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1.  Nothing That Boy Did

2.  Boots on the Porch

3.  Growing Up Black in Chicago

4.  Emmett in Chicago and “Little Mississippi”

5.  Pistol-Whipping at Christmas

6.  The Incident

7.  On the Third Day

8.  Mama Made the Earth Tremble

9.  Warring Regiments of Mississippi

10.  Black Monday

11.  People We Don’t Need Around Here Any More

12.  Fixed Opinions

13.  Mississippi Underground

14.  “There He Is”

15.  Every Last Anglo-Saxon One of You

16.  The Verdict of the World

17.  Protest Politics

18.  Killing Emmett Till

 Epilogue: The Children of Emmett Till


 About Timothy B. Tyson




for my brother Vern

My name is being called on the road to freedom. I can hear theblood of Emmett Till as it calls from the ground. . . .When shallwe go? Not tomorrow! Not at high noon! Now!

REVEREND SAMUEL WELLS, Albany, Georgia, 1962



The older woman sipped her coffee. “I have thought and thought

about everything about Emmett Till, the killing and the trial, tellingwho did what to who,” she said.1 Back when she was twenty-one andher name was Carolyn Bryant, the French newspaper Aurore dubbedthe dark-haired young woman from the Mississippi Delta “acrossroads Marilyn Monroe.”2 News reporters from Detroit to Dakarnever failed to sprinkle their stories about l’affaire Till with words like“comely” and “fetching” to describe her. William Bradford Huie, theSouthern journalist and dealer in tales of the Till lynching, called her“one of the prettiest black-haired Irish women I ever saw in my life.”3

Almost eighty and still handsome, her hair now silver, the former Mrs.Roy Bryant served me a slice of pound cake, hesitated a little, andthen murmured, seeming to speak to herself more than to me,“They’re all dead now anyway.” She placed her cup on the low glasstable between us, and I waited.

For one epic moment half a century earlier, Carolyn Bryant’s facehad been familiar across the globe, forever attached to a crime ofhistoric notoriety and symbolic power. The murder of Emmett Till wasreported in one of the very first banner headlines of the civil rights eraand launched the national coalition that fueled the modern civil rightsmovement. But she had never opened her door to a journalist orhistorian, let alone invited one for cake and coffee. Now she lookedme in the eyes, trying hard to distinguish between fact andremembrance, and told me a story that I did not know.

The story I thought I knew began in 1955, fifty years earlier, whenCarolyn Bryant was twenty-one and a fourteen-year-old black boyfrom Chicago walked into the Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in arural Mississippi Delta hamlet and offended her. Perhaps on a dare,the boy touched or even squeezed her hand when he exchanged moneyfor candy, asked her for a date, and said goodbye when he left thestore, tugged along by an older cousin. Few news writers who told thestory of the black boy and the backwoods beauty failed to mentionthe “wolf whistle” that came next: when an angry Carolyn walked outto a car to retrieve the pistol under the seat, Till supposedly whistledat her.

The world knew this story only because of what happened a fewdays later: Carolyn’s kinsmen, allegedly just her husband and brother-in-law, kidnapped and killed the boy and threw his body in theTallahatchie River. That was supposed to be the end of it. Lessontaught. But a young fisherman found Till’s corpse in the water, and amonth later the world watched Roy Bryant and J. W. “Big” Milamstand trial for his murder.

I knew the painful territory well because when I was eleven yearsold in the small tobacco market town of Oxford, North Carolina, afriend’s father and brothers beat and shot a young black man to death.His name was Henry Marrow, and the events leading up to his deathhad something in common with Till’s. My father, a white Methodistminister, got mixed up in efforts to bring peace and justice to thecommunity. We moved away that summer. But Oxford burned on inmy memory, and I later went back and interviewed the man mostresponsible for Marrow’s death. He told me, “That nigger committedsuicide, coming in my store and wanting to four-letter-word mydaughter-in-law.” I also talked with many of those who had protestedthe murder by setting fire to the huge tobacco warehouses indowntown Oxford, as well as witnesses to the killing, townspeople,attorneys, and others. Seeking to understand what had happened inmy own hometown made me a historian. I researched the case foryears, on my way to a PhD in American history, and in 2004published a book about Marrow’s murder, what it meant for myhometown and my family, and how it revealed the workings of race in

American history.4 Carolyn Bryant Donham had read the book, whichwas why she decided to contact me and talk with me about thelynching of Emmett Till.

The killing of Henry Marrow occurred in 1970, fifteen years afterthe Till lynching, but unlike the Till case it never entered national orinternational awareness, even though many of the same themes werepresent. Like Till, Marrow had allegedly made a flirtatious remark toa young white woman at her family’s small rural store. In Oxford,though, the town erupted into arson and violence, the fires visible formiles. An all-white jury, acting on what they doubtless perceived to bethe values of the white community, acquitted both of the men chargedin the case, even though the murder had occurred in public. Whathappened in Oxford in 1970 was a late-model lynching, in whichwhite men killed a black man in the service of white supremacy. Theall-white jury ratified the murder as a gesture of protest against publicschool integration, which had finally begun in Oxford, and underlyingmuch of the white protest was fear and rage at the prospect of whiteand black children going to school together, which whites fearedwould lead to other forms of “race-mixing,” even “miscegenation.”

As in the Marrow case, many white people believed Till hadviolated this race-and-sex taboo and therefore had it coming. Manynews reports asserted that Till had erred—in judgment, in behavior, indeed, and perhaps in thought. Without justifying the murder, anumber of Southern newspapers argued that the boy was at leastpartially at fault. The most influential account of the lynching, Huie’s1956 presumptive tell-all, depicted a black boy who virtuallycommitted suicide with his arrogant responses to his assailants.“Boastful, brash,” Huie described Till. He “had a white girl’s picturein his pocket and boasted of having screwed her,” not just to friends,not just to Carolyn Bryant, but also to his killers: “That is why theytook him out and killed him.”5 The story was told and retold in manyways, but a great many of them, from the virulently defensiveaccounts of Mississippi and its customs to the self-righteous screeds ofNorthern critics, noted that Till had been at the wrong place at thewrong time and made the wrong choices.

Until recently historians did not even have a transcript of the 1955trial. It went missing soon after the trial ended, turning up briefly inthe early 1960s but then destroyed in a basement flood. In September2004 FBI agents located a faded “copy of a copy of a copy” in aprivate home in Biloxi, Mississippi. It took weeks for two clerks totranscribe the entire document, except for one missing page.6 Thetranscript, finally released in 2007, allows us to compare the laterrecollections of witnesses and defendants with what they said fiftyyears earlier. It also reveals that Carolyn Bryant told an even harder-edged story in the courtroom, one that was difficult to square with thegentle woman sitting across from me at the coffee table.

Half a century earlier, above the witness stand in the TallahatchieCounty Courthouse, two ceiling fans slowly churned the cigarettesmoke. This was the stage on which the winner of beauty contests attwo high schools starred as the fairest flower of Southernwomanhood. She testified that Till had grabbed her hand forcefullyacross the candy counter, letting go only when she snatched it away.He asked her for a date, she said, chased her down the counter,blocked her path, and clutched her narrow waist tightly with bothhands.

She told the court he said, “You needn’t be afraid of me. [I’ve],well, ——with white women before.” According to the transcript, thedelicate young woman refused to utter the verb or even tell the courtwhat letter of the alphabet it started with. She escaped Till’s forcefulgrasp only with great difficulty, she said.7 A month later oneMississippi newspaper insisted that the case should never have beencalled the “wolf whistle case.” Instead, said the editors, it should havebeen called “an ‘attempted rape’ case.”8

“Then this other nigger came in from the store and got him by thearm,” Carolyn testified. “And he told him to come on and let’s go. Hehad him by the arm and led him out.” Then came an odd note in hertale, a note discordant with the claim of aborted assault: Till stoppedin the doorway, “turned around and said, ‘Goodbye.’ ”9

The defendants sat on the court’s cane-bottom chairs in a roompacked with more than two hundred white men and fifty or sixtyAfrican Americans who had been crowded into the last two rows and

the small, segregated black press table. In his closing statement, JohnW. Whitten, counsel for the defendants, told the all-white, all-malejury, “I’m sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courageto free these men, despite this [outside] pressure.”10

Mamie Bradley,I Till’s mother, was responsible for a good deal ofthat outside pressure on Mississippi’s court system. Her brave decisionto hold an open-casket funeral for her battered son touched off newsstories across the globe. The resultant international outrage compelledthe U.S. State Department to lament “the real and continuing damageto American foreign policy from such tragedies as the Emmett Tillcase.”11 Her willingness to travel anywhere to speak about the tragedyhelped to fuel a huge protest movement that pulled together theelements of a national civil rights movement, beginning with thepolitical and cultural power of black Chicago. The movement becamethe most important legacy of the story.12 Her memoir of the case,Death of Innocence, published almost fifty years after her son’smurder, lets us see him as a human being, not merely the victim of oneof the most notorious hate crimes in history.13

•  •  •

As I sat drinking her coffee and eating her pound cake, CarolynBryant Donham handed me a copy of the trial transcript and themanuscript of her unpublished memoir, “More than a Wolf Whistle:The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham.” I promised to deliver ourinterview and these documents to the appropriate archive, wherefuture scholars would be able to use them. In her memoir she recountsthe story she told at the trial using imagery from the classic Southernracist horror movie of the “Black Beast” rapist.14 But about hertestimony that Till had grabbed her around the waist and utteredobscenities, she now told me, “That part’s not true.”

A son of the South and the son of a minister, I have sat in countlesssuch living rooms that had been cleaned for guests, Sunday clothes on,an unspoken deference running young to old, men to women, and,very often, dark skin to light. As a historian I have collected a lot oforal histories in the South and across all manner of social lines.

Manners matter a great deal, and the personal questions that oralhistory requires are sometimes delicate. I was comfortable with thesetting but rattled by her revelation, and I struggled to phrase my nextquestion. If that part was not true, I asked, what did happen thatevening decades earlier?

“I want to tell you,” she said. “Honestly, I just don’t remember. Itwas fifty years ago. You tell these stories for so long that they seemtrue, but that part is not true.” Historians have long known about thecomplex reliability of oral history—of virtually all historical sources,for that matter—and the malleability of human memory, and herconfession was in part a reflection of that. What does it mean whenyou remember something that you know never happened? She hadpondered that question for many years, but never aloud in public or inan interview. When she finally told me the story of her life and starklydifferent and much larger tales of Emmett Till’s death, it was the firsttime in half a century that she had uttered his name outside her family.

Not long afterward I had lunch in Jackson, Mississippi, with JerryMitchell, the brilliant journalist at the Clarion-Ledger whose sleuthinghas solved several cold case civil rights–era murders. I talked with himabout my efforts to write about the Till case, and he shared somethoughts of his own. A few days after our lunch a manila envelopewith a Mississippi return address brought hard proof that “that part,”as Carolyn had called the alleged assault, had never been true.

Mitchell had sent me copies of the handwritten notes of whatCarolyn Bryant told her attorney on the day after Roy and J.W. werearrested in 1955. In this earliest recorded version of events, shecharged only that Till had “insulted” her, not grabbed her, andcertainly not attempted to rape her. The documents prove that therewas a time when she did seem to know what had happened, and atime soon afterward when she became the mouthpiece of a monstrouslie.15

Now, half a century later, Carolyn offered up another truth, anunyielding truth about which her tragic counterpart, Mamie, was alsoadamant: “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened tohim.”

I. Mamie Carthan became Mamie Till after her marriage to Louis Till in 1940, which endedwith his death in 1945. Mamie Till became Mamie Mallory after a brief remarriage in 1946.Her name changed to Bradley after another marriage in 1951. She was Mamie Bradley duringmost of the years covered by this book. She married one last time in 1957, becoming MamieTill-Mobley, under which name she published her 2004 memoir. To avoid confusion, and alsoto depict her as a human being rather than an icon, I generally refer to her by her first name.No disrespect is intended. The same is true of Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant.



It was probably the gunshot-thud of boots on the porch that pulled

Reverend Moses Wright out of a deep sleep about two in the morningon Sunday, August 28, 1955.1 Wright was a sixty-four-year-oldsharecropper, short and wiry with thick hands and a hawksbill nose.An ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ, Wrightsometimes preached at the concrete-block church tucked into a cedarthicket just a half mile away; most people called him “Preacher.”Twenty-five white-tufted acres of cotton, almost ready for harvest,stretched out behind his unpainted clapboard house in a pitch-blackcorner of the Mississippi Delta called East Money.2 He had lived hisentire life in the Delta, and he had never had any trouble with whitepeople before.

The old but well-built house would be called a “shack” in a certainstripe of sympathetic news story, but it was the nicest tenant house onthe G. C. Frederick Plantation. Mr. Frederick respected ReverendWright and let his family occupy the low-slung four-bedroom housewhere he had lived himself before he built the main house. Its tin roofsloped toward the persimmon and cedar trees that lined the dustyroad out front. A pleasant screened-in porch ran its entire face. Fromthe porch two front doors opened directly into two front bedrooms;there were two smaller bedrooms stacked behind those.3

The accounts of what happened in the Wright home that morningvary slightly, but the interviews given to reporters soon after the eventseem to be the most reliable. “Preacher! Preacher!” someone bellowed

from inside the screened porch. It was a white man’s voice. Wright satup in bed. “This is Mr. Bryant,” said another white man. “We want totalk to the boy. We’re here to talk to you about that boy fromChicago, the one that done the talking up at Money.”4 Wright thoughtabout grabbing his shotgun from the closet; instead he pulled on hisoveralls and work boots and prepared to step outside.5

Still asleep were his three sons, Simeon, Robert, and Maurice; hiswife, Elizabeth; and three boys from Chicago visiting for the summer:his two grandsons, Curtis Jones and Wheeler Parker Jr.; and hisnephew Emmett, whom they all called “Bobo.” Somehow Wright hadgotten wind of a story involving Bobo at Bryant’s Grocery and MeatMarket in Money. At first Wright had feared trouble might come of it,but the vague details seemed trifling and convinced him thatrepercussions were unlikely.6 Otherwise he would have put his niece’sboy on the next train home. Now that he had angry white men at hisdoor, he decided to stall, hoping that Bobo would scamper out theback door and hide. Then Wright would tell the men that the boy hadtaken the train for Chicago on Saturday morning. “Who is it?” hecalled out.7

In the darkness Wright heard rather than saw Elizabeth headquickly for the two back rooms to wake the boys. Simeon slept in oneof the blue metal beds with his beloved cousin Bobo.8 Robert slept inanother bed in the same room. Curtis stayed by himself in the otherback room. In the second front bedroom the two sixteen-year-olds,Wheeler and Maurice, shared a bed. Eight people in mortal danger.9

Elizabeth later told reporters, “We knew they were out to mob theboy.” There was neither time nor necessity to talk about what to do.Her only recourse was obvious: “When I heard the men at the door, Iran to Emmett’s room and tried to wake him so I could get him outthe back door and into the cotton fields.”

Wright slowly stepped out of his bedroom and onto the porch,closing the door behind him. In front of him stood a familiar whiteman, six feet two inches and weighing 250 pounds. “That man wasMilam,” the minister said later. “I could see his bald head. I wouldknow him again anywhere. I would know him if I met him in

Texas.”10 In his left hand the imposing Milam carried a heavy five-cellflashlight. He hefted a U.S. Army .45 automatic in his right.11

Wright did not recognize the rugged-looking man, six feet tall andperhaps 190 pounds, who had identified himself as “Mr. Bryant” andstood just behind Milam, though his small grocery store was not threemiles distant.12 Wright could see that he, too, carried a U.S. Army .45.When both men pushed past him into the house, he could smell them;at that point they had been drinking for hours.13

Standing by the door just inside the screened porch, a third manturned his head to one side and down low, “like he didn’t want me tosee him, and I didn’t see him to recognize him,” the preacher said.14

Wright assumed the third man was black because he stayed in theshadows, silent: “He acted like a colored man.”15 This was likely oneof the black men who worked for Milam. Or, if Wright’s intuition wasmistaken, it might have been a family friend of the Milam-Bryantfamily, Elmer Kimbell or Hubert Clark, or their brother-in-law MelvinCampbell.16

Echoing Bryant, Milam said, “We want to see the boy fromChicago.”17

Wright slowly and deliberately opened the other bedroom door, theone leading into the front guest room where the two sixteen-year-oldsslept. The small room quickly became crowded and thick with theodors of whiskey and sweat; faces, guns, and furnishings were caughtin the shaky and sparse illumination of Milam’s flashlight. “The housewas as dark as a thousand midnights,” Wheeler Parker recalled. “Youcouldn’t see. It was like a nightmare. I mean—I mean someone comestand over you with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight, and you’resixteen years old, it’s a terrifying experience.”18

Milam and Bryant told Wright to turn on some lights, but Wrightonly mumbled something about the lights being broken.19 The washof the flashlight swept from Maurice to Wheeler and back to Wright.The white men moved on. “They asked where the boy from Chicagowas,” recalled Maurice.20

“We marched around through two rooms,” Wright recounted.Milam and Bryant, clearly impatient, may have suspected Wright wasstalling. Elizabeth had moved quickly to wake Emmett, but he moved

far too slowly. “They were already in the front door before I couldshake him awake,” she said.21

Now the two white men stood over the blue metal bedstead wherethe fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago lay with his cousin. “Are youthe one who did the smart talking up at Money?” Milam demanded.

“Yeah,” said Emmett.“Well, that was my sister-in-law and I won’t stand for it. And don’t

say ‘Yeah’ to me or I’ll blow your head off. Get your clothes on.”Milam told Simeon to close his eyes and go back to sleep, whileEmmett pulled on a white T-shirt, charcoal gray pants, and blackloafers.22

Elizabeth offered them money if they would leave the boy alone.Curtis thought Bryant might have accepted if he had been therewithout his burly half-brother, but Milam yelled, “Woman, you getback in the bed, and I want to hear them springs squeak.” Withunimaginable poise Wright quietly explained that the boy had sufferedfrom polio as a child and had never been quite right. He meant noharm, but he just didn’t have good sense. “Why not give the boy agood whipping and leave it at that? He’s only fourteen and he’s fromup North.”23

Milam turned to Wright and asked, “How old are you, Preacher?”Wright answered that he was sixty-four. “You make any trouble,”

said Milam, “and you’ll never live to be sixty-five.”24

Milam and Bryant hauled the sleepy child out the front doortoward a vehicle waiting beyond the trees in the moonless Mississippinight. Wright could hear the doors being opened, though no interiorlight came on; then he thought he heard a voice ask “Is this the boy?”and another voice answer “Yes.” He and others later speculated thatCarolyn Bryant had been in the vehicle and had identified Emmett,thereby becoming an accessory to murder. But besides being dark itwas hard to hear the low voices through the trees, and Wright toldreporters at the time, “I don’t know if it was a lady’s voice or not.”The vehicle pulled away without its headlights on, and nobody in thehouse could tell whether it was a truck or a sedan.

After he heard the tires crackling through the gravel, Wrightstepped out into the yard alone and stared toward Money for a long




It was Reverend Wright who started the three Chicago boys, Emmett,

Curtis, and Wheeler, thinking about going to Mississippi that summerof 1955, only a few days after Emmett turned fourteen. A formerparishioner, Robert Jones, who was the father-in-law of Wright’sdaughter, Willie Mae, had passed away in Chicago, and the familyasked Wright to conduct the funeral. While he was up north it wasdecided that he would bring Wheeler and Emmett back to Mississippiwith him and that Curtis would join them soon afterward.1

The image of Wright in Chicago is one of the more pleasing in thishard story. While he was in town he rode the elevated train, toured theenormous Merchandise Mart and the downtown Loop, and gazed outfrom atop the 462-foot Tribune Tower, which featured stones from theGreat Pyramid, the Alamo, and the Great Wall of China, among otherfamous constructions. He enjoyed the sights but was hardlydumbstruck. The city had its glories, he acknowledged, but he boastedof the simple pleasures of rural life in the Delta. Four rivers—theYazoo, the Sunflower, the Yalobusha, and the Tallahatchie—passednear his Mississippi home, and there were seven deep lakes. Thissurely offered the best fishing in the world.2 His stories enchantedEmmett. “For a free-spirited boy who lived to be outdoors,” Emmett’smother, Mamie, said, “there was so much possibility, so muchadventure in the Mississippi his great-uncle described.” AlthoughMamie originally refused to let him go south, she soon relented under

a barrage of pressure from Emmett, who recruited support from theextended family.3

One stock theme in stories of Emmett Till is that, being from theNorth, he died in Mississippi because he just didn’t know any better.How was a boy from Chicago supposed to know anything aboutsegregation or the battle lines laid down by white supremacy? It istempting to paint him, as his mother did, as innocent of the perilousboundaries of race; her reasons for doing so made sense at the time,even though being fourteen and abducted at gunpoint by adults wouldseem evidence enough of his innocence. But it defies the imaginationthat a fourteen-year-old from 1950s Chicago could really be ignorantof the consequences of the color of his skin.

Race worked in different ways in Chicago than it did inMississippi, but there were similarities. After Emmett was murderedone newspaper writer, Carl Hirsch, had the clarity of mind to note,“The Negro children who live here on Chicago’s South Side or anyNorthern ghetto are no strangers to the Jim Crow and the racistviolence.  .  .  . Twenty minutes from the Till home is Trumbull ParkHomes, where for two years a racist mob has besieged 29 Negrofamilies in a government housing project.” Emmett attended asegregated, all-black school in a community “padlocked as a ghetto bywhite supremacy.” Hirsch pointed out, “People everywhere are joiningto fight because of the way Emmett Till died—but also because of theway he was forced to live.”4

There was at least one way that Chicago was actually moresegregated than Mississippi. A demographic map of the city in 1950shows twenty-one distinct ethnic neighborhoods: German, Irish,Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Czech and Slovak, Scottish, Polish,Chinese, Greek, Yugoslavian, Russian, Mexican, French, andHungarian, among others.5 These ethnic groups divided Chicagoaccording to an unwritten treaty, which clearly stated that Germans,for instance, would live on the North Side, Irish on the South Side,Jews on the West Side, Bohemians and Poles on the Near SouthwestSide and Near Northwest Side, and African Americans in the SouthSide’s “Black Belt.” All of these groups had gangs that regarded their

neighborhood as a place to be defended against encroachments byoutsiders. And the most visible outsiders were African Americans.

Black youngsters who walked through neighborhoods other thantheir own did so at their peril. Those searching for places to play, inparks and other public facilities, were especially vulnerable. Thesewere lessons that black children growing up on the South Side learnedwith their ABCs.6

•  •  •

Like many of his contemporaries, Emmett loved baseball. “He was anice guy,” said thirteen-year-old Leroy Abbott, a teammate on theJunior Rockets, their neighborhood baseball team. “And a goodpitcher—a lot of stuff on the ball.”7 With the White Sox and the Cubsboth in Chicago, it may seem odd that Emmett rooted for theBrooklyn Dodgers, but for a young black baseball enthusiast theywere hard to resist. Brooklyn had not only broken the color barrier bysigning Jackie Robinson in 1947 but had also signed the catcher RoyCampanella the next year and in 1949 acquired Don Newcombe,Emmett’s hero. Newcombe soon became the first black pitcher to starta World Series game and the first to win twenty games in a season.8

One night when Emmett was about twelve, Mamie sent him to thestore to buy a loaf of bread. He was ordinarily reliable about suchthings, but on the way home he saw some boys playing baseball in thepark. He walked over to the backstop and talked his way into thegame. He planned to stay for a short time and then go home with thebread; his mother might not even notice, he told himself. But hispassion for the game overcame him; he must have become absorbed inthe smell of the grass and the crack of the bat, the solid slap of the ballinto leather and the powdery dust of the base paths. “So, I guess hejust put down the bread and got in that game,” his mother recalled.“And that’s exactly where I found Bo—Bo and that loaf of bread. Ofcourse, by that time, the bread kind of looked like the kids had beenusing it for second base.”9

Emmett was a lovable, playful, and somewhat mischievous childbut essentially well-behaved. He spent his early years in Argo, less

than an hour’s train ride from his eventual home in Chicago, and wasunusually close to his mother and other family members. But he grewup in one of the toughest and most segregated cities in America,knowing as virtually every African American in Chicago knew that inTrumbull Park black fathers kept loaded firearms in their home forgood reason. Emmett did not have to go to Mississippi to learn thatwhite folks could take offense even at the presence of a black child, letalone one who violated local customs.

•  •  •

The City of New Orleans was the southbound train of the IllinoisCentral Railway that would carry Emmett to Mississippi in August1955. The Illinois Central connected Chicago to Mississippi notmerely by its daily arrivals and departures but also by tragedy, hope,and the steel rails of history. Over the six decades from 1910 to 1970some six million black Southerners departed Dixie for promised landsall over America. Chicago, the poet Carl Sandburg wrote, became a“receiving station and port of refuge” for more than half a million ofthem, vast numbers of whom hailed from Mississippi. “The world ofMississippi and the world of Chicago were intertwined andinterdependent,” writes the historian Isabel Wilkerson, “and whathappened in one did not easily escape notice of the other from afar.”Straight up the line of the northbound Illinois Central the carloads ofpilgrims from the Delta would rumble, the floors littered with so manyempty pasteboard boxes that had been lovingly packed with foodfrom back home that people called it “the chicken bone express.”These migrants brought with them musical, culinary, religious, andcommunity traditions that became a part of Chicago; in fact, thenarrow isthmus on the South Side where African Americans wereconfined was often referred to as “North Mississippi.”10 What theyfound there, however, was not the Promised Land. Though Chicagooffered a welcome breath of free air, the newcomers also faced arelentless battle with the white working class over neighborhoodborders and public space.

The first wave of the Great Migration, from 1910 to 1930, doubledthe number of African Americans in Chicago, placing them incompetition for jobs and space with earlier generations of migrants,most of them from central and southern Europe. Herded into theSouth Side, quickly overwhelming its capacity, the descendants ofenslaved Southerners overflowed the ghetto’s narrow confines.Housing shortages pushed them over invisible racial boundaries intoformerly all-white neighborhoods, where they confronted threats andviolence. One 1919 study of race relations in Chicago called theseupheavals “a kind of guerilla warfare.” Between July 1917 and March1921 authorities recorded fifty-eight bombings of buildings bought orrented by African Americans in formerly all-white sections of thecity.11

On Sunday, July 27, 1919, a black seventeen-year-old namedEugene Williams drifted across one of those invisible boundaries andset off a small race war. As he and his friends swam at a segregatedbeach on Lake Michigan, their wooden raft floated into “white”water. A white man threw rocks at them, hitting Williams in the head,causing him to sink and drown. Rather than arrest the assailant, whitepolice officers hauled off a black bystander who objected to theirinaction. Soon carloads of white gunmen raced through the AfricanAmerican neighborhoods, spraying bullets. Black snipers returned fire.Mobs of both races roamed the streets, stoning, beating, and stabbingtheir victims. The riot raged for five days in that notorious RedSummer of 1919; police shot down seven African Americans, whitemobs killed sixteen more, and black mobs killed fifteen whites.Thousands became homeless as a result of arson, and more than fivehundred citizens, two-thirds of them black, were seriously injured.12

The politics of “the New Negro” were in evidence even before theupheavals but were far more prominent in Chicago afterward, in adirect response to the race riots.13 Though mourning the deaths,African Americans in Chicago were proud that they had risen up todefend their lives and communities. Added to that, pride in thepatriotic sacrifices and military achievements of black soldiers inWorld War I met a new determination to make America itself safe fordemocracy.14 W. E. B. Du Bois, who had urged African Americans at

the outset of the war to lay aside their special grievances and supportthe war effort wholeheartedly, wrote:

We return.

We return from fighting.

We return fighting.

Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the GreatJehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the

reason why.15

Du Bois’s Crisis magazine, which had a circulation of 385,000 in1915, sold 560,000 copies in the first six months of 1917.16 MarcusGarvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association had awakened thespirit of black pride and self-assertion on a scale unprecedented, andthe charismatic Jamaican black nationalist’s movement swelled acrossthe country, including a flourishing UNIA chapter in Chicago.17

African American parents began to buy dark-skinned dolls for theirchildren and to sing what in 1919 became known as the “NegroNational Anthem,” penned years earlier by the NAACP’s JamesWeldon Johnson:

Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring

Ring with the harmonies of liberty. . . .

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun

Let us march on until victory is won.

The circulation of “race” publications skyrocketed.18 The ChicagoDefender’s rose from 10,000 to 93,000 in the war years alone, makingit the largest-circulation black newspaper in America. The Defendershipped two-thirds of its issues outside Chicago, most of them toMississippi.19 “On our porches we read the Chicago Defender,”recalled Mississippian Helen O’Neal-McCrary, “the only news thatblack people in Clarksdale could read and believe.”20

“I did not understand the restrictive soreness imposed bysegregation,” wrote a summertime visitor from Mississippi, “until Igot off that train and breathed the freer air of Chicago.”21 If he hadstayed longer, however, this temporary migrant might have grown

disillusioned. In the decades after the bloody conflict of 1919, thecolor line in Chicago was even more sharply drawn. The South Sidebecame almost totally black and the North Side almost entirely white.The Chicago where Emmett Till grew up became one of the mostracially divided of all American cities and would remain so into thetwenty-first century.22

By the 1940s Chicago led the nation in the use of racial covenantson real estate; these restrictions on who could buy property and wherethey could buy it covered roughly half of the city’s neighborhoods.Realtors generally refused to show homes to buyers except inneighborhoods occupied by people of their own race. Many AfricanAmericans, regardless of their means, could not get a mortgage andbecame ensnared in a vicious contract-based buying system thatroutinely ended up bankrupting them. Federal Housing Authoritymortgage insurance policies strengthened Chicago’s racial boundariesby denying mortgage insurance and home improvement loans to anyhome on a “white” street after even one black family moved in. Laterthe Chicago activist Saul Alinsky sardonically defined integration as“the period of time between the arrival of the first black and thedeparture of the last white.”23

Various “neighborhood improvement associations” and streetgangs fought to keep their neighborhoods all-white; racially motivatedresidential bombings were one preferred method in the late 1940s andearly 1950s. In 1949 a mob of two thousand whites attacked a smallapartment building in Park Manor, a white neighborhood on theSouth Side, after a black couple had purchased the building. Violenceflared again in 1951, when five thousand whites spent several daysfirebombing and looting a building in suburban Cicero after theowners rented a single unit to a black family. The governor of Illinoisdispatched the Illinois National Guard to quell the riot, which injurednineteen people. In 1954 the Chicago Housing Authorityacknowledged that “bombings are a nightly occurrence” whereAfrican American families had moved into neighborhoods that whitepeople regarded as their own.24

In 1948 the Chicago Urban League reported that 375,000 blackresidents of the South Side lived in an area that could legally

accommodate 110,000. The overpopulation led to abysmal sanitaryand health conditions, and many of the buildings were firetraps.Overcrowding pushed hard against the racial boundaries thatencircled the African American areas; between 1946 and 1953 sixepisodes of riots involving between one thousand and ten thousandpeople followed efforts of black citizens to move into areas such asCicero, Englewood, and Park Manor.25 In neighborhood afterneighborhood a familiar drama played out along the hard lines ofChicago segregation. An aspiring black family seeking to escape theghetto agreed to pay an inflated price for a home on a previously all-white block. Alarmed white residents would quickly sell their homes,allowing landlords to gobble them up at bargain prices. The landlordswould then subdivide the apartments and houses into kitchenettes andrent them to blacks, substantially increasing the combined rentalincome for the building. Neglecting repairs and maintenance, thelandlords—the entire local real estate industry, really—created thesame ghetto conditions that the African American pioneers had fled atthe start in the first act of this three-act tragedy. “In Chicago’s‘bungalow belt,’ where a large number of European ethnic working-class families owned their own homes,” observes the historian andcultural critic Craig Werner, “the first signs of the depressing patternunderstandably generated fierce resistance. The result was what onehistorian called ‘chronic urban guerilla warfare.’ ”26

The worst and longest-running of the Chicago housing conflictslasted from August 4, 1953, until well into the fall of 1955.27 It beganwhen Donald and Betty Howard and their two children moved intoTrumbull Park Homes, a 462-unit development in South Deering nearthe steel mills. The project had been kept all-white since opening in1939; the light-skinned Betty Howard got in because the ChicagoHousing Authority misidentified her during the requisite interview. ByAugust 9 a mob of two thousand angry whites was throwing bricksand firebombs and Donald Howard was guarding his family’sapartment with a rifle. The white vigilantes used fireworks to harassand intimidate the Howards at night. Though police cars shuttled thefamily in and out of Trumbull Park, once the Howards were in theirhome the officers did little to ensure their safety, simply yielding the

streets to the mob. On August 10 the white mob stoned thirty passingblack motorists and attacked a city bus carrying African Americans,nearly tipping it over before police intervened. Throughout it allMayor Martin Kennelly said nothing about the ongoing violence.

As the number of African American families moving into TrumbullPark increased to ten, the so-called South Deering ImprovementAssociation kept the riots rolling and organized economic reprisalsagainst any neighborhood stores that served African Americancustomers. The city parks became particular battlegrounds; whenblack youths tried to use a baseball diamond in the neighborhood, theChicago Police Department had to dispatch four hundred officers toprotect them. In protest Willoughby Abner, a trade unionist who waspresident of the Chicago NAACP, organized a baseball “play-in” atSouth Deering’s main park; the United Packinghouse Workers ofAmerica, an interracial but increasingly black union devoted to civilrights, provided support as Abner mobilized the NAACP and sued thecity for inaction. Still conditions in South Deering did not changeappreciably; in late 1954 Chicago’s Federal Housing Administrationdirector called Trumbull Park “a running sore in our civic life.”28

White residents believed that this black “incursion” was only theopening gambit of a campaign of racial infiltration: soon AfricanAmericans would buy private homes, causing property values toplummet, and start taking “white jobs” in the Wisconsin Steel Worksnearby. The heart of the violent white response, however, was morevisceral: like many whites in the Deep South, South Deering’s whiteresidents had a horror of interracial sex. The South Deering Bulletindeclared, “White people built this area [and] we don’t want no part ofthis race mixing.” A housing inspector sent to South Deering reportedthat white residents insisted, “It won’t be long now and Negroes andwhites intermarrying will be a common thing and the white race willgo downhill.” The South Deering Improvement Association openlyrallied whites for the ongoing riots at Trumbull Park by promoting“this fight against forced integration and mongrelization.”29 WalterWhite of the NAACP saw the sad irony: although African Americansfled Mississippi to escape from racial terror, the violence in Chicagorevealed that “Mississippi and the South [followed] them here.”30

But if the battle against integration in Chicago took on some of thesame themes as the battle in Mississippi, there was one big difference:African Americans in Chicago could vote. So when Mayor Kennellyignored complaints about mob violence and housing segregation andforgot that African Americans had considerable force in theDemocratic Party, it cost him his job. Kennelly ran afoul of U.S.Representative William Dawson, the most powerful black electedofficial in America, who headed the black political machine thatremained a crucial part of the larger Chicago Democratic machine.Dawson supervised scores of African American ward committeemembers, precinct captains, and election workers. He swapped blackballots for patronage jobs and for protection of the lucrative SouthSide numbers rackets and jitney cabs, a major source of his politicalfunds. When Kennelly’s police department targeted the numbersgames and jitneys, Dawson declared war. His opposition to Kennellypermitted another Irishman, Richard Daley, head of the Democraticmachine, to slide into place.31

Chicago insiders expected that African Americans would see majorchanges along the color line if Daley were elected mayor. So someblack voters must have been taken aback when it became clear thatDaley’s vision for Chicago rested on his commitment to racialsegregation in schools and housing. Others may have beendisappointed to discover that Representative Dawson shared thatcommitment, though for different reasons.32

For Dawson it was simple enough: he did not want to disperse theblack voters whose ballots were the source of his power. Packed intothe South Side’s State Street Corridor, black voters were manageable.Likewise these ghettoes were where people played the numbers andwhere the lack of public transportation made unlicensed jitneys anessential part of life; both of these illicit operations poured money intoDawson’s campaign coffers. In exchange for his ability to deliver blackvotes, Dawson expected that Daley would keep the police away fromthe numbers runners and jitney drivers. He also expected Daley toallot him a share of the city’s patronage jobs. Thus, as far as Dawsonwas concerned, the preservation of the racial status quo was apractical necessity and good business.33

Daley, on the other hand, reflected the stony conservatism thatprevailed in most white, ethnic, working-class neighborhoods in the1950s. He believed in racial separation of the kind that marked hisown Irish neighborhood of Bridgeport and the various ethnicneighborhoods that bordered it, especially the South Side’s blackghetto. Black people belonged on the other side of Wentworth Avenue,and that was that. He came to power at a time when the blackpopulation hit record highs, when Chicago’s white middle class and agood many downtown businesses had begun to flee to the suburbs,aided by cheap FHA loans, lower taxes, and America’s new highways.“White” neighborhoods became “black” neighborhoods as poorAfrican Americans flooded in from the South. Daley intended torescue Chicago from this dynamic by building a new city on anunarticulated commitment to segregation.

However, the African American vote marshaled by Dawson’smachine was too rich for a machine Democrat like Daley to ignore, sohe carefully appealed to both sides on the dicey issues around race. Hewas solicitous of Dawson and made it clear that the numbers racketsand the unlicensed jitneys would encounter no legal hassles under aDaley administration. He presented himself as a civil rights supporterin the black community, even giving lip service to the notion thateveryone had a right to live wherever their talents would take them.

Through the white grapevine, however, he spread the word that hewould preserve the color line in housing. He made quiet racial appealsin the white working-class neighborhoods, circulating letters from thenonexistent “American Negro Civic Association” that praised hisopponent for supporting open housing. He spoke in favor of publichousing but always added, “Let’s not be arguing about where it’slocated.” He appointed a committee to study the racial problems atTrumbull Park Homes but made sure the group did nothing.

Daley rode into office on a heavy majority of black votes on April20, 1955, four months to the day before Emmett Till climbed onto theCity of New Orleans with his great-uncle Moses Wright and hiscousin Wheeler Parker and set out for Mississippi. In the fall, wellafter the election, the NAACP’s Willoughby Abner brought fivethousand demonstrators to city hall holding signs that protested the

city’s ongoing racial segregation: “Trumbull Park—Chicago’s LittleMississippi.”34


E M M E T T I N C H I C AG O A N D “ L I T T L E

M I S S I S S I P P I ”

Mamie Carthan, a bright, plump toddler, was born in Webb,

Mississippi, “really not much of a town at all,” she remembered, morelike a handful of stores “in search of a town.” The main street dividedthe black and white sides of the dusty little community. “Just aboutany place else would have been better than Mississippi in the 1920s,”she mused. In 1924 the Great Migration swept Alma and Wiley NashCarthan and their two-year-old daughter to Argo, Illinois, a town offewer than three thousand people some twelve miles from Chicago.Wiley had landed a job at Argo’s central enterprise, the Corn ProductsRefining Company.

It wasn’t long before the Carthans referred to Argo as their own“Little Mississippi.” Other family members had already established abeachhead for relatives, friends, and even strangers who heard theremight be work in Chicago or Argo. Mamie’s grandmother founded achurch for the migrants. “As I was growing up,” Mamie wrote later,“it really seemed like almost everybody from Mississippi was comingthrough our house—the Ellis Island of Chicago.”1

Mississippi in memory remained both the ancestral homeplace anda land of ghosts and terror. “All kinds of stories came out ofMississippi with the black people who were running for their lives,”Mamie wrote. There had been talk of a terrible lynching inGreenwood, another young man strung mutilated from a tree, not far

from Money, where her uncle Moses and aunt Elizabeth Wright lived.The Greenwood lynching “was the sort of horrible thing you onlyheard about in the areas nearby.” In the decades before the civil rightsera, racial killings in remote corners of the Deep South frequentlywent unreported by the national or even the local press.2 What themigrants learned by word of mouth has since been established as fact.Mississippi outstripped the rest of the nation in virtually everymeasure of lynching: the greatest number of lynchings, the mostlynchings per capita, the most lynchings without an arrest orconviction, the most female victims, the most multiple lynchings, andon and on.3 Richard Wright, writing of his boyhood in Mississippi inthe 1920s, observed, “The things that influenced my conduct as aNegro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hearabout them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of myconsciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was amore effective control of my behavior than that which I knew.”4

Mamie was haunted by the story of a little black girl who had beenplaying with a white girl at the home of the white family thatemployed her mother. The white girl got upset with the black girl andran to tell her father as he walked up the driveway from work. Heangrily snatched up the black girl, shook her like a rag doll, thentossed her up against a tree in the front yard. “Now, that girl’s motherhad to finish her day’s work before she could even look after herdaughter, who was left there writhing in pain the rest of the day,”Mamie remembered many years later. “Eventually, the little girl diedof her injuries.” This was “a cautionary tale,” she said, a tale of horrorrooted in real experience, whether or not it was precisely true in itsparticular details. “Was this a true story? I don’t know. But I do knowthis: Somewhere between the fact we know and the anxiety we feel isthe reality we live.”5

Though Argo was almost close enough to be a part of Chicago, thereality the Carthan family lived was “a sleepy little town where whitescalled blacks by their first names and where blacks would never dareto do the same thing.”6 Segregation was haphazard and unpredictable.“Some of the white kids and people of Argo could get nasty and givethe Negro children a rough time just for spite,” recalls Gerald V.

Stokes, who grew up in Argo during the 1950s. Black children in Argowere told never to enter restaurants or business establishments exceptin the company of an adult: “They were warned never to take shortcuts to school through the white neighborhoods. They were warnednever to talk to strangers, especially white strangers, or to talk back[to] white folks.” In Argo, according to Stokes, “bad things happenedto little Negro children at the hands of white strangers.”7

Argo was a community of immigrants, nearly all of them fromMississippi, who had come in search of the Promised Land and foundsomething less grand. Even so the kids frolicked loudly up and downthe streets until darkness began to fall. Mothers and fathers sat on thestoops and laughed out loud without concern for who might hear.Neighbors shared access to telephones, which were rare, and simplyyelled to communicate with friends across the street. “Everyone talkedloudly and freely,” writes Stokes. “They felt secure in the blackness oftheir lives.”8 Mamie agrees: “You could pretty much see it all fromour end, on the sidewalk in front of our home. The elementary schoolright across the street, the church not too far down the street, and tothe right, filling up the distant horizon, was the Corn Products plant.Our whole world.”9

All the Carthans’ immediate neighbors were family members fromMississippi. Aunt Marie, Uncle Kid, and his cousin “June Bug” livedwest of the Carthans. Uncle Crosby and his family lived to the east.Just behind them were Aunt Babe and Uncle Emmett. Mamie’s great-uncle Lee Green lived across the street. This must have made a terriblyhard thing a little easier when Mamie’s father left the family in 1932,when she was eleven, and moved to Detroit to marry another woman.Even with her daddy gone, Mamie grew up in the bosom of thisextended family, much beloved, secure from the many-sided perils ofMississippi and sheltered from the Chicago that E. Franklin Fraziercalled “the City of Destruction.”10

And it wasn’t just Mississippi kin who found welcome and a senseof belonging in the Carthan household. “Our house was themeetinghouse, the gathering place, the center of the community,”recalled Mamie, whose deep attachment to her mother never faded.“It was the place where Mama had helped [her mother] found the

Argo Temple Church of God in Christ and where she recruited newmembers with practically each new Mississippi migrant.” Here in“Little Mississippi” they found new lives anchored by the CornProducts plant and surrounded by the family but still tethered to theSouth.11 In the summer black folks from Argo felt an unwrittenobligation to visit family in Mississippi and reconnect with the socialand spiritual world that continued to define their lives.12

•  •  •

On October 14, 1940, at eighteen, Mamie married Louis Till, a burly,athletic gambler who favored dice and poker and loved boxing. “Ibecame pregnant right away, and being the plump type, I began fillingout rapidly,” she later told a newspaper reporter. “This set theneighbors’ tongues to clacking busily.” Emmett Louis Till was born inCook County Hospital on July 25, 1941, after a long and difficultlabor. Medical complications during a breech birth left the infantscarred from the instruments and with a badly bruised knee, amongother injuries. The doctors thought that some damage might bepermanent; thankfully they were wrong. Mamie was in bad shape formonths, but at two months old Emmett “was a beautiful baby with asunny disposition and every sign of being normal.” By Mamie’saccount, her husband never once came to see his son or his wife in thehospital.13

The family had nicknamed the baby “Bobo” even before he wasborn, and the name stuck. Because he was born so light-skinned, withblond hair and blue eyes, the neighbors gossiped; the milkman and theice man both became suspects, according to Mamie. Soon, however,Emmett’s hair darkened, his eyes turned hazel brown, and he favoredLouis so strongly that his paternity could not be doubted.14

Louis Till, dictatorial and ill-tempered, resented the amount of timehis wife spent at her mother’s house after Emmett was born. Heexpected to have supper waiting for him when he came home from hisCorn Products job. If Mamie and the baby were still at her mother’s,he became abusive and violent when she did return. During oneepisode Mamie threw boiling water on him. Eventually she and the

baby moved into her mother’s house, and in 1942 Mamie and Louisseparated permanently.15

Louis’s efforts to reconcile with Mamie also became abusive, andshe obtained a restraining order against him, which he violatedpersistently. In later years she claimed that a judge finally gave him achoice between jail and military service. He joined the army andregularly sent his estranged family child support payments of $22 amonth. In July 1945 the checks stopped coming and a telegram fromthe Department of Defense informed her that Louis had been executedin Italy for “willful misconduct.” The army later sent her attorney arecord of the court-martial, which would have explained that he hadbeen convicted of raping two women and killing a third whilestationed in Italy. The army shipped his few belongings to Argo,including a silver ring engraved with the initials “L.T.” She put thering away, thinking that Emmett might want it someday.16

When Emmett was naughty, he hid under the bed, peeking out tosee if anyone was chasing him. Mamie was completely disarmed by hisplayful defiance and could hardly think to scold him.17 Her mothersupplied most of the order and discipline in the household. As far asAlma Carthan was concerned, she now had two babies. “I was the bigkid, Emmett was the little kid,” Mamie explained. “We were so muchlike brother and sister, like friends back then, and it added a uniquedimension to the mother-son bond we would forge over the yearsahead.”18

That bond grew even stronger after a crisis that struck them in thesummer of 1946. Emmett had just turned six. His mother noticed thatalthough he had plenty of energy during the day, he seemed to deflatewith fatigue every evening. This was unlike him, who was ordinarily adynamo until bedtime. Then his temperature began to rise sharplyevery night. Alma and Mamie rubbed him with “goose grease” andmade him drink “hoof tea” every evening. “These remedies weresupposed to cure a lot of things,” Mamie wrote. “I never knew why orhow. I didn’t even know what kind of hoof came in that little box oftea. I didn’t know what [goose grease] was supposed to do, either. Ijust knew that all our folks from Mississippi used it.”19

But Emmett only grew worse with the home remedies, so theycalled a doctor, who gave the boy a diagnosis that broke Mamie’sheart: “Polio was the worst thing that could happen to you back then.It didn’t kill you, but it could take your life away from you just thesame.” Polio threatened permanent limb damage and lifelongdisability. The doctor ordered Emmett quarantined at home; hecouldn’t leave the house, nor could anyone come over to see him, adecree the six-year-old fought. “Mama had to sit with Emmett all thetime, practically holding him in the bed,” remembered Mamie.20

After thirty days “he had beaten it.  .  .  . He was finally up andrunning again and practically tore a hole in the screen to get out.”21

The polio left him with a noticeable stutter and weak ankles thatforced him to wear special shoes, but neither of those infirmities kepthim from moving relentlessly through the world. Endearing and lively,he had plenty of toys and plenty of friends, so that his grandmother’syard became a kind of neighborhood playground. He and his friendsplayed baseball and basketball in the nearby schoolyard and park, andon special occasions they liked to go to the Brookfield Zoo aboutthree miles away.

Just as Emmett recovered from polio and escaped to the baseballdiamond, Mamie’s cousins Hallie and Wheeler Parker Sr. moved fromMississippi to the house next door. It was the house where her uncleCrosby Smith had lived until he decided to move back to Mississippi.Emmett became best friends with Wheeler Jr., who was two yearsolder.22

Aside from that month of pain and the loneliness of his quarantine,those three years in Argo, from 1947 to 1950, were paradise forEmmett, surrounded by playmates and next door to his best friend. Sowhen Mamie and Emmett moved to Detroit in 1950 to live with herfather while she worked at the Fort Wayne Induction Center, Emmettwas terribly homesick. The following year she met Pink Bradley, anauto worker at Chrysler, and married him after a brief romance.Seeing Emmett’s homesickness grow worse Mamie decided that herboy should move back to Argo and live with Uncle Kid and AuntMarie.23 When Pink lost his job at Chrysler, he and Mamie relocatedto Chicago; there they moved into an apartment on South St.

Lawrence, right next to the apartment her mother had moved intoearlier. Emmett happily joined them.24

But Pink began spending his weekends in Detroit, a five-hour driveaway. Slowly he drifted back to Detroit altogether and away from hismarriage. When Mamie learned that he had a woman in Detroit, sheand her mother changed the locks and threw his clothes into theyard.25

Now Alma, Mamie, and Emmett were back together again, withEmmett, a natural prankster and mimic, keeping all of thementertained. “From the very beginning with Emmett there waslaughter,” wrote Mamie. “I heard about more chickens crossing moreroads, and knock-knock this and knock-knock that. All those tired,old jokes that were still new to him. Sometimes he would tell riddlesthat he seemed to have been making up, because they didn’t makesense. Or maybe you just had to be [a child] to understand them.”26

They got a television, and Emmett learned to mimic the earlycomedians. “He knew the routines of all the top ones on television,”Simeon Wright remembered, “Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Abbott andCostello, and George Gobel. Gobel, with his deadpan delivery, was aparticular favorite of Bobo’s.”27

Emmett’s audience included the band of boys he ran with onweekends in Argo, which he could reach in less than an hour on the63rd Street bus. His cousins Wheeler, William, and Milton Parkerwere regular playmates, as were his cousins Crosby “Sunny” Smith,Sam Lynch, and Tyrone Modiest, and friends like Donny Lee Taylorand later Lindsey Hill. “When those boys got together it was non-stoplaughter,” his mother recalled.28

Sometimes Mamie would cart the boys to the beach on LakeMichigan; she had to take care, of course, since segregation of publicbeaches, though not a matter of law, was a fact of life in the 1950s.29

But that did not spoil their fun. One day the Argo crew decided towear their swim trunks home and just carry their clothes. “Donny Leemade the mistake of falling asleep in the car with Bo,” Mamie wrote.“He woke up to find that he was wearing his underwear after all. Onhis head.”30

On warm nights the boys would end up “doo-wopping” under alamppost. It was most likely Emmett, whom everybody described as anatural showman who “liked the spotlight,” who brought this newform of entertainment to his cousins.31 Throughout the 1950s aburgeoning South Side street-corner doo-wop scene blended gospelharmonies with pop lyrics to produce groups such as the Dells and theFlamingos and singers like Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler.32

According to Mamie, however, the Argo boys were in no danger ofhitting the big time: “For this group of boys standing under a curbsidespotlight, the music was off-key, it was out of sync, it was perfect. Thegrace note of their young lives.”33

Emmett seemed to blossom in the years he lived in Chicago andplayed in Argo. He enrolled in the fifth grade at James McCoshElementary School, only two blocks from their place on South St.Lawrence. McCosh was an all-black school with 1,600 students inkindergarten through eighth grade and an interracial faculty. “Emmettwas never a discipline problem,” the principal told reporters. “Hetended to be quiet. As a student, he was average.” Teachers noted thathe was close to his mother and that he attended church regularly.

The pastor of the Church of God in Christ in Argo—the churchfounded many years earlier in Alma Carthan’s house—observed thatyoung Emmett rode the 63rd Street bus almost every Sunday morningto attend the church where he had grown up. Wheeler Parker Sr.,Emmett’s uncle and superintendent of the Sunday school, reportedthat Emmett had a near-perfect attendance record every year.34 “Heliked going to church,” said his mother, who attended far less often,“and he was under the influence of his grandmother, a deeply religiouswoman.”35

After his mother’s marriage to Pink Bradley ended in 1953, Emmetttook on more adult household responsibilities. “Since I had to workand make the living,” Mamie said, “Bo did all of the housework andlaundry. I did the cooking but he even learned to do some of this. Hewas a good housekeeper.”36 Eva Johnson, who lived next door,recalled “the time he was going to surprise his mother with a cake.” Itwas a yellow cake “made with eggs like pound cake, only using ready-mix.” Emmett asked Johnson to come tell him what was wrong with

the cake. “Lord ’a’ mercy, he’d watched it ’til it began to rise, then hebegan stirring it! I told him it was ruined [and] he’d better just quit.”37

His increased responsibilities moved young Emmett quickly to theedge of manhood. “In between taking care of more and more thingsfor me,” Mamie noted, “he made sure he took care of his own things.”He was meticulous about his clothes. He fancied a straw hat and a tiewhen he went to church, and even on the ball field he tried to look hisbest. But if this was to impress girls, he did not appear to be very goodat it. At fourteen he had had only one date, and he never really had agirlfriend. He still stammered at times, a lingering effect of polio. Hewas only five feet four inches tall, but stocky, weighing about 160pounds. His great-uncle Moses Wright acknowledged, “He looked likea man.”38

And so it was understandable that his mother gave her assent to theproposed trip to Money but also delivered lengthy lectures about thedifferences between Mississippi and Chicago. She urged Emmett toavoid conversations with white people, to speak only if spoken to, andto always say “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” or “No, ma’am” and “No,sir.” If a white woman should walk toward you on the sidewalk, taketo the street and lower your eyes. Should any dispute arise with anywhite person whatsoever, humble yourself and agree with them.Emmett protested that he knew all that, that she had already taughthim how to act.

