CHICAGO – For more than six decades, a mystery has swirled around the Emmett Till case, a mystery involving the photograph of a white girl.
Till, 14, who was black, was abducted Aug. 28, 1955, and murdered after supposedly whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in a grocery store in Money, Mississippi.
J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were acquitted in his murder but later confessed in a now-infamous 1956 Look magazine story by journalist William Bradford Huie. Although the exchange between Till and Carolyn Bryant, Roy Bryant's wife, was the basis of the case against Milam and Roy Bryant, Huie's story offers an additional reason for Till's death.
Till's murderers “killed him because he boasted of having a white girl and showed them the picture of a white girl in Chicago,” Huie told filmmakers for the 1987 documentary "Eyes on the Prize."
The years have passed, and the long-lost photograph has remained an enigma.
Who was this girl? Did she even exist?
Now, 63 years later, the answer is yes, and her name is Joan Brody. Brody gave her first interview about Till to a Clarion-Ledger reporter and others at her condo in the northern suburbs of Chicago.
In "Eyes on the Prize," Till’s cousin Curtis Jones mentioned that Till had a “picture of some white kids that he had graduated from (elementary school with) … female and male.”
The documentary’s producer, Henry Hampton, told NPR that Till showed this photo of his classmates to his Mississippi peers, pointing to the white girl and saying she was “his girlfriend. In fact, it was his classmate.”
Upon hearing the audio interview of Hampton, Brody said, “That had to be me.”
She was the only white girl in Till's class.
In the classroom that year, she sat next to Till, who was 13. She was 12.
“He had beautiful eyes,” she recalled.
Their first teacher was a white lady, who lasted only a few days.
Their second teacher was a black man, who ran the classroom with a firm hand, whacking students with his ruler.
One day, she and Till were tugging on a belt, and they were both laughing, possibly because of their strict teacher, Brody recalled.
When the teacher saw them goofing around, he came over and smacked her on the hand with his ruler. She grabbed onto the ruler in defiance, she said.
When July 25 came, Till celebrated his 14th birthday. She had to wait a month to celebrate her 13th birthday.
At their graduation, she joined other students on the stage where photos were apparently taken, she said. “I had no interest in it.”
Brody never saw Till again.
In his interview, Hampton explained that when Till showed the picture of the white girl, his cousins scoffed.
Till explained that he would talk to anybody, Hampton said, and his peers then challenged him to talk to Carolyn Bryant.
After Till bought something and began to leave, “he turned around and said, ‘Bye, baby,’” Hampton said. “He didn’t understand that was a killing offense in Mississippi in (1955), but indeed it was.”
In the 1955 trial, Carolyn Bryant testified that Till grabbed her by the waist and told her he had had sex with white women before, uttering an obscenity.
Brody shook her head in disbelief.
"He wasn't a smart-alecky kid," she said. “He wasn’t a person to smart off to a white woman or any woman.”
The Look magazine article obsesses about the claim Till said he'd had sex with white women.
His mother, Mamie Till, called it preposterous, saying her son would “never brag about the women he had. How could he? He was only 14.”
Brody agreed with her, saying that wasn’t the Till she knew. He never talked about sex, or she would have certainly blushed, she said. “He was a gentleman.”
In Mississippi, Till’s killers pistol-whipped him so severely that parts of his skull fell out.
Mamie Till insisted his casket be left open during his funeral so “the world could see what they did to my boy.”
The photograph of his mutilated face ran in the Chicago Defender, Jet magazine, many other black publications and in publications around the world, yet many Americans have never seen it because mainstream publications considered it too graphic to print.
Brody was one of them until she recently saw the photo online. It was so horrific that she turned away, and tears streamed down her cheeks.
The men that killed him, she said, “were worse than animals.”
She wonders what might have been if Till had lived.
"He had his whole life ahead of him – to be gone just like that," she said. "And for what reason?"
She wiped away her tears.
“He could have been president,” she said. “He was just a nice kid with a nice smile.”
She choked up.
“He didn’t deserve it,” she said. “Nobody deserves what they did to him.”