67 Years Late: Machinations of the Lynching Law
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 4 Apr 2022
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone belongs in USA, not everyone is created equal,”
President Joe Biden on Tuesday, 29th March 2022, signed a bill making lynching a federal crime, for the first time explicitly criminalising an act that had come to symbolise the grim history of racism in the United States. Lynching, a form of violence in which a mob, under the pretext of administering justice without trial, executes a presumed offender suspected of a crime, especially by hanging, that is done outside of the law. Lynching is most commonly associated, often after inflicting torture and corporal mutilation, such as castrating. In South Africa, lynching is often conducted by burning the suspect, within car tyres placed , around the perceived perpetrator, by a community, without legal recourse, doused with fuel, with the victims still being alive. It is a type of “community mob justice and is called “Necklacing” It is analogous to burning at the stake in mediaeval times.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone, not everyone belongs in America, not everyone is created equal,” Mr. Biden said, speaking to civil rights leaders and others in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Moments after President Biden signed the law, he described the atrocity that he said was carried out against 4,400 Blacks between 1877 and 1950. The Bill was eponymously named in honour of a 14 year old African American youth Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955.
“Terror, to systematically undermine hard, hard fought civil rights. Terror, not just in the dark of the night, but in broad daylight. Innocent men, women and children hung by nooses from trees,” he said. “Bodies burned and drowned and castrated. Their crimes? Trying to vote, trying to go to school, to try and own a business or preach the gospel.”
The president’s signature ended more than 100 years of repeatedly failed efforts by the federal government to specifically outlaw lynching. The bill, which makes lynching punishable by up to 30 years in prison, was passed by the House in February 2022, with only three lawmakers opposed, and passed the Senate without objection on 28th March 2022. Legislation to criminalise lynching was first introduced in 1900, and again in subsequent years, but it was repeatedly blocked, including by Southern senators during the Jim Crow era. Lawmakers failed more than 200 times to get it passed. In 2005, the Senate formally apologised for that record. “It failed again and again and again and again,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at the signing of the bill, noting the history-making moment.
Ms. Harris sponsored the new law with Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, when she was still in the Senate. But she also praised Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina; and Representative Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois, who had spent years on the effort.
Both Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris gave credit to Ida B. Wells, a Black journalist who fought lynching in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and became one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One of her descendants spoke at the event on the 29th at the Rose Garden.
“She carefully chronicled names, date, locations and excuses used to justify lynching. She wrote articles and pamphlets and gave speeches about the atrocities,” said Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ms. Wells. “Despite losing everything, she continued to speak out across this country and Britain about the violence and terror of lynching.”
Ms. Duster recounted how Ms. Wells had visited President William S. McKinley in the White House in 1898 to urge him to make lynching a federal crime, to no avail.
“We finally stand here today, generations later, to witness this historic moment of President Biden signing the Emmett Till anti-lynching bill into law,” she said. President Biden said he hoped the law would help in the fight against hate and racism in the country. But he acknowledged that it would be an ongoing fight. “Hate never goes away,” he said. “It only hides. It hides under the rocks. Given just a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming. What stops it is all of us, not a few. All of us have to stop it.”
It is important to recall the sad saga of the life of Emmet Till, in whose name the Bill declares lynching as a federal crime. Emmett Till was born in 1941 in Chicago; he was the son of Mamie Carthan (1921–2003) and Louis Till (1922–1945). Emmett’s mother Mamie was born in the small Delta town of Webb, Mississippi. The Delta region encompasses the large, multi-county area of northwestern Mississippi in the watershed of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers. When Carthan was two years old, her family moved to Argo, Illinois, as part of the Great Migration of rural black families out of the South to the North to escape violence, lack of opportunity and unequal treatment under the law.  Argo received so many Southern migrants that it was named “Little Mississippi”; Carthan’s mother’s home was often used by other recent migrants as a way station while they were trying to find jobs and housing.
Mississippi was the poorest state in the U.S. in the 1950s, and the Delta counties were some of the poorest in Mississippi. Mamie Carthan was born in Tallahatchie County, where the average income per white household in 1949 was $690 (equivalent to $7,000 in 2016). For black families, the figure was $462 (equivalent to $4,700 in 2016). In the rural areas, economic opportunities for blacks were almost nonexistent. They were mostly sharecroppers who lived on land owned by whites. Blacks had essentially been disenfranchised and excluded from voting and the political system since 1890, when the white-dominated legislature passed a new constitution that raised barriers to voter registration. Whites had also passed ordinances establishing racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial discrimination analogous to the apartheid laws in South Africa
Mamie largely raised Emmett with her mother; she and Louis Till separated in 1942 after she discovered that he had been unfaithful. Louis later abused her, choking her to unconsciousness, to which she responded by throwing scalding water at him. For violating court orders to stay away from Mamie, Louis Till was forced by a judge in 1943 to choose between jail or enlisting in the U.S. Army. In 1945, a few weeks before his son’s fourth birthday, he was executed for the murder of an Italian woman, and the rape of two others.
