On a warm August night in 1955 on the outskirts of Money, Mississippi, about a hundred miles due north of Jackson, two men arrived with a flashlight and a gun at the house where Emmett Till was staying with his aunt and uncle.
Till was just 14 years old. He was visiting from Chicago. He had been accused of whistling at, flirting with or touching a white woman.
It was 2 o’clock on a Sunday morning. The men barged into the house, entered the room where Till slept, shined the flashlight in his face and asked, “You the niggah that did the talking down at Money?”
They forced the boy to get dressed, put him in a car and rode off with him, this over the pleadings of his uncle and aunt. One of the men asked the uncle how old he was. “Sixty-four,” the uncle answered. “Well,” the man responded, “if you know any of us here tonight, then you will never live to get to be 65.”
After hours of driving and just before daybreak, the men took Till to a tool shed and began to pistol-whip him. But, as one of the men would tell Look magazine the next year, Till was still defiant, yelling at one point: “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. My grandmother was a white woman.” The man told the magazine that he liked Black people (he used a slur, of course), as long as they were “in their place.” And as long as he lived and could, he said, he was going to keep them in their place. So when he heard Till “throw that poison at me” about white women, “I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you — just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’ ”
They forced the boy back in the car and drove him to a cotton ginning factory in another town. The sun had risen by the time they arrived. They stole the fan of a cotton gin, loaded it in the car and drove away.
They parked at a spot near the Tallahatchie River. They forced the boy to remove the heavy cotton gin fan from the car and to strip naked. They then shot him in the right side of his face, near his ear.
The boy dropped to the ground. The men tied his body with barbed wire to the cotton gin fan and pushed it into the river.
Three days later, Till’s body — bloated and disfigured — was fished out of the river several miles downstream.
Local authorities sent the boy’s body back to his mother, Mamie Till, in Chicago in a coffin that was nailed shut. She demanded that it be opened. The body reeked because it had already started to decompose. As his mother later recounted viewing the body for the first time:
“I saw that his tongue was choked out. I noticed that the right eye was lying on midway his cheek, I noticed that his nose had been broken like somebody took a meat chopper and chopped his nose in several places. As I kept looking, I saw a hole, which I presumed was a bullet hole and I could look through that hole and see daylight on the other side.”
Emmett Till had been lynched, without question, but there had been no mob that did the deed and there had been no hanging. There was a beating and shooting and heinous disposal of the body.
Both men were acquitted of murder, by the way.
Lynching was never only about hanging. It was about a motive and means of injury and death, and lynchings have always needed specific legislation to make them punishable. Finally, on Tuesday, after 100 years of failed efforts on the part of liberal legislators to get such provisions written into law, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, which makes lynching a federal hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
The wording of the bill doesn’t specify hanging, but instead defines a lynching as a hate crime that results in death or serious bodily injury.
Still, some Americans continue to demonstrate a fundamental ignorance about lynching. Take Fox News’ Jesse Watters, who asked why a hate crimes bill is a priority now, saying, “nobody has been lynched in America in decades.” This is patently false.
Ahmaud Arbery was lynched in 2020 when two men, joined by a third, chased him down while he was jogging, killed him in the street in broad daylight and stood over his body, not rendering aid, as he bled out.
You could also argue that George Floyd was lynched, a few months later, when officers held him down and Officer Derek Chauvin pressed the life out of him on a public street. In fact, I think that you could make a strong case that several high-profile police killings were in fact lynchings.
And who would debate that James Byrd Jr. was lynched in 1998 when three white men took him to the woods, beat him, urinated on him, tied his ankles to the back of their truck and dragged his body for three miles, the pavement sanding away at his flesh. An autopsy found that he most likely died only when he was decapitated by a culvert about halfway through the dragging.
I, too, wish that lynching was only an ugly feature of America’s past, but sadly that simply isn’t the case. Lynching is still a thing.