In the glare of attention following the murder of her son, Mamieclaimed, “This was the first time I had ever really spoken to Emmettabout race.” Perhaps. “After all, how do you give a crash course inhatred to a boy who has only known love?” Certainly it is true thatEmmett grew up blanketed by love, and if he drifted into any of theracial battles around him in Chicago, no record of it exists. But it isunlikely this was the first time she cautioned her son to watch his step.In the segregated and often violent Chicago of the 1950s, Emmett didnot need to take a train south to discover that being black made him apotential target, any more than he needed his mother to explain thatfact.

Mamie and Emmett were to meet Uncle Moses and Wheeler atEnglewood Station about eight o’clock that morning. It was

practically around the corner, but even so, the whistle blew whileMamie was buying Emmett’s ticket, and they had to run to the train.“He liked to got left,” Wright said later. “If he’d taken five minuteslater, he’d have missed it.” A quick kiss and he was gone, wearing hisfather’s silver ring engraved “L.T.” and waving to his mother from thetop of the platform.39


P I S T O L – W H I P P I N G AT C H R I S T M A S

“The color of our skin didn’t make any difference when we were

young,” Carolyn Bryant lied wistfully, looking back over eightdecades. In this cheerful falsehood she had a lot of company. Butunlike many other white Americans, Carolyn was also capable ofhonesty and even clarity on matters of race. “As I grew older,” shecontinued, “I learned that it was not okay to have black friends,[though] our parents taught us that everyone deserves respect.”1

•  •  •

Carolyn Holloway was born on July 23, 1934, a hot, muggyafternoon, on the Archer Plantation, about ten miles down a blisteringDelta blacktop from Cruger, Mississippi. A premature baby weighingonly four and a half pounds, she was born on her father’s birthday.2

“We lived in a big house on the plantation,” Carolyn told me. “Notthe big house, just a large house that was built for the plantationmanager.” Her father, Tom Holloway, had a reputation as an efficientplantation manager and a good cotton farmer, and plantation ownerscompeted for his services, so the Holloway family moved frequently.Moving had become more and more common in the rural Southduring the Depression, among Southern sharecroppers moving justdown the road as well as poor whites taking the “hillbilly highway” toDetroit and African Americans hopping the “chicken bone express” toChicago. All trekked in search of greater opportunity.3 Home was afragile concept for the Holloways, but they never traveled very far.

Though they lived on several different plantations in the MississippiDelta, Carolyn’s heart always belonged in Cruger, where her maternalgrandparents and Aunt Mabel, her mother’s oldest sister, lived.

Besides being a plantation manager Tom Holloway worked as aprison guard in Lambert at one of the outlying camps of the notoriousMississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman Farm. Theprisoners “were all black, they were all black men. And my daddyworked at Camp A, the first one. They had a sergeant and a first riderand a second rider. My daddy was the first rider.” All the riders werewhite men, each with a whip, a shotgun, and a rifle, who oversaw theprisoners from horseback. The inmates in their black-and-white-striped uniforms addressed the drivers as “Cap’n.”4

Camp A had been part of the O’Keefe Plantation in QuitmanCounty until the Mississippi Department of Corrections purchased theland in 1916. In their physical structure, the camps resembled aslavery-era plantation. Black convicts took the place of the enslaved,but otherwise the systems were identical—the same crops grown in thesame way under the same discipline. In both instances the farmingoperation depended on a handful of poor white men to supervise thecaptive laborers.

The instrument of authority at Mississippi’s prison camps was aleather strap, three feet long and six inches wide, nicknamed “BlackAnnie,” hanging from each driver’s belt. A former inmate remarked,“They beat hell out of you for any reason or no reason. It’s thegreatest pleasure of their lives.” It was not unusual for the drivers towhip a convict for working too slowly or for breaking a shovel. “Thedriver seemed to be everywhere, ‘directing, scolding, encouraging, orwhacking across the shoulders with the whip.’ ” More formalpunishment was a whipping in the evening, in front of all the men,with the victim spread-eagle on the floor. “They whupped us with big,wide strops. They didn’t whup no clothes. They whupped your nakedbutt. And they had two men to hold you [or] as many as they need.”Routine offenses like fighting, stealing, and showing “disrespect” to adriver earned five to fifteen lashes; attempts to escape brought thepunishment of whipping without limit—whippings that weresometimes fatal. “They’d kill um like that.”5

During the 1930s and well into the 1950s the lash enjoyedwidespread public support among whites in Mississippi. Editors,church groups, public officials, sheriffs, and prison authorities allseemed to support whipping as “the perfect instrument of discipline ina prison populated by the wayward children of former slaves,” writesthe historian David Oshinsky. These prison camps were “a powerfullink to the past—a place of racial discipline where blacks in stripedclothing worked the cotton fields for the enrichment of others. And itwould remain this way for another half-century, until the civil rightsmovement methodically swept it away.”6

No one would expect a little girl to be told about or to understandthe realities of work and life at one of the prison camps attached toParchman, particularly if her father worked there. On the other hand,it stretches the imagination to think that the sensibilities of a manchosen as first driver on Parchman Farm were so delicate theyprevented him from joining in the brutal rigors of his job. But Carolynremained firm that her father had never taken part in those routines.“The sergeant told him he would have to take his turn on whippingnight,” she said. “My daddy refused to do it. And on whipping nighthe would come home, and he would go into the bedroom and closethe door and go to bed.”

•  •  •

In her living room awash in sunlight, decades separating her from thelast violent years of Jim Crow Mississippi, Carolyn recalled themoment segregation and white supremacy became sharply drawnimperatives: a bike ride long ago that she didn’t take with BarnesFreeman.

Barnes was the son of black laborers. His mother, Annie Freeman,cleaned the Holloways’ house and kept the household runningsmoothly, while Isadore, his dark-skinned father, worked as a hostleron one of the plantations that Carolyn’s father managed. A whitefamily did not need to be affluent to afford black servants. When Iwas growing up in the 1960s this was still a ubiquitous pattern in theSouth: black domestics made and served dinner to white families,

never sitting down to share in the meals, of course. The practice gaverise to another inevitable lie white people told themselves: that blackemployees were “just like family.” The insurance policies, family wills,holiday times, and dinner tables, to say nothing of churches, schools,neighborhoods, and public facilities, told a more honest story. “Barneswas our friend, just like family, almost,” Carolyn insisted. “You know,he was all in our house and everything, and I didn’t think a thing inthe world about it. We just really liked him.”

Barnes was “more light-skinned” than his father, “kind ofchocolate milk color,” Carolyn told me. “I think he was probably kindof large for his age.” He was four or five years older than Carolyn, butdespite their age difference, they often played together. Barnes’s playwas inventive, “like putting a rope on an old tire and hanging it fromthe tree, and Barnes would push us on that tire. We’d sit with our legsthrough it and he’d swing us.” With the distance of time she describedBarnes as her favorite companion, with the possible exception of AuntMabel, who frequently kept Carolyn at the family homeplace inCruger, within about ten miles of the series of plantation houses whereCarolyn’s family lived while she was growing up. Cruger was whereshe usually played with Barnes.

Aunt Mabel was more doting grandmother than aunt, with never across word for her favorite niece. Mabel contracted polio as a childand had limped after she recovered; as an adult she fell and shatteredher hip and thereafter spent most of her time in a wheelchair.Carolyn’s time with her aunt was therefore often sedentary, a blessingon the hottest days of the summer. A screened porch ran the length ofthe house and looked out on the dirt road that led toward town, agenerous term when applied to Cruger. “It was a little bitty town[that] just had a row of stores and that’s it,” Carolyn said. Hergrandfather Lee Pikes owned some land near Cruger, and “a littleshack down on the lake he sold fish out of, and he had a grist mill andground meal, and he bootlegged liquor.” In the scorching, steamysummer heat, Carolyn and Aunt Mabel spent most of their time onthe porch, shelling peas, snapping string beans, or just sitting. “Ialmost never wanted to be inside and was content to sit in the swingon the porch, trying not to move, so I might be cooler.”

But every now and then Carolyn chafed against the quieter tempoof her aunt’s house. One summer afternoon when she was ten oreleven and Barnes was fourteen or fifteen, just the age of Emmett Tillwhen he ran afoul of Mississippi’s customs, she was sitting alone onthe porch when Barnes rode his bicycle past the house and waved.“Hey, Barnes,” Carolyn yelled. “Where you going?”

“I’m going to the store to get something for my mama,” he replied.“I asked, ‘Can I go with you?’ ” Carolyn told me. “He said, ‘Yeah,

sure. Jump on the back.’ He had this little rack on the back like old-timey bicycles. . . . I darted off the screened porch, slamming the doorbehind me as usual. And I jumped on the back of his bike.”

Almost instantly, before Barnes had a chance to push off and begintheir ride, Aunt Mabel rolled out of the house onto the porch, pushedopen the screened door, and screeched at the top of her lungs, “Get offthat bike and get in this house, right now!”

“I was startled to hear her scream, as she had never raised her voiceat me before. Immediately I did as I was told, but I was puzzled, as sheseemed to be mad at me.” When Carolyn asked why she was upset,her aunt replied, “Because you don’t need to be riding with boys onyour bike, because people will talk about you.”

“It didn’t dawn on me at the time,” Carolyn wrote many yearslater, “but the real reason she was upset and yelled at me was becauseBarnes was a black boy. . . . This was Mississippi. At that time it wasokay [for small children] to play with black friends at your home [but]it was completely unacceptable for me to be with Barnes and go off tothe store on the back of his bike.”7 She told me, “I don’t rememberbeing around him much after that. So maybe he and I both gotcorrected, you know.”

•  •  •

Carolyn was fifteen in 1949, in high school near Cruger, and had justwon the school’s beauty contest when her father suffered a series ofstrokes. The first two weakened him greatly and kept him fromworking. The final stroke, at age sixty-three, killed him as he sat in

their living room. She was bereft, as was her mother, who was onlyforty-six years old.

Carolyn’s mother began training as a nurse, and the plantation’sowners were kind enough to let the family remain in the house untilshe earned her nursing degree. Then the family moved to the nearbysmall town of Indianola, the seat of Sunflower County. There hermother worked long hours at the hospital while they lived in a smallapartment across the road. Carolyn was barely over five feet tall,weighed less than a hundred pounds, and had lovely brunette hair andfull lips. Her new classmates seemed to agree that she was movie-starmaterial, for she soon won her second high school beauty contest. Tohelp make ends meet she worked behind the sales counter at theMorgan & Lindsay Variety Store and babysat for a number of localfamilies. When her mother worked late Carolyn took care of heryounger siblings.8

Their distance from what Carolyn saw as the paradise of theplantation Delta seemed to be echoed in her memories of race.Indianola, where the Citizens’ Council would one day be founded,was firmly and vehemently segregated. “There were no black childrenin school with us—this was no different from the Delta, of course—and no black families in our neighborhood. In fact, the only contact Ihad with any black people was when I was waiting on them at theMorgan and Lindsay.”

In town Carolyn learned the rigid folkways of race. Black peoplewere expected to say “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” when talking withwhite people, even whites younger than themselves. Blacks were“actin’ up” or “weren’t ‘in their place’ ” if “they didn’t step asidewhen someone white passed them on the sidewalk. They better notlook any white person in the eye, either. That’d get them punched.”Carolyn maintained that in that respect Indianola “was certainlydifferent from the plantation I grew up on,” but it may simply havebeen that her awareness of racial arrangements grew as she got older.

Of course racial separation went deeper than public socialarrangements. The idyll of Barnes and the Cruger of her youth wasover. “We could no longer have black friends when we lived inIndianola,” she wrote. “It was something that was never spoken

directly to us but something we understood as the way things were.”9

At least in memory the change from the more intimate racialpaternalism that represented one kind of life in the rural Delta seemedto Carolyn tied to her family’s loss of a father and their fall from acertain kind of grace.

But for a pretty white girl Indianola had its charms. At her newhigh school Carolyn soon had a boyfriend with a car. One day hedrove her out in the country and offered to show her “the hangingtree.” He explained that “a long time ago” white men had hangedblack men “when they were actin’ up and weren’t in their place.”Carolyn knew how trivial an offense could constitute a violation ofracial mores. “I’m not sure how long ago ‘a long time ago’ was,” shesaid as she told the story. “But I told him, ‘Sure, I want to see thetree.’ ” On a deserted side road he stopped the car in front of a hugeold tree. Up in the thick lower limbs Carolyn detected an ancientlength of rope snagged in the trunk, leaving only a foot or so of frayedrope hanging free, tied in a noose.

Carolyn’s childhood stories are a narrative of class decline. Theyestablish the understanding that she and her family were a rung ortwo above the family into which she married because they werecapable of a paternalistic generosity toward black people in a way herin-laws were not. There are grains of truth here, to be sure, but it isalso a self-exculpating story: if she hadn’t gotten mixed up with theMilam-Bryant clan, the stories suggest, this ugly Till lynching and itsaftermath would never have happened. That is almost certainly true.There was, she declared, a greater degree of gentility to herupbringing, and indeed her character, than the Milams and Bryantspossessed. She described herself as an innocent wandering into a placeshe didn’t quite belong.

•  •  •

The matriarch of a headstrong clan, born Eula Lee Morgan, gave birthto eight sons and three daughters by two different men. Five boyscarried the Milam family name: Edward, the oldest; Spencer Lamar,whom they called Bud or Buddy; followed by John William (J.W.),

Dan, and Leslie. Their father had been killed in a road constructionaccident when a gravel pit caved in on him and three other membersof the crew.10 Eula Lee then married a cousin of her late husband,Henry Ezra Bryant, whom everybody called “Big Boy,” and had sixmore children: Mary Louise, who married Melvin Campbell; two twinboys, Raymond and Roy; then Aileen, James, and finally Doris, bornwith severe mental disabilities.

On ordinary mornings Eula Lee would fix breakfast while Big Boyopened their store, which was next door. Later in the morning Big Boywould come back and eat his breakfast while his wife took care of thestore. Then they would both work in the store all day. One morningEula Lee had eaten her eggs and sausage and waited for her husband,but he did not come home. When she walked over to the store to findhim, she found instead an empty cash register, and one of their carswas missing.

“So she called the bank to see about the bank account,” Carolyntold me, “and it’s been closed down, and he’s gone off with anotherwoman.” Big Boy and the woman fled to Arkansas, where they livedfor seven years, a separation period after which Mississippi law at thetime granted an automatic divorce. After he married the woman, theymoved back to Mississippi and ran a store in the small community ofCurtis Station, forty miles northeast of Eula Lee. Occasionally Roy,who was sixteen or seventeen when his father deserted the family,would drive up there with Carolyn to see him but he was careful tokeep these trips a secret, especially from his mother. She swore that ifshe ever saw “Big Boy” again she would kill him, which was onereason that she carried a .38-caliber revolver everywhere she went.Mrs. Bryant would frequently say, “If I ever see him again,” and shakeher head, reaffirming her homicidal vow. “The pistol was in herpurse,” said Carolyn. “Always.”

Carolyn first met Roy Bryant at a party when she was fourteen andvisiting her oldest sister and her family in Tutwiler. “He was aboutseventeen and so handsome,” she recalled. A few days later Roydropped by her sister’s house and asked her to accompany him andsome friends to another party. Carolyn’s sister said no, but Carolyn’seyes said yes, which he noted.

She didn’t see Roy again until after her father died. “Roy’s familyhad moved to Indianola about the same time that we moved there,”she told me with a glimmer of excitement still flickering sixty-fiveyears later. “I was walking home from school one day, and Roy Bryantrolled up beside me in his Forty-nine Chevrolet.” He smiled andoffered her a ride. “I didn’t hesitate one second.” Thereafter Royappeared quite regularly to give her a ride and sometimes take her fora hamburger and a Coke on the way. “I did slip away with him a fewtimes, but I knew I had to get home to babysit.”

At eighteen Roy joined the 82nd Airborne and was stationed atFort Bragg, North Carolina. Juggling school, her job, and her workabout the house, Carolyn waited eagerly for his furloughs. “Weseemed to grow closer and closer, and I looked forward to his visitswhen he received leave from the service. I just knew I was in love.”One beautiful day in the spring of 1951, Roy proposed. “We decidedto elope the next day,” she said, because she was only sixteen andhadn’t finished high school. “Mama would never sign for me to getmarried.” The next day Carolyn pretended she was going to schoolbut instead met her beau at the post office in Indianola. They pickedup a license at city hall, drove to the parsonage at the Second BaptistChurch in Greenwood, and were married in the living room, withRoy’s cousin and the preacher’s wife as witnesses. Then they drovestraight to a motel to consummate the marriage.

“We left the motel late that afternoon,” recalled Carolyn. On theroad they passed her sister and brother-in-law going in the oppositedirection. Both cars pulled over to the side of the road, and Carolyntold her sister the news. “My sister hugged us, wished us all the best,and hurried off to tell Mama.” The happy couple jumped back in thecar and drove on to Itta Bena, where Roy’s family had gathered tocelebrate the union; the decision to elope had been no secret amongthe Bryants and Milams. They enjoyed a huge supper and a festiveevening, but Roy had to catch a bus back to Fort Bragg that night.“Here we were, married only a few hours, and he was going to leaveme,” she wrote later. “I was devastated.”11

Carolyn found it bizarre that her mother-in-law, Eula Lee, drankwhiskey for breakfast and carried a pistol in her purse at all times.

Short, plump, and bossy, Eula Lee “could embarrass a sailor,cursing. . . . And could put away the booze. That’s the first thing shedid in the morning was fix herself a hot toddy. Bourbon.” Her brother-in-law Melvin Campbell likewise poured down the whiskey. “All thetime, from the very time he woke up in the morning until he passedout.” Melvin in particular “could flare up in a minute. He had a realhair-trigger temper.” Roy’s brothers drank heavily, too, and were alsoquick to fly into a rage. “Well, it was like that with all of ’em. Roywas like that. That’s the way every one of them was like.”

Along with drinking hard, carrying a gun, and having a bad temper,overt expressions of white supremacy were simply part of the Milam-Bryant family’s way of carrying themselves in the world. “They wereracist, the whole family,” confided Carolyn, implicitly exemptingherself. “For one thing, it was the ‘N-word’ all the time. ‘I’ve got thisN working over here doing this, I’m gonna have to go get my moneyfrom that N over there because he’s not paying me.’ ” History hadstacked the social world of Jim Crow Mississippi like pancakes, withAfrican Americans distinctly on the bottom. Pro-slavery ideologues ofthe late 1850s would have called black Mississippians the “mudsill,” afoundational class to perform the necessary labors of life so that thehigher classes could pursue the loftier aims essential to civilization.12

One problem with this social structure was that middle- and lower-class whites tugged and scraped to find a satisfactory place forthemselves. Their one undeniable accomplishment, which afforded asocial status that could not be denied them, was to be born white.White sharecroppers, the lowest of whom even African Americansquietly dismissed as “poor white trash,” occupied the rungs just aboveblacks. Laborers and small-time merchants like the Milams andBryants, who made their living from selling cigarettes and snuff, illegalwhiskey, and various snacks and staples, were only marginally higher;their betters derided them as “peckerwoods.”

Though she liked to have a good time, Eula Lee was blunt. “If you[didn’t] want to know the truth, [you didn’t] ask her,” her daughter-in-law chuckled. “The only thing I ever heard her say, actually, about[the Till murder] was that it was a shame I’d left the pistol in the car, Icould have saved them all that trouble.” Though tough as rough-hewn

timber, Eula Lee pulled her children close to her and taught them towork hard and stick together. She organized an unflagging stream offamily gatherings, often at her little grocery store in Swan Lake or theone after that in Sharkey, to eat big meals and drink a lot of whiskey.Somebody would bring fried chicken or pork chops. “It seemed likealmost every weekend we were going to somebody’s house orsomebody was coming to our house,” Carolyn recalled. “And we’dhave just lots of regular old food, beans and peas and corn andpotatoes, and all of it.” There were few if any secrets. “Everything youdid or got, whatever,” Carolyn told me, “was everybody’s business.And they were all in on it.”13

The Milam-Bryant brothers were especially close, working togetherand regularly playing cards and drinking together. “You could nevertell they were [only] half-brothers,” said their mother, “unless theytold you.” Each of them carried a pistol. Seven of the eight of themhad served in the military.14 And most of them eventually ran smallgrocery stores throughout Leflore, Tallahatchie, and SunflowerCounties, in Swan Lake, Glendora, Minter City, Itta Bena, Ruleville,and Money. According to local law enforcement records, the storessold whiskey in violation of the state’s Prohibition laws.15

Eula Lee’s sons practiced a raw style of masculine camaraderie thatrevolved around guns, hunting, fishing, poker, and drinking. Boyswould be boys and women would stay out of it. Carolyn said, “Theydid such crazy things all the time anyway, you didn’t really questionwhat they were doing. ‘Well, you wanna go see if we can find adeer?’—you know, at two o’clock in the morning—or ‘Let’s go get so-and-so and play some cards.’ ” They shocked young Carolyn with theirloud arguments over practically anything. “They did have some of theworst arguments, cuss-fights, you ever heard, with their poker games.You would think they were gonna get up and fight, yeah.” Eula Leetried to reassure her daughter-in-law. “I would say ‘Oh, my goodness’when I first got in the family, you know, and I thought, ‘Ooh, what’sgoing on, they’re getting ready to fight in there.’ And Mrs. Bryantwould say, ‘Oh, don’t pay any attention to them, they’re not gon’fight.’ ” Carolyn believed her, up to a point. “You just never knewwhat was coming—those kind of people. But they were hard.”

The Milams and Bryants believed “that they could do anythingthey wanted to do and get away with it because they had a lot ofclout”; that’s how Carolyn put it years later. This confidence owedsomething to their association with the newly elected sheriff ofTallahatchie County, Henry Clarence Strider, known as “H.C.” Thesheriff was a 270-pound former football player who owned 1,500acres of prime Delta cotton land and held sway over dozens of blacksharecropping families. Carolyn described Strider as “sort of like theGodfather in Mississippi at that time. Whatever he said was what youdid.” Presumably because of their political support, the Milams andBryants enjoyed his protection from the law and from everyone else.“One reason they were so much the way they were was that theythought they were in tight with him.” Though Strider would prove tobe a lordly ally, his vassals remained peniless peckerwoods.

As soon as Roy and Carolyn could scrape together the bus fare, shedropped out of high school and moved to North Carolina to be withhim. She’d never left Mississippi before. Five months later she waspregnant and took the long bus ride back to her mother’s house; thekindly driver pulled over time and time again to let his queasy youngpassenger throw up. In a few months she headed back to NorthCarolina with a three-month-old baby boy and got pregnant againalmost immediately.16

When Roy was discharged from the army there was no question asto where the couple wanted to raise their growing family. They renteda little house in Glendora, where J.W. and his wife, Juanita, lived. Ithad front and rear screened porches like Aunt Mabel’s house inCruger. It helped to have someplace cooler to sit that first summer,when she was so hot and so pregnant. “I was pregnant with Lamar,and Juanita was pregnant with Harley [and] she would come overalmost every day to help me with Roy Jr.” Carolyn enjoyed andappreciated her sister-in-law, a quiet, soft-spoken woman whomphotographers at the Till trial found quite fetching; “downright sexy”was how Carolyn remembered her. “When I had to go to the doctor,she would take me, or she’d bring her car and I’d drop her off and I’dgo. I could depend on her.” When Carolyn went into labor, Roy

borrowed J.W.’s car to go to the hospital, where she gave birth to theirsecond son.

Roy aspired to have his own trucking business, like J.W., so theyoung parents invested his army separation pay and her small savingsto buy a dump truck. Roy began to haul gravel and make a littlemoney. He soon hired and began to train another driver, but thetrainee crashed the truck; both men escaped the flames, but the truckwas a total loss. Worse, Roy learned that the insurance company heused had gone bankrupt just prior to the accident. Without funds toreplace the truck, his dream was over, and he went to work for J.W.

One day in late 1953 Roy walked into their house and told Carolynthat they would be moving. With the help of J.W. he had bought astore in Money. Though he had rented the building, he had boughteverything inside. Whether or not this was a good idea she did notknow. “Roy never let me in on the planning of his business ventureswith his family,” she wrote. “I just accepted the fact that he was thebreadwinner in our family, and [that] I needed to do as he asked me.”Because of the store they would have most daily necessities close athand, but otherwise they were still poor, unable to afford a car or atelevision set.17

Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market was on the first floor in front ina two-story brick building. The store became the local trading post forstaples, tobacco, beer, snacks, and cold drinks, a place where peoplecame to pass the time of day.18 The post office, the filling station, andthe store made up the business section of Money. The Bryants lived onthe first floor behind the store.19 The majority of their customers wereblack. Out front, under the awning, Roy and Carolyn had “madethings fairly comfortable for the Negroes who patronize[d] theirstore,” one journalist wrote, while whites chatted indoors. Severalwooden benches and two or three checkerboards with bottle-capcheckers saw consistent use on the porch.20

Roy and Carolyn stocked the shelves with snuff, cigarettes, andcigars and the drink box with Cokes and grape sodas and R.C. Colas.In the glass-covered counter they put candy bars: Mounds, BabyRuths, Kits, Paydays, Almond Joys, Butternuts, Hershey’s bars,Butterfingers, and Milky Ways. There was penny candy, too—fireballs

and Mary Janes, Milk Duds and peppermint sticks, Dum-Dums andSlow Pokes—and Juicy Fruit, Doublemint, Dentyne, and Double-Bubble gum. The cookie selections included Stage Planks, Jack’s,Moon Pies, and all kinds of “Nabs,” as they called Nabisco cookiesand crackers and anything like them. On the counter sat a tall glass jarof pickled pigs’ feet, another of big dill pickles, and a third of pickledeggs, with squares of wax paper to pick them up. They sold sardines,pork ’n’ beans, milk, Wonder Bread, eggs, flour, lard, fatback, butter,bananas, cinnamon buns, Spic ’n’ Span cleanser, and small householditems of all kinds. The meat counter was in the back.21

•  •  •

If any of her children inherited Eula Lee’s fiery temperament, it wasthe outsized middle child among the first set of five Milam children.He was the ruling body and spirit among all of them. “J. W. Milamwas so domineering and so had to be in control all the time,”according to Carolyn. Six feet two inches and more than 230 pounds,an extrovert and a decorated war hero, he had black hair around theedges of his massive bald head. “Big,” they called him, because hetook up a lot of space, literally and figuratively.22

Born in 1919 in Tallahatchie County, John William Milam attendedschool through the tenth grade. He served in the U.S. Army, 2ndArmored Division, from 1941 until the spring of 1946.23 During thewar he fought in Germany, often in house-to-house, hand-to-handcombat, and won a battlefield commission to lieutenant, a Silver Star,a Purple Heart, and several other medals.24 “I do remember seeingJ.W. with his shirt off one time, and he had some deep holes in hisback, and when I asked Juanita about it, she said that’s where theshrapnel hit him when he was injured in service,” Carolyn recalled.His mother bragged, “He started as a private and got his commissionthe hard way.” The journalist William Bradford Huie described Milamas “an expert platoon leader, expert street fighter, expert in nightpatrol, expert with a [Thompson machine gun], expert with everydevice for close-range killing.”25 His favorite weapon, however, wasthe army .45-caliber pistol. “I can tell you how good he was with that

old pistol,” his son boasted to FBI agents years later. “I seen him shootbumble bees out of the air with it.”26

J. J. Breland, a local attorney, regarded J.W. as a kind of brutalnecessity for the social order of white supremacy. “He comes from abig, mean, overbearing family,” Breland said bluntly. “Got a chip onhis shoulder. That’s how he got that battlefield promotion in Europe;he likes to kill folks. But, hell, we’ve got to have our Milams to fightour wars and keep the niggahs in line.” One of four lawyers whowould defend Milam and Bryant, Breland told Huie to let the countryknow that integration was out of the question in Mississippi. “Thewhites own all the property in Tallahatchie County. We don’t need theniggers no more.”27 Of course this was hardly the case for the Bryantsand Milams, who relied almost entirely on African Americans for theirlivelihood. Nor would they likely have agreed with Breland, despitetheir relative poverty, about their social position among whiteMississippians.

Early in her marriage Carolyn clashed with J.W. on at least oneoccasion. “One thing that happened upset me pretty badly, and J.W.and I had a few words about it.” The memory was sharp even sixtyyears later. “I said, ‘I’ve got to figure out where to vote.’ He says, ‘Oh,you don’t have to worry about that—I’ve already voted for you.’ Myfirst time to vote, and he voted for me.” Her resentment still soundedfresh. “That’s what he told me: ‘You can’t go back and vote, I’vealready voted for you.’ I told him, ‘Don’t you ever do that to meagain.’ I’d been waiting all that time to vote and didn’t get to.”

If Roy objected to his half-brother voting for his wife, Carolyn didnot remember it. J.W., fourteen years his senior, seemed to have a holdon Roy. When other people asked why they had different last namesor referred to them as “half-brothers,” Roy would say, “We don’tconsider us half-brothers. We’re brothers.” When Big Boy Bryant leftthe family, Big Milam took over the paternal role, especially for Roy.28

The younger man certainly looked up to and took his cues from hishefty older sibling.

J.W. lived in the small community of Glendora, where he owned astore, a gas station, and a small house. He also owned a truckingbusiness and an agricultural service firm; he had bought several large

trucks and could repair and operate heavy farm machinery. When hehad a long haul to make from Texas or Louisiana, he would often letRoy handle it.29 He hired local African Americans to grade and repairdriveways and gravel roads and take care of his trucks. They wouldalso “wash his pickup and Juanita’s car and stuff like that,” his sister-in-law remembered. “Clean up, sweep out the store, take out thetrash.” Huie wrote, “Those who know him say he can handle Negroesbetter than anybody in the county.” Milam himself agreed with theassessment, only adding the lie, “I ain’t never hurt a nigger in mylife.”30 Decades later Carolyn said of her brother-in-law, encompassingmore than she meant and perhaps even knew, “He seemed to have agood relationship with them, and I think they were probably afraid ofhim too.”



On Wednesday evening, August 24, 1955, Reverend Moses Wright

held services at the East Money Church of God in Christ. His threesons, Wheeler Parker, and Emmett Till had picked cotton throughoutthe morning and part of the afternoon. Summer was coming to anend, and soon enough they’d be parted for at least a school year. SoWright did not force the boys to attend church; instead he loanedthem his 1941 Ford, instructing them to go no farther than the nearbycountry store because Maurice, who was driving, had no license. Sixboys and one girl made the drive. The oldest was Thelton “Pete”Parker, nineteen, who lived nearby, as did Ruthie Mae Crawford, whowas eighteen, and her brother Roosevelt Crawford, fifteen. The twoyoungest were Simeon, twelve, and Emmett, fourteen. Wheeler andMaurice were sixteen. After Maurice dropped his parents off at thechurch, the group disregarded his father’s imperative and drove toBryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, only three miles away.1

When they arrived they gathered in front of the store; they’d comefor candy and drinks but were in no hurry. “I noticed a group ofyoung people congregating on the porch,” Carolyn Bryant recalled. “Itwas not unusual for people to be on the porch as there were manychecker games played by the locals outside our window.” “Locals”was a courtesy used decades after these events. At the time, in politecompany, at least, they were called “Negroes,” and the store survivedbecause they gathered on that porch “almost daily.”2

As they talked that day it is possible that Emmett claimed heattended school with white girls and even claimed he had dated someof them. One cousin recalled that Emmett had a picture of a white girlin his wallet and showed it to the others, bragging that it was hisgirlfriend. Mamie Bradley later wrote that Emmett’s wallet had comewith a picture of the movie star Hedy Lamarr in it, although she mayhave been trying to defend her son’s reputation against any imputationthat he had a sexual interest in white girls, which would haveundermined public perception of his innocence.3 None of thewitnesses interviewed soon after the incident mentioned either aphotograph or any braggadocio from Emmett, so these may beembroidered tales. There is some agreement among the witnesses thatan unidentified boy, not one of those who came with the group,suggested that Emmett go inside the store to at least look at CarolynBryant. Wheeler, for instance, told a reporter, “One of the other boystold Emmett there was a pretty lady in the store and that he should goin and see her.”4 Wheeler went in first, and Emmett was not farbehind, intending to buy bubblegum. Wheeler made his purchasequickly and left, leaving Emmett in the store. “For less than a minutehe was alone in the store with Carolyn Bryant, the white womanworking at the cash register,” Simeon wrote. “What he said, ifanything, I don’t know.”5

Nor do we. On September 2, when Carolyn told her attorney inprivate what had happened at the store, she claimed only, “I waited onhim and when I went to take his money, he grabbed my hand and saidhow about a date, and I walked away from him, and he said, ‘What’sthe matter, baby, can’t you take it?’ He went out the door and said,‘Goodbye,’ and I went to the car and got [the] pistol and when I cameback he whistled at me—this while I was going after [the] pistol—didn’t do anything further after he saw [the] pistol.” It is crucial tonote that this account does not include the physical assault shetestified to in court twenty days later.6 The Greenwood Morning Star,having interviewed Sheriff George Smith of Leflore County, reportedon September 1, “The Bryants were said to have become offendedwhen young Till waved to the woman and said ‘goodbye’ when he leftthe small store Saturday night.”7 Two days later Smith added the

statement “Till made an ugly remark to Mrs. Bryant.”8 Another reportindicated that Emmett was “insolent” to Carolyn, having failed to say“Yes, ma’am” when addressing her.9 When J.W. and Roy invaded theWright home with guns to kidnap Emmett, they called him “the onethat done the talking up at Money” and “the one that done the smarttalk up at Money,” so clearly they were focused on a verbal offense. IfEmmett had put his hands on Carolyn, it is unimaginable that neitherJ.W. nor Roy would have mentioned it. “The talking,” “the smarttalk,” “an ugly remark”—at that point no one mentioned or evensuggested that anything physical, sexual, or threatening had happened.

Years later Ruthie Mae Crawford told the documentarian KeithBeauchamp in an interview that she watched Emmett through theplate glass window the entire time. She insisted that the only mistakehe made was to place his candy money directly in Carolyn’s handrather than put it on the counter, as was common practice betweenwhites and blacks.10 This alone would have violated Mississippi’sracial etiquette. How serious a violation was entirely a matter ofmores, not a question of law. Of course, even to look Bryant directlyin the eye would be to break the “cake of custom” that accompaniedlegal segregation.11

In an interview in 2005 Simeon supported Ruthie Mae’srecollection, telling a reporter that Emmett had paid for some gumand placed the money in Bryant’s hand, violating a Mississippi tabooabout which he may have known nothing.12 Whatever Simeon sawpropelled him to act: he quickly went into the store, perhaps toextricate Emmett from potential trouble. “After a few minutes,” wroteSimeon, “he paid for his items and we left the store together.”13

Wheeler said Emmett was in the store alone with Carolyn for “lessthan a minute”; Simeon measured it at “a few minutes.” What couldpossibly have transpired in such a short time? Between “within aminute” and “after a few minutes” is the time frame we must fill.Between Parker and Till entering the store, between Parker leaving hiscousin alone in the store and Wright and Till leaving the store,something happened that Carolyn would decide deserved, what?Something. Whatever it was made Carolyn angry enough to fetch a

pistol. On the way out of the store, Maurice Wright reported, Tillturned and told Carolyn Bryant, “Goodbye.”

Before the seven black youths dispersed, Carolyn stomped out ofthe store, heading straight toward her sister-in-law’s car, which wasparked near the door. If she had been afraid, if what she hadexperienced had been tantamount to sexual assault, as she testified incourt, walking through the group outside would have been an oddchoice; she could just as easily have turned the deadbolt on the frontdoor and stayed inside. It seems whatever happened in that store madeher more mad than fearful.

“She’s going to get a pistol,” Wheeler reported one of the boyssaying.14 Carolyn reached under the driver’s seat for her husband’s .45automatic. All agreed that at this point Emmett let out a “wolfwhistle.” “To this day I don’t know what possessed Emmett to dothat,” Simeon said. “We didn’t put him up to it. Many of the booksand stories said that we dared him to do it. But that’s not the truth.He did it on his own, and we had no idea why.”15

“He did whistle,” Carolyn told me, “but it was after he’d been in[the store] and I went out to get the pistol.”

Simeon wrote later, “We all looked at each other, realizing thatBobo had violated a longstanding unwritten law, a social taboo aboutconduct between blacks and whites in the South.” The local youthswere dumbfounded. “Suddenly, we felt we were in danger and westared at each other, all with the same expression of fear and panic.Like a group of boys who had thrown a rock through somebody’swindow, we ran to the car.”16

The old Ford raced down the blacktop, but any relief the youngpeople felt evaporated when one of them looked in the rearviewmirror and saw headlights coming up fast behind them. Convincedthat they were being followed, they decided to pull over and flee.Scattering in all directions through the dark cotton fields, they stoppedonly when the car flew past without even slowing down. Laughing alittle, they decided their fear had been paranoia and piled back intothe Ford to head home. They edged closer to the judgment CarolynBryant would reach decades later: that nothing their cousin had doneat the store amounted to much.

Even so, as they drew near the Wrights’ place, Emmett begged hiscousins not to tell his uncle and aunt about the incident. They allagreed, fearing that if the grown-ups heard about it Emmett might endup on the train to Chicago earlier than anyone had planned.

Someone did tell Elizabeth Wright, however, and her husband soonheard it, too, though who told them is not clear. Word was spreading.The next evening, Simeon wrote, “a girl who lived nearby told us shehad heard about what happened in Money and that trouble wasbrewing. ‘I know the Bryants, and they are not going to forget whathappened,’ she warned us.”17



Just after Emmett was kidnapped, Elizabeth Wright ran to the home

of white neighbors to ask for help. It was not yet three in the morning.The darkness was complete, but urgency guided her steps across thefields to the distant house where the farmer and his wife slept. Perhapsshe was too timid to explain herself well. Perhaps a black womanwailing at the door about a fourteen-year-old boy abducted by whitemen with guns frightened the couple. However Elizabeth asked forhelp, the wife wanted to give it but the husband would not consent,and Elizabeth returned home in tears, vowing to leave Mississippiforever. She insisted that Moses take her to her brother’s house inSumner, so, leaving the five boys in their beds, they drove about halfan hour to the home of Crosby Smith.

Elizabeth barely paused in her flight north. After she said what shehad to say to her brother, Moses drove her from Sumner to Clarksdalethat very morning, where she caught the train to Chicago at sunrise.She would never return to her house in Mississippi.1 Moses received aletter from her, from Chicago, dated August 30, two days after thekidnapping. “Come up here,” she wrote, “and tell Simeon to get mycorset and one or two slips and a dress or two and bring them to me.If Eula sent my dress, bring it, also my stockings. I mean you come.”2

On the way back from the train station Moses picked up hisbrother-in-law Crosby Smith before driving back to Money. Heintended to speak directly to the men who had threatened his life andkidnapped his nephew and ask them to return the boy—if he was still

living. At about four or five in the morning, on a deserted street, thetwo men knocked at the back door of Bryant’s Grocery and MeatMarket. Not knowing if they would be met with success or a shotgunblast, they did so with less noise than Roy and J.W. had made on theWrights’ porch hours earlier.

“I heard a knock on the door,” Carolyn remembered. It was notloud. She was alone with the children, and, fearful about who wouldcall on her at such an hour, she kept silent. “I heard another voice, adifferent voice. The voice sounded like a black man, saying to anotherperson, ‘It looks like there’s nobody here.’ I heard a car slam, then thesound of a car driving away.” The men drove to the Wrights’ house inEast Money to wait for daylight.3

At about nine on the morning of the kidnapping, Curtis Jones, oneof the three cousins from Chicago who were staying with the Wrights,went to a neighbor’s house and called his mother, Willie Mae, to tellher the terrible news. She called Emmett’s mother: “I don’t know howto tell you. Bo.” Mamie’s mind began to race in horror. “Some mencame and got him last night.” Mamie drove to her mother’s apartmentat breakneck speed to share both news and anguish. Her motheralerted their church so that the congregation could pray for Emmett.Then Mamie did a curious thing, foreshadowing the boldness withwhich she would handle this tragedy. She started telephoning Chicagonewspapers, which soon sent reporters to Alma’s apartment.4

It is important to recall what was and wasn’t possible in 1955.Mamie surely knew there was no existing local authority inMississippi she could rely on, nor was there any federal authority shecould reasonably hope to enlist. One exception was the press,particularly the black newspapers of Chicago. At some point, too, shecalled Rayfield Mooty, a distant relative and a savvy labor unionofficial who knew all the African American political players inChicago; he would become a key advisor. When he got to her mother’sapartment, Mamie told him, “Mr. Mooty, we just want you to takethe case over. Daddy got a lot of confidence in you and he says youcan do it.”5 While the fullness of her plan probably hadn’t taken shapein her mind, Mamie was already determined that they would notproceed quietly.

•  •  •

Watching the morning rise around his fields and porch, Moses Wrightstill hoped that Emmett would come back alive, that the white menwould think better of killing him and bring him home. After a coupleof hours, though, he and Crosby Smith drove to the office of SheriffGeorge Smith of Leflore County. Sheriff Smith knew Roy and J.W.well and immediately assumed that they had killed the boy andthrown his body in the river.6 The three men left to search for clues:Crosby Smith rode with one of the deputies, while Moses joinedSheriff Smith. “We looked under many a bridge that day,” CrosbySmith recalled. “Because that’s the first thing Moses thought. It wascustom, what was being done around here in those days. We went bycustom when something like that happened, and that’s usually whatthey done to ’em.”7

They found nothing. Just before two o’clock they called off thesearch, and the sheriff left to question Roy. When Moses got home,well-meaning visitors were waiting at the house. “By Sunday noon,every Negro for miles around knew all about it,” he said. “The peoplekept coming and we prayed and prayed.” Rumors began to spreadthat J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant were the ones who had killedReverend Wright’s nephew from Chicago.8

While the Wright household prayed that Emmett was still alive,Roy Bryant slept. As Carolyn describes the scene in her memoir, whenRoy came home in the early morning light, she asked him where hehad been and what he and J.W. had done with the boy. This scenariosupports later testimony that the brothers brought Emmett to the storefor her to identify. However, it does not close the speculation aboutwhether it was indeed Carolyn in the darkened vehicle hidden on theWrights’ property at two in the morning who identified Emmett as theboy who had assaulted her.

Roy assured her that he’d been playing poker all night at J.W.’sstore in Glendora with his brothers and Melvin Campbell and a fewothers. According to Carolyn, he insisted, “We just whipped the boyand then dropped him off on the side of the road. That was it. We

didn’t do anything else to him.” She maintained even years later thatshe had believed him at the time.9

Roy was still asleep when Sheriff Smith parked his squad car infront of Bryant’s Grocery at two in the afternoon. He woke only whenhe heard the pounding on the back door; then he quickly dressed andstepped outside, where the sheriff and his deputy, John Ed Cothran,were waiting. Smith and Roy got into the police car to talk. “I askedhim about going down there [to the Wrights’ house] and getting thatlittle nigger,” Smith testified. Roy acknowledged that he had donethat. “I asked him why did he go down there and get that little niggerboy.” Roy said he had heard that the boy made some “ugly remarks”to his wife. He “said that he went down and got [Emmett Till] to lethis wife see him to identify him, and then he said she said it wasn’t theright one, and then he said that he turned him loose.” Smith askedwhere they’d released Till. “He said right in front of the store. He saidhe went to some of his people—I don’t remember who he said justnow—and he said he played cards there the rest of the night.” Thesheriff arrested Roy for kidnapping and booked him into the LefloreCounty Jail.10

The rest of the country did not even know Emmett was missing—not yet. Mamie was only just alerting newsmen in Chicago. Mosesspirited his grandson Wheeler to Greenwood to catch the train hometo Chicago, which left him with three sons and one grandson. He stillhad twenty-five acres of cotton to pick and sell, money they wouldneed under any circumstances, so the boys would help him.

Sheriff Smith continued to search for the corpse and seemeddetermined to build a case that would yield convictions. On Monday,August 29, the day after the sheriff arrested Roy, the Bryant-Milamclan gathered at Eula Lee’s store in Sharkey to discuss the situation. Itwas terrible that Roy had been arrested, of course, but now theywanted to make sure things didn’t get out of hand and sweep up theentire family. Roy was not the strongest stick in the bundle, and therewas some concern that he might break under pressure and implicateeveryone. It was decided that J.W. would allow himself to be arrestedin order to keep Roy from “running his mouth” and changing thestory they had agreed to tell. J.W. drove straight to the sheriff’s office,

where he was immediately arrested for kidnapping. He acknowledgedthat he had abducted the boy but claimed to have released him thatnight, and he refused to implicate anyone else, even Roy. Other thanthat, J.W. didn’t say a word.11

On Wednesday, August 31, the third day after the kidnapping,Emmett’s body surfaced through the dark water. “I seen two kneesand feet,” said the boy who discovered it. Robert Hodges, seventeen,was walking along the riverbank just after dawn. The ruddy-facedsharecropper’s son kept several “trot lines” stretched across the mud-brown Tallahatchie, and he was hoping to find them thrashing withone of the big catfish that lurked in the cool, dark depths. But thismorning, as the dawn seared the mist off the river, the boy saw toesprotruding from the water: “[The body] was hung up there on a snagin the bottom of the river.”12

•  •  •

Decades later Carolyn Bryant still recalled the news about the body asa traumatic shock. After Roy’s arrest she and her two sons were takenin by the Milam and Bryant relatives. “I suppose they contacted Leslieor Melvin and they made arrangements,” she told me. The family kepther isolated from the unfolding aftermath of the lynching and wouldnot even let her speak to anyone on the telephone. On the third dayCarolyn was at Buddy Milam’s store when Raymond, her husband’stwin brother, walked through the door. “They found a body thismorning,” he announced. “They think it’s [Emmett Till].”

“No, it can’t be,” she said. “Roy told me he didn’t do anything tohim, that they turned him loose.”

“And [Raymond] said, ‘Well, Roy didn’t do it. Melvin Campbelldid it.’ And that’s when I told him, ‘Well, why is Roy and J.W. in jailand Melvin’s out? Why would they arrest Roy, then?’ And he said Iwas not to tell anybody it was Melvin. And I guess Raymond told [therest of the family] what I had said because they got us that night andtook us to a sister-in-law’s house in Lambert, Mississippi. And wewere really isolated then.”

The farmhouse in Lambert was about a forty-five-minute drivefrom the Bryant store in Money. Carolyn and her sons stayed thereonly a couple of days, and then the Milam-Bryant clan sent yetanother relative to move them to another safe location. “I don’tremember who got us but it was always one of [the Milams]. Me andmy two boys, we’d stay here a couple of nights, and then they’d takeme to another relative and we’d stay a couple of nights.” The Milamsrefused to let her telephone even her mother or siblings, who becamealarmed when they did not hear from her. “My brother came lookingfor me, and one of the Milam brothers told him that I didn’t wantthem to know where I was, that I didn’t want to talk to them,”Carolyn told me, still sounding offended. “They were keeping mefrom everybody. They were afraid that I might say something theydidn’t want me to say or I might reveal something they didn’t wantrevealed.”13

Sheriff Smith told reporters for the Greenwood Morning Star onAugust 30 that he wanted to bring her in for questioning. She ought toknow something useful; after all, it was Emmett Till’s “allegedinsulting remarks” to her that provoked the kidnapping in the firstplace.14 The following day, the same day Emmett’s body was found,the New York Post reported that Leflore County authorities issued awarrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant on kidnapping charges.15

The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the Sheriff’s Department hadbeen unable to locate her to serve the warrant.16 Two days later,strange as it seems, the Birmingham (Alabama) News announced,“Authorities apparently have abandoned the search for Mrs. RoyBryant.” Leflore County district attorney Stanny Sanders had told theBirmingham reporters that there were “no plans at present for pickingup Mrs. Bryant.”17 Fifty years later the FBI informed Carolyn that awarrant had been issued for her arrest; that, she wrote in her memoir,was the first she’d heard of it.18

A spokesman for the Leflore County Sheriff’s Department told theMemphis Commercial-Appeal on September 2, “We know where sheis and feel sure we can pick her up if needed.”19 But by the next daySheriff Smith appeared set on leaving Carolyn out of it entirely. Heclaimed a chivalrous impulse that apparently overrode the belief that

she had participated in the kidnapping. “Officers have not questionedBryant’s pretty brunette wife, in her early 20s, who was believed tohave stayed in the car with an unidentified man when Bryant andMilam whisked Till from the home of his uncle in Money,,” stated the Greenwood Morning Star. “We aren’t going tobother the woman,” Smith told reporters on September 3. “She hasgot two small boys to take care of.”20

•  •  •

Despite the unsettling sight of human toes protruding from the water,Robert Hodges finished checking his fishing lines, then hurried hometo find his father, who reported what Robert had seen to B. L. Mims,their landlord. Mims called his brother, Charles Fred Mims, thenDeputy Sheriff Garland Melton of the Tallahatchie County Sheriff’sOffice. The deputy called Sheriff H. C. Strider, who telephoned histeenage son. “My dad called and asked me did I have a boat in theriver,” Clarence Strider Jr. recounted, “and I told him I did. Then hesaid we’ll be down there in a little while and he sent the deputies to gowith me.”21

Deputy Melton and Deputy Ed Weber picked up young Strider andmade their way to the landing at Pecan Point, twelve miles north ofMoney, where they met Robert Hodges and his father. They took bothboys’ boats into the muddy river and quickly saw what Robert hadseen. “Well,” B. L. Mims said, “we saw a person—from his knee ondown and including his feet—we saw that sticking above the water.And we could tell by looking at it that it was a colored person.” Withthe engine humming low, they navigated over to the body. Somethingwas holding it head downward in the water. The men tied a ropearound the legs and used the motor to pull the body upriver a fewfeet, until the weight holding the head down came unsnagged fromwhatever pinned it to the bottom of the river. Towing it over to thelanding, they dragged the corpse up onto the bank. There they couldsee that an iron fan, the kind used to ventilate cotton gins, was lashedto the corpse’s neck with several feet of barbed wire. Packed with mudfrom the bottom of the river, the fan weighed about 150 pounds.

Whoever had disposed of the body had intended that it never risefrom the river bottom.22

As the men examined the body, Deputy Sheriff John Ed Cothran ofLeflore County arrived, as did Sheriff Strider of Tallahatchie County.Strider noted what looked like a bullet wound above the right ear andthat the other side of the boy’s face was “cut up, pretty badly like anaxe was used.” That left side “had been beat up or cut up—plumbinto the skull.” The sheriff estimated that the bloated body had “beenin the water about two days.”23 He dispatched Cothran and anotherdeputy to Money to fetch Moses Wright to identify the body. Cothranalso contacted Chester Miller, a black undertaker at Century BurialAssociation in Greenwood, who, along with one of his assistants, metthem down at the river.

Miller testified that when he approached the body, it was lyingfacedown in a boat. Turning it over, he saw what looked like a heavywheel attached to the corpse with a strand of barbed wire that “waswell wrapped” around the neck. He unwound the wire to remove thefan. Miller turned to Moses Wright and asked, “Will you identify thebody as the boy who was taken from the house?”24

“I was standing right up over him,” Wright recalled. “They turnedhim over and then I saw all of it.” He nodded at Miller, who saw noreason why Wright should have any trouble identifying the body, evenin its state of considerable damage and decomposition. DeputyCothran told reporters soon afterward that Wright “definitelyidentified the body as the boy.” The law officers asked Miller toremove the silver ring from Till’s finger. Miller gestured to hisassistant, who was wearing rubber gloves. “Well, he had the gloveson,” Miller explained, “and then I said to him, ‘Take [the ring] off.’And then he took it off and handed it to me. I laid it on the floorboardof the ambulance,” referring to the hearse he had driven to the river.Miller noted that the ring was engraved with the initials “L.T.”25

As he prepared to transfer the body to a casket, Miller was stunnedat the extent of the wounds. “The crown of his head was just crushedout and in, and a piece of his skull just fell out there in the boat,maybe three inches long [and] maybe two and a half inches wide,something like that.” There was a hole perhaps half an inch square

above the right ear, which Miller assumed was a bullet hole. He andhis assistant placed the body in the casket and hefted the casket into ametal shipping case, which they then pushed into the hearse and droveto the Century Burial Association.

Given the state of the body, there was little magic that theundertaker’s art could perform; a closed-casket funeral seemed certain.An officer from the Greenwood Police Department took pictures ofthe corpse. Miller assumed that the family would contact him aboutthe funeral, but Sheriff Strider phoned Miller with an unusualdemand: he should bring the body to Reverend Wright’s Church ofGod in Christ in East Money for burial that very day. ApparentlyStrider wanted no one to see the condition of the corpse. Miller did ashe was told: “I delivered it to the cemetery at Money.”26

Strider announced his jurisdiction over Milam and Bryant’s caseeven before murder charges had been filed against them. Although thekidnapping had occurred in Money, which is in Leflore County, andno one knew where the boy had been killed, Strider maintained thatthe body was put into the river “a good 10 miles” into TallahatchieCounty and must have been dumped there since “it couldn’t havefloated up the river.”27 District Attorney Sanders sided with Strider:the youth was abducted in Leflore County but the body was recoveredin Tallahatchie County, thus giving Tallahatchie jurisdiction forprosecuting the case.28

His authority over the case confirmed, Sheriff Strider determinedthat the body would be buried immediately. Charged withinvestigating a presumed murder, he saw no reason for an autopsy.They needed to get on with it, he thought. Nobody needed to see thisbody. And so someone notified a few of Till’s Mississippi familymembers that the body was to be buried right away and that theymight want to be present. That they immediately complied probablyillustrates the extent to which it was not safe for African Americans tochallenge white men in 1950s Mississippi, which was doubly true ifthe white man in question was Sheriff H. C. Strider. Moses Wrightbegan preparing his eulogy, and others readied their funeral clothes.

