Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the Nation of October 1, 1955. Dan Wakefield writes about the legacy of the Emmett Till trial here.
The crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it. Citizens who drink from the “Whites Only” fountain in the courthouse breathe much easier now that the two fair-skinned half brothers, ages twenty-four and thirty-six, have been acquitted of the murder of a fourteen-year-old Negro boy. The streets are quiet, Chicago is once more a mythical name, and everyone here “knows his place.”
When the people first heard that there was national, even worldwide publicity coming to Sumner and the murder trial they wondered why the incident had caused such a stir. At the lunch recess on the first day of the trial, a county health-office worker who had stopped by to watch the excitement asked a visiting reporter where he was from, and shook his head when the answer was New York City.
“New York, Chicago, everywhere,” he said. “I never heard of making such a mountain of a molehill.”
The feeling that it all was a plot against the South was the most accepted explanation, and when Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam ambled into court September 19 they were armed not only with their wives, baby boys, and cigars, but the challenge of Delta whites to the interference of the outside world. The issue for the local public was not that a visiting Negro boy named Emmett Louis Till had been dragged from his bed and identified later as a body that was pulled from the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton-gin fan tied around its neck with barbed wire—that issue was lost when people learned that the world was clamoring to have something done about it. The question of “nigger-killing” was coupled with the threat to the racial traditions of the South, and storekeepers set out jars on their counters for contributions to aid the defense of the accused murderers.
Donations to the fund disqualified several prospective jurors, as prosecutors Gerald Chatham, district attorney, and Robert B. Smith, special assistant attorney general appointed to the case, probed carefully at every candidate for a day and a half before accepting the jury. Judge Curtis Swango, a tall, quietly commanding man, combined order with a maximum of freedom in the court, and when he had Cokes brought in for the jury it seemed as appropriate courtroom procedure as pounding the gavel.
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While the jury selections went on inside, the crowds outside the building grew—and were automatically segregated. Aging, shaggy-cheeked Anglo-Saxons with crumpled straw hats lined a long wooden bench. Negroes gathered across the way at the base of the Confederate statue inscribed to “the cause that never failed.” The Negro numbers increased, but not with the Negroes of Sumner. A red-necked deputy whose pearl-handled pistol showed beneath the tail of his sportshirt explained that the “dressed-up” Negroes were strangers. “Ninety-five percent of them’s not ours,” he said. “Ours is out picking cotton and tending to their own business.”
Moses Wright, a Negro locally known as a good man who tends to his business, was the state’s first witness. He pressed his back against the witness chair and spoke out loud and clear as he told about the night two white men came to his house and asked for “the boy from Chicago—the one that did the talking at Money”; and how the big, balding man came in with a pistol and a flashlight and left with Emmett Till. Mose fumbled several times under cross-examination but he never lost his straightforward attitude or lowered his head. He still of Course was “old man Mose” and “Uncle Mose” to both defense and prosecution, but none of that detracted from the dignity of how he told his story.
The rest of the week he was seen around the courthouse lawn with his pink-banded hat tilted back on his head, his blue pants pulled up high on a clean white shirt by yellow-and-brown suspenders. He walked through the Negro section of the lawn with his hands in his pockets and his chin held up with the air of a man who has done what there was to do and could never be touched by doubt that he should have done anything less than that.
When Mose Wright’s niece, Mrs. Mamie Bradley, took the stand it was obvious as soon as she answered a question that she didn’t fit the minstrel-show stereotype that most of Mississippi’s white folks cherish. Nevertheless, the lawyers of both sides were careful to always address her as “Mamie,” which was probably wise for the favor of the jury, since a Clarksdale, Mississippi, radio station referred to her as “Mrs. Bradley” on a news broadcast and spent the next hour answering calls of protest.
J.J. “Si” Breland, dean of the defense attorneys, questioned her while he remained in his seat, occasionally slicing his hands through the air in the quick, rigid motions he moved with throughout the trial. She answered intelligently, steadily, slightly turning her head to one side as she listened to questions, replying with a slow, distinct emphasis. “Beyond the shadow of a doubt,” she said, “that was my boy’s body.”
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At lunchtime recess the crowds around the soft-drink and sandwich concession debated her identification of her son, and many were relieved in the afternoon session when Tallahatchie County Sheriff H.C. Strider squeezed his 270 pounds in the witness chair and said the only thing he could tell about the body that had come from the river was that it was human.
