocked blacks, it drew white attention as well. Even whites normally indifferent to racial problems were appalled at this particular brutal murder of a child... the Till case became a pan-racial, nationwide issue. Newsreel and TV cameras swarmed around the Delta.In her autobiography, Anne Moody remembers some of the reactions (by Blacks and by white Southerners) following the Till murder:
Jennie Brown, Medgar Evers: Activist, Los Angeles, CA, 1994, p.109.
Reactions by young Blacks:
I was coming from school the evening I heard about Emmet (sic) Till's death. There was a whole group of us, girls and boys, walking down the road headed home... However, the six boys in front of us weren't talking very loud... they were just walking and talking among themselves. All of a sudden they began to shout at each other... "That boy wasn't but fourteen years old and they killed him. Now what kin a fourteen-year-old boy do with a white woman?..." "That boy was from Chicago... He probably didn't even think of the bitch as white." ...I walked up to one of the boys. "Eddie, what boy was killed?" "Moody, where've you been?" he asked me. "Everybody talking about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed... by some white men..."
Moody, pp. 121-122.
Reactions by older Blacks:
But I wanted to ask Mama about Emmett Till... "Mama, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old Negro boy who was killed a little over a week ago by some white men?"
"Where did you hear that?" she said angrily.
"...I heard Eddie them talking about it this evening coming from school."
"Eddie them better watch how they go around here talking. These white folks git a hold of it they gonna be in trouble," she said.
"What are they gonna be in trouble about, Mama? People got a right to talk, ain't they?"
"You go on to work before you is to late. And don't you let on like you know nothing about that boy being killed before Miss Burke them. Just do your work like you don't know nothing," she said. "That boy's a lot better off in heaven than he is here," she continued...
ibid., p. 123.
Reactions by white Southerners:
Anne Moody, who at that time is employed as a domestic servant by "one of the meanest white women in town" (ibid., p. 121) continues:
On my way to Mrs. Burke's that evening, Mama's words kept running through my mind... "Why is Mama acting so scared?" I thought... "Why must I pretend I don't know? Why are these people killing Negroes? What did Emmett Till do besides whistle at that woman?"
ibid., pp. 123-124.
...Mrs. Burke entered the kitchen. "Essie, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed...?" she asked me...Anne Moody concludes:
"No, I didn't hear that," I answered, almost choking on the food.
"Do you know why he was killed? ...He was killed because he got out of his place with a white woman. A boy from Mississippi would have known better than that. This boy was from Chicago. Negroes up North have no respect for people. They think they can get away with anything. He just came to Mississippi and put a whole lot of notions in the boys' heads here and stirred up a lot of trouble," she said passionately.
"How old are you, Essie?" she asked me after a pause.
"Fourteen. I will soon be fifteen, though," I said.
"See, that boy was just fourteen too. It's a shame he had to die so soon."
ibid., p. 125.
I went home shaking like a leaf on a tree. For the first time out of all her trying, Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me. Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me -- the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears.
ibid., p. 125.
I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders... But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites.Following clues from a white reporter from Jacksonville, Florida, that a gin fan (because of the unique set of grooves it left in a cotton gin) could be matched to a specific machine, the fan tied to Emmett Till's body was traced to J. W. Milam's barn. J. W. Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, were arrested for murder and tried in a segregated courtroom in Sumner by an all-white jury.
ibid., p. 129.
"Blacks were not allowed to stand in the halls or sit anywhere in the court..." (Brown, p. 112.)
Mose Wright, eyewitness to Emmett Till's abduction, despite the danger to himself, took the stand. When the prosecutor (referring to this sixty-four-year-old man as "Uncle Mose") asked Mr. Wright if he could see any man involved in Emmett Till's abduction in the courtroom, Mose Wright "looked around, pointed right at J. W. Milam, and said 'Dar he!'" (ibid.).
But despite his identification, the evidence of the gin fan, and eyewitness reports, the jury acquitted Milam and Bryant after only one hour of deliberation.Two months after the trial, Alabama native William Bradford Huie (author of "They Slew the Dreamer" and other books on the Civil Rights movement), got the slayers of Emmett Till to confess -- in detail -- to the crime.
Brown, p. 113.
Not only did Milam and Bradley admit to abducting Emmett Till from his granduncle's house, Milam also stated that he shot Emmett in the head. Both claimed that they had not intended to kill him, but when Emmett (out of fear?) said that he had a white girlfriend in Chicago, "Milam and Bradley knew what they had to do. Milam said, '[White women are] what we got to fight to protect." (Brown, p. 114.)
Although Huie's interview was published in the January 1956 issue of "Look" magazine, due to the Constitution's prohibition on double jeopardy, Milam and Bradley, despite their confession, could not be legally prosecuted anymore. "But ironically, Milam and Bryant were ostracized for 'disgracing' their community for their well-publicized act." (ibid.)