When Curtis Jones, Emmett’s Chicago cousin, saw preparations forburial proceeding, he called his mother in Chicago, who notified

Mamie. She was incensed. She had already decided to hold the funeralin Chicago. She called her uncle Crosby Smith in Sumner, whopromised “to get Emmett’s body back to Chicago if he had to pack itin ice and drive it back in his truck.”29 He drove to the cemetery withChester Miller and one of the sympathetic Leflore County deputies.“[The grave diggers] had got the body out to the cemetery and dug thegrave,” Smith recalled. “I got there and had the deputy sheriff withme. He told them that whatever I said, went.” Smith told the gravediggers, “ ‘No, the body ain’t going in the ground.’ That body went toChicago.”30

Here was another moment when the Till case could have becomejust another private bereavement and another mother’s appeal to herchurch and the local press for justice. Had his body been buriedhastily in Mississippi soil, most of the rest would almost certainly nothave followed. There would have been a trial and some outrage, butwithout the Chicago funeral, would the rest of America, let alone theworld, have paid attention?

Miller, who had already hauled the corpse from the river to thefuneral home in Greenwood and from there to the cemetery in Money,got Smith to help him trundle the coffin back into his hearse andheaded back to Greenwood. However, he told Wright, “I don’t darelet that body stay in my establishment overnight.” He considered itvery bad luck, to put it mildly, to defy Sheriff Strider. “I wouldn’t haveany place in the morning and perhaps wouldn’t be alive by morning.”Wright then telephoned a white undertaker, C. M. Nelson, in Tutwiler,forty miles west of Greenwood, and asked him to pick up the body.Nelson owned two funeral homes: one for blacks and one for whites.A man of considerable wealth, he also served as mayor of Tutwiler.

Nelson agreed to prepare Till’s body under one condition: Wrighthad to promise that the seal on the casket would never be broken andthat no one would ever be allowed to view the body. Wright agreed,making a promise he’d be powerless to keep, but events were movingquickly in a new direction. The badly swollen body preventedintravenous embalming, so to ensure at least minimal preservationNelson’s embalmer immersed it in a vat of formaldehyde and madeincisions to release the tissue gas.31

Thanks to Mamie, Chicago’s newspapers, radio, and televisionwere already starting to cover the lynching. A TV news bulletin eveninterrupted I Love Lucy to report the discovery of the body. Nowword spread that Emmett Till’s body was coming home to Chicago.Mamie now envisioned God’s purpose for her life—and for her son’slife: “I took the privacy of my own grief and turned it into a publicissue, a political issue, one which set in motion the dynamic force thatultimately led to a generation of social and legal progress for thiscountry.”32 Unlike any of the white newspapers, soon after Till’slynching the Pittsburgh Courier predicted that his mother’s “agonizedcry” might well become “the opening gun in a war on Dixie, whichcan reverberate around the world.”33 Activists across the countryhoped and believed that this tragedy might be the wellspring ofpositive change. Mamie had ensured that to her mother’s cry wouldnow be added the mute accusation of Emmett’s body.

A colleague wrote to the activist Anne Braden soon after thelynching, “This 14-year-old’s crucifixion is going to strengthen andclarify the cause of de-segregation, human brotherhood, andfreedom.”34 It would fall to Mamie Bradley to transform crucifixioninto resurrection.



On Friday, September 2, 1955, Emmett Till’s mother focused much of

black Chicago on her son’s murder and the movement it could helpunleash. “By the time we reached the train station at Twelfth Streetearly that Friday morning there was already a huge crowd,” Mamiewrote years later. A thousand people packed the platform. “I had tobe brought up in a wheelchair. I was too weak and I just couldn’tstand up at the moment the train pulled in.”1 Reporters andphotographers from virtually every Chicago newspaper recorded thescene. The Chicago Defender reported, “Limp with grief and seated ina wheelchair among a huge crowd of spectators, Mrs. Bradley criedout: ‘Lord you gave your only son to remedy a condition, but whoknows but what the death of my only son might bring an end tolynching.’ ”2 The Chicago Sun-Times described a “hysterical scene”after the train bearing Till’s body arrived: “Mrs. Mamie E. Bradleyjumped from her wheelchair Friday when the Illinois CentralRailroad’s Panama Limited pulled in. She sprinted across three sets oftracks to the baggage car in which the body lay in a pine box.”Sobbing wildly, she fell to her knees. “My darling, my darling, I wouldhave gone through a world of fire to get you.” With weeping relativesforming a ring around her and the hearse backing into the scene,Mamie yelled again, “My darling, my darling, I know I was on yourmind when you died.” As stevedores lifted the pine box into thehearse, the Sun-Times reported, “she said softly: ‘You didn’t die fornothing.’ ”3

The uneasiness she had felt about Emmett going to Mississippi, thefear that gripped her when she heard that armed white men hadsnatched him away, the horror when the worst that could happenbecame undeniable fact, all began to flow out of her at once. “And Ikept screaming, as the cameras kept flashing,” she wrote, “in onelong, explosive moment that would be captured for the morningeditions.”4

That sentence encapsulates the next several months of her life.Uncle Crosby Smith, who had accompanied the corpse from

Mississippi, stood alongside her on the platform, as did hersweetheart, Gene Mobley, and Rayfield Mooty, now more or less herpolitical advisor. Smith reportedly took Mooty aside and urged him,“Don’t let nobody see that box, don’t even let them open the box. Besure don’t let Mamie see what’s in there.”5 Mooty stayed close athand, as did Bishop Louis Henry Ford and Bishop Isaiah Roberts,who pushed her wheelchair and prayed with her. The sight of thestevedores hefting that huge pine box and rolling it toward a waitinghearse made her stand up and then fall to her knees. The twoministers laid firm hands on her shoulders. “Lord, take my soul, showme what you want me to do,” she cried, “and make me able to do it.”6

Mamie was far from the first American mother to cry bitter tearsover a child lynched in Mississippi. On October 12, 1942, accordingto an NAACP investigatory report, two fourteen-year-old black boys,Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, were seen by a passing motoristplaying with a white girl near a bridge and charged with attemptedrape. A mob seized them from the jail in Quitman, cut off the boys’penises, and pulled chunks of flesh from their bodies with pliers. Oneof the boys had a screwdriver shoved down his throat until itprotruded from his neck. The mob then hanged the boys from thebridge, a traditional lynching site in Clarke County. A photograph oftheir bodies taken surreptitiously was released by national wireservices, but only one white newspaper, PM, printed it, though anumber of African American papers did. The New York Timesreported the lynchings without the photograph in a one-column storyon page 25.7

Only weeks before the Till lynching, terrorists had assassinatedReverend George Lee and Lamar Smith for their efforts to registerblack voters. The national press and the federal government ignoredthe murders, seeming to accept that this kind of behavior was a fact oflife in the Magnolia State and a matter of little concern outside activistcircles in the rest of America. “Emmett Till was, you know, that sortof a strange phenomenon,” Clarksdale NAACP leader Aaron Henrytold an interviewer in 1981. “White folks have been killing black boysall of my life, throwing them in rivers, burying them, and all that shit.Just why the Emmett Till murder captured the conscience of thenation, I don’t know. It could have been that it was the beginning oftelevision and people could see things. The fact that a black boy waskilled by white men wasn’t nothing unusual.”8

Emmett’s murder would never have become a watershed historicalmoment without Mamie finding the strength to make her private griefa public matter. Today was the day he should have bounded from thetrain with stories of the Delta to tell, eager to know if she’d gotten hisbicycle fixed, ready to take to the sandlots and dream he was DonNewcombe pitching Brooklyn into the World Series. He should havebounced into the house eager to see his dog, Mike, rescued from thepound. He was supposed to start school in a few days, and finishpainting the garage door.9 But now his mother’s errands includedfinding a way to bury her own heart, finding a way to go forwardwithout a reason to do so, and giving her only son back to God. Shewould do all that, and she would leverage the only influence America’sracial caste system granted her: public grief and moral outragesufficient to shame and anger some fraction of the nation.

•  •  •

Rayfield Mooty claimed that he urged Mamie to open the casket andkeep it open.10 But the choice to display the ruined body of her sonwas Mamie’s alone to make, and there is no reason to doubt that shemade it deliberately. Even before they left the train station, the funeraldirector A. A. Rayner, who had arranged for the hearse that wouldcarry Emmett’s body to the South Side funeral home, had clashed with

Mamie over her determination to open that box. Rayner had agreednot to open it before the coffin even left Mississippi; she insisted thathe do just that.

In the time-honored way of undertakers, Rayner remained serene.He had served the South Side for years and knew that many funeralsgenerated brief squalls about what was proper and best. Grief setpeople on edge; the funeral director’s job was to absorb the tensioncalmly and yet make sure that things were done right—in thisinstance, that the box stay shut. “He was very patient with me,”Mamie recalled. “He set it all out for me. It was being sent locked upwith the seal of the State of Mississippi.”

“Mrs. Bradley,” he explained, “I had to sign papers, the undertakerhad to sign papers, your relatives had to sign papers.” A number ofpromises had been necessary to get the casket out of Mississippi, themain one being that it would never be opened. No one needed to seewhat was in that box anyway, he told her.

“I told him that if I had to take a hammer and open that boxmyself, it was going to be opened,” she wrote. “You see, I didn’t signany papers, and I dare them to sue me. Let them come to Chicago andsue me.” Finally Rayner relented.11 Before leaving the train stationeither Mamie or one of her companions told Simeon Booker, areporter for Jet magazine, they were going to A. A. Rayner & Sons,and Booker instructed a photographer to follow him there. “Mrs. Tilldidn’t have anybody else in the press she knew,” he recounted.12

As they neared the funeral home at 41st Street and Cottage Grove,Mamie and her entourage could already detect a ghastly odor. Insidethe staff set off spray canisters of deodorizer to cover the smell,though the attempt was unsuccessful. Rayner showed them to awaiting room so his staff could have a little more time to prepare thebody, but Mamie demanded to see her son’s body as it was.Reluctantly Rayner led Mamie, her father, and Gene Mobley to theroom where Emmett’s corpse lay on a slab for embalming. “He reallydidn’t think that I should look at Emmett like this,” she recalled. “ButI had kept insisting.”13

Her two companions steadied her on either side. “At first glance,”she wrote, “the body didn’t even appear human.” But she recoiled in

horror from the realization that “this body had once been my son.”She held herself closely in check, trying hard to “steel [herself] like aforensic doctor. I had a job to do.” She began with the feet, noting thefamiliar ankles, legs, and the knees so much like her own. There wereno noticeable scars on the body, but the huge tongue seemed chokedfrom his mouth. His right eyeball rested on his cheek, hanging by theoptic nerve, and the left eye was gone altogether. The bridge of hisnose seemed to have been chopped with a meat cleaver, and the top ofhis head was split from ear to ear. A bullet hole just behind his templeshowed daylight from each side. The vision was ghastly, but she haddone her duty: it was Emmett’s body.

“That’s Bobo,” Gene Mobley, the barber, said. “I know thathaircut.”

Mamie’s last thoughts as she turned away were how her boy musthave felt that night when he realized that he was going to die. Sheknew in her heart that he must have called out her name.14

At the funeral home, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Mamiemade up her mind to have an open-casket funeral, exclaiming, “Letthe people see what they did to my boy.” She dispatched Mooty to talkwith her minister about using the church. Mooty recalled telling theman, “All we want is to have a place to lay that body where it can beseen, that’s all. This may not stop [lynching] but this will be startingan end to all that lynching that’s been going on down in Mississippi.They’ve been throwing everything in the river until it be full. Now yougot a chance to be a great man if you let us use that church.”Whatever convinced the preacher, the church doors opened for theviewing of the body that very night.15

When Mamie informed Rayner that she wanted the casket open forthe viewing and the funeral ceremony, he did not try to dissuade her.Instead he asked if she wanted him to retouch Emmett’s body andmake him look a little more presentable. “ ‘No,’ I said. That was theway I wanted him presented. ‘Let the world see what I have seen.’ ”

Rayner took the liberty of slightly preparing the body anyway. Hestitched the mouth closed to cover the ghastly tongue, removed thedangling eye, and closed both sets of eyelids. On the left side of thehead, where the beating had been most severe, he sewed the pieces of

the skull back together as best he could. The body remained ahorrifying sight. Mamie remained gracious about this slightsubversion of her will: “I told Mr. Rayner he had done a beautifuljob.”16 Inside the coffin Rayner laid the body in a glass-covered,airtight box that successfully contained the horrific odor.

That evening, at the first public viewing, many thousands stood inlong lines around the block to pay their respects and see Emmett Till’smangled body; the Chicago Defender reported “more than 50,000,”though estimates varied.17

Minnie White Watson, an archivist at Tougaloo College inMississippi, believed that her friend Medgar Evers, the state NAACPfield secretary, was instrumental in “talking Mrs. Till into having . . .[an] open casket funeral” for her son. Mamie later acknowledged thatshe was “grateful for his commitment and his compassion. He hadreally been moved by Emmett’s murder. He was the one who had donethe initial investigation to brief the NAACP head office.”18 Evers andhis allies in Mississippi had displayed George Lee’s disfigured face inan open casket to great effect. Though Mamie’s memoir does notexclude the possibility of Evers’s influence, it eloquently describes howshe came to the decision:

I knew that I could talk for the rest of my life about what happened to my baby, I couldexplain it in great detail, I could describe what I saw laid out there on that slab at A. A.Rayner’s place, one piece, one inch, one body part at a time. I could do all of that andpeople would still not get the full impact.  .  .  . They had to see what I had seen. Thewhole nation had to bear witness to this. I knew that if they walked by that casket, ifpeople opened the pages of Jet magazine or the Chicago Defender, if other people couldsee it with their own eyes, then together we would find a way to express what we hadseen.19

Mamie and Ray Mooty continued to work the phones and keep thecase before the Chicago media. Had they not done so it would bedifficult to explain the Chicago Tribune’s report the following day,September 3: “More than 40,000 persons viewed the body in theafternoon and night.” The line stretched around the block and beyondthroughout the day and into the evening. So many people becameoverwhelmed by emotion at the sight of the body that the funeralhome had to set up a special section of chairs outside where they

could sit and recuperate. Ushers and women in white stood ready tocatch those who fainted.20

Mourners and curiosity seekers clogged 40th and State Streetswaiting to file in to see the battered body of their hometown boy.Many hailed from Mississippi and had escaped the violence of JimCrow, which seemed to fall upon them now in Chicago. Thousandsmust have sent their children south in the summer to visitgrandparents and cousins, dispensing the same lecture about the waysof white folks that Mamie had given Emmett. It could easily have beentheir child unspeakably slaughtered and sent home in a pine box. Thisrealization inspired rage more than fear, because there on the SouthSide, surrounded by tens of thousands of African Americans, with afoothold, however tenuous, in the city’s politics and media, they knewone thing for certain: they did not need to hide their anger anymore.21

•  •  •

When Mamie and her family arrived for the funeral service onTuesday, escorted through the throng by half a dozen police officers,the barrel-vaulted sanctuary of Roberts Temple Church of God inChrist was full to its capacity of 1,500, and thousands more stoodoutside, where loudspeakers had been set up so people could hearwhat was happening in the church. Bishop Ford offered an emotionalsermon based on the fiery text of Matthew 18:6. “But [whosoever]shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were betterfor him that a millstone were hanged around his neck and that hewere drowned in the depth of the sea.”22 Reverend Cornelius Adamsasked the crowd to offer “fighting dollars” to help the struggle forracial justice; $700 was immediately taken up for legal aid.23

Throughout the viewing and the funeral ushers collected money forthe NAACP and Emmett’s family, a process that would continue in theweeks and months ahead.

“I had no idea how I could make it through,” Mamie recalled. “ButI knew that I had to do it. And I knew that it wasn’t going to get anyeasier as we prepared for what was ahead.”24 Now that she had theworld’s attention, she had to decide what to do with it. As she looked

into the glass-enclosed coffin, she knew that a political and spiritualstruggle lay ahead to make her son’s death meaningful in ways that hislife hadn’t had time to be. In the face of this burden she began to loseher grip. The Chicago Tribune reported that she “collapsed and had tobe assisted to a seat after she looked for the last time at her son’sbody.”25

•  •  •

With fifty thousand coming on Friday night and forty thousand moreon Saturday, followed by three more days of crowds lined up to viewEmmett’s body, it is hard to say how many people became witnesses inthis way. The Chicago Tribune reported, “Capt. Albert Anderson, incharge of a large police detail at the church, said that more than100,000 persons had viewed the remains of the youth.” The ChicagoDefender’s estimate was more than twice that number, 250,000: “Allwere shocked, some horrified and appalled. Many prayed, scoresfainted, and practically all, men, women and children, wept.”26

In Mississippi a few days later the front page of the GreenwoodMorning Star reported that Reverend J. A. Perkins from Tupelo haddeclared at the National Baptist Convention in Chicago that thebutchery of Emmett Till “did something to everybody.” Before thistragedy opinion among African Americans about the path to fullcitizenship had been divided, he acknowledged. There would still bedifferences of opinion, but Till’s slaying spurred and unified the fightagainst segregation. “We are not going to be afraid of anyone,”Perkins vowed. “We are going to battle for what is right—as humanbeings—and we are going to stand against this wrong.”27

David Jackson and Ernest Withers, photographers for Jet andEbony, snapped pictures of Emmett’s body at the funeral home,Withers a close-up and Jackson a full-body shot.28 Several othermagazines and newspapers printed photographs, but Withers’s close-up of Emmett’s face, published in Jet on September 15, four daysbefore Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam went on trial for the killing, waspassed around at barbershops, beauty parlors, college campuses, andblack churches, reaching millions of people. Perhaps no photograph in

history can lay claim to a comparable impact in black America.29 “Ithink the picture in Jet magazine showing Emmett Till’s mutilationwas probably the greatest media product in the last forty or fiftyyears,” Representative Charles Diggs said in 1987.30

Television coverage of the case had an even greater impact. Few inthe summer and fall of 1955 could fathom the immense power oftelevision. Even many sophisticated journalists and seasonedpoliticians did not yet understand that there was a new mass languagethat came of age with the Emmett Till generation. This was television’sfirst real “media circus,” and it made clear that civil rights storieswould not be confined to a minority of Americans or a particularregion. “The television cameras showed what the body looked likeand showed the big crowds,” recalled the journalist Harry Marsh. “Allthe networks that were operating at that time took film from theChicago stations.” It was television, Marsh continued, that “ignitedthe national interest in the story and that fed into the major coverageof the trial.”31

The sociologist Adam Green observes that the spectaclesurrounding Emmett Till’s death “convened” black Chicago and blackMississippi into one congregation that trumpeted the tragedy to theworld. These voices of mourning and protest emerged exactly asMamie hoped they would. Members of this black nationalcongregation launched rallies, letter campaigns, and fund drives thattransformed another Southern horror story into a call for action. Inthis call and response, Green writes, “northern city and southern deltaseemed the same place, and the need for collective action amongAfrican Americans across the nation seemed urgent as never before.”32



In many ways Emmett Till was a casualty of the anger produced by

the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education,handed down on May 17, 1954, first dubbed “Black Monday” byRepresentative John Bell Williams of Mississippi. Mississippi CircuitCourt judge Thomas Brady speculated that the mandate to integratepublic schools would compel right-minded white men to commitviolence against foolhardy black boys. Killing would be necessary,even unavoidable. “If trouble is to come,” Brady warned in hisincendiary manifesto, Black Monday, “we can predict how it willstart.” The detonator would be the “supercilious, glib young Negro,who sojourned in Chicago or New York, and who considers thecounsel of his elders archaic.” That black child “will perform anobscene act, or make an obscene remark, or a vile overture or assaultupon some white girl.” This violation of segregation’s most sacredtaboo would set off a deluge of white violence against black boys. Thefoolish doctrine of equality between the races, cautioned Brady, was“the reasoning which produces riots, raping and revolutions.”1

Brady’s words are an almost eerie prediction of the murder ofEmmett Till, but at the time there was nothing notable about hismenacing fantasy of a race war. Such threats of violence were nothingnew to black Mississippians or, for that matter, to any student ofReconstruction or the age of Jim Crow. But a new front in the warover Mississippi had opened after 1945, when African Americansoldiers returned from Europe and the Pacific. Into these renewed

hostilities the Supreme Court dropped its Brown v. Board ofEducation bombshell. Milam and Bryant were not on a politicalmission when they pounded on Moses Wright’s door, and they did notkidnap Emmett Till beneath the banner of states’ rights, racialintegrity, or white supremacy. The white men carried out their brutalerrand in an atmosphere created by the Citizens’ Councils, the KuKlux Klan, and the mass of white public opinion, all of whichdemanded that African Americans remain the subservient mudsill ofMississippi—or die. But the battles ignited by Brown had beenbrewing for a long time.

According to William Bradford Huie, Milam later justified Till’slynching using the terms of violent racial and sexual politics:

Just as long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are going to stay in theirplace. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government.They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger even gets close tomentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me andmy folks fought for this country, and we’ve got some rights. . . . “Chicago boy,” I said,“I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. God damn you, I’mgoing to make an example of you just so everybody can see how my folks stand.”2

This kind of perverted logic, though Milam referred directly toBrown, had also motivated the bloody overthrow of Reconstruction inMississippi in 1875, which was the last time the Magnolia State hadoutmatched the level of racial conflict in the state in the mid-1950s. Itdrove the violent massacre and coup in Wilmington, North Carolina,in 1898, which served as a model for the Atlanta “Race Riot” of1906. It sparked massive mob violence against the black communityin Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, which helped inspire W. E. B. Du Boisand his white and black allies to found the National Association forthe Advancement of Colored People the following year. It set off theslaughter in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919; and the fiery pogroms in EastSt. Louis in 1917, in which perhaps 200 blacks died; and Tulsa in1922, in which as many as 300 blacks died and 10,000 were lefthomeless. The logic expressed by Judge Brady and J. W. Milam was alltoo familiar to nearly every American with dark skin.3

Like Judge Brady, J. J. Breland, one of Milam’s attorneys and aCitizens’ Council official, exported the blame for the lynching

northward. Breland told Huie that Milam and Bryant “wouldn’t havekilled [Till] except for Black Monday. The Supreme Court isresponsible for the murder of Emmett Till.”4 If that was indeedMilam’s thought, it wasn’t original to him, any more than it was toBreland. Southern white leaders liked to pretend that they wereshocked, shocked, by the Court’s heretical ambush. For anyone whohad been paying attention, however, the Court’s decision in Brownwas not a surprise. White politicians howled as though Chief JusticeEarl Warren had ordered the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, but thearmies of segregation had seen this attack coming. “Rather than abacklash against the unthinkable,” writes the historian Jason MorganWard, “the segregationist movement was a coordinated assault againstthe foreseeable.”5

The contours of the renewed battle had been visible before WorldWar II. As early as 1941 Mississippi’s former lieutenant governor E. D.Schneider defended the white primary and the poll tax at an AfricanAmerican agricultural fair in Clarksdale, promising that black peoplewould never vote in Mississippi. The black crowd booed him loudly.Then a black newspaper editor stood and told the assembly that, infact, black Mississippians would vote, and soon. And if necessary, hecontinued, blood would be shed in Mississippi as well as abroad tosecure democracy. The following year a member of the Yazoo–Mississippi Delta Levee Board warned, “We are going in the future toget quite close to the time when the darkey will be protected byFederal law in his vote in the South, and we all know what that willmean in Mississippi.”6 As the Magnolia State’s own Richard Wrightwrote that same year, “When one of us is born, he enters one of thewarring regiments of the South.”7

Mississippi emerged as the leader of the 1948 States’ RightsDemocratic Party, better known as the Dixiecrats. Led by Mississippi’sgovernor Fielding Wright and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, theDixiecrats broke with President Harry Truman, the Democraticstandard-bearer, over his support for civil rights legislation, anantilynching bill, measures to end the poll tax, and the establishmentof a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. TheDixiecrat revolt of 1948 captured the electoral votes of Mississippi,

Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina and presaged the rise of atwo-party South.8 Judge Brady was already a fuming Dixiecrat, callingfor a new party “into whose ranks all true conservative Americans,Democrats and Republicans alike, will be welcomed” to battle “theradical elements of this country who call themselves liberals.” SenatorJames Eastland of Mississippi termed the Dixiecrat revolt “theopening phases of a fight” for conservative principles and whitesupremacy, and “a movement that will never die.”9

Despite its rhetorical confidence, the segregationist movement washaunted by a disquieting sense that it no longer possessed the politicalhigh ground. Walter Sillers Jr., a Delta cotton planter who served inthe Mississippi State House from 1916 to 1966, wrote to SenatorEastland as early as 1950 that the African Americans were “wellahead of us” in the battle over civil rights: “They are holding meetingsevery week throughout the whole Delta counties and are wellorganized, and should an emergency arise they know exactly where togo and what to do, while our people are disorganized and wouldscatter like a covey of flushed quail.”10 If Sillers overestimated thelevel of preparation among black Mississippians, he was right abouttheir intentions.

One of the key figures in the African American resistance toMississippi’s racial caste system was a World War II veteran namedAmzie Moore. Nothing about Moore’s early life made it easy for himto imagine a world beyond white domination. He was born in 1912on a cotton farm in rural Mississippi. His grandfather died at 104,dividing the land among his seven children, who promptly lost it all inthe Great Depression. Amzie’s mother passed away when he was still aboy, “so my father came and picked up the two smaller children andat about fourteen I was on my own.” The abandoned youth lived handto mouth, depending on various relatives and teachers, and was oftenhungry. He nevertheless graduated from high school in 1929, a rarityamong his generation of African Americans in Mississippi. In 1935 theheavyset, round-shouldered Moore got a job as a janitor with the U.S.Postal Service and moved to nearby Cleveland, Mississippi. For ablack man of his time this was an excellent job, and he kept it for

more than thirty years. He also scrambled to make money as anentrepreneur.11

To Moore the color line in Mississippi seemed so stark andinexorable as to seem the very will of the Creator. “For a long time,”he remembered, “I had the idea that a man with white skin wassuperior because it appeared to me that he had everything. And Ifigured if God would justify the white man having everything, thatGod had put him in a position to be the best.”12 He told aninterviewer, “I just thought [whites] were good enough, that Godloved them enough, to give them all these things that they had. Andthat, evidently, there had to be something wrong with me.”13

Moore’s deeply internalized sense of white supremacy neverprecluded his devoted hope that Mississippi blacks would one day riseto economic self-sufficiency and equal citizenship. When the freedommovement began to stir, Moore heard it as a call to arms. His “firstknowledge of the freedom movement” came in 1940, when he joinedseveral thousand African Americans to talk about agriculturalmodernization, school equality, and economic development. “Some10,000 living in the Delta section in Mississippi gathered for a massmeeting,” one of his colleagues recollected in a letter written twenty-five years later. “At that time we were pulling for the ‘separate butequal’ philosophy. Schools were separate but not equal.” Speakerscame from Tuskegee Institute, Alcorn College, and Washington,D.C.14 Moore remembered the meeting at Delta State College as “ourfirst awakening” and “the beginning of the change.”15

Like the African Americans who planned the meeting at DeltaState, Moore defined racial uplift as entrepreneurial success: it wasn’tjust the nearest weapon to hand; it was among the most powerful. Theyear after the meeting Moore became the first African Americanaround Cleveland to get a Federal Housing Authority loan: “I startedout buying lots, building my first house in 1941, giving it bathroomfacilities and everything there, gas, all the conveniences because I hadto convince myself that I had the capability to do it.”16 He built hisown brick house at 614 South Chrisman Street, in the middle ofCleveland’s teeming “Low End” black business district. “Amzie,”

recalled Charles McLaurin, one of the many young civil rightsworkers Moore influenced, “was middle-class.”17

World War II interrupted Moore’s ascent in 1942, when he wasdrafted at age thirty. He was quickly introduced to the rude truth thata middle-class black man from Cleveland, Mississippi, was to the vastmajority of his fellow Americans always first and foremost just a blackman. “I really didn’t know what segregation was like before I wentinto the Army,” he recalled. At bases all over the country heexperienced the segregation and mistreatment of black soldiers.18 Andhe resisted with some success. Matthew Skidmore, who served withhim in segregated units, including at Walterboro Army Airfield inSouth Carolina, wrote a letter to Moore in 1955 after he saw aphotograph of his old comrade doing civil rights work in Mississippi:“Reading Ebony Magazine, I saw your picture and why it was there.Remember how we fought racial prejudice, especially in SouthCarolina? Remember how we won?”19 In another letter his old friendreminded Moore of various episodes in their battles against whitesupremacy—“the theater incident” and “the busses.” He wrote:“Remember we couldn’t use the facilities of that Tropical Club on thebase? Maybe you don’t, but all that was corrected. Perhaps you don’tremember, but the mayor promised that the white people in his littletown would be courteous and respectful.”20

What Moore remembered more clearly were the endless slights,insults, and even killings that occurred during his time in the service:“Everywhere we went, we were faced with this evil thing—segregation. If we were here fighting for the four freedoms thatRoosevelt and Churchill talked about, then certainly we felt that theAmerican soldier should be free first.”21 Unlike mustered whitesoldiers, black soldiers encountered the fight for democracy wellbefore they shipped overseas. Moore found the ironies and idiocies ofhis racial predicaments nearly unendurable. “Here I am being shippedoverseas, and I’ve been segregated from this man whom I might haveto save or he save my life. I didn’t fail to tell it.”22

Ironically the military authorities selected Moore to sell his AfricanAmerican compatriots on their stake in the outcome of the war.Stationed with the Tenth Air Force in Myitkyina, Burma, Moore

traveled throughout South Asia speaking about democracy and thewar. “We had to counteract this Japanese propaganda by givinglectures to our soldiers. That was my job. We were promised that afterthe war was over, things would be different, that men would have achance to be free. Somehow or other, some of us didn’t believe it.”23

Whether or not Corporal Moore managed to convince any of theblack troops, or even himself, that the war for democracy includedthem, too, his travels all over the United States and in Mexico, SouthAsia, China, Japan, and Egypt enlarged his perspective on the freedomstruggle in Mississippi. “I think what God really did with me, in thisparticular thing, was put me on a ship and send me around the world.And let me live in different environments and be in contact withdifferent people and to really and truly find out what was behind it.”

When his unit was shipped from California to India, thisdescendant of slaves found himself walking one day beside the GreatTemple in Calcutta. When he saw the ancient splendor and “peopledying in the streets and people walking by them like they aren’t eventhere,” he believed that the wisdom that built that venerablecivilization had “turned backwards” and the old regime hadcollapsed. “You can’t set up an aristocracy and expect it to float,” heruminated. For every social order that goes up, Moore becameconvinced, “there’s a coming down, and like the great wheel of timeevery spoke comes on over and then it goes down in the dirt.” In thatmoment his mind turned to America—and no doubt to Mississippi.“We will have to get along with each other in this country becausethat’s the only way you can survive another hundred or two or threehundred years.”24

When the U.S. Army issued an honorable discharge to CorporalAmzie Moore on January 17, 1946, at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, hehad a four-hour bus ride to consider how he would spend the rest ofhis days.25 He planned to settle down and make a life for himself, buthe was angry at the contradiction of fighting for human freedom witha Jim Crow army. He wondered whether there was any truth in whathe had been instructed to tell the black troops about the postwarera.26 When he arrived in Cleveland, he got his answer: whites therehad organized a “home guard,” ostensibly “to protect the [white]

families against Negro soldiers returning home.” Over the next fewmonths a number of black veterans in the town were killed. “I thinkthe purpose of the killing was to frighten other Negroes,” Mooreattested. “It certainly had its psychological effect.”27

Moore remained determined to see his wartime propaganda aboutdemocracy move the country beyond empty rhetoric. With this inmind he set out to build a statewide network of African Americanactivists to pursue the right to vote. Nothing else would be possiblewithout it, he believed, and anyone who could count could see thatblack votes in the Delta would change things.28 By late August 1955Moore was a successful businessman running a gas station, beautyparlor, and grocery store. He was also the president of the Cleveland,Mississippi, branch of the NAACP, which had over five hundredmembers, and was an established force among black civil rightsworkers in the South.

•  •  •

According to Moore, it was shortly after J. W. Milam and Roy Bryantkidnapped Emmett Till that Moses Wright first called him. LikeReverend Wright, Moore’s first response was hope: “I thought tomyself, well, he’s probably around Greenwood there somewhere. Inever thought anybody was going to lynch him. [A few days later], Igot another call.” By that time the teenage fisherman had come acrossEmmett’s body in the currents of the Tallahatchie. Now harder choicesneeded to be made.

Moore set out for Money even though friends told him, “ ‘You’dbetter not go, they watching out for you, they’re going to kill you.’ ButI went over there. And then when I got to Money nobody would tellme where Mr. Wright lived. He lived out from Money, but nobodywould, they claimed they didn’t know where he was. So I left andcome back.” This was far from the end of Moore’s involvement in thecase, however.29 Over the previous twenty-four hours decisions hadbeen made and events set on a course that would sweep up Mississippiand Chicago, and eventually the United States and the world.

The Till case affected everyone in Moore’s activist network inMississippi, many of whom were also World War II veterans unwillingto accept the old ways after a costly global crusade, ostensibly foruniversal democracy. They became what the historian John Dittmercalls “the shock troops of the modern civil rights movement.”30 Manybecame NAACP leaders, especially after the Brown decisions of 1954and 1955 shone a spotlight on school desegregation and lifted up newleaders who rejected the “separate but equal” framework. Moore’snetwork included Medgar Evers; E. J. Stringer, a Columbus dentistwho would be elected president of the state conference of NAACPbranches in 1954; Aaron Henry, a druggist from Clarksdale whowould become an important civil rights leader; the voting rightsadvocates Reverend George Lee and Gus Courts; and Dr. T. R. M.Howard, a charismatic and daring physician from Mound Bayou.31

Few were more involved than the intelligent, serious-mindedMedgar Evers. His military service in the thick of the Europeantheater during World War II had given him gravity beyond his years.“He went to the army and fought for this country and came out andwe wasn’t enjoying the freedom we fought for,” his brother Charlesobserved. For Medgar voting was the central litmus test of democracy,especially in Mississippi. “Our only hope is to control the vote,” hesaid.

In 1946 Medgar and Charles and four friends registered to vote atthe courthouse in Decatur, Mississippi. When they returned to casttheir ballots in the Democratic primary on July 2, however, a smallwhite mob blocked the courthouse steps. “When we got into [theclerk’s] office, some 15 or 20 white men surged in behind us,” Medgarrecalled. Menaced with guns as they were leaving, they went home,got their own guns, and returned to the courthouse. Leaving theirweapons in the car, the Evers brothers and their companions tried towalk in again, but once more the way was blocked. “We stood on thecourthouse steps, eyeballing each other,” Charles recalled. FinallyMedgar decided to avoid what seemed inevitable bloodshed and said,“Let’s go, we’ll get them next time.” “More than any other singlething,” Charles claimed, “that day in Decatur made Medgar and mecivil rights activists.”32

Medgar’s first order of business was to use his GI Bill benefits toattend college. He enrolled at Alcorn State College that fall of 1946.Muscular and athletic, he played running back on Alcorn’s footballteam. He also served as editor of the Greater Alcorn Herald and waselected president of the junior class. Evers worked hard, made goodgrades, labored over his vocabulary, and became a faithful reader ofnewspapers. He met and married Myrlie Beasley from Vicksburg, abrilliant and beautiful young woman who would become a fullpartner in his civil rights work. According to a friend, he also joined amonthly interracial discussion group on world affairs at all-whiteMillsaps College. He developed a keen admiration for Jomo Kenyatta,leader of the Kenyan anticolonial struggle against the British; in fact,in 1953 Medgar and Myrlie christened their son Darrell KenyattaEvers. Kenyatta led an armed revolution, and Medgar’s admirationsuggests that he was willing to consider any means necessary tooverthrow white supremacy in Mississippi. For African Americans inthe South the means of effecting change were always limited andfraught with risks, but most were at least considered, theirconsequences carefully weighed. The historian Charles Payne writesthat Medgar “thought long and hard about the idea of Negroesengaging in guerrilla warfare in the Delta” but ultimately could notsquare it with his religious beliefs.33

Soon after he graduated from Alcorn, Medgar renewed anacquaintance with T. R. M. Howard and became a sales representativefor Howard’s Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. He and hisbride moved to Mound Bayou, the historic all-black community in theDelta. His new job required he drive the lonely roads of the Delta, andhe became sharply aware of the harsh lives of Mississippi’s blacksharecropping families. “He saw whole families there picking cotton,living like slaves,” Charles recounted. The Evers brothers came tobelieve that black Mississippians’ suffering was the result of economicexploitation, the threat of physical violence from whites, and thedenial of their right to the ballot. “Medgar vowed to improve thesepeople’s lives,” said his brother.34

•  •  •

Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard was the tall, light-skinned headof surgery at Mound Bayou’s Taborian Hospital, whose all-black staffserved the black community. No civil rights advocate in the state ofMississippi could match Howard’s charisma, charm, and wealth. Inaddition to his plantation he owned a housing construction firm, abeer garden and restaurant, some livestock, and an insurance firm. Hecould afford servants and chauffeurs; pheasants, quail, and huntingdogs; and a fleet of fine automobiles, as well as a Thompsonsubmachine gun and a number of other weapons. These were simpleacknowledgments of his having achieved stature and influence in asociety that demanded he never wield it. “One look,” wrote MyrlieEvers, “told you he was a leader: kind, affluent, and intelligent, thatrare Negro in Mississippi who had somehow beaten the system.”35

Howard recruited Amzie Moore and a few others to go intobusiness with him. According to Moore’s canceled checks, he invested$1,000 in the Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1951,when Howard founded the company. Within a couple of monthsMoore was appointed to Magnolia Mutual’s board of directors, alongwith Aaron Henry. Soon Medgar Evers joined them.36 As ever amongMississippi’s black leaders, economics and politics were not far apart.

On the morning of December 28, 1951, Howard, Moore, andHenry, among others, founded the Delta Council of Negro Leadership,soon renamed the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), “toguide our people in their civic responsibilities regarding education,registration and voting, law enforcement, tax-paying, the preservationof property, the value of saving, and to guide us in all things whichwill make us stable, qualified, conscientious citizens, which will leadto first class citizenship for Negroes in the Mississippi Delta and theState of Mississippi.” Moore became the first vice chairman andHoward the founding president. Henry called the RCNL a kind of“homegrown NAACP.”37

The RCNL’s focus on what Moore called “the changing of theeconomic standpoint,” however, differentiated it from the NAACP,which downplayed economic development in favor of civil rights.38

The RCNL billed itself as an organization “for the common good ofall citizens in the Delta area and state, regardless of race or creed.”39 It

was trying to present to its white neighbors a more acceptable facethan the “radical” NAACP.40 Though in the early days of the RCNLeconomic development was the first concern, civic questions—voting,police brutality, and the indignities of segregation—quickly emerged.Moore later claimed the RCNL ultimately had 100,000 members fromforty counties in Mississippi alone; these included numerousprofessional people, “principals of schools, people of the Departmentof Agriculture, teachers.”41

Evers soon became the RCNL’s program director, playing a key rolein the 1952 campaign targeting restroom facilities in service stations.African Americans in Mississippi knew the dangers and indignitiesthat confronted blacks on the highways of the South. Most white-owned establishments along the highway marked their publicrestrooms “White only” and offered no facilities for blacks. SoAfrican American women, children, and men had to take to theroadside woods and thickets to relieve themselves or waituncomfortably until they got where they were going. If that were notenough, Mississippi state troopers were well known to treat blackmotorists with a lack of courtesy that often extended to outrightbrutality. Therefore the first crusade of the RCNL was for equality onthe public roads and featured the slogan “Don’t Buy Gas Where YouCan’t Use the Restroom.”42 Evers and Howard paid a black printer inJackson to produce tens of thousands of bumper stickers emblazonedwith the phrase, and, according to his brother, Evers “gave out thatbumper sticker to hundreds of Negroes statewide—whoever wouldtake one.”43 “As time went by,” Myrlie wrote later, “Medgar and Iwould see little bumper stickers with those words on the usually beatup automobiles of Delta Negroes.” Here was a portent of all that wasto come.44

The RCNL’s crusade mobilized large numbers of AfricanAmericans, who declined to buy gasoline from service stations thatoffered them no facilities. Though technically the protest fit neatlyinside the “separate but equal” system of Southern segregation,African Americans’ self-assertion violated the social arrangements thatsegregation was fashioned to teach and defend. Victory represented acrack in the old order: most white-owned service stations soon chose

to provide segregated restrooms, and many even posted signsannouncing “Clean Rest Room for Colored.”45

As impressive as these victories must have seemed to blacks in theDelta in the early 1950s, the RCNL’s stupendous rallies in MoundBayou were its trademark. Under a massive circus tent on Howard’splantation, thousands of African Americans gathered to hear nationalspeakers and enjoy renowned musical artists. Literally tons of ribs andchicken were served. At the RCNL’s first annual conference in 1952,Representative William Dawson from Chicago became the first blackcongressman to speak in Mississippi since Reconstruction, addressinga crowd of seven thousand. The great gospel singer Mahalia Jacksonappeared alongside him.46 At the RCNL’s third annual meeting, in1954, only ten days before his historic victory in Brown, ThurgoodMarshall spoke to roughly eight thousand attendees, accompanied byeight school bands and the sixty-piece marching band from TennesseeA&I State University, which led the “Great Freedom Parade” downMain Street while Howard and Marshall waved from a convertible.That evening’s panel discussion in the big tent was “The Negro in anIntegrated Society.”47 In 1955 Ebony featured a photograph of thecircus tent with thirteen thousand assembled beneath it to hear thenewly elected black congressional representative Charles Diggs fromDetroit.48

At each of the annual rallies the RCNL’s Committee on Voting andRegistration held workshops as part of its drive to educate andregister new black voters. In many areas of Mississippi sheriffs refusedto accept poll taxes from African Americans, effectively barring themfrom registering to vote. Courthouse clerks turned others away for noreason more compelling than their own objection to black voting. Forthose rare places where voting tests were reasonably administered, theRCNL conducted classes on the Mississippi state constitution so thataspiring black voters might pass. The number of registered AfricanAmericans slowly increased to a twentieth-century record of twenty-two thousand in 1954.49

The RCNL’s voter registration campaign took place against agrowing white resolve to protect “the Southern way of life” fromblack self-assertion and federal intrusion. Even though their economic

system relied at least as much on government subsidies as it did theworld cotton market, Mississippi planters feared that the river offederal money would rise with strings attached. From the very instantthat African Americans in the North entered FDR’s New Dealcoalition, white supremacist leaders preached gloom and doom forMississippi race relations. Persuaded that FDR’s coalition of liberals,African Americans, and labor unions imperiled “the white democracyof the South,” white diehards in Dixie launched a movement to defendsegregation and preserve their political power, whether that meant abloody battle for control of the Democratic Party or abandonment ofthe party of their fathers altogether. “A few far-sighted SouthernDemocrats realized in 1936 that the great Democratic River wasbeginning to split into two forks,” wrote Judge Brady in 1948 as hejoined the Dixiecrat armies.

Education and voting were divisive years before the Browndecision. In 1942 the editor of the Meridian Star rejected the idea offederal aid for education because “camouflaged education help”would bring Mississippi “one step closer to the intertwined evils ofHitlerized, totalitarian rule and social equality.” Two years later aformer governor of Mississippi, Mike Connor, lashed out at the Smithv. Allwright decision, which struck down the “white primary.” NewDealers, said Connor, had embraced “un-American and undemocraticphilosophies of government” in an effort “to change the very form ofgovernment from a republic to an absolute, totalitarian state ofcommunism or national socialism, which would destroy at homeeverything our armed forces abroad are fighting to preserve.” Thenational Democratic Party had fallen so low that it would “trafficwith northern Negroes to place the black heel of Negro dominationon our necks.” During the 1946 election the notorious senatorTheodore Bilbo explained why it was crucial to stop blacks fromvoting, citing folk wisdom that would endure among whites well intothe 1960s: “If you let a few register and vote this year, next year therewill be twice as many, and the first thing you know the whole thingwill be out of hand.” Bilbo offered to give county registrars, whoadministered the voting tests, “at least a hundred questions no niggercan answer.” For good measure he added his favorite admonition:

“The proper time to manage the nigger vote is the night before theelection.”50

And the warring regiments of Mississippi persisted in this slowtrench warfare for many years before nine white men in black judicialrobes dropped the bomb on public school segregation.



On May 21, 1954, four days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in

Brown v. Board of Education, Judge Brady wrote the second of twofervent letters to Representative Walter Sillers Jr. urging a politicalresponse. He envisioned a new political formation that would “cutacross all factors, political groups, and embody leaders in everyclique.” He continued, “All white men in every walk of life must bemustered out. It must be made their fight. If the Southern states do notunify in thought and action, the NAACP will emerge victorious.”1

Brady had attended New Jersey’s Lawrenceville preparatoryacademy and graduated from Yale University in 1927. He took his JDin 1930 from the University of Mississippi, where he taught sociologyfor two years, and was vice president of the state bar association.2

Ever since, he had practiced law and then donned judge’s robes in thesmall town of Brookhaven. In time he would serve on the MississippiSupreme Court.3

A week after writing his letters to Sillers, Brady took the podium ata meeting of the Sons of the American Revolution in Greenwood,Mississippi, and delivered a fevered speech entitled “Black Monday.”Its central themes were the legal fallacies and political perils in Brown.The Court’s decision rested upon “Communistic” sociologicalarguments and the Fourteenth Amendment, he argued. The formerwere pernicious and irrelevant, but the amendment’s assurance offederal citizenship guaranteed in its equal protection and due processclauses “was filled with dynamite.” Federal troops and carpetbagger

legislatures had imposed the unlawful Fourteenth Amendment afterthe War Between the States, but it had “never been of any moral forcein the South.” The illegitimate ruling in Brown ignored more than halfa century of legal precedent. The NAACP and the internationalcommunist conspiracy were the driving political forces behind thedecision.4 Brady recalled that after the speech “several men came upand said, ‘Judge, you ought to write that in a book.’ I told several menin public office that I was going to wait until June and if nothing wasdone about the problem, I was going to publish it. Nothing was done,so I put it out.”5

Brady stretched his oration to ninety-seven pages by adding agenerous slathering of white supremacist clichés disguised as scientificfacts and paranoiac ravings dressed up as patriotic tub-thumping. Likemost similar fare, its driving engine was the gnawing terror of“miscegenation” between black men and white women. The speechand its pumped-up sequel inspired the founding of the AssociatedCitizens’ Councils, which published the speech in July as a booklettitled Black Monday: Segregation or Amalgamation. America Has ItsChoice.6 Florence Mars, a Mississippi native who attended the trial ofEmmett Till’s murderers, called it “a remarkable document, not onlybecause of its large impact in the fight against complying with thedecision but also because [among white Mississippians] its views onrace were widely accepted at face value for years.”7 Its circulationthroughout the Deep South arguably made it the most influentialpolitical statement of the white South in the wake of Brown,particularly since it became the founding handbook and doctrinalscripture of the Citizens’ Council movement.8

The imagined beastly lust of black men for white women seizedBrady’s pornographic political imagination, and the unsulliedSouthern white woman became the most important symbol of whitemale superiority.9 “The loveliest and purest of God’s creatures, thenearest thing to an angelic being that treads this celestial ball is a well-bred, cultured Southern white woman or her blue-eyed, golden-hairedlittle girl,” he wrote. “The maintenance of peaceful and harmoniousrelationships, which have been conducive to the well-being of both the

White and Negro races of the South, has been possible because of theinviolability of Southern womanhood.”10

To that very day, insisted Brady, the hope of black citizens lay in anAmerica ruled by an unchallenged white supremacy. “The date thatthe Dutch ship landed on the sandy beach of Jamestown was thegreatest day in the history of the American negro.”11 Their whitebenefactors forced the African slaves “to lay aside cannibalism” andtheir other “barbaric savage customs.” The enslavers gave the enslaveda language, moral standards, and a chance at Christian salvation,although the African American had never absorbed any of them fullyenough to transcend his primitive nature. “The veneer has beenrubbed on, but the inside is fundamentally the same. His culture issuperficial and acquired, not substantial and innate.”12 Bradydeclared, “You can dress a chimpanzee, housebreak him, and teachhim to use a knife and fork, but it will take countless generations ofevolutionary development if ever before you can convince him that acaterpillar or a cockroach is not a delicacy.” The chimpanzees werenot alone in their uncivilized shortcomings. “Likewise the social,political, economic and religious preferences of the negro remain closeto the caterpillar and the cockroach.”13

The evils of “amalgamation” with this inferior race justifiedextreme authoritarian measures in defense of white supremacy.Brady’s prescription included the abolition of public schools, ifnecessary; the intimidation of rebellious African Americans byeconomic reprisals; and the institution of special courts to try andpunish “all undesirables, perjurers, subversives, saboteurs andtraitors.”14 Not to fight the Supreme Court’s usurpation of theConstitution “is morally wrong and the man who fails to condemn itand do all that he can to see that it is reversed is not a patrioticAmerican.”15 It was not the first or last time an elected Southernofficial in the grip of racist outrage painted breaking the law aspatriotism, but the Cold War gave Brady a new set of brushes. He castthe broader cause as “stopping and destroying the Communist andSocialist movements in this country.” Race agitation was a tool of the“Red Conspiracy,” a means to an end “in the overall effort to socializeand Communize our Government.”16

Some years afterward Robert “Tut” Patterson, at thirty-two thefirst executive secretary of the Citizens’ Council, told Judge Brady thathis decision to devote the rest of his days to fighting desegregationcame after he read Black Monday. A cotton planter and cattle rancherfrom Holly Ridge, Mississippi, Patterson penned a protest letter thathelped inspire the founding of the Citizens’ Council. “I, for one,would gladly lay down my life to prevent mongrelization,” he wrote.“There is no greater cause.” He felt that those who shared his point ofview faced formidable adversaries but would triumph in the end. “Ifevery Southerner who feels as I do, and they are in the vast majority,will make this vow, we will defeat this Communistic disease that isbeing thrust upon us.”17

The author of Black Monday had watched integration coming for along time, but the menace grew closer with every passing year. OnJune 5, 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sweatt v. Painter thatthe University of Texas Law School had to admit African Americansbecause no separate law school the state might build would equal thestate university’s law school in prestige and opportunity. On the sameday the Court ruled in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents that theUniversity of Oklahoma Law School could not simply segregate blackstudents inside the same law school.18 Representative William Colmerof Mississippi replied, “It means there will be an ever increasingintermingling of Negroes and whites in public places. It is theforerunner of a final decision by the Court at a not too distant date,denying segregation in all public institutions, both State andFederal.”19

Mississippi’s white political elite had anticipated the Browndecision in 1954. That spring the state legislature put forward an“equalization” program for teachers’ salaries, bus transportation, andschool buildings but delayed the program’s launch until after afavorable ruling from the Supreme Court; any ruling along the lines ofBrown would kill it. The school budget normally accounted for a two-year period, but in 1954–55 the immediate funding applied for onlythat year; the way forward would become clear with the Court’sdecision, they reasoned. At this late date, in other words, they offeredto comply with the 1896 “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v.

Ferguson if the Court would be so kind as to avoid ruling againstthem in Brown. That they could in no way afford to equalize blackand white schools without an unthinkable tax hike was beside thepoint.20

•  •  •

Well over six feet tall with a sheaf of red hair, Tut Patterson was aformer Mississippi State football star and proud of his service inWorld War II. After the war he managed his family’s Delta cottonplantation, but eventually he focused his energies on “states’ rightsand racial integrity,” soon to be the banner of the Citizens’ Council.21

In early July 1954, Patterson met with David H. Hawkins, themanager of Indianola’s cotton compress; Herman Moore, thepresident of a bank there; and Arthur B. Clark Jr., a local attorneywith a degree from Harvard Law School. On July 11, two monthsafter the Brown decision, these men met with fourteen of Indianola’scivic and business leaders, including the mayor and the city attorney,at Hawkins’s home. “We elected the banker president. I was thesecretary,” Patterson recalled. “And in the space of a few shortmonths, it spread. The organization spread all over the Deep Southand into other states.” The manager, banker, and lawyer set it all inmotion with a late-July town hall meeting of nearly a hundred peoplethat founded the first Citizens’ Council.22

Judge Brady was the chief attraction at the Indianola town hall,where he delivered another version of his “Black Monday” oration.He first framed the new organization as a legal public group,respectable and law-abiding, that would not encourage or participatein violence. “None of you men look like Ku Kluxers to me,” he toldthem. “I wouldn’t join a Ku Klux—didn’t join it—because they hidtheir faces; because they did things that you and I wouldn’t approveof.”23 But thereafter he fed the crowd on the raw meat of sex andrace. “School integration is the first step toward racial intermarriage,”he warned. “Wherever white men infused their blood with theNegroes, white intellect and white culture perished. It happenedtragically in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, India, Spain and Portugal.