Sheriff Strider, who owns 1,500 acres of cotton land, farms it with thirty-five Negro families, has the grocery store and filling station on it, and operates a cotton-dusting concern with three airplanes, is split in his commitments in a way that might qualify him as the Charles E. Wilson of Tallahatchie County. What’s good for his feudal plantation is good for the county, and his dual role as law-enforcement officer and witness for the defense evidently didn’t seem contradictory to him. His commitments were clear enough that prosecution lawyers once sent two state policemen to search a county jail for one Leroy “Too-Tight” Collins, a key witness for the prosecution who was missing (and never found).
There were still missing witnesses, dark, whispered rumors of fleeing men who saw the crime committed, when Gerald Chatham tugged the sleeves of his shirt and walked over to the jury Friday morning to make the summation of the case for the prosecution. Both he and Smith, who is a former F.B.I. man, had followed every lead and sent state policemen driving through the countryside in search of the Mississippi witnesses, but only two of the four who were named—Willie Reed and Mandy Brandley—were found. The time had come for Chatham to work with what he had.
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In a matter of minutes from the time he started talking the atmosphere of the court was charged with tension as he raised his arm toward the ceiling and shouted that “the first words offered in testimony here were dripping with the blood of Emmett Till.” The green plaster walls of the room had grown darker from the clouds of the rain that was coming outside, as Chatham went on with the tones, the gestures, the conviction of an evangelist, asserting that “the guilty flee where no man pursueth,” and retelling the story of the boy’s abduction in the dark of night.
J.W. Milam, the bald, strapping man who leaned forward in his seat during most of the sessions with his mouth twisted in the start of a smile, was looking at a newspaper. Roy Bryant lit a cigar. With his eyebrows raised and his head tilted back he might have been a star college fullback smoking in front of the coach during season and asking with his eyes “So what?”
When Chatham was finished, C. Sidney Carlton, the able attorney for the defense whose large, fleshy face was usually close to where the cameras were clicking, poured a paper cup of water from the green pitcher on the judge’s desk, and opened his summation. He spoke well, as usual, but after Chatham’s oratory he was doomed to anticlimax. There had been a brief rain and the sun was out with more heat than ever. Defense attorney J.W. Kellum, speaking briefly after Carlton before the noon recess, had the odds of discomfort against his chances of stirring the jury, but he did his best with the warning that the jurors’ forefathers would turn in their graves at a guilty verdict. And then he asked what was undoubtedly the question of the week. If Roy and J.W. are convicted of murder, he said, “where under the shining sun is the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
The question was a fitting prelude to the harangue of John Whitten, the defense’s last speaker. The clean-shaven, pale young man in a neatly pressed suit and white shirt that defied perspiration announced his faith that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men in this jury has the courage to set these men free?”
Mr. Whitten went on to declare he had an answer for the state’s most convincing evidence—the ring of Emmett Till that was found on the body discovered in the Tallahatchie River. The body really wasn’t Emmett Till, Whitten said, and the ring might have possibly been planted on it by the agents of a sinister group that is trying to destroy the social order of the South and “widen the gap which has appeared between the white and colored people in the United States.”
He didn’t name any group, but the fondly nurtured local rumor that the whole Till affair was a plot on the part of the N.A.A.C.P. made naming unnecessary.
It took the twelve jurors an hour and seven minutes to return the verdict that would evidently help close the gap between the white and colored races in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Tradition, honor, God, and country were preserved in a package deal with the lives of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam.
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Reporters climbed tables and chairs to get a glimpse of the acquitted defendants, and the newspaper, magazine, and television cameras were aimed at the smiles of their wives and families in a flashing, buzzing finale. Then the agents of the outside world disappeared in a rush to make their deadlines and the stale, cluttered courtroom was finally empty of everything but mashed-out cigarettes, crushed paper cups, and a few of the canvas spectator chairs that the American Legion had sold across the street for two dollars each.
The trial week won’t be forgotten here soon, and glimpses of the “foreign” Negroes who don’t till cottonfields but hold positions as lawyers, doctors, and Congressmen have surely left a deep and uncomfortable mark on the whites of the Delta. But at least for the present, life is good again. Funds are being raised for separate-and-equal school facilities in Tallahatchie County and on Wednesdays at lunchtime four of the five defense attorneys join with the other Rotarians of Sumner in a club song about the glad day “When men are one.”