Emmett Louis Till would have celebrated his 75th birthday on Monday (July 25). At just 14 years old, Emmett was savagely beaten, mutilated, shot and thrown in the Tallahatchie River, for allegedly whistling at a white woman while visiting cousins down south in 1955.
The teen’s murder is one of the more-widely known tragic examples of the racism endured by blacks in the Jim Crow era, and his father’s experience also holds historic weight in the treatment of black soldiers in the U.S. Army.
Emmett was born in Chicago on July 25, 1941, the only child of 18-year-old Louis Till and Mamie Carthan-Till. The married couple’s relationship was reportedly volatile with Mamie discovering Louis was unfaithful. She separated from him in 1942 and later obtained a restraining order after he chocked her to the point of unconsciousness (she fought back by throwing hot water on him).
Louis violated the restraining order and was subsequently given the choice of jail or the army. He enlisted in 1943, but would be dead within two years.
In 1945, Louis was arrested by military police on suspicions of the murder an Italian woman and rape of two others. He was investigated, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging. Louis was executed on July 2, 1945, about a month shy of Emmett’s fourth birthday.
The U.S. Army blocked Mrs. Till from learning the details of Louis’ case, telling her he died because of “willful misconduct.” She wouldn’t get the rest of the story for another decade, and around that time, she would endure another fight, this time with authorities to have Emmett’s body returned to Chicago.
Before Louis, the first military example of judicial miscarriage involving a black soldier, is said to be that of James C. Whitaker, a former slave and one of the first black men to serve at West Point. In 1880, Whitaker was found unconscious in his room, tied to his bed, gagged and bloodied, with his ears slashed. Given that black soldiers were seen as being less than their white counterparts, Whitaker’s claims of three white men attacking him were ignored.
An internal investigation concluded that he attacked himself (and tied himself up) as a ploy to get discharged. Whitaker was given a court martial, convicted, and dismissed from the U.S. Army.
The circumstances surrounding Louis’ prosecution and death sentence is connected to the swift miscarriage of justice for black soldiers. As reported by the Chicago Tribune in 2005, Louis is buried in France in a “small plot of land outside the official grounds of the Oise-Aisne World War I American cemetery.” His is one of 80 graves of black soldiers tried, convicted, executed and silenced forever.
The Tribune report also sites that black soldiers accounted for 83 percent of those executed in Europe, North Africa, and Mediterranean Theaters of Operations, despite making up less than 10 percent of soldiers serving in the Army.
The disproportionate and discriminatory practices led to an attempted reform of the military judicial process.
Meanwhile, the execution of Louis played into a negative narrative of fatherless black male victims who are never actually allowed to be victims. After Life magazine wrote and retracted a story stating that Louis died fighting for his country, others penned editorials accusing Emmett of being a serial rapist (because of his father’s conviction), and therefore deserving of the murder.
Like his father, Emmett’s fate in a racist Jim-Crow era was an ending chosen for him — but not by the Army, by white men in Mississippi. In fact, Emmett was found wearing a ring given to him by his father.
But perhaps the most tragic section in the Till family story is that of his mother, a woman who not only forced into being a single parent after Louis was executed, but lost her son 10 years later.
Mamie, who died at age 81 in 2003, famously refused to have a closed casket at Emmett’s funeral, so that the world could see what had been done to her boy. It is a memory that will forever be a part of America’s stained racial history.