When the NAACP petitioned the Court for integration, it was to openthe bedroom of white women to Negro men.”24

“I joined the Citizens’ Council,” said one Delta physician. “Theywould come up with all of this stuff about how the black boys mightmolest the white girls—that was a fear. Of course, one of the fearsexpressed by people like Jim Eastland, Ross Barnett, Judge Brady, andthe man down in Louisiana, Leander Perez [was that] they alwaysinvoked the fear of intermarriage.” And so these reasonable,respectable white men who disavowed Ku Kluxers stewed in theirpoliticized racial fears until they became comfortable, tacitly ordirectly, with horrors. The doctor continued, “People like AndrewGainey over in Meridian would say, ‘Well, we can go to deportation,we can go to amalgamation, or we can go to extermination.’ ”25

Brady’s screed reflected the spirit of panic that prevailed in whiteMississippi and drove the growth of the Citizens’ Councils. “The mainway Councils were organized was through the service clubs,” saidWilliam Simmons, the leader of the Jackson Citizens’ Council and theson of a prominent financier. “Patterson and I would go and make atalk to Rotary or Kiwanis or Civitans or Exchange or Lions. We’d tellthem what the Council movement is, what fellows were doing indifferent communities. Invariably the response was favorable.”Simmons and Patterson recruited dozens of other speakers for theCouncil cause, and they fanned out all over the state.26 Membershipclaims and estimates vary somewhat, but roughly nineteen members inJuly 1954 grew to twenty-five thousand in October, when Pattersonestablished the first statewide office of the Association of Citizens’Councils of Mississippi in Winona, though it soon moved toGreenwood. A year after the first meetings in Indianola the Citizens’Councils boasted sixty thousand members in 253 communities andseven states.27 By eighteen months out, Simmons claimed that theCouncils had more than half a million members; independentinvestigators suggested that the truth was at least 300,000.28 Pattersonwas astonished, he said, that the gathering of men who vowed toprotect white womanhood would “expand miraculously into a virileand potent organization.”29

The feral heart of Citizens’ Council ideology drew almost equallyon what W. J. Cash had fifteen years earlier termed “the Southern rapecomplex” and the delusion that international communism hadspawned the civil rights movement.30 On Black Monday, theMississippi Association of Citizens’ Councils charged, the U.S.Supreme Court “based their decision upon the writings of communistsand socialists.”31 The NAACP was “a left-wing, power-mad organ ofdestruction” that had been “infiltrated by communist sympathizers.”This language presented anew the logic on which American racism haslong relied. Like many white citizens over the years, members of theCouncil believed that anything that weakened white supremacy orchallenged the existing social hierarchy in any way was socialism. Butthis was largely code for preserving the country’s racial caste system,centuries in the making. Animated by this fear, the Citizens’ Councilpledged to defeat integration and deliver “a complete reversal of thecontrived trend toward a raceless, classless society.”32

The Southern writer Lillian Smith captured the Citizens’ Councilsclearly and succinctly: “Some of these men are bankers, doctors,lawyers, engineers, newspaper editors, and publishers; a few arepreachers; some are powerful industrialists. It is a quiet, well-bredmob. Its members speak in cultivated voices, have courteous manners,some have university degrees, and a few wear Brooks Brothers suits.They are a mob, nevertheless. For they not only protect the rabble,and tolerate its violence, they think in the same primitive mode, theyshare the same irrational anxieties, they are just as lawless in theirown quiet way, and they are dominated by the same ‘holy ideal’ ofwhite supremacy.”33

Representative Wilma Sledge announced the birth of the Citizens’Council movement from the floor of the Mississippi legislature,adding, “It is not the intent or purpose of the Citizens’ Councils to beused as a political machine.” They made haste, however, to claimcredit for the passage of two constitutional amendments adopted inlate 1954 and began to throw their weight behind politicians whobacked their program.34 The Councils also gained the early support ofSenator Eastland, scores of elected officials, and the Hederman family,which controlled the Jackson Daily News and the Clarion-Ledger.35

Their membership rolls soon included governors, legislators, andmayors and virtually all who aspired to those offices. In only a fewmonths the Citizens’ Council had become a huge organization thatcould speak for nearly all vested authority in Mississippi. “TheCouncils were eminently respectable,” writes the historian CharlesPayne, “and in Mississippi were hard to distinguish from the stategovernment.”36 In fact, the state government eventually provided agood deal of funding for them. By 1955 the Jackson (MS) Daily Newswas printing Citizens’ Council press releases as though they werereported news. Newspaper advertisements for Council membershipgave no address or telephone number for those wishing to join butinstead directed the reader to inquire at “your local bank.”37

Some of the Council’s power came from its sophisticatedcommunications apparatus. This quickly mutated from a singleduplicating machine to a propaganda mill spanning radio, television,and a phalanx of speakers for any occasion. It soon includedlegislators, governors, U.S. senators, mayors, and virtually anyonewho aspired to electoral office.38 Much of this noise machine focusedon correcting supposedly unfair or inaccurate views of the South ingeneral and Mississippi in particular. But the river of mail that pouredout of Council offices was largely race-hate literature printed by ElletLawrence, a man whose unmatched power in the organization camefrom his ownership of a Jackson printing company. Titles includedsuch “educational material” as “The Ugly Truth about the NAACP,Mixed Schools and Mixed Blood.”39 The mainstay of Councilliterature remained sexually provocative photographs of black menand white women drinking, dancing, or embracing, accompanied bybreathless rants against race-mixing.40

This incendiary propaganda was taken as gospel truth by much ofthe white South. This helps explain the response of Council membersto the scorn the world heaped on Mississippi in the wake of thelynching of Emmett Till. Outside condemnation enraged whiteMississippians, most of whom saw the press reports as grossly unfair.To resist these slanders against the Magnolia State, the Citizens’Council leadership launched its own monthly newspaper, the Citizen,in the eleven states of the former Confederacy plus Missouri.41

William Simmons became the first editor and wrote most of the storiesfor what soon became forty thousand subscribers. The paperilluminated the views and activities of the Councils and portrayedblack Southerners as loyal darkies, utter buffoons, or, as one observerput it, “the Mau Mau in Africa.”42

Economic reprisals against anyone, black or white, who favoredracial equality were the Councils’ standard method. Black teacherswho overstepped Jim Crow’s boundaries, openly favored racialequality, or were known to have joined the NAACP could count onlosing their job. Black sharecroppers who registered to vote, signed aschool desegregation petition, attended an NAACP meeting, orotherwise made known their dissatisfaction with the prevailing socialorder were in for trouble. “We won’t gin their cotton; we won’t allowthem credit; and we’ll move them out of their houses if necessary, tokeep them in line,” said one Yazoo County planter.43

Council members would obtain the names of dissidents and thencontact their employers. If the employers were sympathetic, themember would ask them to tell the offending employees to take avacation. If they ceased the offending activity, the employer might letthem come back to work. If not, the “vacation” was permanent. Incases where the intransigent citizen was an independent merchant,farmer, or craftsman, credit could be cut off or wholesalers persuadedto stop providing necessary supplies. If these means did not proveeffective, a visit from a local Citizens’ Council member was in order.“They’d come and tell them, ‘You’ve lived in this community a longtime and if you want to stay here in peace, you’d better get your nameoff this list,’ ” explained Medgar Evers. Personal visits tended to bepersuasive as the implied threats grew more and more clear. TheCitizens’ Councils could publicly declare their unwillingness to useviolence because other whites, including Council members, werereliably willing to exercise it, and African Americans, withoutmeaningful benefit of laws or police, were grossly exposed. TheNAACP did what little it could. “We are investigating every case ofintimidation that comes to our attention and action is being taken asfast as we can move,” reported Ruby Hurley of the NAACP’sSoutheast Regional Office in September 1955. “We have conferred

with officials in the Department of Justice about the murders andother acts of violence and intimidation which have occurred inMississippi.”44

The state NAACP president E. J. Stringer reported all manner ofpressures and reprisals against him in the wake of the 1954 schoolpetitions. His dental supplies vendor suddenly refused him credit. Hisinsurance company canceled his policies. Loyal patients told him theyhad to patronize other dentists or risk losing their job. The IRSaudited his finances. Banks in Mississippi refused to loan him money.His wife lost her teaching job. Death threats made answering thetelephone a dicey proposition. The Stringers began to sleep in a middlebedroom as a precaution against bombings. “I had weapons in myhouse,” he recalled. “And not only in my house, I had weapons on mewhen I went to my office, because I knew people were out to get me.”He kept a pistol out of sight but close at hand even when he workedon teeth or did his paperwork. “I would take my revolver with me andput it in the drawer, right where I worked.” Brave soul that he was,Stringer decided not to run for reelection in late 1954, and Dr. A. H.McCoy, a physician from Jackson, replaced him.45

McCoy was barely in office before the death threats began. TheJackson Daily News warned that if the NAACP persisted in pushingschool integration petitions, “bloodshed” would be inevitable. Afterthe NAACP filed its local school petition in Jackson, Ellis Wright,president of the local Citizens’ Council, snapped, “We now tell theNAACP people they have started something they will never finish.”McCoy took the U.S. Supreme Court at its word, however. He replied,“We just gave them the courtesy title of petitions. They were more inthe nature of ultimatums.” If violence erupted, he assured thenewspaper’s readers, black blood would not run down the streetsalone: “Some white blood will flow, too.”46

The editors of the Jackson Daily News warned in a front-pageeditorial that McCoy had crossed a line with his defiant remarks andthat “self-respecting, law-abiding, peace-loving, hardworkingNegroes” would not “follow [McCoy] in an attempt to force Negrochildren into white schools.” They could not possibly want theseradical measures. It was therefore up to this respectable class of

African Americans to “openly repudiate McCoy, put a padlock in hismouth and [make] a summary end to his activities that will, if leftunchecked, inevitably lead to bloodshed. . . . If not suppressed by hisown race, he will become a white man’s problem.”47

The Citizens’ Councils primly disavowed the violence and the kindof threats that had worn down Stringer. Judge Brady even claimed thatthe Councils “were the deterrent, the one deterrent, that kept [out] theorganization of mobs and the operation of lynch laws inMississippi.”48 Their day-to-day language, however, was the languageof battle. Their flyers openly reflected intimidation and threats. Thenational office of the NAACP granted that perhaps the Citizens’Council did not itself order or commit acts of terrorism, violence, andmurder, but it did create “the atmosphere in which it was possible forthe Chicago boy, Emmett Till, to be murdered and for the perpetratorsof the crime to escape justice.” The power of the Council surelyencouraged terrorists to believe they could act without fear ofpunishment.49

Tut Patterson knew that white terrorism was endemic to thesegregationist cause but dismissed occasional violence as theirresponsible errors of “certain crackpots, fanatics and misguidedpatriots,” for which the Citizens’ Council movement could hardly beblamed.50 In fact, the Councils claimed, their organization actuallyexisted in large measure to avoid the clashes that the NAACP’sextremism made almost inevitable. Despite the official line, however,violence often followed when the local Council’s efforts to coerce orintimidate civil rights advocates did not have the desired effect. TheCouncil’s relationship to violence went deeper than that, however.One of the founders and financiers of the Citizens’ Council movementsaid of the Till murder that it was “a shame that [Milam and Bryant]hadn’t slit open [Till’s] stomach so that his body would not have risenin the river.”51 Eight years after the murder, when a Council membermurdered NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, three bank presidentsin Greenwood headed the White Citizens Legal Fund that financed thedefense of the killer. Stated the Council, “We do not condone themurder of Medgar Evers and, of course, we have no idea of the guiltor innocence of the accused but we feel he is entitled to a fair trial.”52

This reciprocal arrangement was transparent. When one small towndebated swimming pool desegregation in the mid-1950s, a patricianCitizens’ Council member suggested, “I figure any time one of themgets near the pool, we can let some redneck take care of him for us.”53

Phillip Abbott Luce, a white scholar who infiltrated the Citizens’Council in Mississippi soon after the lynching of Emmett Till, reportedthat he’d been told “the Council can do anything the Klan can do if ithas to.”54 Only a few days before Till’s murder, Ruby Hurley wrote toGloster Current, the NAACP’s national director of branches, toinform him that in the Mississippi Delta “the situation is at the pointof explosion, particularly in the western part of the state, whichincludes the Delta.” Hurley cited the “inflammatory editorials andcolumns” in the Jackson Daily News. “The White Citizens’ Councilsare becoming more brazen in their intimidation tactics—telephonecalls, sending of hearses as was done to Jasper Mims of our YazooCity Branch, threatening letters through the mails, circulation of thescurrilous literature enclosed etc. etc.” She noted, too, the popularityof Judge Brady’s Black Monday and the murder of a voting rightsactivist on the Brookhaven Courthouse lawn. “Reports fromCleveland”—Amzie Moore’s hometown—“are bad.” One of the FBIagents sent to investigate a murder in Belzoni was a close friend ofCitizens’ Council officials in a nearby county, she lamented. The lastsentence in her report, filed only days before the murder of EmmettTill, was this: “Something must be done to protect our people.”55

•  •  •

Despite the terror of the mid-1950s, both the RCNL and the NAACPin Mississippi had some cause for modest optimism: the RCNL’scampaigns had won small victories, and their rallies attractedthousands, and NAACP membership grew steadily. Several thousandAfrican Americans added their names to the voting rolls, swelling theirnumber to the highest tally since the violent overthrow ofReconstruction eighty years earlier. Lawsuits and the NAACP’s longmarch through the nation’s courts persuaded two Mississippigovernors in succession to begin to equalize teachers’ salaries and

build new black schools. In 1953, a year before Brown, the statesenate refused to pass a proposed constitutional amendment thatwould have allowed the legislature to abolish public schools shouldthe U.S. Supreme Court mandate school desegregation. In this volatileatmosphere Brown emboldened the Mississippi NAACP to strike hardat school segregation and to demand voting rights. The white responsewould plunge Mississippi into violent racial battles unmatched sincethe bloody 1870s.

In the wake of Brown, the state’s NAACP president E. J. Stringerdecided to follow the national NAACP’s agenda of seeking “theremoval of all racial segregation in public education  .  .  . withoutcompromise of principle.” It was one thing to pass such resolutions inAtlanta or to approve of them in New York, but quite another to acton them in Mississippi. Nonetheless Stringer pushed the state branchesto petition their local school boards to “take immediate steps toreorganize the public schools . . . in accordance with the constitutionalprinciples enunciated by the Supreme Court on May 17” and tothreaten legal action if necessary.56

The uncertain legal power of these petitions and the “communist-inspired” NAACP fueled paranoia if not panic among many whiteMississippians. In Amite County a mob of twenty or so whites led bythe sheriff and a member of the school board burst into an NAACPmeeting at the local black school, snatched away the chapter’s records,and interrogated the members. In Kemper County a large mob ofheavily armed whites led by the sheriff appeared on the first day ofclasses at an all-white school because of alarming rumors that a groupof black parents intended to enroll their children. In the fall of 1954the Mississippi state legislature resubmitted a constitutionalamendment to give them legal power to abolish the public schools andreplace them with publicly funded “private” academies.

That summer thirty African Americans in Walthall Countypetitioned to allow their children to attend the previously all-whitepublic schools there. School officials responded by closing the localblack schools for two weeks and firing a school bus driver who hadsigned the petition.57 At the subsequent hearing the board chairexclaimed, “Nigger, don’t you want to take your name off this petition

that says you want to go to school with white children?”58 Afterfurther protests and threats from local whites, all thirty of thepetitioners withdrew their names. Some insisted they had notunderstood the petition’s contents and thought it was seeking equalschool facilities, not attendance at white schools.59

It is doubtful that the petitioners in Walthall County actuallymisunderstood their own desegregation petition. It is certain that theyknew their pursuit of justice put their children directly in harm’s way,which helps explain why some African American leaders in the statedeclared equal facilities a sufficient ambition. Unable to reach anylasting consensus among themselves, many thought schoolequalization—the fulfillment of Plessy, not Brown—seemed both morelikely and perhaps more desirable. J. H. White, president ofMississippi Vocational College, pleaded with the NAACP leadershipto pursue “adequate facilities and other things that our people needfirst and when you lay that foundation you have made a greatcontribution and many other problems will be solved in years tocome.”60 Neither side, White believed, was ready for full-blownintegration. Far more often black leaders simply agreed with T. R. M.Howard’s astute assessment that “to petition school boards inMississippi at the present time is like going to hunt a bear with a cappistol.”61

That the NAACP in Mississippi proceeded to battle for schooldesegregation and voting rights in this atmosphere is remarkable. Sixdays after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown II,telling school authorities to move “with all deliberate speed,” theMississippi NAACP directed its branches to organize black parents topetition local school boards to desegregate the schools. None of theseparents could have had the slightest illusion as to the confrontationthey were facing, the certainty that it would call forth violence, andthe possibility of that violence being visited on their children. PercyGreene, the conservative black editor of the Jackson Advocate, calledthe NAACP’s school desegregation crusade “leading a group ofunthinking and unrealistic Negroes over the precipice to be drownedand destroyed in the whirlpool of hate and destruction.” TheMississippi NAACP begged to differ. The Vicksburg chapter filed the

first petition on July 18, calling on the local school board to “takeimmediate concrete steps leading to the early elimination ofsegregation in the public schools.”62

The white power structure responded with the strength of publicopinion—and implicit threats. When the Vicksburg Post published thenames of all those parents who had signed the petition, several askedthat their names be removed. By mid-August NAACP chapters inNatchez, Jackson, Yazoo City, and Clarksdale filed similar petitions.As advised by the state conference, the Yazoo City branch asked theschool board for “reorganization” of the school system on a “non-discriminatory basis.” In each case the Citizens’ Council publishedsigners’ names, addresses, and phone numbers in large ads in the localnewspaper. Reprisals, threats, and intimidation inevitably followed.“If the whites saw your name on the list,” said Aaron Henry, “you justcaught hell.”63

Death threats became routine for the petitioners. Many lost theirjobs, as did their loved ones. Local banks called in their loans orforced those who signed to withdraw their money. Rocks and bulletsflew through their windows. Insurance companies canceled theirpolicies. “In each instance there has been some form of economicreprisal or physical intimidation,” Medgar Evers reported to thenational office. The number of petitioners who withdrew theirsignature grew quickly: in Clarksdale 83 of 303; in Vicksburg 135 of140; in Jackson 13 of 42; and in Natchez 54 of 89.64

“In Yazoo City, in particular, signers have been fired from theirjobs,” Evers reported. “Telephone calls threatening the lives of thepersons, have created a continued atmosphere of tenseness which hasthe city’s two racial groups on edge.” Fifty-one of the fifty-threesignatories of the Yazoo City petition soon removed their names; theother two had already left town. In fact, even though NAACPmembership in Mississippi swelled in 1954 and grew by 50 percent in1955, the Yazoo City branch, which before the petition had twohundred members, soon ceased to exist.65 Evers wrote to the nationaloffice a few months later, “Honestly, Mr. Wilkins, for Yazoo City theredoesn’t seem to be much hope. The Negroes will not come togetherand our former president has not cooperated at all. It appears that

[members of the Citizens’ Council] have gotten next to him and wecan’t get any results, not even [to] call a meeting. One thing, thepeople are afraid—I would say it is worse than being behind the IronCurtain.”66

Virtually every black activist in the state had heard the rumor of theCitizens’ Council “death list.” Arrington High, who put out a smallnewspaper in Jackson called Eagle Eye: The Women’s Voice, wrote onAugust 20, 1955, a week before the murder of Emmett Till, “Citizens’Council members in Leflore County, ‘Eagle Eye’ alleges, met lastThursday and prepared a list of Negro men to be murdered.” Highnoted that his source “happens to be a peckerwood.” According toHigh, the “Citizens’ Council has ordered that no law enforcementbody in ignorant Mississippi will protect any Negro who stands uponhis constitutional rights.” He also directly addressed the white menthreatening him: “To white hoodlums who are now parading aroundthe premises of Arrington W. High, editor and publisher of ‘The EagleEye,’ at 1006 Maple St., Jackson, Miss.—this is protected by armedguard.”67 Frederick Sullens, editor of the Jackson Daily News,predicted, “If a decision is made to send Negroes to school with whitechildren, there will be bloodshed. The stains of that bloodshed will beon the Supreme Court steps.”68

It was in this context that a Chicago teenager walked into Bryant’sGrocery and had his fateful encounter with Carolyn Bryant. AfterTill’s murder defense attorney J. J. Breland told William BradfordHuie, “There ain’t gonna be no integration. There ain’t gonna be nonigger voting.” He saw the murder as part of a larger struggle: “If anymore pressure is put on us, the Tallahatchie River won’t hold all theniggers that’ll be thrown in it.”69


P E O P L E W E D O N ’ T N E E D A R O U N D


Indifference to black lives did not begin in the twenty-first century.

Nor was Mississippi entirely a foreign country to the rest of Americain the 1950s. It simply did not matter to most white Americans whathappened to black Mississippians; they did not know and did notwant to know, and routine terrorism did not dent that indifferenceuntil the Emmett Till case. In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board ofEducation decision, for example, one Delta legislator declared that “afew killings would be the best thing for the state.” A few judiciousmurders now, he suggested, “would save a lot of bloodshed later on.”1

In a speech in Greenville the president of the Mississippi BarAssociation included “the gun and the torch” among the three mainways to defend segregation.2 NAACP activists in Mississippi enduredscores of acts of intimidation. Whites opposed to school integrationand black voting would “put the hit man on you,” Aaron Henryrecalled of that era. “I could call a roll of the people who died.”3

Reverend George Lee of Belzoni, Mississippi, would be one of the firston any such roll.

In the South’s calculation it took only “one drop” of black blood tomake a person black. So George Lee, born in 1902 to a white fatherand a black mother, was black. All Lee knew about his father was thathe was a white man who lived in the Delta. Lee’s stepfather was

abusive, and his mother died when he was a little boy; her sister tookthe boy in, and he graduated from high school, a rarity at the time.

While still a teenager Lee took off for the port city of New Orleans,two hundred miles south. He worked on the docks unloading bananaboats from Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, theWindward Islands, and the Ivory Coast. In the evenings he tookcourses in typesetting, hoping to learn a trade that would reward hisstrong mind rather than employ his strong back. Deep inside,however, even before he left Mississippi, Lee had felt the tug of theHoly Spirit to become a minister. By moving to New Orleans he had“evaded” the call for several years, he later said, but he finally gave into the Lord. In the 1930s he returned to Mississippi to accept a pulpitin Belzoni, the seat of Humphreys County.4

Belzoni was home to four or five thousand people, two-thirds ofthem black, nearly all of whom lived in stark poverty. AmongMississippi’s network of civil rights activists, “Bloody Belzoni” had areputation as “a real son of a bitch town” where white lawmenpoliced the color line relentlessly. Whites told a journalist after theBrown decision that “the local peckerwoods” in Belzoni “would shootdown every nigger in town before they would let one, mind you, justone enter a damn white school.”5 The white manager of the localCoca-Cola bottling plant told a reporter for the New Republic, “If mydaughter starts going to school with nigras now, by the time she getsto college she won’t think anything of dating one of ’em.” Likeinterracial dating, black voting was also a self-evident abomination:“This town is seventy percent nigra; if the nigra voted, there’d benigra candidates in office.”6

Although in 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the “whiteprimary” unconstitutional, white Democrats in Mississippi continuedto insist that aspiring black voters could be barred from theDemocratic primary as though it were a private club. “I don’t believethat the Negro should be allowed to vote in Democratic primaries,”said Thomas Tubb, the chair of the state Democratic ExecutiveCommittee. “The white man founded Mississippi and it ought toremain that way.”7 One banner headline in the Jackson Daily Newsdeclared, “Candidates Say Delta Negroes Aren’t Democrats,” which

expressed the editors’ most presentable public argument against blackvoting.8 This was a plain violation of both the Fifteenth Amendmentto the U.S. Constitution and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that hadbeen in effect for more than a decade. But the government of theUnited States failed to see that the national honor was at stake in thewhite South’s open denial of citizens’ voting rights. Only the NAACPand small groups of activists objected. Most Americans, North andSouth, kept silent.

Those who organized Mississippi’s effort to block blacks fromvoting did so without shame. The day before the murder of EmmettTill, Thomas Tubb announced that no African American would everbe allowed to vote in Clay County, where he made his home, “but weintend to handle it in a sensible, orderly manner.” Blacks “are betteroff” not voting, Tubb continued, than being “given a whipping likesome of these country boys plan to do.”9 Ten days later Tubb insistedhe knew of “no widespread or systematic effort to deny Negroes thevoting right,” but a day after that denial he appointed a statewidecommittee “to study ways of cutting down the numbers of Negrovoters.”10

Mississippi had the highest percentage of African Americans in thecountry and the lowest percentage registered to vote. In the thirteencounties with a population more than 50 percent African American,black people cast a combined total of fourteen votes. In five of thosecounties, not one African American was a registered voter; three listedone registered African American who never actually voted. In theseven counties with a population more than 60 percent black, AfricanAmericans cast a combined total of two votes in 1954.11 Even so, onApril 22, 1954, the Mississippi legislature passed a constitutionalamendment explicitly designed to keep black people from the polls: itrequired citizens wishing to vote to submit a written explanation ofthe state constitution to the registrar, who would determine whetherthe interpretation was “reasonable.”12 Seven months later, as the firstBrown decision rocked the state, Mississippi voters ratified theamendment by a five-to-one margin.13 The Associated Citizens’Councils of Mississippi, determined to block African American votingat all costs, declared that it was “impossible to estimate the value of

this amendment to future peace and domestic tranquility in thisstate.”14

To reduce the number of black ballots, the Citizens’ Councils hadrelied mainly on economic pressure, but the message could arrive inconsiderably starker terms. On July 30, 1955, Caleb Lide, one of thetiny handful of registered voters in Crawford, received an unsignedletter threatening, “Last warning. If you are tired of living, vote anddie.”15

•  •  •

Despite Belzoni’s tough side, Reverend Lee’s hard work and spiritualdepth helped him achieve a good life there. A gifted and fiery preacher,Lee eventually became pastor at three small churches.16 “Unlike hisbrethren,” wrote the renowned black journalist Simeon Booker, “hepreached well beyond the range of Bible and Heaven and the GloryRoad.”17 He saw nothing eternal about the Jim Crow social order, andapparently his convictions were infectious. In 1936, when he wasthirty-two, he married a steady, quiet twenty-one-year-old namedRose. He and Rose ran a brisk printing business out of the rear of thesmall grocery store they operated in their house at 230 Hayden Street,in the heart of Belzoni’s black community, and Reverend Lee became aleader in the community. “He had a thinking ability better than mostof the others,” his wife recalled, “so they came to him.”18

In the early 1950s Dr. T. R. M. Howard recruited Lee as vicepresident of the Regional Council on Negro Leadership. Lee’seloquent speeches at RCNL rallies became legend. In one much-laudedaddress to ten thousand black citizens gathered in Mound Bayou hesaid, “Pray not for your mom and pop. They’ve gone to heaven. Praythat you can make it through this hell.”19 Booker called Lee “a tan-skinned, stumpy spellbinder” and found his oratory irresistible:“Backslapping the Delta farmers and giving each a sample of his fierycivil rights message, Lee electrified crowds with his down-homedialogue and his sense of political timing.”20 Many of Lee’s listenerscame to regard him as the most militant preacher in the Delta.21

In 1952 and 1953, with the help of Medgar Evers, Lee and hisfriend Gus Courts, a grocer, organized the Belzoni branch of theNAACP. Courts became the first branch president, and Lee was soonthe first black citizen registered to vote in Humphreys County sincethe end of Reconstruction.22 They held a number of voter registrationmeetings, for which Lee printed leaflets. According to Courts and RoyWilkins, the national NAACP executive director, they managed toregister roughly four hundred African Americans. When Sheriff IkeShelton refused to accept poll tax payments from African Americansand ordered Lee to “get the niggers to take their names off the[registration] book,” Lee and Courts threatened to sue him.23

This affront brought down the wrath of the Citizens’ Council,which launched a campaign of intimidation and reprisal that soonforced virtually all black voters to remove their names from theregistration rolls. By May 7 the number of African American voters inthe county fell to ninety-two.24 Local white wholesalers refused to sellCourts wares for his store or to extend him credit. If he didn’t take hisname off the registration list, they told him, he would lose his lease.No doubt frustrated that economic reprisals were not working,Citizens’ Council leaders next assured Lee that if the two men wouldsimply remove their names and cease their registration efforts theCouncil would protect him and Courts from harm.25

The implicit threat was something to weigh soberly. White men hadrecently beaten two black ministers who had advocated the ballot forAfrican Americans at Starkville and Tupelo.26 In Belzoni the NAACP’sadversaries responded to the successful voter registration drive bysmashing the windshields of eighteen parked cars on a single street inthe black community and shattering the windows of a number ofblack-owned businesses. The vandals left a note that promised, “Youniggers paying poll tax, this is just a token of what will happen toyou.”27 On an evening in the spring of 1955 a mob of white menswarmed Elks’ Rest, a local African American social hall, smashed upthe place, destroyed equipment, tore up the checkbook, and left thisnote: “You niggers think you will vote but it will never happen. This isto show you what will happen if you try.”28

By May 7, 1955, Lee had received countless death threats by phoneand mail, including from one anonymous caller who said, “Nigger,you’re number one on a list of people we don’t need around here anymore.” That night Lee drove downtown to pick up a suit from the drycleaner’s for church the next day. It was after eleven, but relationshipswere informal among the town’s black merchants and Lee knew thathis friend, who lived in the same building where he kept his drycleaning shop, would not mind pulling a clean suit out of the backroom.29

Heading home, Lee drove past Peck Ray, a local handyman, andJoe David Watson Sr., a gravel hauler. Both men belonged to the localCitizens’ Council. Watson had been arrested recently for shooting intoa black sharecropper’s home, but District Attorney Stanny Sandershad chosen not to try the case. According to records from the FBIinvestigation conducted later, witnesses said “they saw two men leavea downtown street corner where they had been standing, enter Ray’sgreen, two-toned Mercury convertible, drive away and return shortlyafterward. Several witnesses saw a convertible fitting that descriptionfollowing Lee with only its parking lights on.”30

As Lee neared his home in a black neighborhood, the convertiblepulled up behind him. Witnesses thought one of the passengers in thecar looked like Sheriff Ike Shelton.31 The first shot flattened one ofLee’s tires. Then the Mercury pulled up alongside Lee’s car, and a .20-gauge shotgun blast blew away his lower left jaw. Lee’s car careenedinto a nearby frame house, collapsing the porch and knocking a hugehole in the front wall. Blood pouring from his head, Lee staggeredfrom the wreckage. A passing black taxi driver saw him collapse andwhisked him off to Humphreys County Memorial Hospital, but Leedied in the backseat. A coroner’s jury found that he died from bloodloss from wounds caused by about two dozen number-threebuckshot.32 Yet the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s headline the followingday was “Negro Leader Dies in Odd Accident.” The FBI report on thecase noted, “Sheriff I. J. Shelton made public statements that the metalfragments in Lee’s jaw were most likely fillings from his teeth.” Thiswas a little over three months before the murder of Emmett Till.33

Less than an hour after the midnight shotgun blasts took Lee’s life,operators for Belzoni’s telephone system reportedly began telling blackcustomers that all of the town’s long-distance lines were in use. SoLee’s friends sped north to Mound Bayou to inform Dr. Howard, whocalled Representative Charles Diggs in Michigan, who called theWhite House. Others raced to Jackson to tell Medgar Evers and A. H.McCoy, the president of the state conference of NAACP branches.Evers assembled all the known facts for the national press. “It wasclearly a political assassination,” recalled Roy Wilkins at the nationaloffice, “but the local lawmen practically pretended that nothing hadhappened.”34 In his annual report for the Mississippi state office Everswas blunt: “[Lee’s] independent business, print shop and grocery,made it difficult to squeeze him economically, so their only alternativewas to kill him.”35

McCoy called Ruby Hurley, the NAACP southeastern districtdirector, who was on assignment in Panama City, Florida. She caughtthe first morning plane to Jackson, where she met Evers, who droveher south to Belzoni. Hurley noticed that Evers was unusually defiantand carried a gun. “Medgar was brand-new then and had some ideaswe had to change,” she said, adding that he was “anything butnonviolent.” Seeing an unmarked sheriff’s car on their trail, Hurleydecided to keep quiet about it: “I was afraid he might stop and ask theman what he was following us for.” In Belzoni they found the blackcommunity braced with rage and terror: many residents feared whatmight happen next, while others openly advocated revenge.36

Hurley persuaded Wilkins to have the national office match a $500reward offered by the RCNL for any information leading to the arrestand conviction of the murderers.37 Word came to Evers and Hurleythat a man named Alex Hudson and a young female schoolteacherhad witnessed Lee’s murder from a porch directly across the street.Hudson had fled to the home of relatives in East St. Louis the verynext day.38 The schoolteacher “moved suddenly from her home duringthe night and has not been heard from since,” an NAACP investigatorreported.39

While the Mississippi and New York offices of the NAACP soughtevidence, Lee’s family made funeral arrangements. They originally

planned to hold the services in the sanctuary of Greengrove BaptistChurch, a few blocks from the Lee home; however, it became clearthat the church would hold only a fraction of the two thousandmourners. So deacons moved the pews onto the church lawn, whilethe funeral home director had his men place the casket on the back ofa large flatbed truck, which they parked against the rear wall of thebrick church, where they built a rough altar and a podium for thespeakers.40

Rage as well as sorrow gripped the huge crowd as Reverend W. M.Walton opened the proceedings.41 The service was interrupted severaltimes by shouts of “He was murdered!” The mood was angry, evenvindictive; Richard West, active in the RCNL and a staunch memberof the Greenwood NAACP, attended the funeral carrying a .38revolver; his wife packed a .32, and his mother carried aswitchblade.42 T. R. M. Howard addressed the crowd, declaring, “Weare not afraid. We are not fearful. . . . Some of us here may join him,but we will join him as courageous warriors and not as cringingcowards.” Rose Lee had ordered her husband’s casket to be open inorder to refute the sheriff’s claim that he had died in an “automobileaccident.” Foreshadowing the photographs that would define the Tillcase, pictures in Jet and various black newspapers showed Lee’s leftjaw all but blasted away and the hundreds and hundreds ofmourners.43 After the funeral NAACP members went back to Belzonito hold voter registration classes.44

On May 22 the NAACP sponsored a memorial rally that packedthe Elks’ Rest in Belzoni with a crowd estimated at more than athousand. Wilkins came from New York to speak for the nationalorganization, and Howard told the audience, “There are still someNegroes left in Mississippi who would sell their grandmamas for halfa dollar, but Rev. Lee was not one of them.” McCoy challenged thelocal lawmen who had watched them file into the hall: “SheriffShelton is sitting outside that door right now, he and his boys. Comeback from his fishing just so he could watch this meeting. I say hemight better be investigating the murder of the Rev. Lee than watchingthis meeting or taking his little tin bucket with some bait in it andgoing fishing. The sheriff says that the Rev. Lee’s death is one of the

most puzzling cases he’s ever come across. The only puzzling thingabout it is why the sheriff doesn’t arrest the men who did it.”45

Except, of course, that it wasn’t the least bit puzzling.Had District Attorney Sanders prosecuted Joe David Watson Sr. for

shooting into the home of a black sharecropper, George Lee might nothave been killed. By failing to act, Sanders practically green-lighted themurder, which he also declined to prosecute. The message to thecommunity was clear: anyone pushing for black voting rights could bekilled with impunity. According to a 1956 FBI memo, Sandersacknowledged that the bureau’s investigation of the case “conclusivelydemonstrates that criminal action was responsible for Lee’s death,”but he maintained that the identity of the assailants was not“sufficiently established by usable evidence to warrant presentation tothe grand jury.” To proceed was pointless, he told FBI agents, becausea Humphreys County grand jury “probably would not bring anindictment, even if given positive evidence.” Besides, race relations inBelzoni had settled down after the murder, and to reopen the casewould only stir things up. The Justice Department declined to file civilrights charges, claiming that there was insufficient evidence that themurder bore any relation to voting rights. FBI agents returned toWatson his .20-gauge and shells.46

•  •  •

The morning after Lee’s murder was Sunday, Mother’s Day, but GusCourts’s grocery store was open. After losing his closest friend, it musthave felt like a kick in the stomach to see Percy Ford of the BelzoniCitizens’ Council leaning over the counter.

“They got your partner last night,” Ford reportedly said.“Yes, you did,” Courts replied accusingly.“If you don’t go down and get your name off the register, you are

going to be next. There is nothing to be done about Lee because youcan’t prove who did it.” Ford then spoke even more bluntly: “Courts,they are going to get rid of you. I don’t know how and I don’t want toknow how.”

The sixty-five-year-old grocer told Ford that he would as soon die afree man as live a coward. In any case, Courts said, he did not intendto take his name off the books. It had taken too much effort to get itthere in the first place.

The Citizens’ Council was as good as its word. Courts’s landlordsoon raised his rent so high he was forced to move his store. Plantersrefused to hire any of the day laborers he hauled in at harvest timewith his bus and truck service. Two wholesale grocers canceled hiscredit. Courts paid cash for two weeks, after which the wholesalersrefused to sell him any more merchandise. He had to drive the hourand a half to Jackson himself to buy provisions.47

In Humphreys County the Council gave lists of registered AfricanAmericans to local white businesses. If an employer or prospectiveemployer found a black person’s name on the list, Evers explained,“he’d say, ‘we can’t employ you until you get your name off this list.’ ”With this method they knocked registration down to about ninetynames, and against this harder core of black voters the Councilbrought other types of pressure. Evers observed that SunflowerCounty had lost all 114 black voters due to these methods, andMontgomery County lost all 26. Asked if those numbers representedthe goals of the Citizens’ Council, Robert Patterson claimed, “Wearen’t against anyone voting who is qualified under our newregistration law.”48

By the first day of August, the day before the 1955 Democraticprimary, only twenty-two African American voters remained on thebooks in Humphreys County, most of them terrified. “I was notifiedthat very next morning that the first Negro who put his foot on thecourthouse lawn would be killed,” Courts recounted. Nearly all of theblack voters still on the books met in Courts’s store later that day totalk over what they should do. “I told them that we would go downto vote, if they were willing to go. They said they were, and we wentdown to vote.”

Courts continued, “After we had gotten to the registrar’s office, wewere handed a sheet of paper which contained 10 questions. They toldus we could not have the ballots until we had answered thequestions.” The first question asked if they were members of the

Democratic Party. “The next question was, ‘Do you want yourchildren to go to school with the white children?’ The next questionwas, ‘Are you a member or do you support the NAACP?’ ” Theregistrar refused to accept any of their votes. Not one black ballot wascounted in Humphreys County in 1955.49

Subsequently Courts and four of his comrades wrote and sent apetition to Governor Hugh White asserting that their voting rightswere being denied and their lives threatened and asking for protectionof both their ballots and their bodies. They sent a copy to the U.S.Department of Justice. The response was chilling. “Now, theGovernor sent that petition back to Belzoni to the White Citizens’Council,” Courts explained. Percy Ford showed the original petitionto all five signatories, one by one. “You signed this petition and sent itto the governor,” Courts remembered Ford telling him. “Now you seehow much protection you have gotten from the Governor.”50

As the coercion increased, Courts scrawled a note to Evers: “I amreporting a few the Citizen Council putting the preasher on. Mr. V. G.Hargrove, T chula, Misss. Farmer. Mr. Neely Jackson T cula Miss.farmer. Mr. Fread Myls Belzoni Miss. merchen, Mr. Will None,planter, Belzoni, Miss., Mr. Willie A Harris, Taxie Cab oner BelzoniMiss. Mr. Gus Couters Belzoni merchen and a lot of others I dounthave thire names. All these men have ben ask to get out of theNAACP. And to return thire poll tax or tare up receat. Your truleyGus Courts, 61 First St. Belzoni Miss.”51 Evers filed the letter alongwith several similar reports. Citizens’ Council members persisted inwarning Courts to get out of Belzoni or face the consequences.

About eight o’clock on Friday night, November 25, 1955, a forty-two-year-old black woman named Savannah Luton entered Courts’sgrocery store on First Street in Belzoni. “I was busy waiting oncustomers in my store,” Courts recalled. He greeted Luton frombehind the old drink box and cash register. “I was buying a dime’sworth of coal oil and I heard this noise that sounded like firecrackers,”she said later. “I bent down to look out the window and told Mr.Courts, ‘There’s some white folks out here shooting at us.’ He didn’teven know he was shot until then.”

The shotgun had been loaded with unconventionally largebuckshot, and two quick blasts splattered the upper edge of the bed ofCourts’s pickup truck and sprayed irregular holes across the store’splate glass window. When Courts touched his side his hand cameaway covered with blood; the slugs had caught him in his left arm andstomach. Unharmed, Luton rushed out the front door just in time tosee a two-toned automobile spraying dust and gravel as it raced awaytoward downtown Belzoni. There was a white man at the wheel andother people in the car whom Luton couldn’t make out. Running backinto the store, she found Courts fallen. He had one hand pressed upagainst the wound to his side and the other to the wound in his arm.Blood seeped through his fingers and dripped onto the wood floor.52

Friends and family rushed Courts to the hospital—not the localhospital nearby but the Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou. “When Iwalked out to get into the car, I told my friend, Ernest White, whocame to take me to the hospital, that I wanted to go to Mound Bayouhospital, which is 80 miles away. The sheriff came over in 30 minutesto my store, after I had left for the hospital. He asked my wife where Iwas. He said he had been over to the hospital, just two blocks away,for 30 minutes waiting for me.” When his wife said he’d gone toMound Bayou, the officer was not pleased. “I believe they would havefinished me off if I had landed up in the Belzoni hospital,” saidCourts.53 Sheriff Shelton complained: “They took Courts across twocounties, to 80 miles north of here, though we have the best hospitalin the world and two of the best doctors.”

“I’ve known for a long time it was coming and I tried to getprepared in my mind for it,” Courts said, “but that’s a hard thing todo. It’s bad when you know you might get shot just walking around inyour store.” Although it was more than a year before Courts had fulluse of his arm again, he recovered from the buckshot. Other woundsproved harder to heal. No one was ever charged in the case. The NewYork Times ran one tiny story about the murder of Reverend Lee, butno national press reported on what happened to Courts or on thewave of intimidation against black voters all over the state. U.S.Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. insisted that under federal lawthe Justice Department had no authority to prosecute, even though the

courts had long since found that the Fourteenth Amendment to theU.S. Constitution created a national citizenship and so empowered thefederal government to protect the right of all citizens to vote.54

Like Lee and Courts, a sixty-three-year-old African Americancotton farmer named Lamar Smith decided that he would riskeverything to help bring the vote to black Mississippians. About twoweeks before Milam and Bryant drove to Reverend Wright’sfarmhouse to take Emmett Till, Smith went to the courthouse inBrookhaven, Mississippi, to obtain more of the absentee ballots hewas distributing to African Americans so that they could vote withoutbeing intimidated or attacked.55 It was ten o’clock on Saturdaymorning and the square was filled with people. At least three whitemen set upon the unarmed Smith as he crossed the courthouse lawnand beat him mercilessly. Then at least two of them held him whileanother fired a .38 revolver into his heart and, by one account, fired asecond shot into his mouth. Dozens of people stood nearby. Thesheriff was close enough to recognize at least one of the killers and todescribe the bloodstains on the shirt of another. The FBI investigationstated flatly that his assailants killed Smith “in front of the sheriff.”56

Arrington High’s Eagle Eye newspaper claimed that the dozens ofwitnesses to the murder were “ordered to shut up their mouths.” Heangrily demanded, “Was this man murdered by elected officials?”57

The front page of the Jackson Advocate, a conservative blacknewspaper, declared that Smith’s murder was “generally regarded asresulting from sentiment created against Negro leaders in the state bythe White Citizens’ Councils.”58 Even Brookhaven’s own Judge TomBrady acknowledged that there had been no trial in the Smith killingbecause no white man was willing to testify against another in themurder of a black man.59

Not all whites remained silent, however. When the sheriff wouldnot make an arrest, despite personally witnessing the murder, DistrictAttorney E. C. Barlow tried unsuccessfully to persuade the governorto send highway patrol officers to investigate, calling the murder“politically inspired.” The chairman of the all-white local grand jurycomplained bitterly in a lengthy statement to the newspapers, “Mostassuredly somebody has done a good job of trying to cover up the

evidence in this case, and trying to prevent the parties guilty, therefore,from being brought to justice.” Even though “there were quite anumber of people alleged to have been standing around and near saidkilling, yet this Grand Jury has been unable to get the evidence,although it was generally known or alleged to be known who theparties were in the shooting.” Claiming to speak on behalf of thewhole grand jury, the chairman raged, “We think it impossible forpeople to be within 20 or 30 feet of a difficulty in which one party isshot, lost his life in broad, open daylight, and nobody knows nothingabout it or knows who did it.”60

Despite the openly political nature of the Mississippi attacks, thenational news media soft-pedaled the murders of George Lee andLamar Smith and said little about the attempted murder of GusCourts. So it’s easy to understand why the murderers and those whosympathized with them would think that the country didn’t care aboutthe rights or even the lives of African Americans in Mississippi. And itis no surprise that J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant would assume theycould murder Emmett Till without real consequences.

After Courts was released from the hospital in Mound Bayou, hiswife and Evers persuaded him to relocate his family to Chicago, wherethe NAACP set him up in a small grocery business on the SouthSide.61 Gunmen sprayed the Jackson home of A. H. McCoy withbullets. Dr. C. C. Battle, who had performed the autopsy on GeorgeLee, fled for Kansas City. Dr. Howard sold his home and nearly eighthundred acres and moved, first to California and then to Chicago,where he opened a medical practice and went into politics. They allfelt sure they would be killed if they stayed in Mississippi.62 AmzieMoore wrote to a Chicago friend in late 1955, “It’s ruff down hereand a man’s life isn’t worth a penny with a hole in it. I shall try to stayhere as long as I can but I might have to run away up there. Look forme right after the first of the year.”63 Moore managed to stay, but hishouse became a virtual arsenal and was lit up like Christmas everynight of the year.64

Courts never returned to Belzoni. “You see before you an Americanrefugee from Mississippi terror,” he testified two years later before theU.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. “We had to flee in the night.

We are the American refugees from the terror in the South, all becausewe want to vote.”65

Rumor had it that friends had smuggled him out of town in acasket.66



On the Sunday afternoon before the trial of Roy Bryant and J. W.

Milam began, C. Sidney Carlton, one of the five attorneys defendingthem, visited the chief witness for the prosecution. Carlton, a round-faced, bespectacled man well into middle age, would soon become thepresident of the Mississippi Bar Association.1 The kindest term forwhat he was about to do is witness tampering. He knocked at thedoor of the unpainted tenant farmhouse where Reverend Wright lived,the same door that Milam and Bryant had pounded on when theycame to snatch the black boy from Chicago. Carlton had come towarn Wright about testifying against his clients.2

Like much about the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers, there was aperformance quality to Carlton’s visit. His warning was superfluous.After meeting the heavily armed minister at his home, MosesNewsome of the Memphis Tri-State Defender wrote, “[Moses Wright]seems certain he can handle any situation that comes up while he isawake. Each time that cars slowed down in front of the house, he kepttelling this reporter, ‘Don’t worry. It is all right here.’ ”3 Wrightavoided sleeping at his house, however, as he waited for his chance totestify in court; instead he slept in his car in a rural cemetery oranother secret location. “I spend some nights here and some nights Idon’t,” he told reporters. “I’m superstitious.” Every day, as he and hissons picked his twenty-five–acre cotton crop, his shotgun was nearby.He also kept a rifle close at hand. The boys were living with relatives.4

Wright knew to a certainty who had abducted his nephew, torturedand butchered him. He knew how remarkable it was that there wouldeven be a trial and knew to a near certainty that the murderers wouldbe found not guilty by a jury of white men. He knew that AfricanAmericans had been killed by whites for centuries without realconsequence. There was no reason to imagine that this time would beany different. But like George Lee, like Gus Courts, like countlessother African Americans pasting bumper stickers to their cars,attending rallies, signing their names on school integration petitions,and attempting to register and vote, he chose courage. That was whyhe stayed in the Delta. “There was not a trace of fear about [Wright]as he asked his visitors to enter,” a reporter visiting the reverend’shome wrote later. “There was even a little defiance when Carltonsuggested that things might not go well with Moses Wright if hefingered Milam and Bryant.”5

Wright had to wait only three weeks. The trial began on Monday,September 19, a mere twenty days after the sheriff’s deputies fishedEmmett’s bloated body from the Tallahatchie River. This left little timefor a proper investigation, which was the point. Sheriff Strider ofTallahatchie County, who had successfully claimed jurisdiction and sowas responsible for that investigation, had in fact urged the judge tobegin the trial only a week after they found the body even though hehad not found any evidence or witnesses.6 “We haven’t been able tofind a weapon or anything,” he told reporters. Nor did the state haveany credible notion of where the murder had taken place.7 This lackof information would cast a lingering shadow over the question ofStrider’s jurisdiction, since the kidnapping clearly occurred in LefloreCounty.

In fact, it was Leflore’s Sheriff George Smith who had arrestedMilam and Bryant. Had he been given jurisdiction, the effect on thetrial might have been different. No less a pillar of Mississippi civilrights politics than Dr. T. R. M. Howard called Sheriff Smith “themost courageous and the fairest sheriff in the entire state ofMississippi.” Ruby Hurley of the NAACP’s southeastern regionaloffice also sang Smith’s praises.8 But Strider made his claim based onthe discovery of the body about ten miles into his county. He also

claimed that he had found some blood on a bridge that indicatedwhere the body had been dumped. The FBI lab soon determined thatit was not human blood, but that did not matter; Strider gotjurisdiction anyway.

And Strider was determined to maintain control of the proceedings.Another reason for the hasty trial was that Strider’s four-year termended in three months’ time; postponement until the next session ofcourt would allow Strider’s successor to take over the leading lawenforcement role.9

Henry Clarence “H.C.” Strider was a tobacco-chewing, cigar-smoking former football player with a bad heart and a gruffdemeanor.10 The owner of 1,500 acres of prime cotton land, Striderfarmed his plantation with 35 black sharecropping families and kept ageneral store and filling station on the property. He also operated acrop-dusting company with three airplanes.11 Seven tenant houseslined the driveway to his home and each had one huge letter on itsroof, visible from the highway or one of his planes: S-T-R-I-D-E-R.12

“He was like a godfather over the Delta,” Carolyn Bryant recalled.“All of the other sheriffs and police departments and all, whateverStrider said, that’s what they did.”13 Elected in 1951, he was “astough a sheriff that’s ever been around here,” recalled Crosby Smith,Emmett Till’s uncle. “He weighed about three hundred pounds and hewalked heavy.”14 If he carried a gun in the courthouse during the trialit was not visible, but an oversized blackjack protruded prominentlyout of the right front pocket of his trousers.15

Sheriff Strider ruled at the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, a badlyaging three-story brick castle erected in 1915 in Sumner.16 Builtaround the courthouse square half a mile from the highway, Sumner,one of two county seats in Tallahatchie, had a population of nearly sixhundred, more than two-thirds of them black and not one registeredto vote. Strider kept security for the trial tight. “Deputies wearing gunbelts ambled in and out, as if it were the set of a TV western, andfrisked everyone who entered the courtroom,” wrote Dan Wakefieldfor the Nation.17 “I have received over 150 threatening letters and Idon’t intend to be shot,” Strider announced to the press. “If there isany shooting, we would rather be doing it.”18

•  •  •

To judge from the initial press coverage, much of white Mississippishared Chicago’s outrage at Till’s murder. On September 1, the dayafter his body was found, the Clarksdale Press Register called it “asavage and useless crime” and stated flatly, “If conviction with themaximum penalty of the law cannot be secured in this heinous crime,then Mississippi may as well burn all its law books and close itscourts.” The Greenwood Commonwealth ran a front-page editorialasserting, “Citizens of this area are determined that the guilty partiesshall be punished to the full extent of the law.” The Vicksburg Postcalled it a “ghastly and unprovoked murder” and urged “swift anddetermined prosecution.” Governor White dispatched telegrams toDistrict Attorney Gerald Chatham urging energetic prosecution of thecase and to the national office of the NAACP promising that theMississippi courts “will do their duty.”19

T. R. M. Howard, the civil rights leader and surgeon from MoundBayou, was on a business trip to Chicago when he heard that Till’sbody had turned up in the Tallahatchie. “There will be hell to pay inMississippi,” he told reporters.20 Mamie Bradley also fired on theMagnolia State, vowing, “Mississippi is going to pay for this.”21

Much to the chagrin of most white Mississippians, Mamie called whathad happened to her son “an everyday occurrence” there, and saidvisiting Mississippi was “like walking into a den of snakes.”22 In NewYork, Roy Wilkins made an even more vehement condemnation,which appeared in newspapers across the nation and on the front pageof the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “It would appear by this lynching thatthe State of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy bymurdering children,” he said. “The killers of the boy felt free to lynchhim because there is in the entire state no restraining influence ofdecency, not in the state capital, among the daily newspapers, theclergy nor any segment of the so-called better citizens.”23

These statements would linger in the minds of white Mississippians.Their outrage at the Till murder dissipated as they began to smart atall the criticism directed at their state, and by implication at them.Within days a full-scale backlash began to roll. White Mississippians

resented the sweeping condemnations of their state in the Northernpress and particularly the excoriating denunciations by Wilkins andother civil rights leaders. Many Mississippi editors began to fire backindiscriminately.24 The editor of the Picayune Item snarled that a“prejudiced communistic inspired NAACP” could not “blacken thename of the great sovereign state of Mississippi, regardless of theirclaims of Negro Haters, lynching, or whatever.”25

Some used the searing national criticism of Mississippi to explainthe performance of justice unfolding in the courtroom: the state’scritics, they argued, had swelled Strider’s sympathy for Roy andMilam. But prosecutor Hamilton Caldwell countered that Strider“was for the boys all along.” Carolyn Bryant later noted that wellbefore the murder the Milams and Bryants believed that theirassociation with Strider made them immune to prosecution. As earlyas September 3, only three days after Till’s body was found, Stridertold reporters he did not believe the body was Till’s: “The body wetook from the river looked more like that of a grown man instead of ayoung boy. It was also more decomposed than it should have beenafter that short a stay in the water.”26 This contrasted sharply from hisassessment of the body’s condition right after they pulled it from theriver, when he said it looked like it had been there only two days. Thisshift had a political purpose, of course; if it had been in the water formore than a few days, the body could not have been Emmett Till’s.The following day Strider told reporters, “The whole thing looks likea deal made up by the NAACP.”27 Sheriff George Smith of LefloreCounty quickly and publicly disagreed. His deputy, John Ed Cothran,could not keep silent, either, and stated emphatically that he’d beenpresent when Moses Wright identified the body by the silver ringengraved with Till’s father’s initials.28

But in the Tallahatchie County Courthouse their dissents amountedto little. Strider soon elaborated on his theory to reporters from theGreenwood Morning Star: “It just seems to me that the evidence isgetting slimmer and slimmer. I’m chasing down some evidence nowthat the killing might have been planned and plotted by theNAACP.”29 Hodding Carter Jr., the editor of the Delta Democrat-Times, wondered, “Whoever heard of a sheriff offering on the

flimsiest construction of fact, the perfect piece of evidence for thedefense? Without a corpus delicti, there can be no murder conviction—of anyone.” Carter pointed out the irony that the same man whonow denied that the body was Till’s had claimed jurisdiction over thecase on the basis of some blood he said he had found on a bridge.30

Of course Strider wasn’t brazen in a vacuum. The tide of publicopinion seemed to run ever more in his favor. Governor White wroteto a colleague, “I’m afraid the public has become so aroused over theNAACP agitation that it will be impossible to convict these men.”31

Though editors and politicians like White blamed the turn on theNAACP and Northern critics, the fuming of Mississippi editorspushed public opinion considerably. Nevertheless, to the genuinesurprise of many observers, a grand jury issued indictments againstMilam and Bryant for murder on September 7.32

•  •  •

The man running the murder trial inside Strider’s citadel would drawhigh marks from the press corps. James Hicks of the National NegroPress Association and the Afro-American News Service, who came tothe trial a self-described “skeptic of Mississippi’s white man’s justice,”wrote afterward that no judge “could have been more painstakinglyand eminently fair in the conduct of the trial than Judge Curtis M.Swango of Sardis, Mississippi.”33 Greenville’s Delta Democrat-Timesaverred, “[Swango] is providing the South with the best publicrelations it has had since the invention of the Southern Accent firstenchanted Northern ears.”34 Murray Kempton of the New York Post,immune to any charming drawl of Southern-fried public relations,called Judge Swango “a quiet man firmly and graciously committed toa fair trial whatever the verdict.”35 Even the rabidly segregationistJackson Daily News agreed that the jurist was “to be warmlycommended for his scrupulously correct conduct in the face of whatmust be a difficult situation.” That paper also called his selection“good casting”: “[He] looks like Hollywood’s idea of what a judgeshould look like.”36

Though he banned broadcasts, photography, and recording duringtestimony, Judge Swango delighted journalists by permitting them toshoot pictures during the fifteen minutes before trial and duringintermissions. He also permitted smoking in the courtroom and madea gesture toward comfort by suggesting that the men remove theirjackets in the sweltering heat.37 He sipped a cold Coca-Cola duringjury selection and let participants and spectators do likewise. Othersdrank beer without reprimand.38 On the first day of the trial one ofthe courthouse custodians walked in with a wooden crate full of glassbottles of ice-cold Coca-Cola and quickly sold each one for a dollar,though at that time soft drinks cost a nickel. When the crate wasempty he sold that, too, for a dollar, as a makeshift chair.39 Yetnobody described Judge Swango’s courtroom as lax. “The dignifiedmagistrate has an authoritative voice and a husky gavel and doesn’thesitate to use it,” wrote Harry Marsh, a Southern liberal with theDelta Democrat-Times. “But most of all he has displayed greatpatience and fairness in the two days required to select a jury in thehot, crowded courtroom.”40

The photographers and reporters, especially the African Americancontingent, appreciated Swango’s letting them roam the courtroombefore the proceedings and during breaks. One of them, ErnestWithers, snapping pictures for the Memphis Tri-State Defender, wouldbecome a famed civil rights photographer and seemed at ease even inthe tense atmosphere. One day a white man in the crowd suddenlyjumped up and demanded, “Nigger, don’t take my picture.” Withers,who was born in Memphis and had worked as one of the city’s firstblack police officers, shrugged. “Don’t worry,” he deadpanned, “I’monly taking important people today.” James Hicks, a Northerner,taking nervous drags on a cigarette at the card table set aside forAfrican American reporters, muttered to Withers, “Man, you’ll get uslynched down here.”41

The spectators in shirtsleeves, the sweating bottles of Coca-Cola,the roaming interracial pool of reporters, the judge’s demeanor—noneof these influenced the substance of the murder trial of Roy Bryantand J. W. Milam. On Monday, September 19, the first day of the trial,selection of ten of the twelve needed jurors began promptly at nine

o’clock. Sheriff Strider and Sheriff-elect Harry Dogan, who betweenthem knew virtually everyone in the county, helped the defenselawyers vet the 125 potential jurors. That it would be an all-white jurywent without saying. “No Negroes will serve on the jury,” explainedthe Jackson Daily News. “Women do not serve on Mississippi juries,either.”42

The prosecution dismissed three juror prospects for admitting tohaving contributed money to the defense fund, which reportedlycollected $6,000 in the Delta.43 Other common causes for dismissalincluded being related to the defendants or one of the attorneys in thecase, knowing the defendants, living near where the murderpresumably occurred, or holding “fixed opinions” on the case.44 Theprosecution eliminated only one prospective juror, a cotton farmer, forreasons associated with racial prejudice; he did not admit to suchprejudice but appeared unable to understand the question or reluctantto respond.45 Another man, asked whether he had a “fixed opinion”about the crime, replied, “Anybody in his right mind would have afixed opinion.”46

On Tuesday morning, the crowded courtroom watched attentivelyas the defense and prosecution set out to select the two more jurorsnecessary to proceed with the trial. They did not complete the processuntil almost eleven o’clock; the court had to call nine moreprospective jurors in order to confirm the last two. The prosecutionrejected six for having contributed to the defense fund of Milam andBryant and used one of its peremptory challenges to block another. Inthe end nine cotton farmers, two carpenters, and an insurancesalesman were selected: all men, all white.47 The Greenwood MorningStar described the local men as “a jury mostly composed of open-collared, sunburned farmers,” although the Memphis CommercialAppeal noted that one juror wore a necktie that first day.48 JudgeSwango selected J. A. Shaw, one of the nine farmers, to chair the jury.