At the age of six, Emmett contracted polio, which left him with a persistent stutter. Mamie and Emmett moved to Detroit, where she met and married “Pink” Bradley in 1951. Emmett preferred living in Chicago, so he returned there to live with his grandmother; his mother and stepfather rejoined him later that year. After the marriage dissolved in 1952, “Pink” Bradley returned alone to Detroit. Mamie Till Bradley and Emmett lived together in a busy neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side, near distant relatives. She began working as a civilian clerk for the U.S. Air Force for a better salary. She recalled that Emmett was industrious enough to help with chores at home, although he sometimes got distracted. His mother remembered that he did not know his own limitations at times. Following the couple’s separation, Bradley visited Mamie and began threatening her. At eleven years old, Emmett, with a butcher knife in hand, told Bradley he would kill him if the man did not leave. Usually, however, Emmett was happy. He and his cousins and friends pulled pranks on each other (Emmett once took advantage of an extended car-ride when his friend fell asleep and placed the friend’s underwear on his head), and they also spent their free time in pickup baseball games. He was a natty dresser and was often the center of attention among his peers.
In 1955, Mamie Till Bradley’s uncle, 64-year-old Mose Wright, visited her and Emmett in Chicago during the summer and told Emmett stories about living in the Mississippi Delta. Emmett wanted to see for himself. Wright planned to accompany Till with a cousin, Wheeler Parker; another cousin, Curtis Jones, would join them soon. Wright was a sharecropper and part-time minister who was often called “Preacher”. He lived in Money, Mississippi, a small town in the Delta that consisted of three stores, a school, a post office, a cotton gin, and a few hundred residents, 8 miles (13 km) north of Greenwood. Before Emmett departed for the Delta, his mother cautioned him that Chicago and Mississippi were two different worlds, and he should know how to behave in front of whites in the South. He assured her he understood.
Statistics on lynching began to be collected in 1882. Since that time, more than 500 African Americans have been killed by extrajudicial violence in Mississippi alone, and more than 3,000 across the South. Most of the incidents took place between 1876 and 1930; though far less common by the mid-1950s, these racially motivated murders still occurred. Throughout the South, whites publicly prohibited interracial relationships as a means to maintain white supremacy. Even the suggestion of sexual contact between black men and white women could carry severe penalties for black men. A resurgence of the enforcement of such Jim Crow laws was evident following World War II, when African-American veterans started pressing for equal rights in the South.
Racial tensions increased after the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in public education, which it ruled as unconstitutional. Many segregationists believed the ruling would lead to interracial dating and marriage. Whites strongly resisted the court’s ruling; one Virginia county closed all its public schools to prevent integration. Other jurisdictions simply ignored the ruling. In other ways, whites used stronger measures to keep blacks politically disenfranchised, which they had been since the turn of the century. Segregation in the South was used to constrain blacks forcefully from any semblance of social equality.
A week before Till arrived in Mississippi, a black activist named Lamar Smith was shot and killed in front of the county courthouse in Brookhaven for political organizing. Three white suspects were arrested, but they were soon released. Till arrived in Money, Mississippi, on August 21, 1955. On August 24, he and cousin Curtis Jones skipped church where his great-uncle Mose Wright was preaching and joined some local boys as they went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy candy. The teenagers were children of sharecroppers and had been picking cotton all day. The market mostly served the local sharecropper population and was owned by a white couple, 24-year-old Roy Bryant and his 21-year-old wife Carolyn. Carolyn was alone in the front of the store that day; her sister-in-law was in the rear of the store watching children. Jones left Till with the other boys while Jones played checkers across the street.