Jennie Brown concludes:
The Emmett Till case was a turning point not only for Mississippi but for the nation as well. The cloak of darkness... was now lifted on the ugliest manifestations of Mississippi racism. White men would continue to get away with the murder of blacks -- but not without protest from both blacks and whites. Hodding Carter, the editor of the white newspaper "Delta Democrat Times"...: "Mississippi gave a sorry demonstration of an inadequate legal system... that presented an attitude of so little concern that even the people most convinced that two half-brothers were guilty of murdering a young Negro boy... had to admit that the case was not proved."In comparing the Till murder to another case tried in Sumner, in which a black gas-station attendant, Clinton Melton, had "been shot in broad daylight by a white customer who had complained that Melton didn't put enough gas in his car" (Brown, p. 115.) -- again, despite eyewitness testimony, this white man was also acquitted (by an all-white jury?) --, Carter stated that these cases "served to cement the opinion of the world... that no matter how strong the evidence nor how flagrant the apparent crime, a white man cannot be convicted in Mississippi for killing a Negro." (ibid.)
Brown, pp. 114-115.
Discographical Background of the two unrelated "The Death of Emmett Till" songs:
Bilbrew, A. C.
“The Death of Emmett Till—Part 1 and Part 2.” Dootone Records 382. Performed by the Ramparts [featuring Benjamin Sherman "Scatman" Crothers]. Published by Dootsie Williams Incorporated, B.M.I. 1955. Lyrics published in California Eagle, 29 December 1955.
Song retelling what happened to Till, whose “name will be a legend we all know.” When Till agrees that Carolyn Bryant is good looking, saying “Wheee! You’re right,” that “remark cost him his life.” The two white men at trial “grinned and smoked and chewed / As the fearful witnesses all did testify.” In the end, however, it was to no avail, and we “won’t see little Emmett any more.”Source: Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination
Also covered by Joan Baez on
Fire at Club 47 (Talkeetna.com)
as "Emmet Till" [sic]
This is most likely
an unauthorised recording distributed on CD-R
by Pete Stanley through talkeetna.com.
Recorded during one of Joan's live performances at Club 47,
47 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA, in 1960, this is nevertheless an important historical document of the Boston/Cambridge folk scene.
Joan Baez In Concert, Part 2 (bonus track on 2002 CD Reissue, Vanguard 79599-2)
Recorded live Knoxville, TN, 1963, Arthur Lewis (author of liner-notes), to avoid possible confusion with the identically-named Bob Dylan song, added the following info:
Broadside ballad was unknown to Joan. The version of the Emmett Till story she sings here was composed by Ms. A. C. Bilbrew, distinguished Los Angeles community leader, the first African-American to host a radio show....
Bilbrew's "Emmett Till" was originally recorded by The Ramparts on the LA doo-wop label, Dootone.
Dylan, Bob. “The Death of Emmett Till”
[a.k.a. “The Ballad of Emmett Till”]. First performed 26 January 1962. Recorded 2 July 1962. Lyrics in Writings and Drawings, 19. New York, Knopf, 1973.Recounting the details of the lynching and the trial, the song is notable for its activism and its errors. Dylan not only claims that Milam and Bryant confessed to the crime before the trial started, but he also asserts that “on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime.” The song ends with a call to action, for if “we gave all we could give / We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.”
Source: Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination
Broadside #16 (Mid-November 1962):
as "Ballad of Emmet Till" [sic], by Bob Dylan,
with the notice "©1962 by author" (p. 3)
(reprinted in liner-notes for Broadside Ballads, Vol. 6: Broadside Reunion, Folkways Records FR 53151, late 1972)
In the 1964 songbook Broadside: Songs Of Our Times
From The Pages Of Broadside Magazine, Volume 1,
Len H. Chandler is credited with the tune,
with the notice "©1962 by authors"
M. Witmark & Sons three-year agreement (July 12, 1962):
assigning/transferring the copyrights of "all musical compositions" created during the term of the contract.
First recording most likely on January 13, 1962 for Cynthia Gooding's WBAI radio show "Folksinger's Choice" (crediting the tune to Len Chandler), eight days after signing a contract with Duchess Music (terms of contract unavailable).
Other 1962 performances/recordings:
McKenzie Tape (January 29, 1962, possibly December 4, 1961)
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan outtake (April 24, 1962)
WBAI "Broadside Show" (May 1962) (Len Chandler is mentioned again)
Finjan Club, Montreal, Canada, July 2, 1962
Witmark Demo, December 1962
for copyrighting "©M. Witmark & Sons", February 15, 1963.
Copyright © 1963, 1968 by Warner Bros. Inc.;
renewed 1991, 1996 by Special Rider Music
All copyright data for Dylan's song compiled from
Tim Dunn, The Bob Dylan Copyright Files 1962-2007, Bloomington, IN, 2008
Any copyrighted items are included here for "nonprofit educational purposes" (one of the criteria of "fair use", Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107) only.