The court sequestered Shaw and his compatriots at the Delta Inn, ahotel about a hundred yards from the Sumner courthouse. They tooktheir meals in the hotel dining room and received $5 a day besides.Barred from watching television, reading newspapers, or listening tothe radio, the members of the jury were also barred from discussing

the case with anyone. This did not dissuade local members of theCitizens’ Council from calling on jurors individually to ensure theyvoted “the right way.”49

After jury selection was complete, Murray Kempton of the NewYork Post observed, “the defense was exuding its satisfaction and itsassurance of a two-day trial and a two-minute acquittal.”50 Any jurydrawn from Tallahatchie County would have presented a challenge forthe prosecution, but this one defied the prospect of a successfuloutcome. Ten of the twelve hailed from the Mississippi hill country,where race relations were especially harsh. The defense attorneys, inno small measure assisted by Sheriff Strider and Sheriff-elect Dogan,knew enough of the jurors personally to be confident of acquittal.“After the jury had been selected,” said senior defense counselBreland, “any first-year law student could have won the case.”51

The one fixed opinion that everybody from Tallahatchie Countyseemed to share was that the jury would find the accused not guilty.52

This did not detract from the high suspense and absorbing interest ofthe courtroom drama. Perhaps as many as four hundred peoplepacked the place, and most watched the proceedings with raptattention, though two deputies played checkers in the jury roomthroughout much of the trial.53 The white spectators were mostlyfarmers. About forty African American observers occupied half a rowand often some of the wall space in the rear. Only about fifteen or soof the spectators, black or white, were women.

Merely feeding and housing all the people attending the trial placeda heavy strain on the meager local facilities. Sumner had no realrestaurant except a small hotel dining room on the courthouse square,where the jury took their meals. By Monday afternoon a café ownerfrom Clarksdale, twenty-one miles away, had set up a concessionstand in the courthouse lobby and passed the word that he would beselling half-chicken box lunches on Tuesday. Most of the whitejournalists ate at a drugstore across the street that had never sold foodbefore but stocked supplies of sandwiches and soft drinks during thetrial. Coca-Cola prices doubled, even when all the cold ones weregone and people sipped from tepid bottles until the refrigerators couldcatch up. Three blocks away the jukebox blared from Griffin’s, where

the owner and her employees hawked food and drinks to AfricanAmerican spectators and journalists.54 The conspicuous interracialgroup from Louisiana took their lunch on the courthouse lawn.

Even more conspicuous was the sheer size of the press corps.Sumner, a sleepy village of six hundred, was playing host to nearly ahundred journalists and thirty photographers, most of them fromdistant states and a few from other countries—New York, Chicago,Memphis, Detroit, Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Toledo,Washington, Ontario, London—and from all over Mississippi:Jackson, Clarksdale, Greenville, and Greenwood.55 Time, Newsweek,Life, the Nation, Jet, Ebony, and several other magazines sentreporters. Newspapers in Jakarta, Copenhagen, Düsseldorf, Paris,Istanbul, Rome, and Stockholm, among others, showed keen interest.Bill Stewart, who broadcast a radio program several times a day tostations in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Ohio, said, “This is the biggestthing we’ve ever done; we’ve got more phone calls from our listenersthanking us for having a man on the scene than anything we’vedone.”56 On the courthouse lawn, writes the historian Robert Caro,there sprung up, “if not a forest, at least a small grove of tripodssupporting television cameras.” Three major television networkschartered airplanes that set down in a field seven miles away to pickup film every day and whisk it back to New York.57 National printjournalists wired in their stories; Western Union set up a special boothin Sumner that sent nineteen thousand words on Monday, twenty-twothousand on Tuesday, and far more on Wednesday, Thursday, andFriday.58 Each time court recessed, radio journalists from Memphis,New York, Detroit, Chicago, Hattiesburg, Jackson, and other citiesrushed to the few telephone booths to record their stories forimmediate broadcast.59

For reporters from London, New York, Chicago, Washington, andeven more distant places, Sumner, Mississippi, must have seemed aforeign country.60 “You lie in bed at night listening to the houndsbaying,” Dan Wakefield reported, “and during the day you see moremen wearing guns than you ordinarily do outside your televisionscreen. I am not ashamed to confess that I was afraid.”61

•  •  •

Outside a thousand people besieged the courthouse square.62 AfricanAmericans sat on the toasted grass beneath a Confederate statuededicated to “the Cause That Never Failed,” and whites gathered onand around benches across the lawn.63 Observers noted a violenttension in the crowd. “It was like watching a community you thoughtyou knew reveal itself as something else,” said Billy Pearson, a youngwhite man who had been away at the University of North Carolinaand come home to run the family farm. Pearson claimed to beappalled by the threatening atmosphere. Sheriff Strider had hired anumber of youthful special deputies whom Pearson called “bully-boys” with long sideburns and big pistols who enjoyed pushing peoplearound, he said, especially the black people.64

The deputies could not intimidate everyone outside the courthouse.Frank Brown, a labor organizer from Chicago, spent a day theremingling with other black men. Many carried guns, he recalled, andnone seemed cowed by the deputies. “Used to be they would charge uswith clubs and chase us off the grass,” one of the men told Brown,“but they know we ain’t running no damn where this time.”65 OnMonday afternoon a young black man openly brandished anautomatic on the courthouse lawn but jumped into his car and droveaway before the deputies could question him and find out who hewas.66 Amzie Moore recounted, “The tension was so thick until, asthe blacks and whites mixed on the courthouse grounds, you justlooked for an explosion just any time.”67

One possible spark was an unlikely group of visitors from theUnited Packinghouse Workers Association, a union with anincreasingly strong commitment to civil rights for all Americans; theUPWA would become a vital part of the national civil rights coalitionthat emerged in the wake of the Till lynching. The union had sent aninterracial delegation from Gramercy, Louisiana, a small town with aunion sugar refinery. It was in the grips of a strike and had recentlybeen the site of a women’s conference, which had adopted a resolutiondenouncing the Till murder and calling for justice. “We are building anew, free, unafraid South,” the resolution declared.68 The UPWA sent

two white field representatives, two white program coordinators, theAfrican American president of the Women’s Auxiliary, and three whitewives of striking workers. Sugar workers from rural Louisianacertainly knew how bizarre it was for them to travel in a mixed group.“The fact that Mrs. Lillian Pittman, a Negro, was in our companycaused us to have innumerable problems on our trip to Sumner byauto,” one reported, without going into details. She also mentionedthe “shocked glares from the white populace” in Sumner.69

“We motored to Mississippi with Mr. Telfor,” Pittman reported.“Afterward Marjorie Telfor, Grace Falgoust and Mrs. Vicknair and Isat down to eat lunch under a tree in the shade. The three white ladiesand I were sitting down and along came a white photographer andtook our picture.” He assumed they were from Chicago, but they toldhim, “ ‘No, we are from Louisiana.’ He couldn’t believe it because thepeople in Mississippi don’t mix.” An older white man nearbysuggested that it would be better for the white women to stay awayfrom black people. “I asked the man did he own Mississippi,” saidFalgoust. “He couldn’t answer me.”70

At some point Pittman spoke to some African Americans hangingaround the courthouse about “political action.” They were speechless.“Then some answered me, ‘Lady, do you want us to be killed and putin the Tallahatchie River?’ They also said they were not allowed tovote. To some of them that [the whites] let register, they said, ‘Politicsare for the whites.’ And ‘[Negroes], on the day to vote, you had betternot appear at the polls.’ ”71

For the first day and a half of the trial, the women of the GramercyUPWA could not get seats in the courtroom, Pittman reported: “Butwe tried to make up for it by trying to get as much news as we couldout of the courtroom.”72 They interviewed townspeople, handed outleaflets condemning the murder and calling for justice, and “issuedpress releases to news reporters from all over the country.” Accordingto the UPWA delegates, “A great deal of attention has been given tothe presence in this tense situation of a friendly, interracialdelegation.”73

In their exchanges with local whites, the women learned much.Pittman overheard two excused jurors acknowledge to one another

that they had purposely given answers sure to get them off the jurybecause they knew “that the defendants had killed the boy, and theydid not want to be party to the verdict of ‘not guilty,’ which they knewwould be expected.”74 As they interviewed local people, the womendiscovered that none doubted the guilt of the accused, but all of themadded something like “The jury knows better than to do anything tothem.”75

On their second day at the trial Pittman managed to get into thecourtroom, so the three white women left the grounds and walkedthrough Sumner, talking with whoever would talk to them. All thewhite people they met were hostile to the prosecution. Several, wroteFreida Vicknair, “insisted that the body sent to Chicago was not thatof Emmett Till.” Contradicting this assertion was the commonunderstanding that the accused were guilty: “No one protested theinnocence of Bryant and Milam. In fact, we were told that this crimewas justified.” The locals were certain of acquittal and believed that inthe unlikely event any jurors voted otherwise, they would pay for itwith their lives.76

Even stranger to the town of Sumner than the interracial UPWAdelegation was the group of black reporters patrolling the small town.There was James Hicks of the Afro-American News Service and theNational Negro Press Association, who was pivotal not only incovering the trial but in uncovering hidden witnesses, some of whomtestified to considerable effect. Simeon Booker and Clotye Murdockwere there for Ebony, along with their photographer, David Jackson.L. Alex Wilson of the Memphis Tri-State Defender accompaniedphotographer Ernest Withers, who created lasting images of thenotorious trial. The Chicago Defender probably slung more ink fromSumner than any newspaper, black or white. Reporters William B.Franklin and Steve Duncan and publisher Nannie Mitchell of the St.Louis Argus attended. All the other major Midwestern blacknewspapers—the Kansas City Star, the Cleveland Call and Post, andthe Michigan Chronicle—covered the trial.77 The very sight of whiteand black reporters greeting one another and exchanging notes in afriendly manner shocked the Sumner crowd. Therein was some of thetrial’s actual drama, for if almost everyone involved could predict the

trial’s verdict, few could predict its consequences. The New York Postcolumnist Murray Kempton, for one, thought the locals’ reactionrevealed “more incredulity than menace.”78

This wasn’t true for the sheriff. Strider blamed all the nationalhullabaloo on outsiders and seemed to focus on the black press as aprime example. At the outset of each day he would walk, hisblackjack protruding from his front pocket, past the table where theblack press huddled and offer a cheerful “Good morning, niggers.”79

He interfered with their work whenever he could, reserving them onlythe barest minimum space, and then only at the direction of JudgeSwango. “They allotted us chairs at the Jim Crow press table butduring the noon recess while we were trying to get our stories filed ina Negro restaurant”—a pool hall, really—“the crowd would come inand take chairs from our table. I stood up more often than I satdown,” complained James Hicks. “We never have any trouble,”Strider told television reporters during a break, “until some of ourSouthern niggers go up North and the NAACP talks to them and theycome back here.”80

Meanwhile Moses Wright slept with a shotgun and harvested hiscotton crop, waiting for the chance to speak his truth.



Until he left Mississippi in late 1955, Dr. Theodore Roosevelt Mason

Howard felt sure that his name topped the Citizens’ Council “deathlist” on which the names of his late friends George Lee and LamarSmith had once appeared. So he kept a .357 Magnum revolver on onebedside table and a .45 semiautomatic on the other and a Thompsonsubmachine gun at the foot of his bed. A rifle or shotgun stood in allfour corners of the bedroom and in every other room in the house. Hislarge and well-appointed home and outbuildings would be moreproperly called a compound; the driveway featured a guardhouse inwhich armed men sat twenty-four hours a day. He was not a violentman, but he intended to sleep in peace on his own property. That iswhy, when an African American farm worker named Frank Youngshowed up at the gate at midnight on the eve of the Till murder trial,the guards were reluctant to wake Howard up. But Young insistedthat he had an important story to tell about Till’s murder and refusedto talk with anyone but Dr. Howard.

In the front room of Howard’s house Young told a harrowing storythat he had walked and hitched rides for eighty miles to tell: he hadwitnessed and knew others who had witnessed events in the murder ofEmmett Till. Their accounts changed the narrative of the murdersignificantly, including moving the crime from Tallahatchie toSunflower County and tying Bryant and Milam directly to the killing.

Early on that Sunday morning of August 28, said Young, three orfour black workers had seen a green and white Chevrolet pickup pull

onto the plantation in Sunflower County managed by Leslie Milam.Four white men were in the cab of the truck, and in the back EmmettTill sat between two African Americans, Levi “Two Tight” Collinsand Henry Lee Loggins, who both worked for J. W. Milam. Thepickup stopped in front of a small barn or equipment shed and thegroup went in. Soon thereafter Young and the others heard theunmistakable sounds of a vicious beating. When Young and anotherwitness snuck up closer to the shed they saw J.W. walk out and get adrink of water from the well. Someone then drove the truck into theshed, and the witnesses watched as it came back out with a tarpaulinthrown over the bed. Emmett Till was no longer visible. All of thesewitnesses were available to tell their stories, Young told Howard.

Howard had already given over his home as a safe house andheadquarters for witnesses, journalists, and crucial visitors like MamieBradley and Representative Charles Diggs. He would bring Mamiefrom Chicago at his own expense and escort her and other witnessesto and from the Sumner courthouse in a well-armed caravan. Diggshad been a guest at Howard’s farm on several occasions for the hugeannual gatherings of the RCNL, where he was a favorite speaker. ButHoward’s efforts extended beyond providing a safe haven: he hadbeen leading the “Mississippi underground” that undertook the mosteffective investigation of the Till murder, helping to find, interview,and eventually protect and relocate several key witnesses.1

On a tip, one member of the underground, the reporter JamesHicks, had gone to a joint called King’s in Glendora, the littlecrossroads where J. W. Milam lived. “The place was filthy and thecotton pickers who were enjoying their Sunday off crowded it to thedoors,” he wrote. Hicks drank beer, danced, and eventually unearthedrumors that Sheriff Strider had locked away two men, Levi “TooTight” Collins and Henry Lee Loggins, in the Charleston jail to keepthem from testifying. Collins and Loggins might well be the two blackmen Young had seen with Till in the back of the pickup.2 The rumorswould eventually be proven true; defense attorney Breland laterconfirmed that Strider kept the two men in the jail under falseidentities both before and for the duration of the trial.3

Also in the Mississippi underground were Ruby Hurley, MedgarEvers, and Amzie Moore, who had been investigating the Till case forsome time. Myrlie Evers wrote later, “Medgar and Amzie Moore, anNAACP leader from Cleveland, Mississippi, set off from our houseone morning with Ruby Hurley, down from Birmingham toinvestigate. . . . All of them were dressed in overalls and beat-up shoes,with Mrs. Hurley wearing a red bandana over her head. Moore hadborrowed a jalopy with license plates from a Delta county. Dressed asday laborers, they made their way among sharecroppers’ cabins andcotton fields, looking for people who might know something aboutthe murder.”4

After his midnight conversation with Young, Howard called someof his colleagues to share the new evidence. Many of the blackreporters were already at the house, including Hicks, Simeon Booker,and Robert M. Ratcliffe of the Pittsburgh Courier. Howard almostcertainly called Hurley, Evers, and Moore as well. All day and allnight that Monday, while the court selected a jury, Howard and hiscrew looked for the witnesses who could confirm Young’s story andHicks’s suspicions. The four they found agreed to come to Howard’shouse the next evening to relate what they had seen. These evidentialgold mines promised not only to provide eyewitness testimony linkingthe defendants to the murder but also to change the legal jurisdictionfrom Tallahatchie to Sunflower County. Such a move probablyprovided the best opportunity civil rights advocates had for disruptingthe script of acquittals already unfolding in Sumner.

At eight o’clock Monday evening some members of the Mississippiunderground conducted a strategy meeting in Mound Bayou to choosea course of action. Aside from Howard, Hurley was present, as wereseveral African American reporters, including Hicks, Booker, and L.Alex Wilson of the Chicago Defender. They agreed that whitereporters might fare better in dealing with local law enforcementofficials and decided to ask John Popham of the New York Times andClark Porteous of the Memphis Press-Scimitar to act in concert withthem. All the reporters would have to agree to hold off filing anystories until after the Tuesday night meeting with the witnesses.5

What happened next was probably an unintentional blunder. WhenHoward phoned Porteous to come to a meeting, he neglected to tellhim to bring only Popham and to tell no one else. Thus when Porteousarrived that night, he not only failed to bring Popham, but he hadrecruited W. C. Shoemaker and James Featherston of the Jackson (MS)Daily News, the most reactionary segregationist newspaper inMississippi. What is more, rather than demur or equivocate, Howarddeclared to the three reporters, “I can produce at least five witnesses atthe proper time who will testify that Till was not killed in TallahatchieCounty but killed in Sunflower County . . . in the headquarters shed ofthe Clint Sheridan Plantation which is managed by Leslie Milam,brother of J. W. Milam.”

It was, as Howard knew, a bombshell.6 But rather than hide thewitnesses in his compound and produce them at the trial at themoment most damning for the defendants, he showed his cards inadvance and neglected to swear the reporters to secrecy. Only afterconsiderable wheedling and a promise that they would be the onlywhite reporters invited to the Tuesday evening meeting with thewitnesses did Porteous, Shoemaker, and Featherston promise to keepmum for now.7

•  •  •

Tuesday’s courtroom drama began at a morning break, when MamieBradley “walked quietly but purposefully through the center aisle ofthe courtroom,” wrote Rob Hall of the Daily Worker, which was filledwith “relatives, friends and neighbors of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam,the two men charged with the murder of Emmett Louis Till, herchild.” Walking alongside her were two men she introduced to thepress as her father, Wiley Nash “John” Carthan of Detroit, and hercousin Rayfield Mooty.8 Fifty or sixty reporters immediatelysurrounded her, and photographers leaped over chairs and stood onthe black press table to get pictures of her. Sheriff Strider pushed his270-pound frame through the crowd and handed her a subpoena to bea witness, stating, “You are now in the state of Mississippi. You willcome under all rules of the state of Mississippi.”9 Judge Swango seated

her near the black press at the front of the courtroom and instructeddeputies to locate a larger table for that group. “She is a demurewoman whose attractiveness was set off by a small black hat with aveil folded back, a black dress with a white collar,” Hall wrote. “Inthe more than 99-degree heat of the courtroom, she fanned herselfwith a black fan with a red design.”10

Arriving with Bradley in a heavily armed motorcade from MoundBayou was Charles Diggs, U.S. congressman from Michigan, whosefamily was originally from Mississippi. It took him about an hour togain entrance, however. Diggs had written to Judge Swango andreceived a reply inviting him to attend the trial.11 Even so, accordingto Hicks, Sheriff Strider initially refused to grant Diggs admission tothe courthouse, so Diggs sat in his car with the armed guards andasked Hicks to take the judge his business card. Strider told hisdeputy, “This nigger here”—gesturing toward Hicks—“says there’s anigger outside who says he’s a Congressman, and he has correspondedwith the judge, and the judge told him to come on down and he wouldlet him in.”

The deputy replied, “This guy said a nigger Congressman?”“That’s what this nigger said,” Strider responded and waved Hicks

into the courthouse. Hicks made his way inside and sent Diggs’s cardto the judge, who instructed the bailiff to make room for Diggs at thenewly enlarged black press table.12

“Local people were obviously surprised when white newsmenshook hands with Rep. Diggs and addressed him as ‘Mr.Congressman,’ ” wrote Rob Hall.13 A reporter for the Jackson DailyNews opined, “Diggs has about as much business being at the trial ashe has being in Congress” and added that his presence “indicates thepolitical ore to be mined from this judicial molehill by cynical vote-seekers.”14

•  •  •

It took the court well over an hour to select the two remaining jurors.After the mid-morning break, the jury was seated and DistrictAttorney Chatham took the floor to begin his case. First he summoned

these witnesses: Deputy Sheriff John Ed Cothran of Leflore County;Dr. L. B. Otken, who examined the body; C. M. Nelson, theundertaker who dispatched the body to Chicago; Deputy SheriffGarland Melton of Tallahatchie County, who was present when thecorpse was taken from the river; Chester Miller, the African Americanundertaker from Greenwood who initially took the body; CharlesFred Mims, who helped retrieve the body from the water; W. E.Hodges, a commercial fisherman, and his son Robert Hodges, theseventeen-year-old who initially found the body; Moses Wright; andMamie Bradley. The defense called the same witnesses plus RoyBryant, J. W. Milam, Carolyn Bryant, Juanita Milam, Eula Lee Bryant,and Sheriff H. C. Strider. Judge Swango called an early lunch recess at11:15.

The new jury dined on barbecued pork chops at the Delta Inn,while Milam and Bryant enjoyed the air-conditioning at a lunch spotin Webb with Strider. Mamie, Representative Diggs, and the blackpress assembled at James Griffin’s Place, a black joint on Front Street.During the break, defense attorney Sidney Carlton gathered reportersaround him and began to paint Till as a menace to white womanhoodwho brought his fate upon himself. Till entered the store,“propositioned” Carolyn Bryant, and assaulted her, Carlton said. He“mauled her and he tussled her and he made indecent proposals toher, and if that boy had any sense he’d have made the next train toChicago.” Meanwhile, reporter Clark Porteous, acting as an emissaryfrom T. R. M. Howard, approached the district attorney and gave hima statement from Howard that revealed the existence of the newwitnesses and that their testimony would change the location of themurder and tie Milam and Bryant directly to the crime.15

This news shocked Chatham and prosecutor Robert Smith. Rightafter lunch, Chatham likewise shocked the court and caught thedefense off-guard. Due to a “startling development” in theinvestigation, he asked for a recess in order to locate several newwitnesses. Chatham said that it might require the entire afternoon torun them all down; though he did not say so, Dr. Howard hadarranged to meet with the witnesses and Chatham hoped it would nottake that long to assemble them, but managing black murder

witnesses in rural Mississippi, where their lives were in danger everymoment, could get complicated. Breland leaped to his feet and accusedthe state of stalling. The trial should proceed at once, he insisted.Judge Swango replied with cool courtesy that the state’s requestseemed perfectly reasonable to him.

The effort to gain more and better testimony for the prosecutionlaunched what Simeon Booker called “Mississippi’s first majorinterracial manhunt” and Murray Kempton described as “huntingthrough the cotton fields for four Negroes with a strange story to tell.”It involved Booker, Howard, the sheriffs of Leflore and Sunflowercounties, Clark Porteous of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, W. C.Shoemaker and Jim Featherston of the Jackson Daily News, JamesHicks of the National Negro Press Association, Clotye Murdock ofEbony, David Jackson of Jet, L. Alex Wilson of the Chicago Defender,Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers, and Ruby Hurley of the NAACP, andperhaps a few others.16

Both sheriffs first drove to Leslie Milam’s place with Howard andsearched the floor of the barn for bloodstains. They found none, but itwas obvious that someone had cleaned the floor recently; it was newlycovered with corn and soybeans. Unfortunately the investigators didnot have the resources or the time to perform a more scientificexamination.

Sheriff Smith, who had been battling Sheriff Strider ever since Till’sbody was retrieved from the Tallahatchie River, acknowledged that hehad been looking for witnesses for several weeks and joined the huntwith enthusiasm. “These witnesses have a story to tell,” he said.“We’ve got to find them if it takes all night.”17 The teams agreed toreconvene at eight for a meeting with the witnesses. None of theexpeditions went easily. Frank Young did not turn up until one in themorning and refused to talk to anyone but Howard, who was notavailable.

Moore, Evers, and Hurley put on their farmhand disguises,whisked up the black reporter Moses Newsome of the Memphis Tri-State Defender, and combed the plantations and swamplands forwitnesses, finding three: Willie Reed, eighteen; his grandfather AddReed; and their neighbor Amanda Bradley, fifty. Their stories generally

confirmed the one Frank Young had told. After Howard promised toprotect them in the short term and afterward relocate them toChicago, all three agreed to testify.18

•  •  •

A number of things about the Till trial did not conform to thestereotypes of Mississippi justice in 1955. Judge Swango’s fair-minded,even-handed conduct from the bench ran counter to what mostobservers expected. But perhaps nothing was quite so striking as theworkings of Howard’s Mississippi underground, a collection ofNAACP activists, black and white newspaper reporters, and lawenforcement officials who scoured the countryside for witnesses. ForHoward and the NAACP contingent, the struggle for justice wasmotive enough. The reporters sought justice, too, perhaps, but also astory. Judge Swango seems to have genuinely wanted a fair andimpartial trial, though it was perhaps more a question of honor thanoutcome. As for the two sheriffs, they knew that these witnesses couldshift the trial from Strider’s jurisdiction to their respectivejurisdictions, but was a desire for justice their motive for joining thesearch? They may have simply disliked Strider. Or perhaps they justwanted to be able to face themselves in the mirror. Whatever theirreasons, this strange, seemingly fearless group swung into action andfound the only witnesses for the prosecution that could tie Milam andBryant to the scene of the crime.


“ T H E R E H E I S ”

The trial resumed at 9:20 on Wednesday morning. As Moses Wright

made his way toward the front of the sweltering courtroom, quiet fellso that you could hear feet shuffling and the low whump, whump,whump of the ceiling fan. It was the third day of the trial. Theauthorities had brought in a hundred or so cane-bottom chairs in aneffort to keep people off the windowsills and away from the fadedlime-green walls. If it had been empty with a good breeze, the roomwould have reached ninety degrees that day; stuffed sweatbox fashion,the temperature likely reached a hundred or more. The DeltaDemocrat-Times called the courtroom “an oven-hot, smoke-filledroom that was jammed to the walls with spectators.”1 The two four-blade ceiling fans seemed only to stir the cigarette smoke. Suchoppressive heat discouraged movement other than the polyrhythmicbatting of several dozen handheld cardboard church fans of the sortcommon in the South before air-conditioning.2

After two days of jury selection and delays, the short, wiry, dark-skinned preacher was the first witness called. That was not the onlyreason for the rapt attention in the room, however. Moses Wright wasa black man called to testify against two white men charged withmurder. In Mississippi that constituted an almost suicidal affront towhite supremacy. And he had been duly warned.

Neatly dressed in a white shirt, black pants, a thin, dark blue tiewith light blue stripes, and white suspenders, Wright settled into thebig wooden witness chair, the back of which reached nearly to the top

of his head. He tugged nervously at his thick, workingman’s fingersthat had been clearing fields of cotton. “I wasn’t exactly brave and Iwasn’t scared,” he said later. “I just wanted to see justice done.”3

District Attorney Chatham cast his first witness in the role of thekindly old black retainer, calling him “Uncle Mose” and even “OldMan Mose” throughout his testimony. Very likely Chatham wasplaying to his jury, knowing undue respect shown a black man,beyond a kindly paternalism, would only hurt his case. But Wright’spresence and demeanor—he sat ramrod straight in the wooden chair—commanded attention, and the DA’s questions soon cut to the heartof the matter. “Now, Uncle Mose, after you and your family had goneto bed that night, I want you to tell the jury if any person or if one ormore persons called at your home that night, and if they did whattime was it?”

“About two o’clock,” Wright answered. “Well, someone was at thefront door, and he was saying, ‘Preacher—Preacher.’ And then I said,‘Who is it?’ And then he said, ‘This is Mr. Bryant. I want to talk toyou and that boy.’ ” When he opened the door, though heacknowledged that he could see neither of the men all that well, herecognized J. W. Milam.

The district attorney asked, “You know Mr. Milam, do you?”“I sure do,” replied Wright.“And what did you see when you opened the door?”“Well, Mr. Milam was standing there at the door with a pistol in

his right hand and he had a flashlight in his left hand.”“Now stop there a minute, Uncle Mose,” instructed Chatham. “I

want you to point out Mr. Milam if you see him here.”Moses Wright stood up as tall as his five feet three inches would

take him, pointed “a knobby finger at J. W. Milam,” and said, “Therehe is,” reported the Greenwood Commonwealth, a local whitenewspaper.4

The photographer Ernest Withers raised his camera and took apicture of the cotton farmer in his crisp, clean shirt and neat, thin tie,standing straight and pointing at Milam, who shifted nervously in hischair, puffing a small cigar. One of the wire services bought Withers’s

roll of film on the spot and the photograph, carried by newspapersaround the world, became an iconic image of courage.5

“And do you see Mr. Bryant in here?” asked Chatham. Wrightpointed again.

“Uncle Mose,” Chatham continued, “do you see any man in thiscourtroom now who was with Mr. Milam that night at your house?”

“Yes, sir.”The defense interrupted with an objection, to no avail.“And will you point that man out, Uncle Mose?” asked Chatham.“It was Mr. Bryant,” said Wright, rotating slightly and pointing at

Milam’s brother-in-law again. Bryant betrayed no emotion, but Milamagain shifted nervously in his chair.6 Only somewhat obscured by thepassage of time, the significance of what had just occurred, arguablyas significant as anything that would transpire in the courtroom,wasn’t lost on most of those watching the testimony. No doubt manythought that Wright had pronounced his own death sentence byidentifying the two white men who had taken his nephew. He knewthe risks as well as anyone. Murray Kempton wrote that Wright then“sat down hard against the chair-back with a lurch which told betterthan anything else the cost in strength to him of the thing he haddone.”7

The district attorney’s next questions carefully took Wright throughhis account of the kidnapping, ending with his story of standing onthe porch for twenty minutes, watching the darkness into which theboy his niece entrusted to his care had disappeared. “Now tell theCourt and Jury when was the next time after they took Emmett Tillaway from your home that you saw him or his body,” Chatham finallydirected.

Wright replied, “I saw him when he was taken out of the river.”8

After Wright explained that he had identified his nephew’s body inpart by the silver ring on his finger, it was the defense counsel C.Sidney Carlton’s turn to cross-examine. Carlton and Wright hadspoken three days earlier, of course, when Carlton, in an illegalattempt to prevent the moment that had just come and gone, haddropped by Wright’s tenant house to advise him that testifying againstMilam and Bryant would be very bad luck, to put it mildly. He tried a

less subtle approach in court. “Sidney Carlton roared at Moses Wrightas if he were the defendant,” Kempton wrote, “and every time Carltonraised his voice like the lash of a whip, J. W. Milam would permithimself a cold smile.”9

Carlton berated Wright as though the older man were changing thefacts of his story, which he wasn’t, and Wright calmly pointed out thathe had not said any such thing. The defense attorney tried to insinuatethat there had not been enough light in the cabin for Wright toidentify Milam or Bryant, that his identification of them was merespeculation. He tried to fool Wright into testifying that Emmett Till’sown initials were on the silver ring rather than his father’s. He tried tosuggest that since Wright had testified that he could not see the menputting the boy into the car and had not been able to see Till in the caras it pulled away, he could not prove that they had taken the boy. Heattempted to shake Wright’s confidence in his identification of hisnephew’s body by the river. Alternating between accusatory andindignant theatrics, however, Carlton never tripped up Wright, whostuck to answers like “That’s right” and “I didn’t say it” and “I suredid.” When Carlton’s frustrated questions became repetitive, JudgeSwango sustained the prosecution’s objections, the defense lawyergave in, and the judge announced a twenty-five-minute recess.10

Moses Wright did not go into hiding for the rest of the trial. He didnot follow his wife and leave immediately for Chicago. Every day ofthe trial he could be seen around the courthouse, wearing blue pantsand a crisp white shirt, his pink-banded hat tilted back on his head.Wright seemed transfigured by his bravery on the witness stand. “Hewalked through the Negro section of the lawn,” wrote Dan Wakefieldfor the Nation, “with his hands in his pockets and his chin held upwith the air of a man who has done what there was to do and couldnever be touched by doubt that he should have done anything less.”11

When court resumed, defense attorney Breland said, “If the Courtplease, the Clerk has just handed Defense Counsel a list of additionalwitnesses which the Clerk states he has subpoenaed both for the stateand defense. We now move the Court that the defendants’ counselhave the opportunity of examining these witnesses in the witness roombefore they are offered as witnesses by the state. The names of these

witnesses,” he continued, “are as follows: Amandy Bradley, WalterBillingsley, [Add] Reed, Willie Reed, Frank Young, and C. A.Strickland.” These were the local African Americans discovered by theMississippi underground, and the defense had no idea what theymight tell the court. The judge acceded to the request and let the statecall its next witness, Chester Miller, the African American undertakerfrom Greenwood who had taken Till’s body from the riverside to hisfuneral home.12

On August 31, Miller testified, Deputy Sheriff John Ed Cothrancalled him to pick up a body in Tallahatchie County. He took one ofhis helpers and found the body lying in a boat beside the river.Tallahatchie County law enforcement officers suggested that Millerremove a silver ring from the finger of the deceased for purposes ofidentification. “I laid it on the floorboard of the ambulance,” he said.Before he could load the body into the ambulance he had to detachthe barbed wire that lashed a heavy gin fan around the neck. “It waswell-wrapped,” he testified.

He had then asked Moses Wright to identify the body, whichWright did. In the courtroom, Special Prosecutor Robert Smith askedMiller, “In your opinion, was the body that was put in yourambulance, was it possible for someone who had known the personwell in their lifetime to have identified that person?”

Before the defense could shout their objection, Miller replied, “Yes,sir,” but Judge Swango sustained the objection and asked the jury todisregard the answer.

Taking another tack, Smith asked Miller to describe the body.“Well, it looked to be about five foot four or five inches in height,” theundertaker said. “Weight between one hundred and fifty or sixtypounds. And it looked to be that of a colored person.”

“Could you tell whether it was the body of a young person, ormiddle age or an old person?” Smith inquired.

“It looked like it was the body of a young person.”Miller told the prosecutor there was a hole in the head that “looked

like a bullet hole.” The defense again objected successfully, thoughMiller managed to say on the record that it was a half-inch hole justabove the right ear. Smith asked about the other side of the head.

“Well,” said Miller, “it was crushed on the other side. You couldn’ttell too much, it was crushed so. And it was all cut up and gashedacross the top there.”

“Would you state whether or not the wounds described here weresufficient to cause his death?” Smith asked.

Defense attorney Breland broke in: “We object to that, YourHonor. He is no expert to that. And the jury knows as much as hedoes about that. I think that is within the province of the jury.”

“I am going to let the witness answer the question,” Swangoresponded.

Smith asked the question again and Miller said, “Yes, sir.”“I believe I asked you this, but I am not sure,” Smith continued.

“You testified that there was some barbed wire in the boat. But did Iask you whether or not the barbed wire was on the person of thedeceased?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Miller. “Around the neck.”For anyone striving to believe otherwise, it was growing harder and

harder to evade the conclusion that a murder had been committed.But on cross-examination Breland went after the ghastly description ofthe injuries to the body. “Now, what you saw about the condition ofthat man as to his head, you couldn’t tell whether it was caused beforeor after his death, could you?”

“No, sir,” said Miller.“And you couldn’t tell whether it was caused in a car accident or

some otherwise, could you?”Miller responded, “No, sir.”The court then recessed for lunch.13

The defense was offering the jury a thin veil behind which theycould pretend to believe that the savage injuries might have occurredin an unknown manner to an unknown person and that the body hadthen been dumped in the river, recovered, and presented in agruesome, politically inspired hoax as the body of Emmett Till. Itremained to be seen whether the twelve jurors would take up that veil,or even needed to.

After the lunch break Sheriff Strider stared at the black reportersgathering their things for the afternoon session. Some of them had

been part of the Mississippi underground that had convinced theadditional witnesses to come forward. All of them would be reportingthe trial’s proceedings to the world. “Hello, niggers,” he said.14

Robert Hodges, the seventeen-year-old fisherman who found thebody snagged in the muddy water of the Tallahatchie, opened theafternoon testimony, followed by B. L. Mims, whose motorboat hadpulled the body to shore. In each case the body began to appear moreand more indisputably that of a murder victim.15

Then Sheriff George Smith, at least an honorary member of thatMississippi underground that had located the new witnesses, took thestand and testified that he had found Roy Bryant sleeping at the storein Money at about two that Sunday afternoon. He’d had a long talkwith Bryant in the front seat of the squad car. “I asked him why did hego down there and get that little nigger boy, and he said that he wentdown there and got him to let his wife see him to identify him, andthen he said that she said it wasn’t the right one, and then he said thathe turned him loose.”

Because Sheriff Smith’s testimony conveyed Bryant’s admission thathe had kidnapped Emmett Till the defense moved quickly to frame theexchange as a private, confidential conversation between two oldfriends that Bryant never understood was part of a murderinvestigation. This was before the days of Miranda, the SupremeCourt decision, later familiar to all fans of crime dramas, that decreessuspects of a crime be advised of their right to remain silent and thateverything they say can and will be used against them in a court oflaw. Consequently all the defense could do was insinuate that theinterrogation was dishonest, that a uniformed officer interviewing afriend without declaring the risks of admitting to kidnapping andperhaps worse was an act of deceit to which a reasonable jury shouldtake affront.16

Next the prosecution called Deputy Sheriff John Ed Cothran ofLeflore County. Cothran had been present when the body came out ofthe water. He had also been the one to arrest Milam and had talkedwith him about what had happened to Emmett Till. “I asked him ifthey went out there and got that boy,” Cothran testified. “I didn’t callanyone by name. I just asked him if they had went out and got that

boy. And then he said, yes, they had got the boy and then turned himloose at the store afterwards, Mr. Bryant’s store.”

Carlton quickly objected to this testimony and Swango sent thejury out of the room. Carlton suggested that Cothran’s status as “agood friend of that entire family” made it all the more imperative thathe should have informed Milam of the risks of his admission tobreaking the law. “And we have a further objection to this witness’stestimony at this time on the grounds that there has been no showingwhatsoever in the record that the body taken from the TallahatchieRiver and alleged to be that of Emmett Till, that the death was causedby any criminal agency whatsoever.” The judge overruled Carlton’sobjections and brought the jury back in.

District Attorney Chatham then asked Cothran, in the presence ofthe jury, if he’d ever “had occasion to investigate the murder ordisappearance of Emmett Till” and had ever talked to J. W. Milamabout that. Cothran answered both questions in the affirmative andadded that he’d talked to Milam in the Leflore County Jail the dayhe’d arrested him. Cothran assured the court that he had not promisedMilam anything nor threatened him in any way. “I asked him if theywent out there and got that little boy, and if they had done somethingwith him. And he said they had brought him up to that store andturned him loose.” This second instance of the defendants’ admissionto kidnapping went without further comment.17

Under questioning by Chatham, Cothran described the scene at theriverbank after he’d arrived to find the body in a boat on the shore.Seeking to undermine the defense’s implication that there may havebeen no murder, Chatham asked about the condition of the corpse.“Well, his head was torn up pretty bad. And his left eye was aboutout, it was all gouged out in there, you know,” Cothran answered.“And right up in the top of his head, there was a hole knocked in thefront of it there. And then right over his right ear—well, I wouldn’tsay it was a bullet hole, but some of them said it was.”

Breland piped up from the defense table, “We object to what theysaid it was,” and Judge Swango sustained the objection.

“There was a small hole in his head right above the ear,” Cothrancorrected himself, “over on the right side of his head, over here,”

gesturing toward the right side of his own head, “and that was all toreup. There was a place knocked in his forehead.” On cross-examination Carlton once again tried to suggest that Cothran’sfriendship with the accused invalidated his testimony and that thedamage to Till’s head could have occurred after the body was alreadyin the river. With that the court recessed until ten o’clock Thursdaymorning. That thin veil the defense was offering the jury now requiredthem to ignore the fact that both defendants had admitted toabducting the boy at two in the morning.18

After the session ended on Wednesday, members of the UnitedPackinghouse Workers of America delegation from Louisiana foundMoses Wright standing alone outside the courtroom. One of them,Frank Brown, “asked the old man where he found the courage totestify in the face of probable death. ‘Some things are worse thandeath,’ Wright told Brown. ‘If a man lives, he must still live withhimself.’ ”19

•  •  •

On Thursday morning Emmett Till’s mother made her way throughthe crowd and up to the witness stand. Mamie Bradley “was acomposed and well-spoken witness,” wrote John Popham of the NewYork Times. “She wore a black dress with a white collar and a redsash. She is a pretty brunette.” Murray Kempton noted that she “worea black bolero and a printed dress with a small black hat and a pieceof veil and she was very different from the cotton patch cropper whois the ordinary Negro witness in a Mississippi courtroom.” Acolumnist for the Greenwood Commonwealth wrote, “Thefashionably dressed 33-year-old negro woman had an air ofconfidence and determination. . . . Her answers were direct and to thepoint, using good English and speaking in a highly audible tone. Atonly one point did she display any emotion. This occurred when shewas shown a photograph of the body. After looking at the picture,Mamie sobbed, took off her glasses and wiped tears from her eyes.”Throughout, the Greenwood paper attested, she appeared dignified,intelligent, sympathetic, and respectable.20

Mamie put on her glasses as Special Prosecutor Robert Smith beganthe examination. After establishing that Emmett’s father had beenkilled in World War II, “in the European theater,” Smith asked aboutthe boy’s trip from Chicago, when Mamie had learned that he wasmissing in Mississippi, and where she had first seen her boy’s bodywhen it returned from Chicago in a box. It was at the A. A. RaynerFuneral Home in Chicago, she replied.

The first time I saw it, it was still in the casket. I saw it later on after it was removedfrom the casket and placed on a slab. . . . I positively identified the body in the casketand later on when it was on the slab as being that of my son, Emmett Till. . . . I lookedat the face very carefully. I looked at the ears, and the forehead, and the hairline, andalso the hair, and I looked at the nose and the lips and chin. I just looked at it all verythoroughly. And I was able to find out that it was my boy. And I knew definitely that itwas my boy beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“I now hand you a ring, Mamie,” Smith intoned, “that hasengraved on it ‘May 25, 1943,’ with the initials ‘L.T.,’ and I ask you ifthat was among the effects that were sent to you which werepurported to be the effects of your dead husband?”21 Smith called herby her first name, as was customary when a white person addressed anAfrican American in 1950s Mississippi. By contrast, she alwaysreferred to Smith as “Sir.” Knowing the ways of the South as she did,Mamie Bradley accepted this disrespectful treatment with grace. But aperformance perhaps necessary for a white jury in Mississippi playeddifferently in the wider mid-twentieth-century world. The WashingtonAfro-American’s headline, for instance, was “Mother Insulted onWitness Stand.”22

“Yes, Sir,” she replied. “I kept the ring in a jewelry box but it wasmuch too large for the boy to wear. But since his twelfth birthday, hehas worn it occasionally with the aid of scotch tape or string.” Hewore it when he left home for Mississippi, she said. “And I rememberthat I casually remarked to him, ‘Gee, you are getting to be quite agrown man.’ ”

“And that was the ring he had when he came down toMississippi?” asked Smith.

“Yes, Sir.”

Finally Smith asked her to look at a police photograph of her son’sbody taken in the funeral home in Greenwood. “And I hand you thatpicture and ask you if this is a picture of your son, Emmett Till?”23

Taking the photograph in her fingers, Mamie bowed her head andwept, rocking slowly from side to side. Then, pulling off her glasses,she wiped her eyes and replied, “Yes, Sir.”24

When defense attorney Breland cross-examined the witness he, too,called her by her first name. “Mamie,” he asked, “where were youborn?”

“I was born in Webb, Mississippi.”“That is a little town just two miles south of here, is that right?”“I can’t tell you the location.”“When did you leave Mississippi?”“At the age of two.”“Then you have just been told that you were born in Webb,

Mississippi? You don’t remember, is that right?”“Yes, Sir.”“When you can first remember, where were you living?”“In Argo, Illinois.”“How far from that is Chicago?”“Approximately twelve miles.”25

With this new line of inquiry, the sons of Mississippi were nolonger on trial. Now it was Chicago, Chicago that sent its swaggeringblack males south, Chicago that poured undue scorn hot and fast onthe Magnolia State, Chicago that encouraged Mamie Bradley todeclare that the entire state of Mississippi would have to answer forthis murder, Chicago that was on trial. Had not Mississippi sufferedenough at the hands of uppity northern blacks and obstreperous,meddling Yankees? The trouble did not start down here, was thedefiant implication.

Was Emmett ever in trouble in Chicago? Breland wanted to know.Mamie stated that he never had been, but that didn’t matter; thequestion was intended to answer itself. For some percentage of thepeople in that courthouse Emmett’s being a black boy from Chicagoanswered the question, just as his winding up butchered and discardedin a river was explained clearly enough to some percentage of the

country by the notion that a black boy had misstepped and therebyhad some responsibility for what had been done to him.

Breland then pivoted, training his questions to discredit Mamieherself. “Did you have any life insurance on him?” She did. “Howmuch did you have?”

“About four hundred dollars straight life. I had a ten-cent policyand a fifteen-cent policy, two weekly policies, and they equaled fourhundred dollars.”

“To whom were those policies made payable? Who was thebeneficiary in those policies?” Another fig leaf was being handed thejury.

“I was the beneficiary on one and my Mother on the other,” Mamieanswered.

“Have you tried to collect on those policies?”“I have been waiting to receive a death certificate.”Suggesting that she was trying to capitalize on her tragedy was only

part of Breland’s intent. He was also implying that since she had nottried to collect on the life insurance policy, since she had no deathcertificate, perhaps there had been no death. Here Sheriff Strider’stheory of the case, that it was a put-up job by the NAACP and thecorpse was not even Till’s, eased into view.

“Now, Mamie, what newspapers do you subscribe to in Chicago?Do you read the Chicago Defender?”

Knowing the sympathies of the jury, the prosecution objected: “Ifthe Court please, I think it is perfectly obvious what he is trying to getat. And I think counsel should be counseled not to ask any morequestions like that.”

“The objection is sustained,” Judge Swango pronounced. “Now,will you gentlemen of the jury step back into the jury room a moment,please?” The twelve Mississippians filed through the door behind thewitness stand and closed it behind them.

In the absence of the jury Breland questioned Mamie about hersubscription to the Chicago Defender, which she read every week.“These papers are edited by colored people, is that right?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Breland held up a copy of the Defender, then handed it to her,asking if she had seen this issue, and more specifically if she had seenthe photograph of her son in it. It is of a smiling, utterly boyishEmmett, inescapably fourteen, his dark tie against a white shirtlending him the air of Sunday-best efforts, a hat on his head, theimage of a boy hopeful about becoming a man. Did she have a copy ofthis photograph with her? She had. And when was it made? All of thephotographs in all of the newspapers were made on the same day, twodays after Christmas in 1954, Mamie told him.

“Did you have several of those photographs made?” Sheacknowledged that she had. “And did you furnish any of thosephotographs to members of the press?”

“Yes, Sir.”“And that was for photographic purposes to put in the papers, is

that right?” Breland had a number of different papers with him, all ofthem littered with adorable photographs of her child. She hadprovided the newspapers with copies. In fact, she had a number ofcopies with her now, presumably in case other newspapers wanted tofeature his story. But there was more.

“Mamie,” Breland said momentously, “I hand you a paper, beingpage 19 of the Chicago Defender, on the 17th of September, 1955,which purports to be a photograph of some person. Will you look atthat and state whether or not this is also a photograph of Emmett Tillor the person who was shipped back to Chicago that you saw at thefuneral home there?” It was the grisly photograph of her son’sbattered, bloated body.

“This is a picture of Emmett Louis Till as I saw it at the funeralhome,” she said.

“And being the photograph of the same body which you thenidentified as Emmett Till? And which you now identify as that ofEmmett Till, is that right?”

“Yes, Sir.”The judge then asked Breland if he had finished his examination. “I

believe we have, Your Honor. And we submit that these are proper atthis time.”

The defense raised the matter of the Chicago Defender and thephotographs of Emmett in order to tie Mamie to the national outragepouring onto Mississippi from the Northern press, particularly theAfrican American press. The imagination was left to fill in the eventsbetween the two photographs, which for many Northerners and blackpeople were sufficient for disgust, outrage, and scorn. This scorn fromoutsiders had become very unpopular among white Mississippians,even those who had no sympathy for the killers. The photographs andthe world’s disgust made it far harder to avoid the fact that whateverhad happened to that boy had happened in their state, under theircollective watch, and therefore with some degree of their collectiveculpability. In story after story much of the world’s media made surethat point was made. Breland’s associating Mamie with the nationalpress coverage marked her as an outsider and focused the hostility andresentment of the jurors and the public on her. Smith injected, “YourHonor, we think this is highly incompetent, this whole part of thecase.”

The judge replied:

With reference to that, I believe that the witness testified that the pictures taken—thatone of them is a picture of her son that was taken shortly after Christmas, and I believethat the witness testified that it is a true likeness of her son during his lifetime. And shealso testified that the picture taken in Chicago after his death portrays a true picture ofwhat she saw there at that time.

Now, the Court is going to admit these pictures in evidence—that is, one picture therethat she produced, so that the jury may see the likeness of Emmett Till during hislifetime. And the Court is going to let be introduced in evidence the picture made inChicago after his death. It will be cut from the paper, and the paper itself will not be anypart of the exhibit.

There will be no reference to any newspapers to which this witness may subscribe inChicago, or any reference to what she may read. And there [will] be no reference oranything said about any newspapers or pictures other than this picture, which she hadidentified as being a picture of her son taken after his death as she saw it there inChicago. That picture will be permitted.

