It was on an early morning in late August 67 years ago that Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milan abducted Emmett Till from his great uncle Mose Wright’s home in Money, Miss. Till, who was visiting from Chicago, had reportedly whistled at and flirted with Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, at the couple’s grocery store.
Bryant and Milam tortured and murdered Till and dumped his mutilated corpse into the Tallahatchie River. The body was discovered on August 31, 1955, and returned to Chicago, where his mother Mamie insisted that her son have an open coffin. An estimated 50,000 people viewed the body. A photograph of Till’s corpse appeared in Jet magazine and was widely circulated.
Till, who had just turned 14, became the poster child for the brutality of lynching in the South.
Peniel E. Joseph, founding director of the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas, said that photo “propelled a transformative moment in the national understanding of what Jim Crow racism looked like.”
Questions remain about what Till may have said or done that precipitated his lynching. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Carolyn Bryant once admitted to author Timothy Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till. And yet, as Joseph pointed out in a recent column on CNN.com, the search for what really happened exposes “how woefully short America has fallen in its efforts to fully account for a racist horror whose afterlife is still unfolding.”
Sixty-seven years ago, right-wing journalists in the South used what would later be called fake news and misinformation to distort the facts of the Till story to appeal to the racism and fanaticism of their readers. This continues to be a winning formula for the far-right, whether it’s demonizing immigrants and other minorities, parroting Trumpian lies, perpetuating the fraudulent claims of a stolen 2020 presidential election, or whitewashing the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Tom Waring, the pro-segregation editor of the Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier, who sensationalized the details of the Till murder and promoted the Ku Klux Klan in his newspaper, helped establish the dubious notion of a liberal media that manipulated news coverage.
Mississippi newspapers initially denied that Till was ever missing–and then, when his body was found, denied that it was Till’s–even though the boy was wearing a ring that once belonged to his father.
Tallahatchie County Sheriff H.C. Strider said he suspected the NAACP had murdered Till and dumped his body in the river. The Picayune-Item newspaper in Picayune, Miss., charged that the NAACP concocted Till’s disappearance to smear the state.
Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, said that the lynching showed that the state of Mississippi “had decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children.”
Waring published an article by Nicholas Stanford that criticized Wilkins and said that the NAACP was using the murder to arouse Northern public opinion against the South. Stanford was actually a pseudonym for John G. Briggs Jr. of North Carolina, a music critic for The New York Times, who became incensed at the Times’sympathetic coverage of racial discrimination in the South. Waring provided Briggs the cover of a pseudonym so that he could express his white supremacist views and criticize his employer without fear of retribution.
The trial of Bryant and Milam for the murder of Till began on September 19 in front of a white judge and an all-white jury. Southern newspapers, including the News and Courier, published salacious details from the trial, including the claim that Till had grabbed Bryant’s hand and then her waist and told her he had been with white women before saying, “How about a date, baby?”
In publishing such details, newspapers left the impression with readers that what Till said or did was so vile that it justified the actions of Bryant and Milam. The jury exonerated Bryant and Milam. After their acquittal Look magazine paid Bryant and Milam $4,000 for an interview, where they admitted that they had indeed tortured and murdered the boy. They were protected against further prosecution by the Constitution’s prohibition of double jeopardy.
Waring served as one of the leading voices of massive resistance after the US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 that declared segregation in schools unconstitutional. The court affirmed the decision in what was called Brown II in May 1955.
In November, Waring wrote an essay for the Masthead, a newsletter of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, that said that a “paper curtain” existed in the North, where newspaper and magazine editors slanted stories to advance racial equality.
Waring called on Northern editors to publish more balanced news articles–like his newspaper did, that defended segregation, questioned the patriotism of those advocating racial equality, and published the names and addresses of Blacks who spoke out for civil rights.
In a January 1956 essay, “The Southern Case Against Desegregation,” for Harper’s Magazine, Waring wrote that the mingling of races would subject whites living in the South to higher rates of “venereal disease,” “illegitimate” births, “divorce,” and “crime,” and lower rates of what he called “intellectual development.”
“What I am saying is documented by facts and statistics,” he said.
He promised that he would include documentation to support his facts, but then admitted he could not do so. He explained that his statements were generally accepted. This was because Waring and other editors repeated them over and over until they became generally accepted among their readers.
Waring was determined to prove his conspiracy among the liberal media—regardless of whether one existed or not. Fortunately for him, he came in contact with Walter Briggs. Waring, Briggs, and other Southern segregationists helped invent the “liberal media” canard to try to discredit Northern journalists who were covering the civil rights movement in the South.
By the early 1960s, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and others were stoking racially divisive and anti-media rhetoric to help grow the conservative wing of the Republican Party in the South and lower Midwest.
It worked then. It still works.
Donald Trump cried “fake news” to question the legitimacy of the news media, to attack his political critics, and to undermine democracy. He did not win the 2020 presidential election. Antifa did not attack the Capitol on January 6, 2021. And Emmett Till was not killed by the NAACP.