The facts of what took place in the store are still disputed. According to what Jones said at the time, the other boys reported that Till had a photograph of an integrated class at the school he attended in Chicago, and Till bragged to the boys that the white children in the picture were his friends. He pointed to a white girl in the picture, or referred to a picture of a white girl that had come with his new wallet, and said she was his girlfriend. According to Jones’ account, one or more of the local boys then dared Till to speak to Bryant. However, writing a personal account of the incident in a book released in 2009, Till’s cousin Simeon Wright, who was also present, disputed Jones’ version of what happened on that day. According to Wright, Till did not have a photo of a white girl in his wallet and no one dared him to flirt with Bryant. Speaking in 2015, Wright said: “We didn’t dare him to go to the store, the white folk said that. They said that he had pictures of his white girlfriend. There were no pictures. They never talked to me. They never interviewed me.” The FBI report completed in 2006 notes: ” Jones recanted his 1955 statements prior to his death and apologized to Mamie Till-Mobley”.
According to some versions, including comments from some of the youngsters standing outside the store, Till may have wolf-whistled at Bryant. Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, who was with him at the store, stated that Till whistled at Bryant, saying, “I think [Emmett] wanted to get a laugh out of us or something,” adding, “He was always joking around, and it was hard to tell when he was serious.” Wright stated that following the whistle he became immediately alarmed. “Well, it scared us half to death,” Wright recalled. “You know, we were almost in shock. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough, because we had never heard of anything like that before. A black boy whistling at a white woman? In Mississippi? No.” Wright stated “The Ku Klux Klan and night riders were part of our daily lives”. Following his disappearance, a newspaper account stated that Till sometimes whistled to alleviate his stuttering. His speech was sometimes unclear; his mother said he had particular difficulty with pronouncing “b” sounds, and he may have whistled to overcome problems asking for bubble gum. She said that, to help with his articulation, she taught Till how to whistle softly to himself before pronouncing his words.
The cause of the brutal murder of Emmett Till
During the murder trial, Bryant testified that Till grabbed her hand while she was stocking candy and said, “How about a date, baby?” She said that after she freed herself from his grasp, the young man followed her to the cash register, grabbed her waist and said, “What’s the matter baby, can’t you take it?” Bryant said she freed herself, and Till said, “You needn’t be afraid of me, baby”, used “one ‘unprintable’ word” and said “I’ve been with white women before.” Bryant also alleged that one of Till’s companions came into the store, grabbed him by the arm, and ordered him to leave. According to historian Timothy Tyson, Bryant admitted to him in a 2008 interview that her testimony during the trial that Till had made verbal and physical advances was false. Bryant had testified Till grabbed her waist and uttered obscenities but later told Tyson “that part’s not true”. As for the rest of what happened, the 72-year-old stated she could not remember. Bryant is quoted by Tyson as saying “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him”. However, the tape recordings that Tyson made of the interviews with Bryant do not contain Bryant saying those things. In addition, the woman with Bryant at the interviews, her daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant, says that Bryant never told Tyson that.
Decades later, Till’s cousin Simeon Wright also challenged the account given by Carolyn Bryant at the trial. Wright claims he entered the store “less than a minute” after Till was left inside alone with Bryant, and he saw no inappropriate behavior and heard “no lecherous conversation”. Wright said Till “paid for his items and we left the store together”. In their 2006 investigation of the cold case, the FBI noted that a second anonymous source, who was confirmed to have been in the store at the same time as Till and his cousin, supported Wright’s account.
Author Devery Anderson writes that in an interview with the defense’s attorneys, Bryant told a version of the initial encounter that included Till grabbing her hand and asking her for a date, but not Till approaching her and grabbing her waist, mentioning past relationships with white women, or having to be dragged unwillingly out of the store by another boy. Anderson further notes that many remarks prior to Till’s kidnapping made by those involved indicate that it was his remarks to Bryant that angered his killers, rather than any alleged physical harassment. For instance, Mose Wright (a witness to the kidnapping) said that the kidnappers mentioned only “talk” at the store, and Sheriff George Smith only spoke of the arrested killers accusing Till of “ugly remarks”. Anderson suggests that this evidence taken together implies that the more extreme details of Bryant’s story were invented after the fact as part of the defense’s legal strategy.
In any event, after Wright and Till left the store, Bryant went outside to retrieve a pistol from underneath the seat of a car. The teenagers saw her do this and left immediately. It was acknowledged that Till whistled while Bryant was going to her car. However, it is disputed whether Till whistled toward Bryant or toward a checkers game that was occurring just across the street.