Breland informed Judge Swango that he had one more topic that hewanted to broach with the witness, one that might well beobjectionable to the defense. The judge urged him to go right aheadand get it out of the way. The jury remained in the jury room. Thisnext line of questioning was an admission of a different sort, but one

that for much of the world implicitly defended Bryant and Milam’skidnapping of Till at two o’clock in the morning.

“Did you caution [your son] how to conduct himself and behavehimself while he was down here in Mississippi before he left there?”Breland demanded.

“I told him when he was coming down here that he would have toadapt himself to a new way of life. And I told him to be very carefulhow he spoke and to whom he spoke, and to always remember to say‘Yes, Sir’ and ‘Yes, Ma’am’ at all times.”

“And did you direct his attention as to how to act around whitepeople, and how to conduct himself about a white man? And did youcaution him in those conversations you had with him not to insult anywhite women?”

“I didn’t specifically say white women. But I said about the whitepeople. And I told him that because, naturally, living in Chicago, hewouldn’t know just how to act, maybe.”

“Prior to his coming down to Mississippi,” Breland pressed, “andprior to his leaving Chicago, while he was living there in Chicago, hadhe been doing anything to cause you to give him that specialinstruction?”

“No, Sir. Emmett has never been in any trouble at any time.”“And he has never been in a reform school?”“No, Sir.”“I believe you live on the south side in Chicago, is that right? And

that is the part of Chicago referred to as the black belt, is that right?”“Yes, Sir.”“And the people in the community, are they all colored people or

white people?”“There are a few white people living there.”“And they have their homes there, is that right?”“Yes, Sir.”Breland’s implication was clear: untutored, swaggering, race-mixing

South Side Chicago had gotten what it deserved.“Is that all?” asked Judge Swango. The defense attorney said that it


“Now,” said the judge, “the objections to all that testimony will besustained, and there will be no questions along that linewhatsoever.”26 And yet, captured in the trial record, Chicago had beenplaced on public trial in Judge Swango’s courtroom. A veil of adifferent sort had been handed not to the men sequestered in the juryroom but to the state of Mississippi. Mamie took her seat and the juryreturned to the courtroom.


E V E RY L A S T A N G L O – S A X O N O N E O F


Across the courtroom Carolyn Bryant watched in awe as Mamie

Bradley testified. “I had all these things running through my mind,”she recalled. “My husband’s going to the penitentiary, maybe for life. Ihave children to support.” In her memory, however, her fears did notsquelch her astonishment at the African American mother across theroom. She could not stop thinking about her. “Here is this womanwhose child has been brutalized, just brutalized every kind of way—how could she stand it? I don’t know how she went through the trialthe way she did.”1

One answer might be that no African American took the stand forthe prosecution without having first thought deeply about what doingso was going to ask of them then and thereafter. In unique ways eachhad already wrestled with the question of how they would live withthe consequences of their testimony. Mamie had decided beforehandwhat her life would mean from then on. The rest of the blackwitnesses had already made arrangements to leave Mississippi,probably forever, and move to Chicago—including the next witness,just four years older than Emmett Till, who by agreeing to testify wassaying goodbye to his home, his friends, his church, and everything hehad grown up around.2

Willie Reed was one of the witnesses unearthed by Howard’sMississippi underground as they scoured the cotton farms. He was an

eighteen-year-old who lived on the old Clint Sheridan place, a largefarm in Sunflower County managed by Leslie Milam. His testimonywould tie J. W. Milam to the site of the murder; with it theprosecution shifted from trying to inspire sympathy to offeringeyewitness evidence of the crime. Like Moses Wright, Reed was askedto point out Milam in the courtroom. Like Moses Wright, he providedanother icon of courage, knowing, as did most in that courtroom, thathe would have to move, perhaps change his name, live somewhere elsefor the rest of his life. He surely also imagined that doing all of thismight not be enough, that his life might be taken anyway; he wastestifying, after all, against two white men in the murder of a blackboy. Nevertheless, when asked to identify the killers, he did nothesitate.

“He is sitting right over there,” said Reed, pointing at the bald-headed bear of a man at the defense table. Prosecutor Smith askedWillie, for it was always “Willie” in court and never “Mr. Reed,” if hehad seen Milam on Sunday, July 28. “I seen him—when I seen him hewas coming to the well. . . . The well from the barn on Mr. Milam’splace.”

Reed had left his grandfather’s house early that morning, betweensix and seven, headed for a nearby store. From there, on his way to hismorning’s work, he went by Leslie Milam’s barn. A truck passed him,a green and white Chevrolet pickup, the top white, the body green. Itwas full of people. “Well, when the truck passed by me I seen fourwhite mens in the cab and three colored mens in the back. And I seensomebody sitting down in the truck back there.  .  .  . I seen anothercolored boy.” They were sitting on the sides of the truck, Reed said,and had their backs to him.

“Well,” he continued, speaking so softly that many in thecourtroom could barely hear him, “when I looked at this paper, I wassure—well, I had seen it, and it seemed like I had seen this boysomewhere before. And I looked at it and tried to remember, and thenit come back to my memory that this was the same one I had seen inthe paper.”

“And that was Emmett Till?” asked Smith.

“I don’t know if that was him, but the picture favored him,” repliedReed, who added that he had walked on past the barn.

“And what did you hear?” inquired Smith.“It was like somebody whipping somebody.”“We object to that,” Breland snapped.“The objection is sustained,” Judge Swango responded.Smith handed Reed a photograph of Emmett Till. “Now I ask you

to look at that picture and I ask you . . . does that or does that notresemble the person you saw sitting there in the back of the truck onthat particular day?”

Again Breland objected and again he was sustained.Smith tried another tack: “Have you ever seen that boy before?”“It is a picture of the boy I saw on the back of the truck.”“Now, later on in the morning, did you see J. W. Milam out there?”“Well, when I passed by he came out by the barn to the well.”“Will you state whether he had anything unusual on or about his

person?”“He had on a pistol,” said Reed. “He had it on his belt.”“And what did Mr. J. W. Milam do when you saw him?”“He just came to the well and got a drink of water. Then he went

back into the barn.”“Did you see or hear anything as you passed the barn?”“I heard somebody hollering, and I heard some licks like somebody

was whipping somebody.”“What was that person hollering?”“He was just hollering, ‘Oh.’ ”“Was it just one lick you heard, or was it two, or were there several

licks?”“There was a whole lot of them.”3

Silence fell over the room, the Baltimore Afro-American reported.“There was no laughter in the courtroom then. Beer drinking droppedto a bare minimum. Bryant and Milam looked a trifle pale and thedefense counsel—all five of them—looked worried.”4 The number offacts the jurors were expected to disregard had increased considerably.

Reed told of walking a little farther down the road and stopping atMandy Bradley’s house and talking with her. “And after you left

Mandy’s house the first time where did you go?” Smith asked Reed.“I came to the well. . . . I came to get her a bucket of water. . . . I

could still hear somebody hollering.” Taking Bradley her water, Reedwalked on to the store and went home to get dressed for Sundayschool. On his way back the truck was gone, the barn quiet.

The defense made two motions to strike all of Reed’s testimony, buteach time Judge Swango refused. This was the most damningtestimony so far, tying Milam directly to the killing of Emmett Till andshowing clear evidence of murder. It also changed the place where themurder had been committed from Tallahatchie County to SunflowerCounty, which could have implications for jurisdiction. ButtressingReed’s testimony were two subsequent witnesses, Mandy Bradley andReed’s grandfather Add Reed. Both of them confirmed the eighteen-year-old’s account of that brutal morning. At 1:15 on only the secondday of the trial, the state rested its case.5

James Hicks, who had done so much to help locate the witnessesand had discovered the story of the witnesses still hidden in SheriffStrider’s jail, was baffled. The closing of the prosecution’s case seemedpremature; at the least it left several witnesses still to be heard from.Hicks was not alone; the Mississippi underground and the black andwhite reporters who had helped round up the new witnesses also weresurprised the others were not called. Frank Young, whose midnightvisit to Dr. Howard’s place had set the underground to action, wasbelieved to have important evidence in the case. But Young, reportedlyseen outside the courthouse that morning, had disappeared. Latersome would fault the prosecution for not managing the witnessesbetter, though it is hard to imagine that Young’s testimony would havebeen decisive, since Reed told essentially the same story and hisgrandfather and neighbor confirmed it.6 All five of the defense lawyerslater acknowledged to an interviewer that the state had presented“sufficient evidence to convict” Milam and Bryant. The defense nowneeded to offer jurors committed to acquittal some plausible pretextfor their votes.7

The first thing the defense did when the state rested its case was tomove that the court exclude all evidence offered by the state and issuea directed verdict of not guilty for both defendants. Judge Swango

dismissed the motion out of hand. The second thing the defense didwas to call to the witness stand Mrs. Roy Bryant. It was time to playthe old song of the Bruised Southern Lily and the Black Beast Rapist.Somewhere, perhaps while her husband’s family kept her hidden fromthe world, hidden even from her own family, Mrs. Roy Bryant seemedto have learned all of the verses.

Carolyn took the stand, swore to tell the truth, the whole truth,and nothing but the truth, and answered Carlton’s questions about hername, weight, height, marital status, and the like. “Now, Mrs. Bryant,I direct your attention to Wednesday night, on the 24th day of August.On that evening, who was in the store with you?”

Special Prosecutor Smith broke in: “If the Court please, we objectto anything that happened on Wednesday evening unless it isconnected up.” Breland interjected for the defense that they intendedto connect the testimony to existing testimony. Judge Swango retiredthe jury so they could not hear the discussion or Carolyn’s testimony,if any.

To anyone still committed to reading the Till trial as an explorationof facts and justice, this is where things take an odd and revealingturn. The jury had been given powerful prosecutorial evidence thatBryant and Milam kidnapped and murdered Emmett Till. Rather thanrefute that evidence, the defense now wanted to tell the jury whyMilam and Bryant had every reason to do so: because that black boyhad tried to rape this white Southern woman. There was the oddity:the defense wanted to admit evidence that would further damn theirclients, and the prosecution wanted to stop the defense fromexplaining why their clients were guilty.

So here is another shard of truth, which we must accept if we are tomake sense of the trial: faith in our courts and our laws, in thestatement chiseled above the columns of the U.S. Supreme Courtbuilding—“Equal Justice Under Law”—can obscure the obvious,particularly with the passage of time. There was no equal justice, nouniversal protection of law in the Mississippi Delta, certainly not in1955. If the real question was whether or not Milam and Bryant hadcommitted murder, wouldn’t each team of attorneys have approachedthe trial differently? Of course. So why didn’t they? The obvious

answer is that every lawyer in that courthouse knew that a jury ofwhite male farmers from Tallahatchie County would hear a storyabout a black boy and a white woman and approve of that boy’smurder. The contradiction of a defense team strategizing to introducea motive for the crime they professed their clients did not commitprovided glaring evidence, if any were needed, that the trial had neverbeen about justice.

Fifty years later Carolyn summoned her courage to tell me that hertestimony had not been true, even though she didn’t remember whatwas true, but that nothing Emmett Till did could ever justify what hadhappened to him. But in 1955 she provided the court and the casewith a billboard: My kinsmen killed Emmett Till because he had itcoming.

Carolyn knew then, as she would admit much later, that hertestimony was a lie. If Till had deserved what happened to him, thenwhy did she hide the incident at the store from her husband andbrother-in-law, if that is what she did? If Till had done somethingterrible, something he ought to have been brutally punished for, thenwhy had she been reluctant to identify him? If he had laid his handson her, then why didn’t she tell her lawyer so only a few days after ithappened? Why did her husband and brother-in-law persistently referto Till’s alleged crime as “smart talk” and “ugly remarks”? Is itplausible that Till put his hands on Carolyn and yet his assailantsreferred only to his verbal transgressions, never uttering a word aboutsomething approaching a rape attempt?

But that day in the Sumner courthouse, the jury didn’t even need tohear her testimony. After a brief discussion of legal points, thequestion before Judge Swango boiled down to this: the unchallengedtestimony in court had heretofore been that Milam and Bryant cameto get “the boy that did the talking over at Money,” and now thedefense wanted to fill in the details of just what that “talking” hadconcerned. Except whatever may have occurred in the store at Moneyclearly did not alter the facts of a kidnapping and murder thatoccurred several days later at the instigation of the defendants. Whatshould not have been a matter of courage—ruling appropriately on amatter of law—became one in that Jim Crow courtroom: Judge

Swango ruled that the jury was not going to hear Carolyn Bryant’stestimony.

The world, however, would hear it. After Swango’s ruling, Brelandsaid, “We wish to develop the testimony for the sake of the record.”8

Why? Here is yet another shard of truth: Breland and his colleaguesknew it was next to certain that the jury would hear about Carolyn’stestimony within a few hours. Indeed they knew that the jury hadtaken their seats in the jury box with some understanding of whatCarolyn was going to say, what the combination of a dead black boyand an affronted white Southern woman implied without anyonesaying anything further, their respective roles firmly established overcenturies. And as the jurors filed out of the courtroom, CarolynBryant was at the witness stand, having come to play a part that eachof them knew by heart. So, “for the sake of the record,” CarolynBryant testified.

“This nigger man came in the store and he stopped there at thecandy counter.” The counter was at the front of the store, on the left.“I asked him what he wanted,” and he ordered some candy. “I got itand put it on top of the candy case. I held out my hand for his money.He caught my hand.” She demonstrated his grip.

“By what you have shown us,” said Carlton, who was handling thedirect examination, “he held your hand by grasping all of the fingersin the palm of his hand, is that it?”

“Yes. I just jerked it loose.”“Just what did he say when he grabbed your hand?”“He said, ‘How about a date, baby?’ I turned around and started

back to the back of the store. He came on down that way and caughtme at the cash register. Well, he put his left hand on my waist and heput his other hand on the other side.” At the request of her attorney,she stood up and placed his hands on her body in just the way she saidthe boy did.

“Did he say anything to you then at the time he grabbed you thereby the cash register?”

“He said, ‘What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it?’ ” It waswith considerable difficulty that she was finally able to free herselffrom his hold on her. “He said, ‘You needn’t be afraid of me.’ ”

“And did he then use language that you don’t use?” Yes, he haddone that. “Can you tell the Court just what that word begins with,what letter it begins with?” She shook her head. No, she could noteven say the first letter.

“In other words, it is an unprintable word?” It was. “Did he sayanything after that one unprintable word?”

“Well, he said, well, ‘——with white women before.’ ”“When you were able to free yourself from him, what did you do

then?”“Then this other nigger came in the store and got him by the arm.

And then he told him to come on and let’s go.”“Did he leave the store willingly or unwillingly?”“Unwillingly,” she replied. “He had him by the arm and led him

out.”“When he went out the door, did he say anything further after he

had made these obscene remarks?”“Yes. He turned around and said, ‘Goodbye.’ ”There were perhaps eight or nine black boys out front, she said,

including her assailant, but she yelled back for Juanita Milam towatch the store and then walked out through this crowd of boys toJuanita’s car. She grabbed the pistol from under the front seat. Theblack boy who had seized her around the waist and utteredunspeakable obscenities was standing by one of the posts on the frontporch. And he whistled at her.

“Was it something like this?” Carlton whistled. She nodded yes.“Did you have any white men anywhere around there to protect youthat night?”

“No.”“Was your husband out of town?”“He was in Brownsville. He had carried a load of shrimp there.”“When did you expect him home?”“I didn’t know.” That was why Juanita was with her, she explained.

“So that I wouldn’t be alone.”9

After Carolyn returned to her seat and the twelve men returnedfrom the jury room, Dr. L. B. Otken testified for the defense. Havingjustified the murder of Emmett Till to uphold the purity of white

Southern women, the defense shifted back to argue that their clientsdid no such thing. The boy had it coming, in other words, but ourclients did not kill him. In fact, although it was his fault if he wasdead, he might not even be dead.

A practicing physician in Greenwood, Otken had apparentlyviewed but did not examine Till’s body in “the colored funeral home.”Even so the defense regarded him as an “expert witness” because hewas a physician who had experience with dead bodies. “This bodywas badly swollen, badly bloated,” Otken said. “The skin and theflesh was beginning to slip. The head was badly mutilated. The righteye was protruding. And the tongue was protruding from the mouth.”So far his testimony was no more than any reader of the ChicagoDefender or Jet could have told the court. “I would say it was in anadvanced state of decomposition,” he added. And then the point: “Idon’t think you could have identified that body.”

“Could a mother have identified that body, in your opinion?” askedBreland.

“I doubt it.”On cross-examination Special Prosecutor Smith asked Otken

whether he “could tell if this was the body of a colored person or awhite person.”

Otken answered that he could not tell, which somewhat begged thequestion of why the body went straight to “the colored funeralhome,” death in Mississippi being anything but integrated.

On redirect examination Breland asked Otken if he could tellwhether the injuries to the body that he described were present beforedeath or could have been inflicted on the body after death. “Icouldn’t,” answered Otken. In short, it was his studied opinion thatthe body had been in the water longer than Emmett Till could havebeen; that it was impossible to identify the body, even as to race; andthat the mutilation could have been caused by the body bouncingalong the bottom of the river, not evidence of murder.10

Sheriff Strider got the last word. He had gone to the river at about9:15 on August 31, he told the judge, to see the body that peopleclaimed had belonged to Emmett Till. “Well,” he said, “it was inpretty bad shape.” The skin had “slipped on the entire body.” There

was a small hole in the head and two or three serious gashes. Heestimated that the body had been in the river “at least ten days, if notfifteen,” which is to say longer than the body of Till could have beenin the water. He could not even swear that the corpse was that of acolored person, a point he reiterated: “At the time it was brought outof the water he was just as white as I am except for a few places.” Tounderscore the point he helpfully added, “If one of my own sons hadbeen missing, I could not swear if it was my own son or not, oranyone else’s.” He had signed the death certificate, true, but he did notrecall whether or not it had Till’s name on it. Strider claimed that he’d“had several reports about a negro who disappeared over there atLambert,” but he’d gotten conflicting stories. He’d been unable toinvestigate further. “I have been tied up here in court.”11

The following morning the defense called a handful of friends toattest to the fine character and neighborly attributes of J. W. Milamand Roy Bryant. Then the defense rested its case and motioned toexclude all the evidence the state had presented against the defendantsand direct the jury to send in a verdict of not guilty. Judge Swangooverruled the motions, maintaining that the evidence presented somequestions for the jury to answer for themselves. He ordered a fifteen-minute recess, until 10:38, when attorneys for each side would presentsummations.12

Gerald Chatham, the powerfully built district attorney, deliveredthe opening summation for the prosecution, followed by summationsfrom several members of the defense team, with Robert Smith of theprosecution closing out. Chatham spoke with powerful emotion thatseemed to wring sweat from his body; his shirt was dripping wet bythe time he finished speaking in the sweltering courtroom.

“By every courtroom standard, the Mississippi born districtattorney made a great plea for the dead colored youth,” James Hickswrote, comparing Chatham to a Southern evangelist. “For hisnumerous moments of brilliant oratory, he brought tears to the eyesnot only of those seated at the colored press tables but to some of thewhite listeners as well.”13 Pounding the table occasionally, Chathamasserted that he was not moved by “the pressure and agitation oforganizations outside or inside the state of Mississippi.” In other

words, he didn’t like the NAACP any more than the jury did. Instead,he told them, “I am concerned with what is morally right. To beconcerned with anything else will be dangerous to the precepts andtraditions of the South.”

Chatham, knowing his jury well, hewed to a certain vision ofSouthern identity. Foremost, a true Southerner would never kill achild. “I was born and bred in the South, and the very worstpunishment that should have occurred was to take a razor strap, turn[Emmett Till] over a barrel, and whip him. I’ve spanked my child andyou’ve spanked yours. The fact remains, gentlemen, that from the timeRoy Bryant and J. W. Milam took Emmett Till from the home of MoseWright he hasn’t been seen since.” What these two former soldiers didwas give a fourteen-year-old boy “a court martial with the deathpenalty.”

“The very first words of the State’s testimony were dripping withthe blood of Emmett Till. What were those words, gentlemen? Theywere, ‘Preacher, preacher, I want that boy from Chicago, the one thatdid the talking in Money.’ . . . That wasn’t an invitation to that cardgame [as] they claimed.”14

In addition to navigating notions of Southern loyalty and manners,Chatham knew that he had to offset defense arguments that the bodyin the river was not Emmett Till’s. So he told a story about thedisappearance of a beloved family dog. His son came to him one dayand said, “Dad, I’ve found Old Shep,” and led him to the badlydecomposed body of their dog. “That dog’s body was rotting and themeat was falling off its bones, but my little boy pointed to it and said,‘That’s Old Shep, Pa. That’s old Shep.’ My boy didn’t need noundertaker or a sheriff to identify his dog. And we don’t need them toidentify Emmett Till. All we need is someone who loved him and caredfor him. If there was one ear left, one hairline, then I say to you thatMamie Bradley was God’s given witness to identify him.”15

“They murdered that boy,” Chatham said finally, “and to hide thatdastardly, cowardly act, they tied barbed wire to his neck and to aheavy gin fan and dumped him in the river for the turtles and thefish.”16

When Chatham headed for his seat, Hicks heard Mamie, who wassitting next to him, whisper to herself, “He could not have done anybetter.”17

C. Sidney Carlton offered the first summation for the defense. Hepoured himself a paper cup of water from a green pitcher on thejudge’s desk as he began to speak and sipped it intermittently.18 Thefinal curious twist in the testimony of Carolyn Bryant then played out.“Where is the motive?” Carlton asked. The incident at the store wasimmaterial, he suggested to the jury. The “testimony by Bryant’s wifedid not implicate Till.” Her story of a black man who “molested” andwhistled at her did not reflect on the boy, and his clients certainly didnot kill him on that account. By this rhetorical feint he managed toinform the jury that Carolyn Bryant had testified that she had beensexually manhandled. The inevitable implication: after hearing whathappened to her, any red-blooded white man would have respondedthe same way.

Moving from the racially visceral to the seemingly rational, Carltonreminded the jury of the “scientific” evidence that the battered,bloated body in question had been in the river much longer than Till’scould have been. He then questioned the lighting at the Wright homeand whether it was plausible that the old man could have made apositive identification. The most damning evidence—that Roy Bryanthad said “This is Mr. Bryant”—the defense attorney sought totransform into a weakness: “Had any of you gone to Mose Wright’shouse with evil intent, would you have given your name? There’snothing reasonable about the state’s case.” He began to shout: “Ifthat’s identification, if that places these men at that scene, then noneof us are safe.”19 Of course Carlton didn’t mention that Milam andBryant had both confessed to the kidnapping. There was “nothingreasonable about the state’s theory that Milam and Bryant kidnappedTill in Leflore, drove several miles to a plantation in SunflowerCounty, then doubled back into Tallahatchie County to dump thebody into a river.”20 In short, Milam and Bryant hadn’t kidnapped orkilled Emmett Till, but they would have been justified in doing so.Here was the cold, unspoken fear running through the white South inthe 1950s: If we condemn Milam and Bryant, what else must we

condemn? If you vote to acquit these defendants, Carlton closed,“may you feel, in the words of Charles Dickens, that ’tis a far, farbetter thing you do now than you have ever done.”

J. W. Kellum, Sumner’s homegrown attorney, spoke briefly justbefore the lunch recess. He called the jury “a peerage of democracy”and “absolutely the custodians of American civilization.” A guiltyverdict would be tantamount to “admitting that freedom was lostforever,” Kellum said solemnly. “I want you to tell me where underGod’s shining sun is the land of the free and the home of the brave ifyou don’t turn these boys loose.” If you do not, “your forefathers willabsolutely turn over in their graves.” So began his flight of oratory,some of it borrowed from Mississippi’s late governor Paul Johnson:

I want you to think about the future. When your summons comes to cross the GreatDivide, and as you enter your father’s house—a home not made by human hands buteternal in the heavens—you can look back to where your father’s feet have trod and seeyour good record written in the sands of time. And, when you go down to your lonely,silent tomb to a sleep that knows no dreams, I want you to hold in the palm of yourhand a record of service to God and your fellow man. And the only way you can do thatis to turn these boys loose.21

“I thought I had heard it all during the testimony,” Mamie Bradleywrote, “but those defense lawyers were saving the worst for last.”22

After the lunch recess John W. Whitten provided the finalsummation for the defense. He took on the job of returning to SheriffStrider’s theory that the body pulled from the river was not the bodyof Emmett Till but instead part of an NAACP-sponsored scheme tobring down shame upon the state of Mississippi and drive a wedgebetween the races. He acknowledged that Milam and Bryant may haveabducted the boy, but if they did, they had released him. Perhaps thenMoses Wright had taken him to the NAACP, who persuaded Wrightto plant that silver ring upon another decaying body so that peoplewould assume that it was Till.23 No doubt the young man had beenwhisked back to Chicago or to Detroit, where he also had family.Wrote Mamie, “They practically accused Papa Mose and the NAACPof grave robbing.”24

“There are people who want to destroy the way of life of theSouthern people,” Whitten intoned. “There are people in the United

States who want to defy the customs of the South” by underminingthe time-honored and harmonious relations between the races and by“trying to widen the gap which has appeared between the white andcolored people in the United States. Those people would welcome theopportunity to focus national attention on Sumner, Mississippi. Theywould not be above putting a rotting, stinking corpse in the river inthe hope that it would be identified as Emmett Louis Till. And they arenot all in Detroit and Chicago,” he said pointedly. “They are inJackson, Vicksburg”—where Medgar Evers organized, where theNAACP had filed school desegregation petitions—“and they are inMound Bayou, too,” an unmistakable reference to Dr. T. R. M.Howard and the RCNL. “And if Moses Wright knows one, he didn’thave to go far to find him. And they include some of the most astutestudents of psychology known anywhere. They include doctors andundertakers and they have ready access to a corpse which could meettheir purpose.”25

But none of the evidence really mattered, Whitten told the jury. “Itis within your power,” he assured them, “to disregard all the facts, theevidence, and the law, and bring in any decision you like based uponany whim. There is no way anyone can punish you for any decisionyou make. The last time an attempt was made by a judge to punish ajury for refusing to follow his instructions was in England in the timeof Charles II, and this was overruled.  .  .  . You are our hope andconfidence to send these defendants back to their families happy.”26

Asking the jury directly to acquit Milam and Bryant, Whittenexpressed his full confidence that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of youhas the courage to do it.”27

With that invocation the defense’s perverted passion playperformed for the Jim Crow faithful was nearly finished. It was onlyleft to the prosecution to interrogate that script just enough and in justthe right way so that at least one Anglo-Saxon juror might find thefortitude to question it. And so Robert Smith, the former FBI agent,rose to give the last summation to the jury.

It was plain that he read the jury much as his colleagues for thedefense did: that they were a band of sunburned Mississippi farmersoutraged about the outsiders who scorned their state and their way of

life. They believed in that way of life as a bulwark against foreignideologies and disloyal revolutionaries. Preferring to acquit Milam andBryant, well aware of all the agitation from African Americans sinceBlack Monday, they might be persuaded to seize upon the defense’ssuggestion that the corpus delicti was part of an NAACP scheme. Butwhere the defense played on Anglo-Saxon unity and racial tradition—surely a shrewd if predictable tack—Smith thought it possible thatbasic, heart-deep honesty and perhaps a shred of paternalism towardblack people might give the jury room to believe the more plausiblenarrative: that an old black uncle and a terrified but brave youngblack man were telling the truth. To Smith fell the difficult task oflighting a narrow pathway for these twelve white men to follow thatwould preserve their dignity while it protested certain aspects of theirway of life, a pathway that defined and defended that way of life bydamning its worst excesses. He was asking them, and his closingcomments suggested that he knew it, to be as courageous as Wrightand Reed and Mamie Bradley.

Like the defense, Smith called upon the jury as fellow whiteSoutherners, men dedicated to their common homeland, thoughclearly he urged a different strategy for preserving a Southern socialorder based on defending human rights: “Gentlemen, we’re on thedefensive. Only so long as we can preserve the rights of everyone—white or black—can we keep our way of life. . . . Emmett Till downhere in Mississippi was a citizen of the United States; he was entitledto his life and liberty.”28

Also like his counterparts at the defense table, Smith played uponthe fears and resentments sown by outsiders, with their high-flown,profit-driven assaults on the honor of Mississippi. “Outsideinfluences,” in fact, want the two murderers freed for their ownperfidious purposes. “If they are turned loose, those people will have afundraising campaign for the next fifteen years.”

As flimsy as it was, Smith had to deal with Strider’s conspiracytheory about the identity of the body and the unscrupulous schemes ofthe NAACP. The prosecutor described this theory in termsconsiderably less admiring than the defense had used and ended by

calling it “the most far-fetched [proposition] I’ve ever heard in acourtroom.”29

At the end of the day the prosecution team was counting on thetestimony of its African American witnesses—Moses Wright, MamieBradley, and Willie Reed, in particular. Wright tied both defendants tothe kidnapping, and both of them acknowledged as much. He alsoidentified the body, though Mamie’s testimony went much further toestablish that the body belonged to her son. Reed, only eighteen,proved himself as brave as Wright, pointing straight at Milam whenasked to identify the man he saw come out of the equipment shed witha pistol strapped to his waist. His account of these events tied Milamand his truck to the place where the murder occurred and wassubstantiated by two other witnesses. But all these witnesses wereblack, and for a white Mississippi jury to weigh their word againstSheriff Strider’s and the defense’s version of events would have beenrevolutionary.

So when Smith asked the jury to look beyond race for the truth ofthe brutal murder of Emmett Till, he did so in terms they could accept:“Old Mose Wright is a good old country Negro, and you know he’snot going to tell anybody a lie”; Mamie Bradley spoke with theauthority of a mother’s love; and Willie Reed was a plainspokenyoung man of great courage. “I don’t know but what Willie Reed hasmore nerve than I have,” Smith added. Then he made his way back tothe prosecution’s table.30

At 2:34 the jury retired to the jury room to decide the verdict.Mamie, sitting at the black press table with Representative Diggs andthe contingent of reporters, decided she did not need to wait. “As thejury retired,” she wrote later, “I measured the looks of the folks in therear and I turned to Congressman Diggs and the others. ‘The jury hasretired and it’s time for us to retire.’ ” She and Diggs, taking the still-trembling Reed with them, made their way through the milling crowdsto their car and headed back to Mound Bayou.31



Milam, Bryant, and their accomplices expected a select audience for

their abduction and butchery of a black teenager. They expected thataudience to be local rather than regional or national, and it is unlikelythey gave world opinion any thought. They assumed any attentiongiven their crimes would be whispered rather than broadcast. Theyabducted Emmett Till, killed him, and disposed of his body in waysthey knew would promote those whispers. With their guns andflashlights and swagger, they knew that every black person in theDelta would soon hear of his disappearance, and their role in it. Fromthe moment they got in the truck to grab the boy who “did thetalking” they were determined, as they would soon say publicly, tosend a message that would serve as both signpost and pillar of thesocial order of white supremacy. From the moment they decided to killhim, their act was a lynching, not an assassination or a simple murder.

White authorities were determined to claim otherwise. “This is nota lynching,” declared Governor White. “It is straight out murder.”1

Yet despite such official and editorial claims, this was a lynching in thesense that a group of people killed someone and presumed they wereacting in service to race, justice, tradition, and widely held values intheir community.2 The lynch mob never intended Emmett Till’s killingto be one of the old spectacle lynchings, once common in the South,with the victims burned alive or hanged before an audience ofhundreds or even thousands, body parts taken as souvenirs, lynchingphotographs bought and sold, lurid accounts published in local

newspapers.3 As the twentieth century marched onward, extrajudicialmurders conducted for public viewing and participation were lessacceptable. But while Carolyn Bryant’s kinsmen intended, at leastinitially, that the details of their torture and killing of Emmett Tillwould remain their own family secret, they knew neighbors wouldtalk, and they expected them to do so. The decision to take the boystarted with storefront rumors, and they intended that his murderwould become a matter of local gossip and lore, a badge of honoramong the faithful.

A quiet joke went around: “Isn’t that just like a nigger to try andswim the Tallahatchie River with a gin fan around his neck?”4 Thatkind of local winking and terror were as far as the men who killedEmmett Till expected their murderous handiwork to go. Instead Till’sbody rose from the dark waters of the Tallahatchie, ended up onworldwide television, and painted his death brightly in theunimaginable global imagination. Mass media and massive protestmay have made his murder the most notorious racial incident in thehistory of the world. White mobs lynched thousands of AfricanAmericans—even children occasionally—but it is Emmett Till’s bloodthat indelibly marks a before and after. His lynching, his mother’sdecision to open the casket to the world, and the trial of Milam andBryant spun the country, and arguably the world, in a differentdirection.

•  •  •

When the jurors filed out of the courtroom to begin theirdeliberations, the crowd surrounding the Tallahatchie CountyCourthouse thinned, but not in expectation of a drawn-outdeliberation. Fat raindrops had begun to bounce on the streets andsidewalks of Sumner.5 The rain did little to cut the late summer’soppressive heat, and after just eight minutes the twelve jurors sent outa request for Coca-Cola. In the courthouse Milam read the newspaperand rocked on the back legs of his cane-back chair. Roy and CarolynBryant looked nervous; she worried that her children might grow upwithout a father in the house and that she would have no way to

support them. But whatever nervous tension was running betweenRoy and Carolyn, it had dissipated enough that by the time theforeman knocked on the inside of the jury room door after about anhour, J.W. and Roy had already lit big cigars, swaggering withconfidence in their exoneration.6 Mamie Bradley, Moses Wright, andall the other black witnesses had long ago left the courthouse.

As the jurors returned, the sun broke through the clouds outsideand a loud murmur arose from the crowd. Judge Swango rapped hisgavel and decreed that there would be no demonstrations in hiscourtroom when the jury announced their verdict, nor were anyphotographers to take pictures.7

The members of the jury looked solemn. Judge Swango asked themto stand: “Gentlemen of the jury, do you have a verdict?” J. A. Shaw,the foreman, answered, “We have,” then said, “Not guilty.” A shoutof celebration went up from the crowd, and the judge demandedquiet. He reminded the jurors that he had instructed them to writedown the verdict, and sent them back into the jury room. Even so,spectators in the stairwells rushed downstairs, and the refrain “Notguilty” echoed in shouts through the corridors. When the jurorsreemerged, the judge asked Shaw to read the verdict aloud, which hedid: “We the jurors find the defendants not guilty.” By this time wordof the acquittals had reached out into the throngs, now increasinglywhite, that were gathered outside, and a great commotion arose asthey sent up a cheer.8

Journalists, photographers, and well-wishers crowded around theMilams and Bryants, shaking hands and slapping backs.Photographers urged the couples to kiss for the cameras, which theydid. “I don’t remember anything about when the verdict was broughtout,” Carolyn said, “because all that went through my head was ‘Oh,thank God, my children have a father,’ and so I don’t remember.”While the Milams appeared genuinely happy, the Bryants’ affectionseemed oddly forced, perhaps an early sign of the centrifugal forcesthat eventually would lead to divorce.9

The performance of the trial wasn’t over, however; now it was thejury’s turn onstage. Having fulfilled their civic duty, the jurors filedthrough the crowded room, exclamations of “Good work” and “Nice

going” trailing behind them.10 One juror explained to reporters thatthe jury reached its verdict on the third ballot during the hour-longdeliberation. “There were several reasons for the verdict,” he said.“But generally everyone reached the conclusion that the body was notdefinitely identified.”11 The first ballot had three abstentions, thesecond had two abstentions, and the third was unanimous—not onejuror had cast a “guilty” ballot. The hour’s delay had been staged,with Sheriff-elect Harry Dogan sending word to the jury to “make itlook good” by taking their time. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,”one juror said later, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”12 In public,however, most stayed on script. Shaw, a farmer from Webb—MamieBradley’s birthplace—explained to reporters why they had voted toacquit Milam and Bryant: “We had a picture of the body with us inthe jury room, and it seemed to us the body was so badly decomposedit could not be identified.” But in the atmosphere of victory thatsuffused the Sumner courthouse, decorum was hard to maintain.Asked whether Mamie Bradley’s testimony had impressed the jury atall, Shaw sneered, “If she had tried a little harder, she might have got atear.”13

Hugh Whitaker, a graduate student from the Sumner area whosefather had worked the trial as a law officer, returned half a dozenyears later and interviewed nine of the twelve jurors. He found thatnot one had ever doubted that Milam and Bryant had killed EmmettTill, and only one had even entertained Sheriff Strider’s suggestion thatthe corpse might not be Till’s. Nobody had based his vote to acquit on“outside interference” by the NAACP or the flood of reporters andmedia coverage. All of the jurors Whitaker interviewed agreed that thesole reason they had voted “not guilty” was because a black boy hadinsulted a white woman, and therefore her kinsmen could not beblamed for killing him.14

•  •  •

Mamie Bradley, Willie Reed, and Charles Diggs were on the highwaybound for Memphis, where they would catch northbound airplanes.As promised, Diggs had bought a plane ticket to Chicago for Reed,

who had left the Delta only once in his life, and then only to go as faras Memphis. They traveled quietly until the news came. “We were onthe road about fifteen minutes out of Mound Bayou,” Mamie wrote,“when it was announced on the radio. There was such jubilation. Theradio reporter,” who appeared to be broadcasting from the courthousesquare, “sounded like he was doing the countdown for a new year.You could hear the celebration in the background. It was like theFourth of July.”15

Whatever hopes any in that car had maintained during the trial,none of them was surprised at the verdict. Nor was Reverend Wright,his cotton harvested and his duty done. The most thoughtful observersawaited not the jubilation of Sumner but the verdict of world opinion.

The cluster of cameras outside the courthouse should havereminded the men and women of Sumner that much of the planet wasnot only watching but judging them, judging Mississippi, and judgingthe United States. That was a realization that would fully descendupon them only over the ensuing months. For now they felt real pride.No doubt the jurors and many local observers would have secondedthe secretary of the Citizens’ Council, who told Homer Bigart of theNew York Herald Tribune, “Sir, this is not the United States. This isSunflower County, Mississippi.”16 Others cheerfully asserted that thetrial exonerated Mississippi of the slurs slung at her. It had been a fairtrial and a proper verdict, proving the state could handle its ownaffairs, thank you very much.

The journalists who covered the trial were more circumspect; noneof them was cheerful, although most considered it a fair trial but forthe verdict. “No prosecutors in the United States could have workedharder or longer for a conviction than did District Attorney GeraldChatham and Special Prosecutor Robert B. Smith, both native whitesons of their state,” wrote James Hicks, who had come to Sumnerexpecting “Mississippi white man’s justice” and nothing more. “Andno judge, whether on the Supreme Court bench or the rickety rockingchair of the bench at Sumner could have been more painstaking andeminently fair in the conduct of the trial than Judge Curtis M. Swangoof Sardis, Miss.” Unfortunately, lamented Hicks, white Mississippi andthe jurors held tightly to their age-old blind spot of racial prejudice,

“which prevents them from seeing and thinking straight when theylook upon a black face.”17

With varying degrees of interest and drawing a wide array oflessons, white America wrestled with what had happened in JudgeSwango’s courtroom. Almost all of them agreed to knowing what thejury had known, that Bryant and Milam had participated in killingEmmett Till, and for the oldest of reasons white Southern mensometimes killed African Americans: for an unacceptable sexualaffront to their sensibilities and status. Not mere prejudice but theinbred fear of the Black Beast Rapist called the tune in Sumner’scourtroom, several reporters noted. Max Lerner of the New York Postwrote, “On the sanctity of white womanhood, a Mississippi jury isonly a vehicle for expressing the mass fear and hatred of the Negro.”18

The accusation that Emmett Till had attacked Carolyn Bryant boiledthe blood of white spectators. Jurors had almost certainly heardrumors of “the talk” that had sent Bryant and Milam to kidnap theboy, and their interpretation of that talk was steeped in centuries offearful myths. In his incendiary summation defense attorney SidneyCarlton stated that Till “molested” Carolyn Bryant as if it were a factestablished by the proceedings. Bill Sorrells, who covered the trial forthe Memphis Commercial Appeal, observed that the defense “wasbuilt on emotion and Mrs. Bryant was the key.”19 The defiant editorsof the Greenwood Morning Star seemed to confirm this analysis;Mississippi’s misfortune, they wrote, was partly because the trial hadbecome known as the “wolf whistle case” or the “Till murder case,”when all along it should have been called “this rape attempt case.”20

White Mississippians’ reaction to the legal process ranged from theresentful to the surreal. Hodding Carter Jr. at the Delta Democrat-Times, a Pulitzer winner and a moderate who had earned the hatredof many white Mississippians, blamed the laxity of law enforcementfor the acquittals and blamed the NAACP for that laxity. Had localofficials not been put on the defensive, he opined, they “mightotherwise have made an honest effort to do more than what resultedin an effective cover-up.” Carter sounded almost like the reactionaryeditor of the Jackson Daily News as he blasted the NAACP for“blanket accusations of decent people, their studied needling of the

citizens who had to decide a matter of local justice, and theirindifference to truth in favor of propaganda-making.”21

The editors of the Jackson Daily News agreed with Carter that theevidence had been insufficient, but they felt none of his disapproval ofthe outcome: “The cold hard fact concerning the acquittal inTallahatchie County of the two alleged slayers of a black youth fromChicago is that the prosecution failed to prove its case.” The MemphisCommercial Appeal affirmed that “evidence necessary for convictingon a murder charge was lacking.”22 A great many whiteMississippians responded with pride that the trial had been a paragonof fair play that demonstrated the Magnolia State’s critics wrong.“Mississippi people rose to the occasion and proved to the world,”declared the Greenwood Morning Star, “that this is a place wherejustice in the courts is given to all races, religions and classes.”23

Carter became a kind of national expert on the occasional insanityin his adopted home state. Outside Mississippi he spoke of the terribleinjustice of the Till affair, but at home he often seemed to consider theblot on Mississippi’s good name to be the real tragedy. Attempting tospeak for enlightened Southern opinion, he wrote, “It was not the jurythat was derelict in its duty, despite the logical conclusions it mighthave made concerning whose body was most likely found in theTallahatchie River, and who most likely put it there, but rather thecriticism must fall upon the law officials who attempted in such smallmeasure to seek out evidence and to locate witnesses to firmlyestablish whoever was or was not guilty.” He chose to blame theinvestigation that had produced such weak evidence, not the jury thathad assessed it.24

In a widely cussed and discussed piece in the Saturday Evening Posttitled “Racial Crisis in the Deep South,” Carter described Mississippias the most stubborn Southern state in its resistance to integration andcalled the recent murders of George Lee, Lamar Smith, and EmmettTill “symptomatic.” Whites considered the NAACP “the fountainheadof all evil and woe,” and the factual nature of most of the NAACP’s“bill of particulars  .  .  . doesn’t help make its accusations any moreacceptable.” He admitted, “The hatred that is concentrated upon theNAACP surpasses in its intensity any emotional reaction that I have

witnessed in my Southern lifetime.” This reflected the NAACP’sdemands for voting rights and school integration as much as it didtheir protests over the Till case. Carter also raised the sex bugaboo,describing Till as “sexually offensive” and stating that “sexual alarmon the part of white men may explain the failure to convict the menaccused of the slaying of Emmett Till.”25

Carter often stood on an increasingly precarious middle ground; hewas an early if sometimes wavering articulator of ideas that wouldeventually herald a different sort of South, when the civil rightsmovement rose to create it, only small thanks to people like him. Inthis instance, however, he ran hard up against a butchered fourteen-year-old. Carter tried, but there was scarcely a “Southern moderate”place to stand. Many white Mississippians, particularly those runningthe state, considered him a traitor. More liberal critics took shots athim for defending the indefensible. Roi Ottley of the ChicagoDefender dismissed editor Carter of “pathetic Mississippi” as “avictim of the South’s pernicious folkways,” a pitiful apologist who was“attempting to smooth over the facts.”26

Other white Mississippians seemed to believe that communistagents were responsible for promoting racial division. “Could there beany doubt that this Mississippi murder—from the weeks or monthsbefore young Till made his visit to the South—was communist-inspired, directed and executed?” wrote a woman from Memphis.“Did not some communist agent or agents murder the young Negroafter the white men turned him loose?”27 A well-dressed local womanin Sumner told the television cameras, “I’m almost convinced that thevery beginning of this was by a communistic front.”28 Rumors alsoflew that young Till had been found alive in Chicago, Detroit, or NewYork.29

William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist andMississippi’s most celebrated son everywhere but in his home state,was of two minds, one drunk and one sober. He understood as fewdid the deep and global implications of the case. Asked to commentduring a sojourn in Rome, he cited the “sorry and tragic errorcommitted in my native Mississippi by two white adults on anafflicted Negro.” In the perilous atomic age, amid the rise of

anticolonial struggles, Faulkner said, America’s Cold War competitionwith the Soviet Union meant that the nation could no longer affordracial atrocities and patent injustices. The Till case was the absolutenadir. “Because if we in America have reached the point in ourdesperate culture where we must murder children, no matter for whatreason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probablywon’t.”30

Faulkner’s eloquent moral resolve apparently dissolved inchampagne when a reporter interviewed him in Paris a few monthslater. Then he declared, “The Till boy got himself into a fix and healmost got what he deserved.” The interviewer asked if the murderwould have been justified had Till been an adult. “It depends,”Faulkner replied, “if he had been an adult and had behaved even moreoffensively.  .  .  . But you don’t murder a child.” Soon afterwardFaulkner pled drunkenness and blamed both the champagne and theinterviewer. “These are statements which no sober man would makenor, it seemed to me, any sane man believe.” W. E. B. Du Bois,speaking on a radio program in California, challenged Faulkner to adebate at the courthouse in Sumner. Faulkner politely declined.31

Elizabeth Spencer, a white Mississippi novelist a quarter centuryyounger than Faulkner, also found herself in Rome that autumn.When she returned in September 1955 she discovered that white menhad lynched Emmett Till near her father’s farm in the Delta. In theexpectation that her father—whose racial convictions she hadregarded as enlightened—would feel much the same way, Spencerexpressed her horror at the crime and the verdict. But her father“refused to discuss it,” she said, “or to hear any discussion of it. Hesaid that we [white people] had to keep things in hand.” Parting wayswith her father, her ears “ringing with parental abuse,” Spencerheaded for Oxford, Mississippi, then abandoned the state altogetherand moved to New York City, resolved “in my bones, in the sick,empty feeling there inside  .  .  . You don’t belong here anymore.” Shetook with her the manuscript of her third novel, The Voice at the BackDoor—a call for justice in Mississippi that would appear to criticalacclaim in 1956.32

African American leaders, intent on what would happen next,underlined as Faulkner had the poisonous effect of the Till case onU.S. foreign relations in the context of the Cold War and anticolonialrevolutions across the world. Here they spied an opportunity. Whiteshad murdered African Americans without consequence before this,and surely whites would murder African Americans withoutconsequence after this; for them the urgent issue was how the tollcould be slowed, confronted, and eventually stopped. And theinternational context of Emmett Till’s murder offered them powerfulpolitical leverage toward that goal.

During the trial, Cora Patterson, an official in the Chicago branchof the NAACP, noted, “The eyes of the world are on that trial. It’s notgoing to help the United States’ situation in Europe and Asia if a fairtrial is not held.”33 At a labor rally on Seventh Avenue in New Yorkafter the acquittals, Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. called theTill murder “a lynching of the Statue of Liberty. No single incident hascaused as much damage to the prestige of the United States on foreignshores as what has happened in Mississippi.”34 Channing Tobias,chair of the NAACP’s board, declared, “The jurors who returned thisshameful verdict deserve a medal from the Kremlin for meritoriousservice in Communism’s fight against democracy.”35

•  •  •

These international dynamics were nothing new. World War II hadgiven black Americans unprecedented power to redeem or repudiateAmerican democracy in the eyes of the world, a fact that A. PhilipRandolph employed to great effect in his wartime March onWashington movement.36 The war also crippled European colonialismand gave rise to the Cold War rivalry between the United States andthe Soviet Union. Among the darker-skinned people of the world, thepostwar competition between the superpowers was urgent largely interms of their own anticolonial concerns; therefore the caste system ofcolor in the United States spoke louder than the nation’s ringingrhetoric of democracy. A U.S. State Department report conceded that“the division of opinion on many issues” in the newly created United

Nations General Assembly “has sometimes tended to follow a colorline, white against non-whites, with Russia seeking to be recognized asthe champion of non-whites.”37

“It is not Russia that threatens the United States so much asMississippi,” the NAACP declared in a 1947 petition to the UnitedNations. The petition, which decried “the denial of human rights tominorities in the case of citizens of Negro descent in the UnitedStates,” created an “international sensation,” as the NAACP’s WalterWhite put it. The national office, White said, was “flooded withrequests for copies of the document” from nations “pleased to havedocumentary proof that the United States did not practice what itpreached about freedom and democracy.”38 This new understandingthat international politics might hold the key to full citizenship forAfrican Americans marked “an historic moment in our struggle forequality,” one newspaper editor wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois. “Finallywe are beginning to see that America can be answerable to the familyof nations for its injustices to the Negro minority.”39

Many elements of the federal government appeared to agree withthe substance of the NAACP’s assertions. “We cannot escape the factthat our civil rights record has become an issue in world politics,”President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights declared in 1947. “Theworld’s press and radio are full of it.  .  .  . Those with competingphilosophies have stressed—and are shamelessly distorting—ourshortcomings.”40 Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote in 1952,“Racial discrimination in the United States remains a source ofconstant embarrassment to this Government in the day-to-dayconduct of its foreign relations.” The U.S. Justice Department filed aseries of briefs in the cases leading up to the Brown v. Board ofEducation decision that supported the NAACP’s position in exactlythose global terms. “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for theCommunist propaganda mills,” Attorney General Brownell wrote tothe Supreme Court, “and it raises doubts even among friendly nationsas to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.”41 On May17, 1954, so-called Black Monday, the Voice of America instantlyheralded the Brown decision across the planet in thirty-fivelanguages.42 Fifteen months later the Till case blew apart much of the

goodwill that Brown had won for the United States around theglobe.43

Newspapers in countries across the world called the acquittals“scandalous,” “monstrous,” “abominable,” and worse.44 EleanorRoosevelt published an editorial entitled “I Think the Till Jury WillHave an Uneasy Conscience,” in which she noted that “the coloredpeoples of the world, who far outnumber us,” had fixed theirattention on the Till trial and that the United States had “again playedinto the hands of the Communists and strengthened their propagandain Africa and Asia.”45 She did not exaggerate. In fact, outrage over theverdict in Ghana represented a legitimate threat to U.S. goals inAfrica.46 Carl Rowan, a successful black journalist for Timemagazine, was in New Delhi in the mid-1950s on a speaking toursponsored by the State Department to highlight white Americans’growing acceptance of African Americans. He had to “face hundredsof questions over the weeks about white people in America murderinga fourteen-year-old boy named Emmett Till because he allegedlywhistled at a white woman.”47 The State Department reported that“in Communist pamphleteering” in the Middle East the Till case washighlighted as “ ‘typical’ of repressive measures against minoritygroups in the United States, with special focus on the feature that thecourts condoned this act.”48

In 1956 the U.S. Information Agency surveyed European disdainfor American race relations and found the Till case the “prevalent”concern, though it would soon be weighed alongside mob violence atthe University of Alabama and in Little Rock.49 “Since the EmmettTill case in Mississippi last fall,” the American Embassy in Brusselsreported to the State Department, “the Belgian Press has directedincreasing attention to problems of racial relations in the UnitedStates. The press of all shades of political opinion and political leaderswith whom the Embassy has talked have been astonished at andstrongly condemned the racial prejudice evident in such recentcases.”50 The Italian communist press hammered readers with the Tillcase day after day, and the Vatican’s official mouthpiece,L’Osservatore Romano, found it deplorable that “a crime against anadolescent victim remains unpunished.”51 A memorandum from the

American Embassy in Copenhagen to the secretary of state described“the real and continuing damage to American prestige from suchtragedies as the Emmett Till case.” Sweden’s Le Democrate respondedto the verdict with an editorial, “A Disgusting Parody of Justice in theState of Mississippi.”52 Das Freie Volk in Düsseldorf declared, “Thelife of a Negro in Mississippi is not worth a whistle.”53

In 1956 the State Department reported that the “Till affairs drewgreater attention in France than they did in the United States.”54

Feeling the sting of world opinion about French colonial rule inAlgeria, France welcomed evidence of American hypocrisy on race.The conservative Paris daily Figaro printed an editorial three daysafter the acquittals with the banner headline “Shame on the SumnerJury,” urging Americans to “look into their own actions.” Theconditions under which black people live in America, observed thecentrist paper Le Monde, should “incite more reserve and modesty onthe part of those who decry the ‘colonialism’ of others.”55 A massmeeting in Paris adopted a resolution addressed to the U.S.ambassador calling the lynching and acquittals “an insult to theconscience of the civilized world.”56

The New York Post’s editorial board perhaps said it best: “Likeother great episodes in the battle for equality and justice, this trial hasrocked the world, and nothing can ever be quite the same again—evenin Mississippi.”57 Beyond the commonly understood borders of race,nation, and freedom, the Till case laid bare the contradictions at theheart of America’s history and forced this most powerful nation totake stock of itself—if nothing else, to assess its loudly self-proclaimedstanding among the world’s peoples. Many believed America itself hadkilled Emmett Till. Its allies were concerned, its enemies gleeful. TheMagnolia State’s own native son, Richard Wright, issued an astuteassessment of the case’s implications from his self-exile in Paris: “Theworld will judge the judges of Mississippi.”58



None of the hopeful organizers of the protests on September 25, 1955,

could have forecast the scope of their success. Four thousand churchand United Auto Workers members packed Detroit’s Bethel AMEZion, designed to accommodate 2,500; fifty thousand more lined aneight-block radius around nearby Scott Methodist Church.Representative Charles Diggs addressed between six and ten thousandpeople in that city, describing the “sheer perjury and fantastic twistingof the facts” at the trial in Sumner. Diggs charged that Mississippirepresented “a shameful and primitive symbol of disregard for theessential dignity of all persons which must be destroyed before itdestroys all that democracy is to represent.”1 Reverend C. L. Franklin,one of the most admired black preachers of his generation, showed upwaving a wad of cash and urging the crowd to give generously tosupport the struggle. Ushers carried bags and baskets brimming withcash.2 Churches, labor unions, and other organizations presentedsubstantial checks. One source reported that the Diggs rally alonecontributed $14,064.88 to the coffers of the NAACP, a princely sumin 1955.3

NAACP branches in scores of communities collaborated with morethan a dozen labor unions, coordinated by the national office of theNAACP and the United Packinghouse Workers of America. Thenational convention of the United Electrical, Radio and MachineWorkers swelled the crowd in Cleveland on September 25.4 In Kansas

City preachers and meatpackers gathered at Ward AME Church at22nd Street and Prospect.5

The protest at Metropolitan Church in Chicago drew ten thousandto hear Mamie Bradley, the journalist Simeon Booker, and WilloughbyAbner, president of the NAACP’s Chicago branch and an official forthe United Auto Workers.6 Mamie must have quickly hopped a planeafter her appearance in Chicago in order to take the stage with RoyWilkins and A. Philip Randolph in Harlem. After gathering atchurches, labor halls, and campuses across New York City, tens ofthousands made their way to a big outdoor stage in Harlem to hearRandolph declare that “only the righteous revolt” of citizensthroughout the country could halt “this wave of terrorism” in theSouth. He called for a March on Washington to protest PresidentDwight D. Eisenhower’s failure to protect African Americans in theSouth. Mamie told the crowd, “What I saw at the trial was a shamebefore God and man.”7 An internal report of the UPWA estimatedthat “50,000 people turned out in New York City to hear A. PhilipRandolph, president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters, blast thewhitewash of the brutal crime.”8 The Brotherhood of Sleeping CarPorters, the NAACP, and the Jewish Labor Committee, “representing500,000 workers in the AFL,” along with a number of progressivechurches and other groups, sponsored the huge rally.9

The Mississippi underground that located nearly all the AfricanAmerican witnesses for the murder trial of Milam and Bryant was wellrepresented on the stump during the September 25 national rallies. Dr.T. R. M. Howard gave a two-hour speech to a crowd of more than2,500 at Sharp Street Methodist Church in Baltimore, calling for theinvestigation of negligent FBI agents in the South and irritating thehell out of Director J. Edgar Hoover. “It’s getting to be a strangething,” said Howard, “that the FBI can never seem to work out who isresponsible for killings of Negroes in the South.”10 In Detroit,Howard’s old friend Medgar Evers also blasted the treatment ofblacks in Mississippi, detailing the murders of George Lee and LamarSmith. Ruby Hurley, who had worn a red bandana and work clothesto sneak onto the Delta plantations with Evers and Amzie Moore insearch of witnesses, spoke alongside Thurgood Marshall at an

“overflow rally” in Holy Rosary Church’s school auditorium inBrooklyn.11

A combined total of well over 100,000 attended rallies that day inChicago, New York, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, New Rochelle,Newark, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and many other cities and townsacross the country.12

This was not the cramped, fearful McCarthy era, nor did it reflectwhat one Democrat called the Eisenhower administration’s languidgaze “down the green fairways of indifference.”13 Something new wasafoot. In cities all across America citizens found Mississippi guilty ascharged. The response was a gathering of activists in the North—laborunionists, religious progressives, stalwarts of the Old Left, andordinary citizens—that would join activists in the South to transformthe Southern civil rights movement into a national coalition. Thequickly emerging movement was so large that no one person ororganization could manage it. Not since the Scottsboro trials of the1930s had the country seen anything like it.14 The killing of that boywho “did the talking” had become much more than just anotherlynching in the South. For some, including Mamie Bradley, it was anArchimedean lever with which to move the world.

