The Death of Emmett Till

On January 24 in 1956, Look magazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” that featured a confession from two men claiming they had murdered the teenage Emmett L. Till on August 28, 1955.  The killing would inspire both Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights movement.

The Murder

Jurors had acquitted the two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, of the 1955 kidnapping and murder of Till. But after the acquittal, in the magazine article, Bryant and Milam described the killing.

After beating and shooting Till, they used barbed wire to tie a heavy cotton gin fan around his neck to weigh down his body when they threw him in the Tallahatchie River.

Throughout the ordeal, the two men could not break the spirit of the teenager.  Till maintained that he was as good as them and that he had dated white women.

Emmett Till

Till was a 14-year-old African-American teenager from Chicago.  Prior to his death, he was visiting Mississippi relatives in 1955.

In Money, Mississippi, he went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy. Reportedly, while he was in the store, the teen either whistled at or requested a date from Carolyn Bryant, who ran the store with her husband Roy, who was out of town.

As word spread around town about the incident, the husband Roy Bryant returned to town and contacted his half-brother J.W. Miliam. A few days after the encounter in the store between Till and Byrant’s wife, Miliam and Bryant abducted Till from his great-uncle’s home. Three days later Till’s body was found in the river.

Response to the Murder

Word of the horrible killing spread. Reportedly, 50,000 people attended the funeral, where Till’s mother had an open casket to show the world what was done to her son (warning: disturbing photo at link).

Authorities arrested Miliam and Bryant, who were tried and acquitted by an all-white all-male jury. Many were outraged with the acquittal, and some credit the events with helping inspire the Civil Rights Movement.

Miliam and Bryant later both died from cancer.  But as recently as 2005 the U.S. Justice Department was looking into the case about prosecuting others still living who helped with the crime.

Bob Dylan’s “The Death of Emmett Till”

The events also inspired a young Bob Dylan to write about the Till in the song “The Death of Emmett Till.” He performed the song on a radio program in 1962, explaining the tune came from a song by folk-musician Len Chandler.

On the March 11, 1962 radio show, the host flattered the young Dylan’s skills.  But Dylan responded, “I just wrote that one about last week, I think.”

Relatively consistent with Dylan’s comments, in Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager reports that the 22-year-old Dylan wrote the song around February 1962.  That date means it is one of the first songs Dylan ever wrote. Trager also suggests that Emmett Till’s death may have affected Dylan because they were born only months apart.

Although Dylan initially was proud of “The Death of Emmett Till,” he later seemed embarrassed by its literalness.  He claimed he was just trying to write about something topical. He even went further and said that it was a “bullshit song.”

It’s true that the song does not rise to the poetic level of the more brilliant similarly themed song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” But “The Death of Emmett Till” was a good start for the young songwriter, and it helped highlight a great injustice.

Through the years, listeners rarely got the chance to hear Dylan’s song.  “The Death of Emmett Till” never appeared on an official Bob Dylan release until in 2010 when it was on the CD The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9) (2010).

This video below includes some historical interviews about the crime.  Dylan’s song starts at around the 1:55 mark.

The photo above of Till — whose nickname was Bobo — was taken by his mother on Christmas 1954, eight months before he was murdered.

How does “The Death of Emmett Till” rank in the Dylan canon? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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