One of the other boys ran across the street to tell Curtis Jones what happened in the store. When the older man with whom Jones was playing checkers heard the story, he urged the boys to leave quickly, fearing violence. Bryant told others of the events at the store, and the story spread quickly. Jones and Till declined to tell his great-uncle Mose Wright, fearing they would get in trouble. Till said he wanted to return home to Chicago. Carolyn’s husband Roy Bryant was on an extended trip hauling shrimp to Texas and did not return home until August 27. Historian Timothy Tyson said an investigation by civil rights activists concluded Carolyn Bryant did not initially tell her husband Roy Bryant about the encounter with Till, and that Roy was told by a person who hung around down at their store. Roy was reportedly angry at his wife for not telling him. Carolyn Bryant told the FBI she didn’t tell her husband because she feared he would beat Till up.
When Roy Bryant was informed of what had happened, he aggressively questioned several young black men who entered the store. That evening, Bryant, with a black man named J. W. Washington, approached a black teenager walking along a road. Bryant ordered Washington to seize the boy, put him in the back of a pickup truck, and took him to be identified by a companion of Carolyn’s who had witnessed the episode with Till. Friends or parents vouched for the boy in Bryant’s store, and Carolyn’s companion denied that the boy Bryant and Washington seized was the one who had accosted her. Somehow, Bryant learned that the boy in the incident was from Chicago and was staying with Mose Wright. Several witnesses overheard Bryant and his 36-year-old half-brother, John William “J. W.” Milam, discussing taking Till from his house.
In the early morning hours of August 28, 1955, sometime between 2 and 3:30 a.m., Bryant and Milam drove to Mose Wright’s house. Milam was armed with a pistol and a flashlight. He asked Wright if he had three boys in the house from Chicago. Till was sharing a bed with another cousin; there were eight people in the small two-bedroom cabin. Milam asked Wright to take them to “the nigger who did the talking”. Till’s great-aunt offered the men money, but Milam refused as he rushed Emmett to put on his clothes. Mose Wright informed the men that Till was from up north and didn’t know any better. Milam reportedly then asked, “How old are you, preacher?” to which Wright responded “64”. Milam threatened that if Wright told anybody he wouldn’t live to see 65. The men marched Till out to the truck. Wright said he heard them ask someone in the car if this was the boy, and heard someone say “yes”. When asked if the voice was that of a man or a woman Wright said “it seemed like it was a lighter voice than a man’s”. In a 1956 interview with Look magazine, in which they confessed to the killing, Bryant and Milam said they would have brought Till by the store in order to have Carolyn identify him, but stated they did not do so because they said Till admitted to being the one who had talked to her.
They tied up Till in the back of a green pickup truck and drove toward Money, Mississippi. According to some witnesses, they took Till back to Bryant’s Groceries and recruited two black men. The men then drove to a barn in Drew. They pistol-whipped him on the way and reportedly knocked him unconscious. Willie Reed, who was 18 years old at the time, saw the truck passing by. Reed recalled seeing two white men in the front seat, and “two black males” in the back. Some have speculated that the two black men worked for Milam and were forced to help with the beating, although they later denied being present.
Willie Reed said that while walking home, he heard the beating and crying from the barn. He told a neighbor and they both walked back up the road to a water well near the barn, where they were approached by Milam. Milam asked if they heard anything. Reed responded “No”. Others passed by the shed and heard yelling. A local neighbor also spotted “Too Tight” (Leroy Collins) at the back of the barn washing blood off the truck and noticed Till’s boot. Milam explained he had killed a deer and that the boot belonged to him.
Some have claimed that Till was shot and tossed over the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora, Mississippi, near the Tallahatchie River. The group drove back to Roy Bryant’s home in Money, where they reportedly burned Emmett’s clothes.
In an interview with William Bradford Huie that was published in Look magazine in 1956, Bryant and Milam said that they intended to beat Till and throw him off an embankment into the river to frighten him. They told Huie that while they were beating Till, he called them bastards, declared he was as good as they, and said that he had sexual encounters with white women. They put Till in the back of their truck, drove to a cotton gin to take a 70-pound (32 kg) fan—the only time they admitted to being worried, thinking that by this time in early daylight they would be spotted and accused of stealing and drove for several miles along the river looking for a place to dispose of Till. They shot him by the river and weighted his body with the fan.
Mose Wright stayed on his front porch for twenty minutes waiting for Till to return. He did not go back to bed. He and another man went into Money, got gasoline, and drove around trying to find Till. Unsuccessful, they returned home by 8:00 am. After hearing from Wright that he would not call the police because he feared for his life, Curtis Jones placed a call to the Leflore County sheriff, and another to his mother in Chicago. Distraught, she called Emmett’s mother Mamie Till Bradley. Wright and his wife Elizabeth drove to Sumner, where Elizabeth’s brother contacted the sheriff.