•  •  •

After September 25 churches, labor unions, NAACP branches, andother organizations gathered strength for a second wave of proteststhe following week. The largest church in Detroit, Greater KingSolomon Baptist Church at 14th and Marquette, held a twenty-four-hour service on September 29 to motivate support for rallies onOctober 1 and 2.15 Twelve pastors and Mamie Bradley addressed thefour thousand gathered there. “Mrs. Bradley said she had recoveredfrom the sorrow she felt at her son’s death,” reported the ChicagoTribune, “and ‘Now I’m angry—just plain angry.’ She urged a unitedfront in the fight for civil rights.”16 The Brotherhood of Sleeping CarPorters, the Urban League, the United Steelworkers, the UPWA, andthe NAACP organized mobilization meetings in Chicago, New York,Milwaukee, and Buffalo, and across the country built momentum for

the massive national protests. When the day came, the headline in theChicago Defender proclaimed, “100,000 Across Nation Protest TillLynching.”17

Mamie Bradley well knew that being the mother of Emmett Tillmade her uniquely useful to and powerful in the struggle. Thedemands on her were constant and increasingly begged trade-offs.Despite rumors that she had collapsed from exhaustion in Chicago onOctober 1, she walked into Williams Institutional CME Church inNew York City on that same day, only a week after her lastappearance there. Three thousand people had been waiting in thesanctuary, some of them for hours. The Chicago Defender estimatedat least fifteen thousand more huddled outside, listening onloudspeakers. The throng applauded, cheered, and wept at the sight ofEmmett Till’s mother. A. Philip Randolph was the first to speak. “IfAmerica can send troops to Korea  .  .  .  ,” he began, and the crowddrowned him out with its roar. In Cold War fashion, the New Yorkbranch of the NAACP had urged Mamie not to participate in this rallybecause of its alleged “pinkish tinge,” or leftist sympathies, but toreturn instead for its own mass meeting the following Sunday. Sherejected the counsel. She resented not only what the Chicago Defendercalled the “petty jealousy” and “unnecessary confusion” among thevarious civil rights organizers but also the huge sums being raised onher courage and her son’s death while her own financial needs grewdire; she had been unable to work since being swept up by themovement.18

Of these concerns internal to the movement the wider world knewlittle and cared less. On Sunday, October 2, tens of thousands againgathered in Detroit, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and a number ofother cities to protest the Till verdict and call for federal action. Threethousand packed Chicago’s Metropolitan Church and perhaps seventhousand more spilled into the street in what some said was the largestand most energetic civil rights meeting in the history of the ChicagoNAACP. Willoughby Abner spoke on historic Mississippi atrocitiesand racial conflict in Chicago. Simeon Booker told stories of coveringthe trial in Sumner. Frank Brown, who had attended the trial for theUPWA, and Charles Hayes, the union’s District 1 director, each held

forth on the ties between civil rights and labor issues.19 This was alsothe topic in Minneapolis, where the AFL demanded that the federalgovernment act in the Till case, and at the New York convention ofthe International Association of Machinists, AFL, where Herbert Hill,the national NAACP labor secretary, told three hundred delegates thattrade unions were imperiled “because the South remains a land oftrigger-happy sheriffs and lynch mobs using violence not only againstinnocent Negroes but also against union organizers.”20

The national office of the NAACP, flush with funds donated atdozens of mass meetings, scheduled rallies across the North and Southin the weeks ahead, many featuring Mamie Bradley. In Alabama, itwas Birmingham, Montgomery, and Tuskegee; in Georgia, Atlantaand Savannah had large protests. Both Charleston, South Carolina,and Charleston, West Virginia, were on the schedule, as were Miamiand Tampa, Dallas and Fort Worth, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,Boston and Springfield, Toledo and Cincinnati, Camden and NewBrunswick. The Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and KnoxvilleNAACP branches prepared to host rallies, as did those in St. Louis,East St. Louis, and Kansas City. Milwaukee, Des Moines, andWashington, D.C., rounded out the tour. Whether Mamie would bearup under the pace of this schedule remained to be seen.21

For the rest of October and in November protests continued fromNew York to Los Angeles. Moses Wright spoke from time to time,walking back and forth, pounding his fist into his palm, andanimating his performances in the manner of a veteran Church of Godin Christ preacher. “Rally of 20,000 here cheers call for action againstMississippi goods,” the New York Times reported on October 12.Jammed into the Garment District on 36th Street between Seventh andEighth, the twenty thousand protestors roared their approval whenAdam Clayton Powell Jr. proposed a national boycott on Mississippiproducts and a March on Washington in January to demand thatCongress finally pass an antilynching bill. Activists quickly organizedMarch on Washington Committees in New York, Detroit, Chicago,and elsewhere.22

Throughout the fall and into the winter, mass meetings flourishedin New York, Chicago, and Detroit, as well as Newark, Boston,

Cleveland, St. Louis, and Milwaukee.23 In Los Angeles some fivethousand persons crowded into the Second Baptist Church, withseveral thousand more standing outside, to protest the Till case.Almost certainly a majority of them were first- or second-generationSouthern transplants of the Great Migration. As described by theChicago Defender, “The meeting was punctuated by screams andoccasional outcries as Dr. T. R. M. Howard of Mississippi related factsand details about what he termed the ‘cruel, desperate and deadly’treatment of Negroes in his home state.” Silence ruled when theeloquent physician turned his eye to Los Angeles itself. “How many ofyou within my sight and the sound of my voice are enjoying theluxury of Cadillacs, safe, comfortable homes, and the privilege tovote, while thousands of your brothers in blood live in fear of theirlives?” he demanded. The rally raised roughly $10,000.24

In mid-November the NAACP disclosed that more than a quartermillion people had heard Mamie Bradley or Moses Wright speak attheir rallies, and Howard claimed that he had addressed thirtythousand people.25 When Medgar Evers reported on his out-of-statespeeches on the Till case, he listed Detroit twice, St. Louis, East St.Louis, Washington, D.C., Tampa, and Nashville.26 Both Howard andAdam Clayton Powell spoke in Montgomery in November. Therewould be many more speeches in a movement organized byindignation over the Till case.

•  •  •

Any thought that the case would fade as 1955 turned into 1956 wouldsoon vanish, thanks to the ongoing protests but also to the work ofWilliam Bradford Huie, a seventh-generation Alabama novelist andjournalist with an inflamed ambition and iridescent imagination. InJanuary 1956 Look magazine, with one of the largest circulations inthe country, published Huie’s “Shocking Story of Approved Killing inMississippi.”27 In addition to copies for their nearly four millionsubscribers, Look printed an extra two million for the newsstands.28

Three months later the story was reprinted for eleven million

subscribers to the Reader’s Digest.29 Huie’s story would shapeAmerica’s imagination of the Till case for fifty years.

Huie began working on the Till case a month or so after theacquittals.30 In Sumner he met with J. J. Breland, pointing out that thetruth of what happened had never been established. “And this lawyersaid, ‘Well, I’d like to know what happened. I never asked themwhether they killed the boy or not.’ ”31 A pioneer in what would laterbe derided as “checkbook journalism,” Huie told Breland that Lookwould pay Milam and Bryant $4,000 to give their account. Brelandcalled in the killers and relayed Huie’s offer. Because they had beenacquitted, they could not be tried again for the same crime; therefore,without shame or law to impede them, and with cash on the table,there was no reason not to go public with their version of events. Theyaccepted. There would be $1,000 for the law firm and $3,000 to bedivided between Milam and Bryant in exchange for the story of Till’skidnapping, beating, and murder. Huie would state the facts, includingquotes, without saying how he had gotten them; that would allow thehalf-brothers to maintain some pretense of innocence. And they wouldsign a waiver not to sue Huie for libel. Breland then set up a week ofsecret meetings at the law firm at night. After Look’s senior counselshowed up with a satchel full of cash, J. W. Milam and Roy andCarolyn Bryant told Huie their story through a haze of cigarettesmoke, with Milam doing most if not all of the talking.32

If any of them mentioned a physical assault of any kind onCarolyn, Huie did not report it, which seems unlikely given hispenchant for the sensational. In this version Emmett Till of Chicago,visiting his country kinfolks in Mississippi, boasted to his youngcousins about having had sex with a white girl. Outside Bryant’sGrocery the youths dared Till to ask Carolyn Bryant for a date. He didso. Hearing the tale, Milam and Bryant kidnapped the boy from hisgreat-uncle’s farmhouse, intending merely to beat him, but Till tauntedthem with stories of having sex with white girls and proclaimed hisown equality. In short, the boy virtually committed suicide.

“We were never able to scare him,” Milam told Huie. “They hadjust filled him so full of that poison he was hopeless.” The men tookturns smashing Till across the head with their .45s. The boy never

yelled, but continued to say things like “You bastards. I’m not afraidof you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. Mygrandmother was a white woman.” Milam made their case:

Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger. I likeniggers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a fewpeople got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers aregonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’dcontrol the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a niggereven gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely tokill him. Me and my folks fought for this country and we have some rights. . . . Goddamyou, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know where me andmy folks stand.33

And so, Milam said, they drove to the cotton gin, forced Till to carrythe heavy fan to the truck, took him to the riverbank, shot him in thehead, and rolled him into the river.34 In this version, it was a“coincidence” that Till’s ignorant bravado met Milam’s ignorantbrutality at just the wrong place and time, “too soon after theSupreme Court had decreed a change in the Delta ‘way of life.’ ”35

This was not a tell-all; for one thing, Huie knew that more than twopeople were involved in the murder of Emmett Till, but he decided toforget that inconvenient fact because it would cost too much to getreleases to print their names.36 In Milam and Bryant’s version the oneperson who receded further from view was the real-life fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, with his slight stutter, his imitations of Red Skeltonand Jack Benny, and his ability to see second base in a loaf of bread.

•  •  •

The real Emmett Till was also not in evidence at the national proteststhat continued well into the spring of 1956, but his family and theirMississippi allies certainly were. T. R. M. Howard’s finest hour cameat what A. Philip Randolph billed as “the Historic Madison SquareGarden Civil Rights Rally,” otherwise known as the “Heroes of theSouth” rally. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters did much of theorganizing, and In Friendship, a fundraising organization, did the rest.Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison, Norman Thomas, and

other liberals, radicals, and labor activists in New York founded InFriendship in early 1956, using the energy around the Till case and theMontgomery Bus Boycott to fund the boycott and to assist grassrootsactivists in the South who suffered economic reprisals for their civilrights activities. The Heroes of the South rally, set for May 24, 1956,at Madison Square Garden, was their first big project.37

The rally drew more than sixteen thousand people. BesidesRandolph and Howard, the evening featured Eleanor Roosevelt,Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Roy Wilkins, Autherine Lucy, Rosa Parks,and E. D. Nixon. Parks and Nixon filled in for the headliner, MartinLuther King Jr., who backed out to attend a meeting in Montgomery.Sammy Davis Jr. and the bandleader Cab Calloway provided musicalentertainment.

Randolph introduced Howard as “a man who has dedicated his lifeto the cause.” He praised Howard for confronting “the racialism andtribalism of those who would strike down the Constitution and takeaway the rights of the people of Mississippi merely because ofcolor.”38 Howard followed with a Cold War thrust: “I come to youtonight from that Iron Curtain country called Mississippi. I tried tocall home a few minutes ago to see if we were still in the Union.” Hequickly reviewed his home state’s hardcore racist history, mentioningthe notorious Senator Theodore Bilbo and the still venomous SenatorJames O. Eastland. His humor was sly and sharp-edged. “Thegovernor recently called a special session of the legislature to have theletters N, A, C and P removed from the alphabet and to have thewords ‘integration’ and ‘desegregation’ stricken from the Englishlanguage.”39

Howard described the recent upheavals in race relations inMississippi since Brown v. Board of Education and the NAACP’scampaigns for desegregation of the public schools and access to theballot. The Citizens’ Council, “the worst internal threat that we haveto our American way of life,” was spreading across the South.Reverend George Lee, “a great friend of mine,” and Lamar Smith, “apersonal friend of mine,” had been murdered for seeking voting rights,and no one had been arrested in either case. The boy Emmett Till hadascended to a pantheon of martyrs, a rallying point alongside Lee and

Smith for justice and progress. “We have grown tired of fighting forsomething across the sea that we can’t vote for in Belzoni.” Howardasserted, “The [white] people of Mississippi are not afraid of theSupreme Court. They are not afraid of Congress. But every time youmention the NAACP, they tremble in their boots. We should allsupport the National Association for the Advancement of ColoredPeople.”

Asking the crowd for a show of hands, Howard remarked that alarge majority of those present were blacks born in the South. “Thereason that you’re in New York,” he said, “is because you wererunning away from some of those conditions that we have describedhere tonight.” He confronted not just the Jim Crow South but thecomplacent North: “The pitiful part of it is that you have forgottenabout the conditions in the South and you are not doing much aboutthe damnable conditions that exist right here in New York City.”Appreciating his candor, the crowd slowly began to applaud, buildingto a roar.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he responded, “the people of SouthCarolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi cannot hear yourapplause tonight. We’ve got to do something more than just clap ourhands about the situation. I believe the papers ought to carrytomorrow that this group gave a hundred thousand dollars to helpcarry the fight in the Southland.”40

As Howard took his seat, Randolph reminded the crowd that theywere “planning to use the funds that are collected at this meeting forthe National Association for the Advancement of Colored People andthe Montgomery Bus Boycott.” At that point, the boycott was almostsix months old and showed no sign of ending anytime soon. TheUPWA donated $1,632.04, boosting their support for the boycott thatspring to well over $5,000; they would continue to be majorsupporters of Dr. King’s work throughout the 1960s. Local 32 of theUnited Steelworkers gave an additional $1,000 at the rally, and theTransport Workers Union wrote a check for $700.41

Conspicuous by her absence that night was Mamie Bradley. Shehad shared her grief with the nation, inviting the world to “see whatthey did to my boy.” In early September, weeks before the beginning of

the trial, she had clarity about her role in the drama of her boy’s deathand the potential redemption of her loss. “This is not just forEmmett,” she said only a week after his funeral, “because my boycan’t be helped now, but to make it safe for other boys.” She vowed tosee that his killers were punished but also insisted that the federalgovernment must protect all black citizens. “I’m willing to goanywhere, to speak anywhere, to get justice.” A falling-out with RoyWilkins soon curtailed her speaking schedule, but she never ended hercry for justice, not until she died in 2003.42

Except there was no justice to be had for Emmett Till, not in 1955,not in 1956, not even decades later. The depth and malignancy ofwhite supremacy beggared notions of justice. There was progress,eventually, which came with the effort of a great many and the deathsof more than a few on the battlefields of race in America. Oneconsequence of the public battle that Mamie Bradley started was thather son became less of a boy and more of an icon that spoke to thosestruggling across the nation, in both the North and the South.“Everyone knew we were under attack,” recalled one black journalist,“and that attack was symbolized by the attack on a fourteen-year-oldboy.”43

White Southerners regarded this obsession with Emmett Till as aninjustice to them. They pointed to the hypocrisy of white Northernerswho protested the Till murder but refused to see the racial brutalityaround them. When Mamie and Mayor Richard Daley of Chicagojoined in asking President Eisenhower to intervene in the Till case, thecontradictions were too much for some Mississippians. Theirstatement, reported the Greenwood Morning Star, was something that“Mississippi people resent very much. We notice that a press dispatchsays there have been 27 bombings in Chicago in the past 16 monthsand that they have gone unsolved.” The mayor of Chicago should“clean up his own crimes before he spouts off in condemnation ofMississippi.”44

That was a sentiment more or less shared by many AfricanAmericans in Chicago. The Packinghouse Workers endorsed MayorDaley’s appeal to Eisenhower but pointed out that “Emmett Till washardly less safe in Greenwood, Mississippi than he would have been in

Trumbull Park, Chicago,” where racial clashes over housingcontinued.45 If some in the North, Daley first among them, could beaccused of protesting white supremacy in the South and protecting itin the North, many in Chicago were coming to understand full wellthat the battles fought in the North and in the South were all part ofthe same war. “We have our own Mississippi only 20 minutes awayfrom here,” declared Abner Willoughby, one of the main organizers ofprotests at Trumbull Park.46

If the protest politics around the Till case brought neither justicenor clarity, they brought together many elements that would soonanchor the civil rights movement. What happened to Emmett Till inMississippi had helped galvanize what was now a national movement.Whatever their other differences, the Till case joined activists northand south in a common struggle, giving those in Chicago, Detroit,New York, and other Northern cities a stake in the racial politics of adistant region. It united and pulled into the movement black laborunions and integrated unions like the UPWA that were rapidlybecoming “civil rights unions,” whether or not all of the whitemembers agreed with integration. The fragmented American left madecommon cause in the Till case. Many religious organizations becameplayers in the effort to support the movement. The bitter realities ofEmmett Till’s lynching and the acquittals gave civil rights a new moralappeal that it bears to this day. The NAACP’s labor director HerbertHill mused years later that even if the Till case had only helped form“a Northern consensus about Southern racism,” that consensus wasinvaluable to the growing civil rights movement in Dixie and acrossthe country.47



If the past is irrevocably gone, and we cannot somehow conjure it

back and see it with the omniscient eyes of God, we can neverthelessfollow wherever the fragments of evidence lead us and try tounderstand what they tell us. What we know happened to Emmett Tillis cause aplenty for sorrow and anguish; the mysteries that persistmean little or nothing for the insistent dilemmas of race in America.Exactly what happened between Carolyn Bryant and Emmett Till atthe store will never be revealed to a certainty, probably not even toher. What she did or didn’t do with respect to his kidnapping maynever be entirely clear. But how Mamie Bradley dug deep withinherself and inspired thousands of other Americans to move is clearenough. From this tragedy large, diverse numbers of people organizeda movement that grew to transform a nation, not sufficiently butcertainly meaningfully. What matters most is what we have done andwill do with what we do know. We must look at the facts squarely, notto flounder in a bitter nostalgia of pain but to redeem a democraticpromise rooted in the living ingredients of our own history. Thebloody and unjust arc of our history will not bend upward if wemerely pretend that history did not happen here. We cannot transcendour past without confronting it. As Du Bois wrote in 1912, “Thiscountry has had its appetite for facts on the Negro question spoiled bysweets.”1

So, the facts: Emmett Till’s executioners’ ghastly errand began at anundisclosed location that could have been as far away as J. W. Milam’s

store in Glendora, thirty miles distant. J.W., Roy Bryant, their brother-in-law Melvin Campbell, and a friend, probably Hubert Clark, wereplaying cards and drinking hard when the subject of what J.W. calledthe “smart talk” and whistling incident between Carolyn and “theChicago boy” came up. Two black men who worked for J.W., HenryLee Loggins and Levi “Too Tight” Collins, were likely present, thoughnot part of the card game. The white men agreed that this affront atBryant’s Grocery could not go unavenged. They decided to go get theboy. According to some accounts, J.W. borrowed Clark’s old carbecause his brand-new two-toned Chevrolet pickup would be toorecognizable.2 It is possible that Carolyn went to the Wright housewith them and identified Emmett before they kidnapped him, so theymay have stopped at Bryant’s Grocery to pick up Carolyn on the way.Or she may have remained at the store and either identified him thereor refused to do so when they came back with Emmett. Although heraccounts of this night have been inconsistent over the years, she hasalways maintained that she told her husband the boy they brought tothe store for her to identify was not Emmett Till. Whether or not sheactually identified the boy is merely a matter of speculation; I havefound no way to prove or disprove it. The preponderance of evidencedoes tell us that almost from the moment of the incident between herand Emmett at the store on August 24, she was frightened of itsescalating consequences and probably sought to avoid them.

After they kidnapped Emmett, and whatever may have happened atBryant’s Grocery that night, the white men hauled the black teenagerwith them to the place where they had been drinking. Present wereJ.W., Roy, Campbell, and Clark or perhaps Elmer Kimbell. Somecombination of black men who worked for J.W.—possibly Loggins,Collins, Otha “Oso” Johnson, and Joe Willie Hubbard, perhaps onlyone or two of them—rode in the back of the truck with Emmett. Backat their clandestine watering hole, the white men beat and beratedEmmett for as much as an hour. He was neither dead nor unconsciouswhen they decided to take the boy to a hundred-foot bluff overlookingthe Mississippi River near Rosedale, a place J.W. knew about, perhapsto scare him, though it is just as likely they intended to kill him thereand dump him in the river. The men piled into J.W.’s truck for the

hour-long drive to Rosedale. The four white men rode in the large cab.One or more of the black men stayed in the bed of the truck to keepEmmett from fleeing.

By some accounts Collins was alone with Emmett in the back andhad a hard time controlling the boy, so they stopped at a juke joint inGlendora and picked up some of the other men who worked for J.W.:Hubbard, Loggins, and perhaps Johnson. At this distance in time therole of the black men is a little hard to fathom. They could have hadfew illusions about the fate of the boy they were restraining. Theirbehavior may reflect their terror of and utter subservience to J.W.; theywould have known that their objections to the boy’s fate would carryno weight and that the white men could kill them with impunity atany point. There was room in the Mississippi or the Tallahatchie fortheir bodies, too. An African American’s testimony in a court of lawwas all but useless in 1950s Mississippi, and they were unlikely toreport the crime to Sheriff Strider. It is also possible that these blackmen suffered from an internalized white supremacy so deep that theyvirtually never questioned the prerogatives of white men; their worldwas certainly constructed to make it so. Suffice it to say that at everyjuncture the white men were calling the shots.

White men in the front, black men in the back, they drove aroundfor some time, looking for J.W.’s proposed spot on the Mississippi, butfailed to locate it for an hour or more. The drunken white men thenturned the truck toward the farm that Leslie Milam managed, “tryin’to make our minds up,” Roy told an interviewer, about what to dowith the boy. There was a large equipment shed at the place wherethey could continue to torture him and perhaps decide his fate. It maynot have been a foregone conclusion, at least not among all of them,that they would kill him when they got there. The truck rumbled ontothe farm soon after sunrise. Leslie Milam was not happy to see them,in part because he had work to do that day, but he agreed to let themuse the shed and then joined them there.3

Once inside the large equipment shed the men grabbed Emmett offthe truck and began to beat him again, this time with shattering force.Most of the blows were to the boy’s head, their principal weapons thelarge-caliber pistols they carried. J.W. wore on his belt a heavy Ithaca-

brand, U.S. Army–issued .45 semi-automatic, a hunk of steel thatweighed 2.7 pounds, heavier than most carpenter’s hammers, and Roycarried a similar pistol. It is likely that one or more of the men usedtools found in the shed; observers described wounds to the left side ofEmmett’s face that seemed to have been made with a heavy blade.

While no one outside the shed saw what happened inside, severalwitnesses heard it. Willie Reed was awakened by his grandfather AddReed at dawn and sent walking to the store. Passing near the barn,Reed first saw the four white men in the cab of the truck and threeblack men and a boy in the back. Cutting across the field, he heard thebrutal sounds of a beating and agonized cries for mercy. As he camecloser to the barn, a big bald-headed man emerged and walked to thenearby well for a drink of water. Reed later identified the man as J. W.Milam. “He had on a pistol. He had it on his belt.” J.W. steppedquickly back into the shed. According to T. R. M. Howard, Reed toldhim that he heard the frightened boy crying from the barn, “Mama,please save me,” and “Please, God, don’t do it again.” Reed testified incourt, “I heard somebody hollering and I heard some licks likesomebody was whipping somebody.” As to the number of blows:“There was a whole lot of them.” The intense screams finally faded towhimpers, then stopped altogether. Add Reed and Mandy Bradley, aneighbor who lived close by, supported Willie Reed’s account ofevents.4

The merciless ferocity of the assault may be proven by the injuriesto Emmett Till’s body. Initially Emmett tried to fend off the blowswith his hands and arms, but soon he was unable to do so. Both of hiswrists were broken in the effort to defend himself. Vicious blowscrushed in the whole crown of his head; similar strokes smashed theback of his skull so that pieces of it would fall off as the lawenforcement officers pulled him from the river. Surprisingly, givenMamie Bradley’s description of his smashed teeth, only one of histeeth was missing; nor was he castrated, as some other accountsallege. His assailants managed to fracture his thigh bone, the largestand strongest bone in the body, which suggests they stomped on himwith enormous and repeated force or beat him with something muchheavier than a pistol. Deputy Sheriff John Ed Cothran testified that

“his left eye was about out, it was all gouged out in there.” Part of oneear was missing, which could have meant someone tortured him witha knife or shears. A farm equipment shed likely offered a number ofchoices for implements to inflict pain and cause death. The injuries tohis head almost certainly would have killed him, but the immediatecause of death was a gunshot wound above his right ear.5

Amid all informed speculation, there is this fact: it takes from fivehundred to one thousand pounds of force to crack a human skull. Noone exerts that level of force on a fourteen-year-old’s head withoutwillingness to kill. When Carolyn Bryant says Emmett Till didn’tdeserve what happened to him, this—delivering hundreds of poundsof force at impact, over and over again—is part of “what happened tohim,” in addition to the other unspeakable tortures that went on inthat barn.6 Clipped ear. Broken bones. Gouged-out eye. The ruthlessattack inflicted injuries almost certain to be fatal. They reveal abreathtaking level of savagery, a brutality that cannot be explainedwithout considering rabid homicidal intent or a rage utterly beyondcontrol. Affronted white supremacy drove every blow.

Despite the viciousness of the assault, it is not clear exactly whenthe men consciously made up their minds to kill the boy. In Bryantand Milam family lore, true or not, the story goes that at some pointRoy developed misgivings about the fatal beating. According toCarolyn, the men told her that Roy had wanted to stop and takeEmmett’s broken body to the hospital. She said this would have meantdumping his body in front of a medical establishment and drivingaway. “Well, we done whopped the son of a bitch,” Roy told a friendin 1985 who was wearing a hidden recording device, “and I hadbacked out on killing the motherfucker.” In the end, Roy told hisfriend, they decided that “carryin’ him to the hospital wouldn’t havedone him no good” and instead they would “put his ass in theTallahatchie River.” The proposal to take Emmett to the hospital,Carolyn told me, violated the sensibilities of Melvin Campbell, whomuttered a curse and fired a .45-caliber bullet into Emmett’s brain.This may have been only a final malignant gesture, given the boy’sinjuries. But certainly the gunshot brought an emphatic end to thegrisly proceedings.7

J.W. ordered the black men to clean the floor of the shedthoroughly of blood and to spread cotton seed to cover it. Afterstripping the body, J.W., Roy, and Campbell put it in the truck bedand covered it with a tarpaulin. Either Clark or Kimbell borrowedLeslie Milam’s car and took the black men to bury the bloodyclothing. J.W., Roy, and Campbell, perhaps taking barbed wire fromthe shed and a heavy gin fan from a nearby building, drove ten milesacross the county line to the Tallahatchie River, lashed the fan aroundhis neck with the wire, and rolled the body into deep water.8

A young black man and his father reported walking past J.W.’sstore in Glendora that Sunday morning and seeing J.W.’s new truckparked next to the building. A tarpaulin covered the bed, but bloodhad pooled on the ground. Johnson and Collins stood guard, one withhis foot on the tarp and the other standing by the truck. The youngman recalled that when J.W. came out of the store and his fathercommented on the blood, J.W. replied that he had killed a deer. Whenthe father pointed out that it was not deer season, J.W. pulled himover to the truck, yanked back the tarpaulin, and said, “This is whathappens to smart niggers.” Speechless, the father turned, grabbed hisson by the shoulder, pulled him toward home, and never told his sonwhat he had seen, whether an enormous amount of blood or thecorpse itself. One of the main routes from Leslie Milam’s farm to theTallahatchie River runs through Glendora, and the men might havestopped at the store on their way to dump Emmett’s body.9

These are the facts. But we are obliged to go beyond the facts of thelynching and grapple with its meaning. If we refuse to look beneaththe surface, we can simply blame some Southern white peckerwoodsand a bottle of corn whiskey. We can lay the responsibility for EmmettTill’s terrible fate on the redneck monsters of the South andcongratulate ourselves for not being one of them. We can also place,and over the decades many of us have placed, some percentage of theblame on Emmett, who should have known better, should havewatched himself, policed his thoughts and deeds, gone more quietlythrough the Delta that summer. Had he only done so, he would havefound his way back to Chicago unharmed. That we blame themurderous pack is not the problem; even the idea that we can blame

the black boy is not so much the problem, though it carries with itseveral absurdities. The problem is why we blame them. We blamethem to avoid seeing that the lynching of Emmett Till was caused bythe nature and history of America itself and by a social system thathas changed over the decades, but not as much as we pretend.

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. writesthat his worst enemies are not the members of Citizens’ Councils orthe Ku Klux Klan but “the white moderate” who claims to supportthe goals of the movement but deplores its methods of protest anddeprecates its timetable for change: “We will have to repent in thisgeneration not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the badpeople but for the appalling silence of the good people.”10

When we blame those who brought about the brutal murder ofEmmett Till, we have to count President Eisenhower, who did notconsider the national honor at stake when white Southernersprevented African Americans from voting; who would not enforce theedicts of the highest court in the land, telling Chief Justice EarlWarren, “All [opponents of desegregation] are concerned about is tosee that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in schoolsalongside some big, overgrown Negroes.”11 We must count AttorneyGeneral Herbert Brownell Jr., who demurred that the federalgovernment had no jurisdiction in the political assassinations ofGeorge Lee and Lamar Smith that summer, thus not only preventingAfrican Americans from voting but also enabling Milam and Bryant tofeel confident that they could murder a fourteen-year-old boy withimpunity. Brownell, a creature of politics, likewise refused to intervenein the Till case. We must count the politicians who ran for office inMississippi thumping the podium for segregation and whippingcrowds into a frenzy about the terrifying prospects of schooldesegregation and black voting. This goes double for the Citizens’Councils, which deliberately created an environment in which theyknew white terrorism was inevitable. We must count the jurors andthe editors who provided cover for Milam, Bryant, and the rest.Above all, we have to count the millions of citizens of all colors and inall regions who knew about the rampant racial injustice in Americaand did nothing to end it. The black novelist Chester Himes wrote a

letter to the editor of the New York Post the day he heard the news ofMilam’s and Bryant’s acquittals: “The real horror comes when yourdead brain must face the fact that we as a nation don’t want it to stop.If we wanted to, we would.”12

Emmett Till’s death was an extreme example of the logic ofAmerica’s national racial caste system. To look beneath the surface ofthese facts is to ask ourselves what our relationship is today to thelegacies of that caste system—legacies that still end the lives of youngAfrican Americans for no reason other than the color of theirAmerican skin and the content of our national character. Recall thatFaulkner, asked to comment on the Till case when he was sober,responded, “If we in America have reached the point in our desperateculture where we must murder children, no matter for what reason orwhat color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.”13 Askyourself whether America’s predicament is really so different now.



Emmett Till is dead. I don’t know why he can’t just stay dead.

—ROY BRYANT, quoted in Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson,Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America

The struggle of humanity against power is always the struggle of memoryagainst forgetting.

—MILAN KUNDERA, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

“I am sure you read of the lynch-murder of young Emmett Till of

Chicago,” Rosa Parks wrote to a friend soon after these notoriousevents. “This case could be multiplied many times in the South, notonly Miss., but Ala, Georgia, Fla.”1 A month after the acquittals Parksjoined an overflow crowd at Martin Luther King’s Dexter AvenueBaptist Church in Montgomery to hear Dr. T. R. M. Howard speak onthe Till case. Dr. King introduced the fiery physician from MoundBayou, who spoke passionately about the assassinations of George Leeand Lamar Smith and told the story of Emmett Till in riveting detail.2

Parks had read about the lynching and wept at the gruesomephotograph in Jet, but Howard’s story was a powerful firsthandaccount. His speech moved her deeply and preoccupied her for days.Only four days later Parks defied the segregation laws on aMontgomery city bus. The driver insisted that she move. Thinking ofEmmett Till, she said, Parks refused to do so. Her subsequent arrestprovided the occasion for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.3

The impact of the Till lynching resonated across America for years,touching virtually everyone who heard it, but the case had its mostprofound effect on a generation of African Americans two decades

younger than Parks. Folks of all ages discussed the Till case inbarbershops, churches, and living rooms north and south. For blackyouth across the country, however, the Till lynching became a decisivemoment in the development of their consciousness around race. “Themurder just shocked me,” recalled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a legendarystar in the NBA and later an accomplished author. “I began thinkingof myself as a black person for the first time, not just a person.”Muhammad Ali recalled the effect of Till’s death on him: “I realizedthat this could just as easily have been a story about me or mybrother.” Indianapolis’s Richard Hatcher, the first African Americanelected mayor of a major U.S. city, said the killing made him “verybitter and angry towards white people. That’s how I felt at thatparticular time.”4 A woman who grew up in Chicago and Hattiesburg,Mississippi, and later became a civil rights activist remembered, “Thefirst time I was really confronted with this black-white issue was withEmmett Till. That really slapped me in the face.”5

Joyce Ladner, a Mississippi native who became a renowned activistwith the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), calledherself and the other young blacks who grew up in the 1950s “theEmmett Till generation.”6 Charles McDew, eventually chair of SNCC,said that all the young people in the movement “knew where theywere when they saw the pictures of Emmett Till’s body.”7 For JulianBond, who worked with SNCC and later became chair of the nationalboard of the NAACP, the Till case was one of the key events that“provided stepping stones leading inexorably toward my involvementin the freedom struggle.” He was “moved along the path to lateractivism by the graphic pictures that appeared in Jet magazine ofEmmett Till’s swollen and misshapen body.”8 Fay Bellamy Powell,who later worked with SNCC, was horrified at the coverage of the Tillcase and yet steeled for the struggles to come: “My spirit allowed me aglimpse of the future, saying, ‘Don’t worry about this. You will havean opportunity to address this madness. You will assist in showing theworld the face of this evil.’ ”9

With style and daring, “the Emmett Till generation” showed theworld a great deal when they launched the sit-ins that swept across theSouth in the spring of 1960. Four freshmen at North Carolina A&T

walked into the Greensboro Woolworth’s department store onMonday, February 1, bought a number of personal items, then sat atthe segregated lunch counter and asked to be served. The fourremained for almost an hour, until the lunch counter closed. OnTuesday twenty-five men and four women, all students at A&T,occupied the lunch counter. On Wednesday sixty-three studentsparticipated, joined in the afternoon by three white students fromGreensboro College. On Thursday hundreds more black studentsbecame involved. By the end of the week students in other cities andtowns in North Carolina—Raleigh, Charlotte, Fayetteville, HighPoint, Concord, and Elizabeth City—sat in at segregated lunchcounters. By the end of the month young people across the South wereorganizing sit-ins. Within two months the demonstrations had spreadto fifty-four cities in nine states; within a year more than a hundredcities witnessed similar protests. A new, mass-based phase of the civilrights movement, a distinctive radicalism rooted in nonviolent directaction, had begun.10 Driving it were young people, many of whomhad been inspired to action by the story of a boy their age lynched inMississippi.

Six decades later a white police officer shot and killed a youngblack man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The localgrand jury’s decision not to prosecute the officer expanded andenraged a national movement born of similar killings, and youngprotestors throughout the United States chanted, “Say his name!Emmett Till! Say his name! Emmett Till!” His name, invokedalongside a litany of the names of unarmed black men and womenwho died at the hands of police officers, remained a symbol of thedestructiveness of white supremacy. Hundreds of young peoplethronged the fence in front of the White House, chanting, “How manyblack kids will you kill? Michael Brown, Emmett Till!” Black LivesMatter—a movement, not just a hashtag—quickly became symbolicshorthand for the struggle. Much like the Emmett Till protests of the1950s, these demonstrations raged from coast to coast and fueledscores of local campaigns. Police brutality against men and women ofcolor provided the most urgent grievance but represented a range offestering racial problems: the criminalization of black bodies; the

militarization of law enforcement; mass incarceration; racial injusticein the judicial system; the chasms of inequality between black andwhite and rich and poor; racial disparities in virtually every measureof well-being, from employment and education to health care. Suchmoments could make movements, wrote the political scientistFrederick Harris in the Washington Post, and become “like the murderof 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 . . . transformative episodes thatremake perceptions and force a society to abandon abhorrentpractices.”11

On November 17, 2014, as these protests spread across thecountry, a former chair of SNCC stood in the rain on the grounds ofthe U.S. Capitol with a shovel. In an orchard of umbrellasRepresentative John Lewis helped plant an American sycamore inhonor of a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who was murderedalmost sixty years earlier. In his 1998 memoir, Lewis writes that whenhe was fifteen, “and at the edge of my own manhood just like him,”he had been “shaken to the core” by the lynching of Emmett Till.12

Among those wielding shovels with Lewis were both U.S. senatorsfrom Mississippi and Eric Holder, the first African American general.

“Even today, the pain from this unspeakable crime, thisunspeakable tragedy, still feels raw,” Holder declared, but the treewould become Emmett Till’s “living memorial, here at the heart of ourRepublic, in the shadow of the United States Capitol.” Till perishedsenselessly and far too soon, the attorney general said, but “it cannever be said that he died in vain. His tragic murder galvanizedmillions to action.”13 After Holder spoke, reporters asked him aboutthe relationship between Emmett Till and the contemporary racialconflagrations in Ferguson and elsewhere. “The struggle goes on,”replied Holder. “There is an enduring legacy that Emmett Till has leftus with that we still have to confront as a nation.”14

Decades after his death Emmett continues to be a nationalmetaphor for our racial nightmares. And difficult though it is to bear,his story can leave us reaching for our better angels and movingtoward higher ground. By suffering comes wisdom, the ancient Greekstell us, and Mamie Bradley’s decision to take history in her hands and

help build a movement distills that harder wisdom and leaves it in ourown. “The struggle of humanity against power,” writes MilanKundera, “is always the struggle of memory against forgetting.”15

•  •  •

America is still killing Emmett Till, and often for the same reasonsthat drove the violent segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s. Yes,many things have changed; the kind of violence that snatched Till’s lifestrikes only rarely. A white supremacist gunman slaughtering nineblack churchgoers in a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina,in 2014, however, reminds us that the ideology of white supremacyremains with us in its most brutal and overt forms. “You rape ourwomen and you’re taking over our country,” the murderer said as hefired round after round into his African American victims. He couldhave been quoting Judge Thomas Brady’s 1954 Black Monday or aReconstruction-era political pamphlet. White America’s heritage ofimagining blacks as fierce criminals, intent on political and sexualdomination, as threatening bodies to be monitored and controlled, hasnever disappeared. These delusions have played a compelling andbloody role for centuries. The historian Stephen Kantrowitz writesthat the murders in Charleston are “an expression and a consequenceof American history—a history that the nation has hardly reckonedwith, much less overcome.”16

Evidence that the past is still with us is abundant. Racial hatreddrove a group of suburban white teenagers to beat and murder JamesCraig Anderson, a black man selected at random in Jackson,Mississippi, on June 26, 2011. One teenager yelled “White power” ashe returned from the assault, and several of the others shouted racialepithets. Federal and state courts charged ten of the youths with themurder and with a series of similar attacks over a period of months.The judges sentenced one of them to two life terms and the others toterms ranging from eighteen and a half months to four years.17

Denying that such violence is common, the Hinds County districtattorney said in 2011, “I do think because of the political andeconomic structure and the re-engineering of society, it appears that

certain parts of the country and Mississippi feel their culture is underattack.”18

Certainly politics in the United States in the first two decades of thetwenty-first century reflect, as the nominal gains of the civil rightsmovement continue to make their claims on our society—mostnotably the election of America’s first African American president—that many white citizens feel that something has been and is beingtaken from them. Nearly forty years of stagnating wages and growinginequality have done nothing to ease their anxieties. Many, too, areafraid and seek to build walls rather than bridges between ourincreasingly divided nations, separate, unequal, and often hostile;immigration has rendered our predicaments increasingly complex—and, for many, more frightening. Most African American childrengrow up in a world far more impoverished, bleak, and confined thantheir white counterparts. Their families fall behind white families invirtually every measure of well-being: wealth and income levels,wages, unemployment rates, health and mortality figures, levels ofincarceration, and crime victimization rates. And their often lethallydivergent experiences with law enforcement only mirror what MayaAngelou calls “These Yet to Be United States.”19

America is still killing Emmett Till, but often by means less directthan bludgeons and bullets. The most successful killers of AfricanAmerican youth are poverty, resegregated and neglected publicschools, gang violence, and lack of economic opportunities. Violenceand exploitation against black women scar whole communities, andmothers still bear the burden of burying black sons. In many innercities the drug trade is the only enterprise that is hiring, while thenational unemployment rate for young black men is well over twicethat for other young men. The so-called war on drugs successfullytargets young African American men, even though blacks and whitesuse and sell illicit drugs at roughly the same rate. The enormousincarcerated and judicially supervised population of the United Stateshas become disproportionately a population of color. Writes Ta-NehisiCoates, “A society that protects some people through a system ofschools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can

only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed atenforcing its intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.”20

African American males experience the highest imprisonment rateof all demographic groups. In Washington, D.C., the country’s capital,roughly 75 percent of young black men can anticipate serving time inprison, and the percentage is still higher in the city’s poorestneighborhoods. The criminal justice system in some states imprisonsblack men on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times higher thanthose of white men. In major cities where the drug war rages, as manyas 80 percent of young black men have criminal records and thus canbe legally discriminated against in housing, employment, and oftenvoting for the rest of their lives. These statistics reflect the emergenceof a new racial caste system, born from the one that killed EmmettTill.21 “While the blame for the grisly mutilation of Till has beenplaced upon two cruel men,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1958,“the ultimate responsibility for [the Till lynching] and other tragicevents must rest with the American people themselves.”22

We are still killing black youth because we have not yet killed whitesupremacy. As a political program white supremacy avers that whitepeople have a right to rule. That is obviously morally unacceptable,and few of its devotees will speak its name. But that enfeebled faith isnot nearly so insidious and lethal as its robust, covert, and oftenunconscious cousin: the assumption that God has created humanity ina hierarchy of moral, cultural, and intellectual worth, with lighter-skinned people at the top and darker-skinned people at the bottom.Unfortunately this poisonous notion is as dangerous in the minds ofpeople of color as it is in the minds of whites. “The glorification ofone race and the consequent debasement of another—or others—always has been and always will be a recipe for murder,” writes JamesBaldwin.23 It also remains a recipe for toxic self-hatred.

The ancient lie remains lethal. It shoots first and dodges questionslater. White supremacy leaves almost half of all African Americanchildren growing up in poverty in a de-industrialized urban wasteland.It abandons the moral and practical truth embodied in Brown v.Board of Education and accepts school resegregation even though it ispoisonous to the poor. Internalized white supremacy in the minds of

black youth guns down other black youth, who learn from mediaimages of themselves that their lives are worth little enough to pourout in battles over street corners. White supremacy also trembles thehands of some law enforcement officers and vigilantes who seemunable to distinguish between genuine danger and centuries-oldphantoms.

To see beyond the ghosts, all of us must develop the moral visionand political will to crush white supremacy—both the politicalprogram and the concealed assumptions. We have to come to gripswith our own history—not only genocide, slavery, exploitation, andsystems of oppression, but also the legacies of those who resisted andfought back and still fight back. We must find what Dr. King called the“strength to love.” New social movements must confront head-on theracial chasm in American life. “Not everything that is faced can bechanged,” Baldwin instructs, “but nothing can be changed until it isfaced.”24

Our strivings will unfold in a fallen world, among imperfect peoplewho have inherited a deeply tragic history. There will be no guaranteeof success. But we have guiding spirits who still walk among us. Wehave the courtroom of historical memory, where Reverend MosesWright still stands and says, “There he is.” We have the boundlessmoral landscape where Mamie Bradley still shakes the earth with hercandor and courage. We have the bold voices of the Black LivesMatter movement, demanding justice now and reminding us toremember Emmett Till, to say his name. We have the enduringNAACP and the interracial “Moral Mondays” coalition spreading outof North Carolina, like the sit-ins once did, and dozens of othersimilar crusades across the country.25 We can still hear the marchingfeet of millions in the streets of America, all of them belonging to thechildren of Emmett Till.


In the dark mines of this story, I was grateful that I never workedalone. My first debts are to David Cecelski, William H. Chafe, SteveKantrowitz, and Craig Werner, unwavering friends and brillianteditors who lived with this book for years. Likewise, historians JohnDittmer, Danielle McGuire, Lane Windham, Curtis Austin,Christopher Metress, David Beito, and Jane Dailey all offered vitalcomments. The brilliant Evan Lewis gave me priceless help andfriendship, as did her parents, Ken Lewis and Holly Ewell-Lewis.

Other scholars and writers—Dan Carter, Will Jones, Kevin Kruse,Charles McKinney, Jerry Mitchell, Adriane Lentz-Smith, and JasonMorgan Ward—all offered crucial aid.

My research assistant, Melody Ivins, helped dredge up and digestmuch of this story and offered years of constant encouragement. Sheand Wilmarie Cintron-Muniz, Michael Grathwohl, Sam Tyson, andVernon Tyson helped ransack the Mississippi archives, as did SimonBalto and Amanda Klonsky in the Chicago Public Library.

I am thankful to my colleagues at the Center for DocumentaryStudies at Duke University. Wesley Hogan sat with me by the cornfieldand shared her brilliant insights. Tom Rankin taught me how to cooka pig and escorted me to the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and MeatMarket. Mike Wiley’s Dar He, a dramatic rendition of the EmmettTill story, fired my imagination, particularly when I watched himperform it at a refurbished tractor dealership not far from whereEmmett Till died. Mary D. Williams inspired, comforted, and carriedme in our public work and personal friendship. Jennifer Dixon-McKnight, Theo Luebke, Will Griffin, and Sarah Rogers kept ourclasses on track so that I could remain preoccupied with Emmett Till.

Other friends also kept me in my right mind. I am grateful to Rev.Dr. William J. Barber, II; Herman Bennett; Nick Biddle; Sam Bridges;Vera Cecelski; Lorna Chafe; Katherine Charron; Louise and SteveCoggins; Jim Conway; Mary Ellen Curtin; Suzanne Desan; KirstenFischer; Barbara Forrest; Christina Greene; Laura Hanson; PernilleIpsen; Rhonda Lee; Eddie McCoy; Lettie McCoy; Al McSurely;Jennifer Morgan; Leslee Nelson; Drew Ross; Rob Stephens; DougTanner; and Gayle Weitz.

My parents, Vernon and Martha Tyson, have been my bright andmorning stars, as have sisters Boo, Julie, and Lori. The Morgans ofCorapeake have inspired, comforted, and endured me for decades.Special thanks to Susan Evans for the author photograph. My brother,Vern Tyson, sets a fine example of how to embrace life even when itcuts you, and to him this book is dedicated with love.

I am grateful to the folks at Simon & Schuster, including my fineeditor, Priscilla Painter, and also Sophia Jimenez, Megan Hogan, andAmanda Lang as well as copyeditors Navorn Johnson and JudithHoover. Thomas LeBien gave matchless guidance and friendship atevery stage. I wish I could write a hundred more books for mybrilliant agent, Charlotte Sheedy, who has been a steadfast warriorand a stalwart friend.

My family is the heart of whatever I accomplish. My daughter,Hope, shines in my heart and in the world, becoming more compellingand clear-eyed with every passing year. And I can only admire my son,Sam, for the way he carries himself and others, building friendships,furniture, songs, and communities with equal facility. I love them bothdearly. Their mother, Perri Morgan, is the pearl beyond price. Her loveis not just something she feels but something she does, and I ambeyond lucky to enjoy it. I am grateful to her for helping to give methis wonderful life, precious and all too short, which I hope to enjoyat her side for many more years.



TIMOTHY B. TYSON is Senior Research Scholar at the Center for

Documentary Studies at Duke University and Visiting Professor ofAmerican Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School.He also holds a position in the American Studies Department at theUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He taught in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1994 until 2004. His book Blood Done Sign My Namewas a finalist for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award andwon the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, the Grawemeyer Awardfrom Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and theChristopher Award. It became a feature film in 2010. His 1999 RadioFree Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power won theJames A. Rawley Prize and the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize fromthe Organization of American Historians. Tyson is the coeditor withDavid Cecelski of Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of1898 and Its Legacy, which won the 1999 Outstanding Book Award

from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and HumanRights. He is a North Carolina native, a graduate of Emory University,and received his PhD from Duke University in 1994. He serves on theexecutive board of the North Carolina NAACP and the advisoryboard of the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights.






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1 : N O T H I N G T H AT B O Y D I D

1  Carolyn Bryant Donham, interview by the author, Raleigh, NC, September 8, 2008;accompanying handwritten notes by the author, Timothy B. Tyson Papers, SouthernHistorical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, closed until 2038 byher request (hereafter Bryant, interview). Unless otherwise specified, all Carolyn Bryantquotations are from this interview.

2 Quoted in “L’affaire Till in the French Press,” Crisis, December 1955, 601.3 Interview with William Bradford Huie, by Blackside, Inc., August 1979, for Eyes on the

Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954–1975), Washington University Libraries, Filmand Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, accessed March 31, 2016,;cc=eop;rgn=main;view=text;idno=hui0015.1034.050 (hereafter Huie interview).

4 Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name (New York: Crown, 2004).5  William Bradford Huie, “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” Look,

January 24, 1956; Bob Ward, “William Bradford Huie Paid for Their Sins,” Writer’sDigest, September 1974, 16–22.

6 Devery S. Anderson, Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled theCivil Rights Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015), 324–25.

7  Carolyn Bryant testimony, State of Mississippi vs. J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, In theCircuit Court Second District of Tallahatchie County, Seventeenth Judicial District, Stateof Mississippi, September Term, 1955, transcript (hereafter trial transcript), 268–72.

8 “Still Heaping Criticism on Mississippi,” Greenwood Morning Star, November 6, 1955.9 Carolyn Bryant testimony, trial transcript, 272–74.

10  Dan Wakefield, “Justice in Sumner,” Nation, October 1, 1955, in Christopher Metress,ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (Charlottesville: Universityof Virginia Press, 2002), 120–24.

11  U.S. State Department, Treatment of Minorities in the United States: Impact on OurForeign Relations, Part A: A Summary Review, RG 59 811.411/4-1956, box 4158,National Archives.

12 See, for example, Clenora Hudson-Weems, Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the CivilRights Movement (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006). See also Anderson, EmmettTill.

13 Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the HateCrime That Changed America (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2004).

14 Carolyn Bryant Donham with Marsha Bryant, “More than a Wolf Whistle: The Story ofCarolyn Bryant Donham,” unpublished memoir, Timothy B. Tyson Papers, Southern

Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, closed until 2038 byher request (hereafter Bryant, “Wolf Whistle”).

