Family of Emmett Till and more reflect on his funeral, killers' trial

"We knew something terrible had happened," one of his cousins said.

January 13, 2022, 1:39 PM

When George Floyd's 6-year-old daughter, Gianna, said, "My daddy changed the world," Amos Smith was taken back to the night almost 65 years ago when the body of his cousin Emmett Till was brought back to Chicago from Mississippi.

"We knew something terrible had happened. We just couldn't understand what it was," he said in an interview for the ABC documentary series "Let the World See."

Smith and his sister listened to the adults in their family talking about what happened from the top of the stairs.

"We crept back into the bedroom and we didn't go to sleep, but we did go back to bed, and we kinda talked to say Bobo's not coming back. Bobo's dead," he said.

"When George Floyd's daughter said, 'My daddy changed the world,' it all came back," Smith added. "It was about the same feeling I had that night I listened at the top of the stairs. And I had to leave the room."

The second episode of "Let the World See," airing Thursday, Jan. 13, explores the impact of Mamie Till-Mobley's decision to hold an open casket funeral for her son as well as the impact his killer's trial had on the civil rights movement.

In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped and murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who later remarried and is now known as Carolyn Bryant Donham.

Till's mother, Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral and allowed Jet Magazine to take photos of Till, so the public could see his badly beaten body.

Common, a rapper and actor from Chicago, where Till was born and raised, recalled seeing those photos of Till decades later.

"I couldn't believe a human body had become that and the hatred that caused that," he said in the ABC documentary series. "Seeing that picture of Emmett Till was the impetus for me actually feeling like, you gotta do something purposeful."

PHOTO: Rapper, actor and activist Common speaks to ABC News for the documentary series "Let the World See."
Rapper, actor and activist Common speaks to ABC News for the documentary series "Let the World See."

Bryant's then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were charged with Till's murder. Their trial began in September 1955, with almost every attorney in Tallahatchie County volunteering to defend them, according to Jack Smith, the son of one of the prosecutors.

Despite fearing for her safety, Till-Mobley traveled from Chicago to Mississippi for the trial. She testified about her son, as did Moses Wright, Till's great-uncle who identified Milam and Bryant as Till's kidnappers.

"She came down here knowing that they were going to get away with it. She had to," Angie Thomas, author of the novel "The Hate U Give," told ABC.

Milam and Bryant were ultimately acquitted by an all-white jury, and a grand jury declined to indict them for kidnapping Till.

For many people, elements of the trial echo today.

"That his wolf whistle could be punishable by death -- yes, absurd, but pretty much what the state of play was, and in some small ways, still with us. You know, when we've seen, in cases like the McMichael father and son who killed Ahmaud Arbery," said Khalil Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School.

Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in February 2020 while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William Bryan were convicted of murdering Arbery and were sentenced to life in prison.

PHOTO: Amos Smith, a cousin of Emmett Till, speaks to ABC News for the documentary series "Let the World See."
Amos Smith, a cousin of Emmett Till, speaks to ABC News for the documentary series "Let the World See."

While the McMichaels argued that they were acting in self-defense, many say Arbery was killed for "jogging while Black."

"It's so similar to me. It's so similar," Wheeler Parker, one of Till's cousins, said on ABC's "Let the World See." "I know we come a long way. We made a lotta progress. Laws make you behave better, but they don't legislate the heart."

For Thomas -- whose book centers around a fatal police shooting of the main character's young friend -- the public outcry around the verdict in Till's murder trial reminded her of the protests that happened after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in 2012. George Zimmerman was acquitted of his murder a year later.

"I think if we look at Emmett and his death and the way things turned out and we compare it to the death of Trayvon Martin, Black people then had nowhere to turn to," Thomas told ABC. "Their goal was to try to hold people accountable for these things. But it's almost impossible in a place like Mississippi."

After being acquitted of Till's murder, Milam and Bryant confessed to the killing in a paid interview for Look Magazine. Decades later, the FBI opened an investigation into Till's killing, giving his family hope that they would find justice. The investigation was closed in December 2021.

ABC News' Jeanmarie Condon and Fatima Curry contributed to this report.