Bryant and Milam were questioned by Leflore County sheriff, George Smith. They admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle’s yard, but claimed they had released him the same night in front of Bryant’s store. Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping. Word got out that Till was missing, and soon Medgar Evers, Mississippi state field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Amzie Moore, head of the Bolivar County chapter, became involved. They disguised themselves as cotton pickers and went into the cotton fields in search of any information that might help find Till.
Three days after his abduction and murder, Till’s swollen and disfigured body was found by two boys who were fishing in the Tallahatchie River. His head was very badly mutilated, he had been shot above the right ear, an eye was dislodged from the socket, there was evidence that he had been beaten on the back and the hips, and his body weighted by a fan blade, which was fastened around his neck with barbed wire.
He was nude, but wearing a silver ring with the initials “L. T.” and “May 25, 1943” carved in it. His face was unrecognizable due to trauma and having been submerged in water. Mose Wright was called to the river to identify Till. The silver ring that Till was wearing was removed, returned to Wright, and next passed on to the district attorney as evidence.
Although lynchings and racially motivated murders had occurred throughout the South for decades, the circumstances surrounding Till’s murder and the timing acted as a catalyst to attract national attention to the case of a 14-year-old boy who had allegedly been killed for breaching a social caste system. Till’s murder aroused feelings about segregation, law enforcement, relations between the North and South, the social status quo in Mississippi, the activities of the NAACP and the White Citizens’ Councils, and the Cold War, all of which were played out in a drama staged in newspapers all over the U.S. and abroad.
After Till went missing, a three-paragraph story was printed in the Greenwood Commonwealth and quickly picked up by other Mississippi newspapers. They reported on his death when the body was found. The next day, when a picture of him his mother had taken the previous Christmas showing them smiling together appeared in the Jackson Daily News and Vicksburg Evening Post, editorials and letters to the editor were printed expressing shame at the people who had caused Till’s death. One read, “Now is the time for every citizen who loves the state of Mississippi to ‘Stand up and be counted’ before hoodlum white trash brings us to destruction.” The letter said that Negroes were not the downfall of Mississippi society, but whites like those in White Citizens’ Councils that condoned violence.
Till’s body was clothed, packed in lime, placed into a pine coffin and prepared for burial. It may have been embalmed while in Mississippi. Mamie Till Bradley demanded that the body be sent to Chicago; she later said that she worked to halt an immediate burial in Mississippi and called several local and state authorities in Illinois and Mississippi to make sure that her son was returned to Chicago. A doctor did not examine Till post-mortem.
Mississippi’s governor, Hugh L. White, deplored the murder, asserting that local authorities should pursue a “vigorous prosecution”. He sent a telegram to the national offices of the NAACP, promising a full investigation and assuring them “Mississippi does not condone such conduct”. Delta residents, both black and white, also distanced themselves from Till’s murder, finding the circumstances abhorrent. Local newspaper editorials denounced the murderers without question. Leflore County Deputy Sheriff John Cothran stated, “The white people around here feel pretty mad about the way that poor little boy was treated, and they won’t stand for this.”
Soon, however, discourse about Till’s murder became more complex. Robert B. Patterson, executive secretary of the segregationist White Citizens’ Council, used Till’s death to claim that racial segregation policies were to provide for blacks’ safety and that their efforts were being neutralized by the NAACP. In response, NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins characterized the incident as a lynching and said that Mississippi was trying to maintain white supremacy through murder. He said, “there is in the entire state no restraining influence of decency, not in the state capital, among the daily newspapers, the clergy, nor any segment of the so-called better citizens.” Mamie Till Bradley told a reporter that she would seek legal aid to help law enforcement find her son’s killers and that the State of Mississippi should share the financial responsibility. She was misquoted; it was reported as “Mississippi is going to pay for this.”
The A. A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago received Till’s body. Upon arrival, Bradley insisted on viewing it to make a positive identification, later stating that the stench from it was noticeable two blocks away. She decided to have an open-casket funeral, saying: “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” Tens of thousands of people lined the street outside the mortuary to view Till’s body, and days later thousands more attended his funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.
