It was on an early morning in late August 67 years ago that Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milan abducted Emmett Till from his great uncle Mose Wright’s home in Money, Miss. Till, who was visiting from Chicago, had reportedly whistled at and flirted with Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, at the couple’s grocery store.
Bryant and Milam tortured and murdered Till and dumped his mutilated corpse into the Tallahatchie River. The body was discovered on August 31, 1955, and returned to Chicago, where his mother Mamie insisted that her son have an open coffin. An estimated 50,000 people viewed the body. A photograph of Till’s corpse appeared in Jet magazine and was widely circulated.
Till, who had just turned 14, became the poster child for the brutality of lynching in the South.
Peniel E. Joseph, founding director of the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas, said that photo “propelled a transformative moment in the national understanding of what Jim Crow racism looked like.”
Questions remain about what Till may have said or done that precipitated his lynching. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Carolyn Bryant once admitted to author Timothy Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till. And yet, as Joseph pointed out in a recent column on CNN.com, the search for what really happened exposes “how woefully short America has fallen in its efforts to fully account for a racist horror whose afterlife is still unfolding.”
Sixty-seven years ago, right-wing journalists in the South used what would later be called fake news and misinformation to distort the facts of the Till story to appeal to the racism and fanaticism of their readers. This continues to be a winning formula for the far-right, whether it’s demonizing immigrants and other minorities, parroting Trumpian lies, perpetuating the fraudulent claims of a stolen 2020 presidential election, or whitewashing the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Tom Waring, the pro-segregation editor of the Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier, who sensationalized the details of the Till murder and promoted the Ku Klux Klan in his newspaper, helped establish the dubious notion of a liberal media that manipulated news coverage.