Next Tuesday, Sept. 6, school bells will be chiming across Chicago, signaling the start of the public school year. Fifty years ago on this same date, while Emmett Till was being buried at Burr Oak Cemetery near Chicago, a grand jury in Sumner, Miss. indicted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the brutal slaying of Till 10 days earlier.
Emmett Till was kidnapped in Money, Miss. on Aug. 28, 1955, which was in Leflore County, but his body was found in Tallahatchic County on Aug. 31, which left the question of where the murder had been committed. It was decided that Tallahatchic would have jurisdiction over the slaying and Leflore would have jurisdiction over the kidnapping. Bryant and Milam had already admitted to the kidnapping, so it should have been an open-and-shut case in any civilized, democratic country. But the State of Mississippi was neither civilized nor democratic when it came to African Americans who spoke out against injustices done to them. Most blacks in this Delta region were “scared into silence.”
Mississippi state officials in the governor’s office knew about the lynching of Emmett Till long before his body was found. In fact, the day Till’s body was discovered and identified by his Uncle Mose, Tallahatchic County Sheriff H.C. Strider told Mose to bury Till’s body immediately. Arrangements were under way to bury him that night, but thanks to Curtis Jones, a cousin of Till’s from Chicago who was in communication with Mamie Till-Mobley and Uncle Crosby, plus white undertaker Chick Nelson from Tutwiler, the body was “sneaked” out.
A deal was made for Crosby to bring back the body with him on the train. The body was shipped in a big wooden box, locked up with the seal of the State of Mississippi, which could not be broken. The “box” was supposed to be buried “as is.” Legal papers had to be signed by Rayner, the funeral home owner in Chicago, relatives, and Mrs. Till-Mobley. Rayner had to pay a “juiced-up” fee to get the body shipped?”over $3,000. Most blacks back then didn’t make $3,000 in one year.
Till’s mother said, “You see I didn’t sign any papers, and I dared them to sue me. Let them come to Chicago and sue me.” (Quotes taken from her book, Death of Innocence, Mobley/Benson 2003.) So she broke the seal and later did an “item analysis” of her son’s body, starting at his feet and, similar to a forensic doctor, worked her way up to his head or what was left of it. “I had a job to do,” said Mrs. Mobley in her book. The trial was set for Sept. 19, 1955. By then, the story had gone national, and people were outraged everywhere. Hundreds of journalists descended on the segregated courthouse in rural Sumner, Miss.
The prosecutors’ black witnesses and Mrs. Mobley’s “support team” of African-American “out of towners” had to stay with Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a successful surgeon, who had a huge estate in Mount Bayou, an all-black town in Mississippi. It was about an hour’s drive from Sumner. It was safer than staying with other black residents who feared for their lives. At Dr. Howard’s estate, “armed guards” stood ready around the clock.
During the 5-day trial, Judge Curtis Swango let Carolyn Bryant testify to the courtroom only?”not the jury. Four white witnesses testified that Emmett gave Carolyn Bryant a wolf whistle when he came out of the store. Mrs. Till-Mobley said that was probably just Emmett trying to overcome his stammering by following her advice to “whistle and blow it out.” Neither Roy Bryant nor J.W. Milam testified. The entire defense was comprised of testimony by six character witnesses.
None of Till’s cousins testified. Curtis Jones’ mother forbade him to return for the trial. Like other mothers, she was afraid her son might be lynched like Emmett Till. But Mose Wright did something almost unheard of in the South at the time. When asked to identify the men he saw dragging Emmett away, he stood up straight and pointed at Bryant and then Milam, and said emphatically, “Thar he.”
It was the most dramatic moment in the history of the new south?”a black man publicly accusing whites of murder.
After his courageous stand, three other black witnesses came forward. The most compelling was a young fieldhand named Willie Reed. He claimed he saw Till at 6 a.m. the morning of his disappearance in the back of a pickup truck with two blacks and four whites, one of whom was J.W. Milam. After the truck drove to a shed on the plantation where Reed worked, he heard a beating being administered inside, and a boy’s agonized cries, “Mama! Lord have mercy!” Later, he saw Milam and others hauling out something wrapped in a tarpaulin and driving away. Later still, Reed saw Milam wash away what appeared to be blood from the bed of the truck.
On Sept. 23, 1955, the all-white jury deliberated just over an hour. Jury foreman J.W. Shaw announced “not guilty” at 5:43 p.m.
Two months after the Till murder trial, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam accepted $4,000 from Look magazine to tell their version of the story. They had kidnapped and beat Emmett Till, only to scare him. But immune now from further prosecution, they went further, admitting that when Till would not apologize or beg for mercy, they felt they had to kill him.
They even described the murder: After beating Till in the shed, they drove him to the river, made him strip, and used wire to tie a 75-pound cotton gin around his neck. Milam asked, “You still as good as I am?” When Emmett Till replied, “Yeah,” they shot him in the head and threw him in the river.
“What else could we do?” Milam rationalized. “He was hopeless. He thought he was as good as any white man. I’m no bully. I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers, in their place. I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice.”
If democracy produces clones with these evil ideas and lets them survive after such hateful terrorism, why are we in Iraq? Charity begins at home.