Photographs of his mutilated corpse circulated around the country, notably appearing in Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender, both black publications, generating intense public reaction. According to The Nation and Newsweek, Chicago’s black community was “aroused as it has not been over any similar act in recent history”. Time later selected one of the Jet photographs showing Mamie Till over the mutilated body of her dead son, as one of the 100 “most influential images of all time”: “For almost a century, African Americans were lynched with regularity and impunity. Now, thanks to a mother’s determination to expose the barbarousness of the crime, the public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see.” Till was buried on September 6 in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
News about Emmett Till spread to both coasts. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Illinois Governor William Stratton also became involved, urging Mississippi Governor White to see that justice was done. The tone in Mississippi newspapers changed dramatically. They falsely reported riots in the funeral home in Chicago. Bryant and Milam appeared in photos smiling and wearing military uniforms, and Carolyn Bryant’s beauty and virtue were extolled. Rumors of an invasion of outraged blacks and northern whites were printed throughout the state, and were taken seriously by the Leflore County Sheriff. T. R. M. Howard, a local businessman, surgeon, and civil rights proponent and one of the wealthiest blacks in the state, warned of a “second civil war” if “slaughtering of Negroes” was allowed.
Following Roy Wilkins’ comments, white opinion began to shift. According to historian Stephen J. Whitfield, a specific brand of xenophobia in the South was particularly strong in Mississippi. Whites were urged to reject the influence of Northern opinion and agitation.[ This independent attitude was profound enough in Tallahatchie County that it earned the nickname “The Freestate of Tallahatchie”, according to a former sheriff, “because people here do what they damn well please”, making the county often difficult to govern.
Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider, who initially positively identified Till’s body and stated that the case against Milam and Bryant was “pretty good”, on September 3 announced his doubts that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River was that of Till. He speculated that the boy was probably still alive. Strider suggested that the recovered body had been planted by the NAACP: a corpse stolen by T. R. M. Howard, who colluded to place Till’s ring on it. Strider changed his account after comments were published in the press denigrating the people of Mississippi, later saying: “The last thing I wanted to do was to defend those peckerwoods. But I just had no choice about it.”
Bryant and Milam were indicted for murder. The state’s prosecuting attorney, Hamilton Caldwell, was not confident that he could get a conviction in a case of white violence against a black male accused of insulting a white woman. A local black paper was surprised at the indictment and praised the decision, as did The New York Times. The high-profile comments published in Northern newspapers and by the NAACP were of concern to the prosecuting attorney, Gerald Chatham; he worried that his office would not be able to secure a guilty verdict, despite the compelling evidence. Having limited funds, Bryant and Milam initially had difficulty finding attorneys to represent them, but five attorneys at a Sumner law firm offered their services pro bono. Their supporters placed collection jars in stores and other public places in the Delta, eventually gathering $10,000 for the defense.
The trial was held in the county courthouse in Sumner, the western seat of Tallahatchie County, because Till’s body was found in this area. Sumner had one boarding house; the small town was besieged by reporters from all over the country. David Halberstam called the trial “the first great media event of the civil rights movement”. A reporter who had covered the trials of Bruno Hauptmann and Machine Gun Kelly remarked that this was the most publicity for any trial he had ever seen. No hotels were open to black visitors. Mamie Till Bradley arrived to testify, and the trial also attracted black congressman Charles Diggs from Michigan. Bradley, Diggs, and several black reporters stayed at T. R. M. Howard’s home in Mound Bayou. Located on a large lot and surrounded by Howard’s armed guards, it resembled a compound.
The day before the start of the trial, a young black man named Frank Young arrived to tell Howard he knew of two witnesses to the crime. Levi “Too Tight” Collins and Henry Lee Loggins were black employees of Leslie Milam, J. W.’s brother, in whose shed Till was beaten. Collins and Loggins were spotted with J. W. Milam, Bryant, and Till. The prosecution team was unaware of Collins and Loggins. Sheriff Strider, however, booked them into the Charleston, Mississippi, jail to keep them from testifying.
The trial was held in September 1955 and lasted for five days; attendees remembered that the weather was very hot. The courtroom was filled to capacity with 280 spectators; black attendees sat in segregated sections. Press from major national newspapers attended, including black publications; black reporters were required to sit in the segregated black section and away from the white press, farther from the jury. Sheriff Strider welcomed black spectators coming back from lunch with a cheerful, “Hello, Niggers!” Some visitors from the North found the court to be run with surprising informality. Jury members were allowed to drink beer on duty, and many white male spectators wore handguns. The defense sought to cast doubt on the identity of the body pulled from the river. They said it could not be positively identified, and they questioned whether Till was dead at all. The defense also asserted that although Bryant and Milam had taken Till from his great-uncle’s house, they had released him that night. The defense attorneys attempted to prove that Mose Wright who was addressed as “Uncle Mose” by the prosecution and “Mose” by the defense—could not identify Bryant and Milam as the men who took Till from his cabin. They noted that only Milam’s flashlight had been in use that night, and no other lights in the house were turned on. Milam and Bryant had identified themselves to Wright the evening they took Till; Wright said he had only seen Milam clearly. Wright’s testimony was considered remarkably courageous. It may have been the first time in the South that a black man had testified to the guilt of a white man in court and lived.
Journalist James Hicks, who worked for the black news wire service, the National Negro Publishers Association (later renamed the National Newspaper Publishers Association), was present in the courtroom; he was especially impressed that Wright stood to identify Milam, pointing to him and saying “There he is”, calling it a historic moment and one filled with “electricity”. A writer for the New York Post noted that following his identification, Wright sat “with a lurch which told better than anything else the cost in strength to him of the thing he had done”. A reporter who covered the trial for the New Orleans Times-Picayune said it was “the most dramatic thing I saw in my career”.
Mamie Till Bradley testified that she had instructed her son to watch his manners in Mississippi and that should a situation ever come to his being asked to get on his knees to ask forgiveness of a white person, he should do it without a thought. The defense questioned her identification of her son in the casket in Chicago and a $400 life insurance policy she had taken out on him.
While the trial progressed, Leflore County Sheriff George Smith, Howard, and several reporters, both black and white, attempted to locate Collins and Loggins. They could not, but found three witnesses who had seen Collins and Loggins with Milam and Bryant on Leslie Milam’s property. Two of them testified that they heard someone being beaten, blows, and cries. One testified so quietly the judge ordered him several times to speak louder; he said he heard the victim call out: “Mama, Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy.” Judge Curtis Swango allowed Carolyn Bryant to testify, but not in front of the jury, after the prosecution objected that her testimony was irrelevant to Till’s abduction and murder. It may have been leaked in any case to the jury. Sheriff Strider testified for the defense his theory that Till was alive, and that the body retrieved from the river was white. A doctor from Greenwood stated on the stand that the body was too decomposed to identify, and therefore had been in the water too long for it to be Till.
In the concluding statements, one prosecuting attorney said that what Till did was wrong, but that his action warranted a spanking, not murder. Gerald Chatham passionately called for justice and mocked the sheriff and doctor’s statements that alluded to a conspiracy. Mamie Bradley indicated she was very impressed with his summation. The defense stated that the prosecution’s theory of the events the night Till was murdered was improbable, and said the jury’s “forefathers would turn over in their graves” if they convicted Bryant and Milam. Only three outcomes were possible in Mississippi for capital murder: life imprisonment, the death penalty, or acquittal. On September 23 the all-white, all-male jury (both women and blacks had been banned) acquitted both defendants after a 67-minute deliberation; one juror said, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
In post-trial analyses, blame for the outcome varied. Mamie Till Bradley was criticised for not crying enough on the stand. The jury was noted to have been picked almost exclusively from the hill country section of Tallahatchie County, which, due to its poorer economic make-up, found whites and blacks competing for land and other agrarian opportunities. Unlike the population living closer to the river (and thus closer to Bryant and Milam in Leflore County), who possessed a noblesse oblige outlook toward blacks, according to historian Stephen Whitaker, those in the eastern part of the county were virulent in their racism. The prosecution was criticized for dismissing any potential juror who knew Milam or Bryant personally, for fear that such a juror would vote to acquit. Afterwards, Whitaker noted that this had been a mistake, as those who knew the defendants usually disliked them. One juror voted twice to convict, but on the third discussion, voted with the rest of the jury to acquit. In later interviews, the jurors acknowledged that they knew Bryant and Milam were guilty, but simply did not believe that life imprisonment or the death penalty were fit punishment for whites who had killed a black man. However, two jurors said as late as 2005 that they believed the defense’s case. They also said that the prosecution had not proved that Till had died, nor that it was his body that was removed from the river.
In November 1955, a grand jury declined to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping, despite their own admissions of having taken Till. Mose Wright and a young man named Willie Reed, who testified to seeing Milam enter the shed from which screams and blows were heard, both testified in front of the grand jury. After the trial, T. R. M. Howard paid the costs of relocating to Chicago for Wright, Reed, and another black witness who testified against Milam and Bryant, in order to protect the three witnesses from reprisals for having testified. Reed, who later changed his name to Willie Louis to avoid being found, continued to live in the Chicago area until his death on July 18, 2013. He avoided publicity and even kept his history secret from his wife until she was told by a relative. Reed began to speak publicly about the case in the PBS documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, aired in 2003.
ill’s murder increased fears in the local black community that they would be subjected to violence and the law would not protect them. According to Deloris Melton Gresham, whose father was killed a few months after Till, “At that time, they used to say that ‘it’s open season on n*****s.’ Kill’em and get away with it.”
After Bryant and Milam admitted to Huie that they had killed Till, the support base of the two men eroded in Mississippi. Many of their former friends and supporters, including those who had contributed to their defense funds, cut them off. Blacks boycotted their shops, which went bankrupt and closed, and banks refused to grant them loans to plant crops. After struggling to secure a loan and find someone who would rent to him, Milam managed to secure 217 acres and a $4,000 loan to plant cotton, but blacks refused to work for him. He was forced to pay whites higher wages. Eventually, Milam and Bryant relocated to Texas, but their infamy followed them; they continued to generate animosity from locals. In 1961, while in Texas, when Bryant recognized the license plate of a Tallahatchie County resident, he called out a greeting and identified himself. The resident, upon hearing the name, drove away without speaking to Bryant. After several years, they returned to Mississippi. Milam found work as a heavy equipment operator, but ill health forced him into retirement. Over the years, Milam was tried for offenses including assault and battery, writing bad checks, and using a stolen credit card. He died of spinal cancer on December 30, 1980, at the age of 61.
Bryant worked as a welder while in Texas, until increasing blindness forced him to give up this employment. At some point, he and Carolyn divorced; he remarried in 1980. He opened a store in Ruleville, Mississippi. He was convicted in 1984 and 1988 of food stamp fraud. In a 1985 interview, he denied killing Till despite having admitted to it in 1956, but said: “if Emmett Till hadn’t got out of line, it probably wouldn’t have happened to him.” Fearing economic boycotts and retaliation, Bryant lived a private life and refused to be photographed or reveal the exact location of his store, explaining: “this new generation is different and I don’t want to worry about a bullet some dark night”. He died of cancer on September 1, 1994, at the age of 63.
Till’s mother married Gene Mobley, became a teacher, and changed her surname to Till-Mobley. She continued to educate people about her son’s murder. In 1992, Till-Mobley had the opportunity to listen while Bryant was interviewed about his involvement in Till’s murder. With Bryant unaware that Till-Mobley was listening, he asserted that Till had ruined his life, expressed no remorse, and said: “Emmett Till is dead. I don’t know why he can’t just stay dead.”
The Bottom Line is that the brutal murder, by lynching, of a 14-year-old African American youth, Emmett Till, was the catalyst for the emergence of civil rights movement in the States, giving it the necessary legal and social recognition as well as justifiable credibility. While President Biden has made history by declaring that lynching is a Hate Crime, it came 67 years late and ironically these racially motivated murders are still prevalent even in the 2st century. The murder of George Floyd by a law enforcement officer is an example of such deep-seated hatred against people of colour by the Whites in the United States. The laws may be formulated based on various motives purporting to eradicate racial discrimination, but, what needs to be transformed is the mindset of the white race, which is extremely difficult to change. Racism reigns supreme in the world from North to South and East to west. In some countries, as in South Africa and the United States it was legalized in the statutes of the land. Racism is a major cause of disruption of peaceful co-existence of all humanoids, globally. It is also a serious indictment that “reverse racism” is now emerging in countries such as South Africa, post liberation in 1994, where the previously discriminated majority are now considering a period of “payback” and an opportunity to seek revenges for the excesses of the past by the White minority, who were in power and oppressed the African people, as well as People of Indian Origins, both of whom were considered inferior races.
Professor G. Hoosen M. Vawda (Bsc; MBChB; PhD.Wits) is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.
Director: Glastonbury Medical Research Centre; Community Health and Indigent Programme Services; Body Donor Foundation SA.
Principal Investigator: Multinational Clinical Trials
Consultant: Medical and General Research Ethics; Internal Medicine and Clinical Psychiatry:UKZN, Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine
Executive Member: Inter Religious Council KZN SA
Public Liaison: Medical Misadventures
Activism: Justice for All
Tags: Anglo America, Black America, Black Culture, Civil Rights, Ethnocentrism, History, Inequality, KKK, Racism, USA, White Supremacy, White privilege
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Apr 2022.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: 67 Years Late: Machinations of the Lynching Law, is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
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