15  Attorneys’ notes of interview with Carolyn Bryant, August 30, 1955. Thanks to JerryMitchell at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger for sharing this document.

2 : B O O T S O N T H E P O R C H

1 Although many sources refer to Reverend Wright as “Mose,” Wright’s son Simeon revealsthat his proper name was Moses and that “Mose” was a nickname. Therefore I have used“Moses” throughout except in quotations. Simeon Wright with Herb Boyd, Simeon’sStory: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till (Chicago: Lawrence HillBooks, 2010), dedication, 15.

2 Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1955; Wright, Simeon’s Story, 32.3  Robert Denley, “Kinsman Recalls Tragic Night on Eve of Trial,” Chicago Defender,

September 24, 1955; Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 46; Wright, Simeon’s Story,25–36, 55.

4  “Kin Tell How Murdered Boy Was Abducted,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 3,1955. For Elizabeth Wright’s intention to wake Emmett and slip him out the back door,see also “Newspapers Over State Blast Murder of Negro,” Jackson Daily News,September 3, 1955.

5 Wright, Simeon’s Story, 55–60.6 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 39.7 Wright, Simeon’s Story, 55, 57.8  Denley, “Kinsman Recalls Tragic Night on the Eve of Trial.” Moses Wright testified in

court that Emmett was in the bed with Simeon. Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript,32–33.

9 Wright, Simeon’s Story, 37–39, 56.10 Paul Holmes, “Uncle Tells How Kidnapers Invaded Home and Seized Till,” Chicago Daily

Tribune, September 19, 1955.11 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 12; Denley, “Kinsman Recalls Tragic Night on

Eve of Trial.”12 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 36; Denley, “Kinsman Recalls Tragic Night on

Eve of Trial.”13 Federal Bureau of Investigation Prosecutive Report Concerning __________, 87 (hereafter

FBI Report),, accessed June 21, 2016. Crosby Smith reported that Milam and Bryant were “plentydrunk.” See David A. Shoshtak, “Crosby Smith: Forgotten Witness to a MississippiNightmare,” Negro History Bulletin, December 1974, 322.

14 Holmes, “Uncle Tells How Kidnapers Invaded Home and Seized Till.”15 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 38. See also FBI Report, 53.16 Anderson, Emmett Till, 370, conjectures that the group that kidnapped Till comprised of

J. W. Milam, Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant, and Henry Lee Loggins. It is impossible to saywith certainty.

17 Amos Dixon, “Milam Master-Minded Emmett Till Killing,” California Eagle, February 2,1956; Denley, “Kinsman Recalls Tragic Night on Eve of Trial.”

18  Quoted in Stanley Nelson, producer and director, The Murder of Emmett Till, 2003,American Experience, PBS, transcript, accessed April 1, 2016,

19 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 34–35.20 “Events Night of Kidnaping Told by Slain Boy’s Cousin,” Jackson Daily News, September

1, 1955.21  “Kin Tell How Murdered Boy Was Abducted,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 3,

1955.22  Lea Thomas, “The Day That Emmett Died,” Jackson Free Press, November 30, 2005;

Anderson, Emmett Till, 36–37. See also “Newspapers over State Blast Murder of Negro.”23 “Slain Boy’s Kinfolk Tell of Begging White Men to Let Him Off with Whipping,” Jackson

Daily News, September 3, 1955; Dixon, “Milam Master-Minded Emmett Till Killing.”24 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 19.25 Denley, “Kinsman Recalls Tragic Night on Eve of Trial.” Reverend Wright acknowledged

in court that he could not see whether the vehicle was a car or a pickup truck. See JamesFeatherston, “Slain Boy’s Uncle Points Finger at Bryant, Milam, But Admits Light WasDim,” Jackson Daily News, September 21, 1955. Stephen Whitfield claims that Wright“saw a fourth person [in the car], a woman (presumably Carolyn Bryant).” But Wrightmade no such claim in court or elsewhere, explaining that he could not see the people inthe vehicle. Whitfield cites “ ‘Murder,’ White Says, Promises Prosecution,” ChicagoDefender, September 10, 1955, but the article contains no such claim. See Stephen J.Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (Baltimore: Johns HopkinsUniversity Press, 1988), 55, 160n13. For the vehicle pulling away without headlights andWright unable to see it, see Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 46–48.

3 : G R O W I N G U P B L A C K I N C H I C A G O

1 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 98–99. It is not clear whether Wright wasstill an active minister at the church in East Money. He may or may not have retired butstill attended, and it stands to reason that he would preach at least occasionally.

2  Olive Arnold Adams, “Time Bomb: Mississippi Exposed and the Full Story of EmmettTill,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 213–24.

3 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 98–100. Throughout the book, I call theboy “Emmett” in order to paint him as a sympathetic human being, someone with whomwe become fairly intimate in the course of things, and someone who has typically beenportrayed as an icon rather than a person. I do the same with his mother and also withCarolyn Bryant, and for the same reasons. No disrespect is intended.

4 Carl Hirsch, “This Was Emmett Louis Till,” Daily Worker, October 9, 1955.5  Chicago Demographics in 1950 map,

q=chicago_demographics_in_1950_map.jpg&qpvt=Chicago_Demographics_in_1950_map.jpg&qpvt=Chicago_Demographics_in_1950_map.jpg&qpvt=Chicago_Demographics_in_1950_map.jpg&FORM=IGRE, accessed June 21, 2016.

6 Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, American Pharaoh: Richard J. Daley: His Battle forChicago and the Nation (New York: Little, Brown, 2000), 16–18, 29.

7 Hirsch, “This Was Emmett Louis Till.”8 Rick Swaine, The Integration of Major League Baseball, reprint edition (Jefferson, NC:

McFarland, 2012), 34–43.

9 “Untold Story,” Chicago Daily Defender, March 5, 1956; Till-Mobley and Benson, Deathof Innocence, 71–72.

10  Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s GreatMigration (New York: Random House, 2010), 9, 268, 352. The definitive work for blackSouthern migration to Chicago is James Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, BlackSoutherners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

11 Beryl Satter, Family Properties: How the Struggle over Race and Real Estate TransformedChicago and Urban America (New York: Picador, 2010), 39; Grossman, Land of Hope,174.

12 William Tuttle, Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (New York: Atheneum,1970), 3–10.

13 Davarian Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and BlackUrban Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 7.

14  Adriane Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

15 W. E. B. Du Bois, “Returning Soldiers,” Crisis 18 (May 1919): 13.16 Tuttle, Race Riot, 212.17  For Marcus Garvey, see Edmund David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus

Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Madison: University ofWisconsin Press, 1955); Tony Martin, Race First: The Ideological and OrganizationalStruggle of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Dover,MA: Majority Press, 1976); Judith Stein, The World of Marcus Garvey (Baton Rouge:Louisiana State University Press, 1986); Mary G. Rollinson, Grassroots Garveyism: TheUniversal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920–1927 (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 2007). See also Robert A. Hill, ed., The MarcusGarvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, 11 vols. (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1983–2006; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

18 Tuttle, Race Riot, 222–26.19 Grossman, Land of Hope, 74–77.20 Faith Holsaert et al., eds., Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in

SNCC (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 63.21  Gilbert R. Mason and James Patterson Smith, Beaches, Blood, and Ballots: A Black

Doctor’s Civil Rights Struggle (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 19.22 Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, 275.23 Craig Werner, Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the

Rise and Fall of American Soul (New York: Crown, 2004), 33.24 Satter, Family Properties, 40–47; Werner, Higher Ground, 33.25  Adam Green, Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940–1955

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 183.26 Werner, Higher Ground, 31.27  For a fuller examination of the Trumbull Park Homes fiasco, see Chicago, Mayor’s

Commission on Human Relations, The Trumbull Park Homes Disturbances: AChronological Report, August 4, 1953 to June 30, 1955, 1955; Howard Mayhew, RacialTerror at Trumbull Park (New York: Pioneer Press, 1954). Frank London Brown,Trumbull Park (1959; Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2005), is a novelthat conveys a sense of the experience of the black families.

28 Green, Selling the Race, 185–91; Cohen and Taylor, American Pharaoh, 1014.29 Cohen and Taylor, American Pharaoh, 102–3, 175.

30 Green, Selling the Race, 181.31 Cohen and Taylor, American Pharaoh, 58, 92–96, 128–29.32 Green, Selling the Race, 181; Cohen and Taylor, American Pharaoh, 95; Werner, Higher

Ground, 32.33 Werner, Higher Ground, 32; Cohen and Taylor, American Pharaoh, 96.34  Cohen and Taylor, American Pharaoh, 7–12, 16, 21, 33, 45, 57–58, 125–26, 134–35,


4 : E M M E T T I N C H I C A G O A N D “ L I T T L E M I S S I S S I P P I ”

1 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 18–19, 22.2 Ibid., 19. Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow

(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 252, reports that large numbers of lynchingsin Mississippi went unreported in any newspaper.

3 McMillen, Dark Journey, 229–30. See also Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt against Chivalry:Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign against Lynching (New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1993), 134–35.

4 Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945; New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 172.5 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 19.6 Ibid., 3.7 Gerald V. Stokes, A White Hat in Argo: Family Secrets (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2004),

91–92.8 Ibid., 86–87.9 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 23.

10  Ibid., 21; E. Franklin Frazier, “The Negro Family in Chicago,” PhD diss., University ofChicago, 1932.

11 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 18, 21.12 Stokes, A White Hat in Argo, 98.13  “Mamie Bradley’s Untold Story,” Chicago Daily Defender, February 29, 1956; Till-

Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 3–5, 11.14 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 11–12.15 “Mamie Bradley’s Untold Story”; Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 3–4, 13,

16–17.16  “Mamie Bradley’s Untold Story”; Anderson, Emmett Till, 11–12; Till-Mobley and

Benson, Death of Innocence, 3–4, 13, 16–17.17 “Mamie Bradley’s Untold Story.”18 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 27.19 Ibid., 38.20 “Mamie Bradley’s Untold Story”; Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 37–39.21 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 39.22 Ibid., 30–31, 36.23 Ibid., 46, 49–53.24 Ibid., 56.25 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 56–57.26 Ibid., 40.27 Wright, Simeon’s Story, 47.28 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 81.

29  Albert Amateau, “Chelsea Woman Led Battle to End Beach Segregation in 1960,”Villager, August 11–17, 2011. See especially Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto:Race and Public Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1998), 63, 65.

30 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 82.31 Whitfield, A Death in the Delta, 15.32 Werner, Higher Ground, 68–69.33 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 83.34 John Barrow, “Here’s a Picture of Emmett Till by Those Who Knew Him,” Memphis Tri-

State Defender, September 24, 1955.35 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 78.36 “Mamie Bradley’s Untold Story,” Chicago Daily Defender, March 5, 1956.37 Barrow, “Here’s a Picture of Emmett Till by Those Who Knew Him.”38 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 63–64, 94; Moses Wright testimony, trial

transcript, 48.39 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 103–4; Adams, “Time Bomb,” in Metress,

ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 213–24. The quote from Moses Wright is from SamJohnson, “State Will Not Ask Death Penalty in Trial of White Men at Sumner,”Greenwood Commonwealth, September 19, 1955.

5 : P I S T O L – W H I P P I N G AT C H R I S T M A S

1 Bryant Donham, “Wolf Whistle,” 9–10.2 Ibid., 9.3  See Jack Temple Kirby, “The Southern Exodus, 1910–1960: A Primer for Historians,”

Journal of Southern History 49.4 (1983): 585–600. For the Great Migration, see, amongothers, Wilkins, The Warmth of Other Suns; Grossman, Land of Hope.

4 David M. Oshinsky, “Worse than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim CrowJustice (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 139.

5 Ibid., 149–50, 161. For Camp A specifically, see Paul Oliver, Conversations with the Blues(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 58.

6 Oshinsky, “Worse than Slavery,” 151, 153.7 Bryant, “Wolf Whistle,” 13.8 Ibid., 16–17.9 Ibid., 17.

10 Anderson, Emmett Till, 24.11 Bryant, “Wolf Whistle,” 21–22.12  James Henry Hammond was the first to expound this theory. See Drew Gilpin Faust,

James Henry Hammond and the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UniversityPress, 1982), 346–47.

13 Bryant, interview.14  “ ‘Were Never into Meanness,’ Says Accused Men’s Mother,” Memphis Commercial

Appeal, September 2, 1955, quoted in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 34–35.15 FBI Report, 22–23.16 Bryant, “Wolf Whistle,” 17–19, 20, 22.17 Ibid., 27.18 Adams, “Time Bomb,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 213–24.

19 FBI Report, 32.20 Adams, “Time Bomb,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 213–24.21 Bryant, interview.22  William Bradford Huie, “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” Look,

January 24, 1956. See also FBI Report, 25–26; “Milam Is Pictured as a War Hero WhoAlso Snatched Negro from Drowning,” Jackson Daily News, September 20, 1955.

23 FBI Report, 25–26.24 “Milam Is Pictured as a War Hero Who Also Snatched Negro from Drowning.”25 “Mother of Pair Accused in Delta Slaying ‘Will Stand by Them,’ ” Jackson Daily News,

September 2, 1955; Huie quoted in Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 108–9.26 FBI Report, 108.27 Quoted in Ronald Turner, “Remembering Emmett Till,” Howard Law Journal 38 (1994–

95): 422.28 Bryant, interview.29 Ibid.; FBI Report, 13, 25–26.30 Huie, “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.”

6 : T H E I N C I D E N T

1  Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 58–59; Anderson, Emmett Till, 27; “MotherWaits in Vain for Her ‘Bo,’ ” Chicago Defender, September 10, 1955, in Metress, ed., TheLynching of Emmett Till, 30–31; Herb Boyd, “The Real Deal on Emmett Till,” BlackWorld Today, May 18, 2004, accessed April 5, 2016, For information on each of these youngpeople, see Devery Anderson’s website,, under “Who’s Whoin the Emmett Till Story.”

2 Bryant, “Wolf Whistle,” 31.3 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 102.4 “Kidnapped Boy Whistled at Woman,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 30, 1955.5 Wright, Simeon’s Story, 50.6 “Mrs. Roy Bryant, 9-2-55,” lawyer’s notes, copy in possession of the author. My thanks

to reporter Jerry Mitchell for sharing these papers.7  “Bryant and Milam Face Murder Charge in the Slaying of 15 Year Old Negro Boy,”

Greenwood Morning Star, September 1, 1955. This “goodbye” seems to be a point ofconsiderable agreement on both sides. Maurice Wright, too, reported that on his way outof the store Emmett turned and told Carolyn “Goodbye.” See “Events Night ofKidnapping Told by Slain Boy’s Cousin,” Jackson Daily News, September 1, 1955.

8 Clark Porteous, “Grand Jury to Get Case of Slain Negro Boy Monday,” Memphis Press-Scimitar, September 1, 1955.

9 “Nation Shocked, Vow Action in Lynching of Chicago Youth,” Baltimore Afro-American,September 10, 1955.

10 Keith Beauchamp, “The Murder of Emmett Louis Till: The Spark That Started the CivilRights Movement,” n.d.,…-a0131248351.

11 Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (NewYork: Random House, 2002), 423. I take the phrase from W. E. B. Du Bois’s introduction

to the 1953 Jubilee edition of The Souls of Black Folk, but it was coined by WalterBagehot in his 1872 Physics and Politics and was common enough in contemporaryscholarly parlance for Du Bois to employ without attribution.

12 Thomas, “The Day That Emmett Till Died.”13 Wright, Simeon’s Story, 51.14  Mattie S. Colon and Robert Elliott, “Mother Waits in Vain for Her ‘Bo,’ ” Memphis

Times-Scimitar, September 10, 1955.15 Boyd, “The Real Deal on Emmett Till.”16 Wright, Simeon’s Story, 51.17 Ibid., 52–53. Wheeler Parker also reported back in September 1955, “A girl told us we

hadn’t heard the last of it.” See Barrow, “Here’s a Picture of Emmett Till by Those WhoKnew Him.”

7 : O N T H E T H I R D D AY

1  “Uncle Tells How 3 Kidnapers Invaded Home and Seized Till,” part 1, Chicago DailyTribune, September 19, 1955. See also Dixon, “Milam Master-Minded Emmett TillKilling.”

2 “Urges Husband to Leave Dixie,” Chicago Defender, September 17, 1955.3 Shoshtak, “Crosby Smith,” 320–25; Bryant, “Wolf Whistle,” 44.4 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 116–18.5 Rayfield Mooty, Elizabeth Balanoff Labor Oral History Collection, Roosevelt University,

transcript, 1984, 140–41, accessed April 1, 2016, (hereafter Mooty,interview).

6  “Bryant and Milam Face Murder Charge in Slaying of 15 Year Old Negro Boy,”Greenwood Morning Star, September 1, 1955; Greenwood Commonwealth, August 30,1955.

7 Shoshtak, “Crosby Smith,” 320–25.8 Dixon, “Till Case: Torture and Murder,” California Eagle, February 16, 1956.9 Bryant, “Wolf Whistle,” 46–47.

10  George Smith testimony, trial transcript, 119–20. Sheriff Smith also confirmed that theissue was alleged “ugly remarks” (“White Storekeeper Held in Abduction of NegroYouth,” Jackson Daily News, August 29, 1955). See also “ ‘Kidnaped’ Negro Boy StillMissing, Fear Foul Play,” Jackson Daily News, August 30, 1955.

11 Anderson, Emmett Till, 42–43.12 Robert Hodges testimony, trial transcript, 103–4. For a description of Hodges, see John

Herbers, “Contradictions Develop as Testimony in Till Trial Begins,” Greenwood MorningStar, September 22, 1955.

13 FBI Report, 80; Bryant, interview.14  “No Clues in Disappearance of Negro Youth,” Greenwood Morning Star, August 31,

1955.15  Darryl Christopher Mace, “Regional Identities and Racial Messages: The Print Media’s

Stories of Emmett Till,” PhD diss., Temple University, 2007, 120.16 “Boy’s Slaying Held Murder by Gov. White,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 2, 1955.17 “Search Halted for Woman in Negro Slaying,” Birmingham News, September 3, 1955.18 Bryant, “Wolf Whistle,” 47.

19  “Bryant’s Brother Claims Charges Are All ‘Politics,’ ” Memphis Commercial Appeal,September 3, 1955.

20  “Mississippi Sheriff Voices Doubt Body That of Till,” Greenwood Morning Star,September 4, 1955.

21 Nelson, The Murder of Emmett Till.22 B. L. Mims testimony, trial transcript, 113–18; Robert Hodges testimony, trial transcript,

103–12.23  James Featherston, “White Orders Investigation in Slaying of Delta Negro: White

Deplores Slaying in a Note to NAACP Which Is Creating a National Issue,” Jackson DailyNews, September 1, 1955. See also Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1955; MemphisCommercial Appeal, September 1, 1955.

24 Greenwood Commonwealth, August 31, 1955; Chester Miller testimony, trial transcript,67–82.

25 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 51–52; Chester Miller testimony, trial transcript,70–71, 73–74, 97–99. For Wright’s identification of the body, see also Arkansas Gazette,September 4, 1955.

26 Chester Miller testimony, trial transcript, 70–71, 73–74, 97–99.27  “Muddy River Gives Up Body of Brutally Slain Negro Boy,” Memphis Commercial

Appeal, September 1, 1955.28 New York Post, September 1, 1955; Featherston, “White Orders Investigation in Slaying

of Delta Negro.”29 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 130.30  Joe Atkins, “Chicago Youth Was ‘Sacrificial Lamb,’ ” Jackson Daily News, August 25,

1985, clipping, box 90, folder 18, Emmett Till folder (1955–1985), Erle Johnston Papers,University of Southern Mississippi.

31  Suzanne E. Smith, To Serve the Living (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of HarvardUniversity Press, 2010), 126; Whitaker, “A Case Study in Southern Justice,” 118–19; C.M. Nelson testimony, trial transcript, 182.

32 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, xxii.33 Pittsburgh Courier quoted in Mace, “Regional Identities and Racial Messages,” 169.34 Charles Frederick Weller to Anne Braden, January 31, 1956, box 26, folder 6, Carl and

Anne Braden Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.

8 : M A M A M A D E T H E E A R T H T R E M B L E

1 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 130–31.2 Mattie Smith Colin, “Mother’s Tears Greet Son Who Died a Martyr,” Chicago Defender,

September 10, 1955.3  Mace, “Regional Identities and Racial Messages,” 219, quotes the coverage in the

Chicago Sun-Times.4 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 132. See also Smith, To Serve the Living,

127. For a good sense of the gender dynamics of her public performances, see RuthFeldstein, “ ‘I Wanted the Whole World to See’: Race, Gender and Constructions ofMotherhood in the Death of Emmett Till,” in Joanne Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver:Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 (Philadelphia: Temple UniversityPress, 1993), 263–303.

5 Mooty, interview.

6 Colin, “Mother’s Tears Greet Son Who Died a Martyr.”7  Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the

Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 13–14. Seealso Langston Hughes, “Langston Hughes Wonders Why No Lynching Probes,” ChicagoDefender, October 1, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 124–27; “2Negro Boys Lynched,” New York Times, October 13, 1942. For a full and brilliantaccount of this lynching that lets it speak to a century of racial violence in the UnitedStates, see Jason Ward, Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil RightsCentury (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

8 Aaron Henry interview by John Dittmer and John Jones, April 22, 1981, transcript, 7–8,Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Erle Johnston, Mississippi’s DefiantYears, 1953–1973: An Interpretive History with Personal Experiences (Forest, MS: LakeHarbor, 1990), 35.

9 Pittsburgh Courier, September 17, 1955, 4.10 Mooty, interview.11 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 131–32.12 Wil Haygood, “The Man from Jet: Simeon Booker Not Only Covered a Tumultuous Era,

He Lived It,” Washington Post, July 15, 2007.13 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 133.14 Ibid., 132–37. For Gene Mobley Jr. identification of Till by his haircut, see also Chicago

Tribune, September 4, 1955, 2.15  Chicago Sun-Times quoted in Mace, “Regional Identities and Racial Messages,” 220;

Mooty, interview.16 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 139–40.17  Whitfield, A Death in the Delta, 23, estimates turnout that first night at “perhaps ten

thousand.” Chicago Defender, September 10, 1955; Smith, To Serve the Living, 127–28,also estimates crowds of fifty thousand.

18  Michael Vinson Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (Fayetteville: University ofArkansas Press, 2011), 126.

19 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 139.20 Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1955.21 Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, 369–70.22 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 141, 144.23  David Smothers, “Killing of Boy in Mississippi called ‘Atrocity,’ ” Jackson Daily News,

September 3, 1955.24 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 143.25 Chicago Tribune, September 7, 1955.26 Chicago Tribune, September 7, 1955; Chicago Defender, September 17, 1955.27 “Milam and Bryant to Be Tried Sept. 19,” Greenwood Morning Star, September 10, 1955.28 Jet, September 15, 1955, 6–9; Chicago Defender, September 17, 1955.29 Green, Selling the Race, 198.30 Julian Bond, “The Media and the Movement: Looking Back from the Southern Front,” in

Brian Ward, ed., Media, Culture and the Modern African American Freedom Struggle(Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), 27.

31  Ann Marie Tabb, “Perspectives in Journalism: Covering the Emmett Till Trial,” MAthesis, University of Southern Mississippi, 2001, 20.

32 Green, Selling the Race, 180–82, 208.

9 : W A R R I N G R E G I M E N T S O F M I S S I S S I P P I

1  Tom P. Brady, Black Monday: Segregation or Amalgamation. America Has Its Choice(Winona, MS: Association of Citizens’ Councils, 1954), 63–64. See also Hodding CarterIII, The South Strikes Back (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), 29.

2 J. W. Milam, quoted in Huie, “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” 50.3  See Douglas R. Edgerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of

America’s Most Progressive Era (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014); LeRae Sikes Umfleet, ADay of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (Raleigh: North Carolina Office ofArchives and History, 2009); David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson, DemocracyBetrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot and Its Legacy (Chapel Hill: University of NorthCarolina Press, 1998); H. Leon Prather, We Have Taken a City: Wilmington Coup andMassacre of 1898 (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984); Helen G.Edmonds, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894–1901 (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 1951); David Fort Godshalk, Veiled Visions: The1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Roberta Senechal, The Sociogenesis of a RaceRiot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); ElliottRudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,1982); Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, American Congo: The African American FreedomStruggle in the Delta (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 74–109; ScottEllsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (1982; Baton Rouge:Louisiana State University Press, 1992).

4  William Bradford Huie, “Wolf Whistle,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till,241.

5  Jason Morgan Ward, Defending White Democracy: The Making of a SegregationistMovement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936–1965 (Chapel Hill: University ofNorth Carolina Press, 2011), 6–7.

6 Woodruff, American Congo, 213–14, 222.7 Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices (1941; New York: Basic Books, 2011), 11.8  Kari Frederickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968

(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 2–3, 237–38.9 Ward, Defending White Democracy, 102, 105.

10 Woodruff, American Congo, 224.11 National Association of Post Office and General Services Employees to Amzie Moore, July

17, 1953, box 1, folder 2, Amzie Moore Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society; AmzieMoore interview with Michael Garvey, March 29 and April 13, 1977, University ofSouthern Mississippi Oral History, (hereafterMoore interview with Garvey). For Moore’s appearance, see photograph in HenryHampton et al., eds., Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movementfrom the 1950s through the 1980s (New York: Bantam, 1990), 139.

12 Interview with Amzie Moore, by Blackside, Inc., 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America’sCivil Rights Years (1954–1975), Washington University Film and Media Archive, HenryHampton Collection, accessed April 1, 2016,;cc=eop;rgn=main;view=text;idno=moo0015.0109.072 (hereafter Moore, Eyes onthe Prize interview).

13 Moore interview with Garvey.

14 Malcolm Boyd, “Survival of a Negro Leader,” February 27, 1965, box 1, folder 1, AmzieMoore Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society. See also James Forman, The Making of BlackRevolutionaries (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 278.

15 Moore interview with Garvey.16 Ibid.17  Charles McLaurin, interview by the author, 2012, Timothy B. Tyson Papers, Southern

Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.18 Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 278–79.19  Matthew Skidmore to Amzie Moore, July 10, 1955, b. 4 f. 2, Amzie Moore Papers,

Wisconsin Historical Society.20  Matthew Skidmore to Amzie Moore, July 16, 1955, b. 1 f. 2, Amzie Moore Papers,

Wisconsin Historical Society.21 Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 278–79.22 Amzie Moore interview, in Howell Raines, ed., My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the

Deep South Remembered (New York: Penguin, 1977), 233.23 Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 279.24 Moore interview with Garvey.25 Amzie Moore certificate of Honorable Discharge from the U.S. Army, January 17, 1946,

Camp Shelby, Mississippi, b. 1 f. 1, Amzie Moore Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.26 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 30.27 Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 279. Moore estimated that at least one

returning black serviceman was killed each week for six to eight weeks. Charles Paynesensibly concludes that the figure is probably exaggerated, though life on desolateplantations, isolated and harsh, was cheap, and news of a number of killings may not havegotten out (Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 448n6).

28 Moore interview with Garvey.29 Moore, Eyes on the Prize interview.30  John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana:

University of Illinois Press, 1994), 9.31 Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable, eds., The Autobiography of Medgar Evers

(New York: Basic Books, 2005), 12.32 Williams, Medgar Evers, 38, 40–41; Charles Evers and Andrew Szanton, Have No Fear: A

Black Man’s Fight for Respect in America (New York: Wiley, 1997), 64.33 Williams, Medgar Evers, 31, 44–51; Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 49–50; Evers

and Szanton, Have No Fear, 57–58. See also “Mound Bayou Man Files Application at ‘U’Law School,” Jackson Daily News, January 22, 1954.

34  Evers-Williams and Marable, The Autobiography of Medgar Evers, 7–9; Evers andSzanton, Have No Fear, 67.

35 This portrait of Howard is drawn from an excellent biography by David Beito and LindaRoyster Beito, Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and EconomicPower (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Dittmer, Local People, 32; Evers andSzanton, Have No Fear, 65–66; Williams, Medgar Evers, 56–57. For the weapons, seeBeito and Beito, Black Maverick, xiii.

36  Jay Driskell, “Amzie Moore: The Biographical Roots of the Civil Rights Movement inMississippi,” in Susan Glisson, ed., The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 137.

37 “Dear Leader,” Bolivar County Invitational Committee of the Proposed Delta Council ofNegro Leadership, December 10, 1951, b. 7 f. 2, Amzie Moore Papers, Wisconsin

Historical Society. Moore himself recalled that the first meeting took place at the H. M.Nailer School in Cleveland in 1950, but the printed invitations indicate that it was at theCleveland Colored High School in 1951. See Forman, The Making of BlackRevolutionaries, 279; Aaron Henry interview by John Dittmer and John Jones, April 22,1981, transcript, 18–19, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

38 Moore interview with Garvey.39 “The Accomplishments and Objectives of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership of

Mississippi,” box 7, folder 2, Amzie Moore Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society. See also“The New Fighting South: Militant Negroes Refuse to Leave Dixie or Be Silenced,” Jet,August 1955, 69–74.

40 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 31–32; Driskell, “Amzie Moore,” 137–40; “TheAccomplishments and Objectives of the Regional Council on Negro Leadership ofMississippi.”

41 Moore interview with Garvey; Boyd, “Survival of a Negro Leader.”42  Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 80; “The Accomplishments and Objectives of the

Regional Council on Negro Leadership of Mississippi”; “No Rest Room, No Gas,”Regional Council on Negro Leadership press release, n.d., box A466, Group 2, NAACPPapers, Library of Congress. See also Driskell, “Amzie Moore,” 139–40.

43 Evers and Szanton, Have No Fear, 73.44  Myrlie Evers with William Peters, For Us, the Living (Garden City, NY: Doubleday,

1967), 87–88.45 “The Accomplishments and Objectives of the Regional Council on Negro Leadership of

Mississippi”; “No Rest Room, No Gas”; Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 81.46 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 79.47  “Program of the Third Annual Meeting of the Mississippi Regional Council of Negro

Leadership,” May 7, 1954, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, box 7, folder 2, Amzie MoorePapers, Wisconsin Historical Society; Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 88.

48 “The New Fighting South,” 69. See also Akinyele Omowale Umoja, We Will Shoot Back:Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (New York: New York UniversityPress, 2013), 32.

49 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 82, 89.50 Ward, Defending White Democracy, 65, 90, 102, 123–24.

1 0 : B L A C K M O N D AY

1  Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the ConservativeCounterrevolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 19.

2  Tom Ethridge, “Racial Crisis Spurs Sale of Book, ‘Black Monday,’ ” Clarion-Ledger,August 7, 1955.

3  Neil R. McMillen, The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the SecondReconstruction, 1954–64 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 17–18.

4  Tom P. Brady, Black Monday, excerpted in Clayborne Carson et al., eds., Eyes on thePrize Reader (New York: Penguin, 1991), 86–89.

5 Florence Mars, Witness in Philadelphia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,1977), 53.

6 McMillen, Citizens’ Council, 17–18.7 Mars, Witness in Philadelphia, 53.

8 McMillen, Citizens’ Council, 17.9  Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Mind That Burns in Each Body,” Southern Exposure,

November/December 1984, 64; Hall, Revolt against Chivalry, 155.10 Brady, Black Monday, 12.11 Ibid., 10–11 and 10–13.12 Ibid.13 Ibid.14 Wayne Addison Clark, “An Analysis of the Relationship between Anti-Communism and

Segregationist Thought in the Deep South, 1948–1964,” PhD diss., University ofWisconsin–Madison, 1976, 95–96.

15 Brady, Black Monday, excerpted in Carson et al., eds., Eyes on the Prize Reader, 89.16  Clark, “An Analysis of the Relationship between Anti-Communism and Segregationist

Thought in the Deep South,” 84, 92, 95–96.17 Robert Patterson interview, in Raines, My Soul Is Rested, 298.18 Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (New York: Vintage, 1977), 279–82.19 Ward, Defending White Democracy, 125.20 Carter, The South Strikes Back, 22–23.21  Phillip Luce, “Down in Mississippi—The White Citizens’ Council,” Chicago Jewish

Forum, c. 1958, box 1, folder 19, Citizens’ Council Papers, University of SouthernMississippi, 324.

22 McMillen, The Citizens’ Council, 18–19; Robert Patterson interview, in Raines, My SoulIs Rested, 298.

23 Crespino, In Search of Another Country, 23.24 Johnston, Mississippi’s Defiant Years, 13–14.25 Erle Johnston, “Interview with Dr. Caudill,” n.d., Citizens’ Council Papers, University of

Southern Mississippi.26  Phillip Abbott Luce, “The Mississippi White Citizens Council, 1954–1959,” MA thesis,

Ohio State University, 1960, 19.27 FBI Report, 16–17.28 “Pro-Segregation Groups in the South,” Southern Regional Council, November 19, 1956,

1, box 3, folder 15, Citizens Council Collection, University of Southern Mississippi.29  McMillen, The Citizens Council, 18–19. For an analysis of this kind of masculinist

rhetoric in the Citizens’ Council movement, see Steve Estes, I Am a Man! Race, Manhoodand the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005),43–48.

30 W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Knopf, 1941), 117–19.31  “Strong Organization Only Way to Combat Integration Says Patterson,” Greenwood

Morning Star, September 14, 1955.32 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 35; Johnston, Mississippi’s Defiant Years, 15–16.33  For Lillian Smith quote, see Clark, “An Analysis of the Relationship between Anti-

Communism and Segregationist Thought in the Deep South,” 205.34 Carter, The South Strikes Back, 49–50.35 Dittmer, Local People, 45–46.36 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 431.37 “Pro-Segregation Groups in the South,” 7–8.38 Carter, The South Strikes Back, 17.39 Luce, “Down in Mississippi.”40 Whitaker, “A Case Study in Southern Justice,” 81.

41  “Citizens Council to Establish Official Paper at Indianola,” Greenwood Morning Star,September 16, 1955.

42  Luce, “Down in Mississippi,” 327. All issues of the Citizen are available

43 Whitaker, “A Case Study in Southern Justice,” 73.44 Medgar Evers quoted in Bem Price, “Associated Press Writer Views Mississippi Problem,”

Jackson Daily News, August 21, 1955; Ruby Hurley, “News and Action,” NAACPSoutheast Regional Office, Birmingham, Alabama, September 1955, box 2, Medgar EversPapers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

45 Dittmer, Local People, 46–47.46 Price, “Associated Press Writer Views Mississippi Problem.” Jackson Daily News, August

21, 1955.47 “McCoy Has Reached the Limit,” Jackson Daily News, August 22, 1955.48 Crespino, In Search of Another Country, 25.49  NAACP, “M Is for Mississippi and Murder,” 1955, box 2, folder 19, Citizens’ Council

magazine articles, McCain Papers, University of Southern Mississippi.50 Crespino, In Search of Another Country, 26.51  This founder and financier quoted in Luce, “The Mississippi White Citizens’ Council,”

32n6.52  For the White Citizens Legal Fund and the defense of Medgar Evers’s murderer, see

clipping from the June 1963 Greenwood Commonwealth, Medgar Evers FBI file, 19,Medgar Evers Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

53 Crespino, In Search of Another Country, 26.54 Luce, “Down in Mississippi.”55 Ruby Hurley, Regional Secretary, to Gloster Current, Director of Branches, NAACP, New

York City, box 2, folder 7, Medgar Evers Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives andHistory.

56 Dittmer, Local People, 34–36, 43.57  Charles C. Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle over School Integration in

Mississippi, 1870–1980 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 67–69.58 Dittmer, Local People, 46.59 Carter, The South Strikes Back, 37.60 Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All, 67.61 Dittmer, Local People, 45.62  Percy Greene quoted in Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 110; “Rev. George Lee’s

Murderers Never Caught,” Neshoba News, December 8, 1995; McMillen, Citizens’Council, 28.

63 Jackson Daily News, August 18, 1955; Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All, 73–75.64  Medgar Evers, 1955 Annual Report from the Mississippi State Office, National

Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Jackson, box 2, Medgar EversPapers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All,73–75.

65 Evers, 1955 Annual Report. For the growth of the NAACP, see Payne, I’ve Got the Lightof Freedom, 40, 140.

66  Medgar Evers to Roy Wilkins, September 12, 1956, box 2, folder 9, Coleman Papers,Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

67  Eagle Eye, August 20, 1955, box 2, folder 7, Medgar Evers Papers, MississippiDepartment of Archives and History.

68  Quoted in Steven D. Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles over Mississippi TV,1955–1969 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 32–33.

69  Quoted in Randy Sparkman, “The Murder of Emmett Till,” Slate, June 21, 2005, Accessed October 31, 2016.

1 1 : P E O P L E W E D O N ’ T N E E D A R O U N D H E R E A N Y M O R E

1 Phillip Abbott Luce, “The Mississippi White Citizens Council, 1954–1959,” MA thesis,Ohio State University, 1960, 3.

2  NAACP, “M Is for Mississippi and Murder,” 1955, box 2, folder 19, Citizens’ Councilmagazine articles, McCain Papers, Special Collections, University of Southern Mississippi.

3  Aaron Henry interview by John Dittmer and John Jones, 1982, transcript, 10–11,Mississippi Department of Archives and History (hereafter cited as MDAH).

4 Jack Mendelsohn, The Martyrs (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 1.5 David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Villard, 1993), 430.6 Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 13.7 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 112.8 “Candidates Say Delta Negroes Aren’t Democrats,” Jackson Daily News, August 2, 1955.9 “U.S. Won’t Investigate Charges Negroes Couldn’t Vote in First Primary,” Jackson Daily

News, August 16, 1955. See also Stephen Andrew Berrey, “Against the Law: Violence,Crime, State Repression, and Black Resistance in Jim Crow Mississippi,” PhD diss.,University of Texas at Austin, 2006, 162.

10 “Prosecution Is Sought in Negro Voting Methods,” Jackson Daily News, August 26, 1955;“Group Named to Study Ways to Cut Down on Negro Voting: Committee Fears Negroes‘Played Too Large a Part in State’s Last Elections,’ ” Jackson Daily News, August 30, 1955.

11  Margaret Price, The Negro Voter in the South (Atlanta: Southern Regional Council,1957), 20.

12  Bem Price, “Associated Press Writer Views Mississippi Problem,” Jackson Daily News,August 21, 1955; Carter, The South Strikes Back, 41–42.

13 Hugh Stephen Whitaker, “A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case,” MAthesis, Florida State University, 1963, 62, 74–75. Hereafter, Whitaker, “A Case Study.”

14 Carter, The South Strikes Back, 41–42.15  Photostat submitted by NAACP national executive director Roy Wilkins to U.S. Senate

Judiciary Committee, May 16, 1956, in Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission onlinefiles under “Gus Courts.”

16 Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 7.17 Simeon Booker, Black Man’s America (Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 161.18 Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 2.19 David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, “The Grim and Overlooked Anniversary of the

Murder of the Rev. George W. Lee, Civil Rights Activist,” History News Network, May 9,2005, Accessed October 31, 2016.

20 Booker, Black Man’s America, 161–62.21  Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 140. For Lee’s militancy, see “Is Mississippi

Hushing Up a Lynching? Mississippi Gunmen Take Life of Militant Negro Minister,” Jet8.3 (1955): 196. Payne takes a similar view of Lee, calling him one of “the more radical

leaders” in Mississippi, along with Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry, and Amzie Moore, all ofwhom were active in the RCNL.

22 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 36, 49.23 For Wilkins’s estimates of Courts and Lee’s voter registration successes, see Roy Wilkins

with Tom Mathews, Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins (New York:Viking, 1982), 222. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 36–37, estimates “about 100”and documents the threat to sue Sheriff Shelton when he refused to accept poll taxpayments. For the quote from the sheriff, see Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate (NewYork: Knopf, 2002), 700. Courts himself estimated “about 400.” “Testimony of Rev. GusCourts, Belzoni, Miss.,” in Civil Rights—1957: Hearings before the Subcommittee onConstitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate, 85th Congress, FirstSession, 532 (hereafter cited as Courts testimony).

24  Roy Wilkins, testimony before U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, May 16, 1956, inMississippi State Sovereignty Commission online, under “Gus Courts.”

25 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 36–37, 49. For the Citizens’ Council campaign ofreprisals, see Accessed October 31, 2016.

26 Price, “Associated Press Writer Views Mississippi Problem.”27 Anderson, Separate but Equal, 121; Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 37.28 Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 3.29 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 37; Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 5. See also Courts

testimony, 545.30  “Rev. George Lee’s Murderers Never Caught,” Neshoba News, December 8, 2005. See

also Susan Klopfer, “FBI Investigated George Lee’s Murder; Suspects Never Tried,” Ezine,December 8, 2005,;-Suspects-Never-Tried&id=109869. Accessed October 31, 2016.

31 Mary Panzer, “H. C. Anderson and the Civil Rights Struggle,” in Henry Clay Anderson etal., Separate but Equal: The Mississippi Photographs of Henry Clay Anderson (New York:PublicAffairs, 2002), 122–23.

32 Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 5; Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 37; FBI Report, 17.33 Dittmer, Local People, 53–54; FBI Report, 17.34  Williams, Medgar Evers, 120; Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 37; Wilkins,

Standing Fast, 222.35  Medgar Evers, 1955 Annual Report, Mississippi State Office of the NAACP, box 2,

Medgar Evers Papers, MDAH.36 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 51; Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 8–9.37  Roy Wilkins to Medgar Evers, May 26, 1955, box 2, Medgar Evers Papers, MDAH;

“NAACP Posts Reward in Lee’s Death,” Jackson State-Times, June 2, 1955.38 Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 8–9; “NAACP Posts Reward in Lee’s Death.”39 J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in

Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (Chapel Hill: University of North CarolinaPress, 2004), 80.

40 Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 10. See also Umoja, We Will Shoot Back, 34.41 Anderson, Separate but Equal, 134.42 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 37–38, 138–39.43 “Is Mississippi Hushing Up a Lynching? Mississippi Gunmen Take Life of Militant Negro

Minister,” Jet, n.d. 1955, Medgar Evers Papers, MDAH; Carl M. Cannon, “Emmett Tilland the Dark Path to August 28, 1963,” Real Clear Politics, August 28, 2013, Accessed October 31, 2016.

44 Umoja, We Will Shoot Back, 34; Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 139.45 Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 11–12.46 FBI 1956 memo quoted in Klopfer, “FBI Investigated George Lee’s Murder.”47  Courts testimony, 532–33; Jay Milner, “Wounded Negro’s Wife Says Mate Was

‘Threatened,’ ” Jackson Clarion-Ledger, November 11, 1955, clipping in box 3 folder 6,Ed King Papers, Coleman Library, Tougaloo College (now housed at MDAH).

48 Price, “Associated Press Writer Views Mississippi Problem.”49 Courts testimony, 533–34.50 Courts testimony, 559. See also “Is Mississippi Hushing Up a Lynching?”; Payne, I’ve Got

the Light of Freedom, 37–39.51 Gus Courts to Medgar Evers, n.d., box 2, Medgar Evers Papers, MDAH.52 Milner, “Wounded Negro’s Wife Says Mate Was ‘Threatened.’ ”53 Courts testimony, 533.54 Milner, “Wounded Negro’s Wife Says Mate Was ‘Threatened.’ ” See also Caro, Master of

the Senate, 700.55 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 39.56  James Featherston, “Two More White Men Charged in Brookhaven for Murder of

Negro,” Jackson Daily News, August 17, 1955; James Featherston, “Links Shooting ofNegro with Voting Irregularities,” Jackson Daily News, August 14, 1955. For the gunshotin his mouth, see “Negro Involved in Election Slain in Courthouse Fracas—BrookhavenNegro Linked in Election Slain by Gun Fire,” Jackson Daily News, August 13, 1955; FBIReport, 18.

57 Arrington High, The Eagle Eye: The Women’s Voice, 2.36, August 20, 1955, in MedgarEvers Papers, box 2, folder 7, MDAH.

58  “See Further Drop in Negro Voting in Next Tuesday’s Election Following Slaying ofBrookhaven Negro Leader,” Jackson Advocate, August 20, 1955.

59 Carter, The South Strikes Back, 119.60 “Lincoln County Grand Jury Unable to Get One Witness to Testify,” Jackson Advocate,

September 24, 1955.61 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 40.62 Mendelsohn, The Martyrs, 19.63 Amzie Moore to James Kizart, December 20, 1955, box 1, folder 2, Amzie Moore Papers,

Wisconsin Historical Society.64 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 44; Charles McLaurin, interview with the author,

2012, Timothy B. Tyson Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of NorthCarolina at Chapel Hill.

65  Courts testimony, 532. See also Aaron Henry with Constance Curry, The Fire EverBurning (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 97.

66  Susan Klopfer et al., Where Rebels Roost: Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited,,2005, 287.

1 2 : F I X E D O P I N I O N S

1 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 126.

2  Lloyd L. General, “Moses Wright Made His Decision—Became Hero,” Atlanta DailyWorld, October 2, 1955.

3  Moses Newsom, “Emmett’s Kin Hang On to Harvest Crop,” Chicago Defender,September 17, 1955.

4  Denley, “Kinsman Recalls Tragic Night on Eve of Trial,” Chicago Defender, September24, 1955, 2.

5 General, “Moses Wright Made His Decision—Became Hero.”6  James Featherston, “White ‘Deplores’ Slaying in Note to NAACP Which Is Creating

National Issue,” Jackson Daily News, September 1, 1955, 1.7 Greenwood Morning Star, September 3, 1955, 1.8 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 119.9 Anderson, Emmett Till, 53; Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 147–48.

10 Delta Democrat-Times, December 29, 1955, 1.11  Dan Wakefield, “Justice in Sumner,” Nation, October 1, 1955, in Metress, ed., The

Lynching of Emmett Till, 120–24.12 Mace, “Regional Identities,” 240–41.13 Bryant, Interview.14 Shoshtak, “Crosby Smith: Forgotten Witness to a Mississippi Nightmare,” 323.15  Jack Telfer, Program Coordinator, United Packinghouse Workers Association–CIO,

September 21, 1955, to Richard Durham, National Program Director, box 396, folder 7,United Packinghouse Workers of America Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.

16 James Featherston, “State Will Not Seek Death Penalty,” Jackson Daily News, September19, 1955, 14.

17 Quoted in Craig Flournoy, “Reporting the Movement in Black and White: The EmmettTill Lynching and the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” PhD diss., Louisiana State University,2003, 84.

18 L. Alex Wilson, “Jim Crow Press at Trial,” Chicago Defender, September 24, 1955, 1.19  “Newspapers Over State Blast Murder of Negro,” Jackson Daily News, September 3,

1955, 1; Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 119–21; Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 118–19.20 Colin, “Mother’s Tears Greet Son Who Died a Martyr,” Chicago Defender, September 10,

1955, 1.21  James Featherston, “White Orders Investigation in Slaying of Delta Negro—White

‘Deplores’ Slaying in Note to NAACP Which Is Creating a National Issue,” Jackson DailyNews, September 1, 1955, 1.

22 Greenwood Morning Star, September 1, 1955, 1.23  “Body of Negro Found in River,” Jackson Clarion-Ledger, September 1, 1955, 1;

Featherston, “White Orders Investigation In Slaying of Delta Negro,” Jackson DailyNews, September 1, 1955, 1.

24 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 118–19.25 Quoted in Houck and Grindy, Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press, 51.26  Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 132; Bryant, Interview; Memphis Commercial Appeal,

September 4, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 36.27 Jackson Daily News, September 5, 1955, 1, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till,

38.28 Anderson, Emmett Till, 57–58.29 Greenwood Morning Star, September 6, 1955, 1.30 Delta Democrat-Times, September 6, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till,


31 Houck and Grindy, Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press, 66.32 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 119.33 James Hicks, “Mississippi Jungle Law Frees Slayers of Child,” Cleveland Call and Post,

October 1, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 111–13.34  Harry Marsh, “Judge Swango Is Good Promoter for South,” Delta Democrat-Times,

September 21, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 60.35 Murray Kempton, “Heart of Darkness,” New York Post, September 21, 1955, in Metress,

ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 64.36  “Roman Circus,” Jackson Daily News, September 22, 1955, in Metress, ed., The

Lynching of Emmett Till, 60; “Cast in Compelling Courtroom Drama Matches Movies,”Jackson Daily News, September 20, 1955, 1.

37 L. Alex Wilson, “Jim Crow Press at Trial,” Chicago Defender, September 24, 1955, 1.38  “Summary Fact Sheet of the Emmett Till Lynching Case,” box 69, folder 7, 2, United

Packinghouse Workers of America Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.39  Harry Marsh interview transcript in Ann Marie Tabb, “Perspectives in Journalism:

Covering the Emmett Till Trial,” honors thesis, University of Southern Mississippi, 2001,17–18.

40  Harry Marsh, “Judge Swango Is Good Promoter for South,” Delta Democrat-Times,September 21, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 61.

41  Simeon Booker, Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil RightsMovement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 74.

42  Sam Johnson, “Two White Men Go On Trial Monday for Slaying of Negro,” JacksonDaily News, September 18, 1955, 4.

43 “Two White Men Go On Trial,” Arkansas Gazette, September 20, 1955, 14-B.44  L. Alex Wilson, “Jim Crow Press at Till Trial; Frisk Newsmen; Picking of Jury Delays

Opening,” Chicago Defender, September 24, 1955, 1.45 “Two White Men Go On Trial,” Arkansas Gazette, September 20, 1955, 14-B.46 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 139.47  Rob Hall, “Lynched Boy’s Mother Sees Jurymen Picked,” Daily Worker, September 21,

1955, 1.48  Greenwood Morning Star, September 25, 1955, 1; Memphis Commercial Appeal,

September 21, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 59.49 The jurors’ rate of pay is in Mace, “Regional Identities,” 259. The hotel details and the

evidence of jury tampering by the Citizens’ Council may be found in Whitaker, “A CaseStudy,” 154, and FBI Report, 16–17.

50 Kempton, “Heart of Darkness,” New York Post, September 21, 1955, in Metress, ed., TheLynching of Emmett Till, 63.

51 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 145–46.52  Chicago Tribune, September 18, 1955, 1, reported: “Among the white residents of

Tallahatchie County, a random sampling of public opinion produced no one who expectsthe two murder defendants to be found guilty.” See also Baltimore Afro-American,October 2, 1955, 4, which reported that its reporters “could not find a single person in theMississippi Delta who believed that the two men would be found guilty.”

53 Greenwood Morning Star, September 23, 1955, 6.54 W. C. Shoemaker, “Sumner Citizens Turn Public Relations Experts While Sunlight Beams

At Them,” Jackson Daily News, September 20, 1955, 1; Mace, “Regional Identities,” 182.55 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 148; Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 44–45.

56 Harry Marsh, “Radio Station Making Much Ado with Emmett Till Murder Trial,” DeltaDemocrat-Times, September 22, 1955.

57 Caro, Master of the Senate, 701–9.58  Harry Marsh, “Communist Writer at Trial Lauds Citizens,” Delta Democrat-Times,

September 28, 1955, 1.59 Harry Marsh, “Radio Stations Making Much Ado with Emmett Till Murder Trial,” 17.

See also Tabb, “Perspectives in Journalism,” 28.60 Robert Elliot, “A Report on the Till Case: All the Witnesses Fled,” Chicago (November

1955): 54–55; Kevin Grimm, “Color and Credibility: Eisenhower, the United StatesInformation Agency, and Race,” MA thesis, Ohio University, 2008, 72–73 and 83.

61 Caro, Master of the Senate, 709.62 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 149.63  Dan Wakefield, writing for the Nation, quoted in Craig Flournoy, “Reporting the

Movement in Black and White: The Emmett Till Lynching and the Montgomery BusBoycott,” PhD diss., Louisiana State University, 2003, 84.

64 David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Villard Books, 1993), 453.65 For most white men carrying guns, see “UPWA Carries Fight for Justice to the Scene of

Trial,” Packinghouse Worker 14.1 (September 1955): 1, box 369, folder 7, UnitedPackinghouse Workers Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society; quote is from MatthewNichter, Chapter 3 draft, “ ‘Did Emmett Till Die in Vain? Labor Says No’: The UnitedPackinghouse Workers of America and Civil Rights Unionism in the Mid-1950s,” 11–12,in “Rethinking the Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Radicals, Repression, and theBlack Freedom Struggle,” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2014, inpossession of the author. Many thanks to Nichter for sharing this with me.

66 James Featherston, “Till Murder Trial,” Jackson Daily News, September 20, 1955, 7.67 Moore interview with Michael Garvey.68 Matthew Nichter, “ ‘Did Emmett Till Die in Vain?,’ ” 13–17.69 “UPWA Carries Fight for Justice to the Scene of Trial.”70 Mrs. Lillian Pittman, president of the Ladies Auxiliary, United Packinghouse Workers of

America–CIO Local 1167, Gramercy, Louisiana, report on the Till trial, in PackinghouseWorker 14.9 (September 1955): 3.

71 Ibid.72 Ibid.73 “UPWA Carries Fight for Justice to the Scene of Trial.”74  Jack Telfer, Program Coordinator, United Packinghouse Workers of America–CIO,

Sumner, Mississippi, September 21, 1955, to Richard Durham, National ProgramCoordinator, UPWA-CIO, box 369, folder 7, UPWA Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.

75 “UPWA Carries Fight for Justice to the Scene of Trial.”76 Nichter, “ ‘Did Emmett Till Die in Vain?,’ ” 26.77  Chicago Defender, September 24, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till,

48–50; “Jim Crow Press Table,” Chicago Defender, October 1, 1955, 3; Jackson DailyNews, September 20, 1955, 6; James Hicks, “White Reporters Double-Crossed ProbersSeeking Lost Witnesses,” Cleveland Call and Post, October 15, 1955, in Metress, ed., TheLynching of Emmett Till, 161–67.

78 Kempton, “Heart of Darkness,” New York Post, September 21, 1955, in Metress, ed., TheLynching of Emmett Till, 62–64.

79  Charles E. Cobb, Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed (New York: Basic Books,2014), 132. This greeting was reported, with certain variations for time of day, by several

observers. See, for example, Kempton, “Heart of Darkness,” in Metress, ed., The Lynchingof Emmett Till, 62–64.

80  Harvey Young, “A New Fear Unknown to Me: Emmett Till’s Influence and the BlackPanther Party,” Southern Quarterly 45.4 (2008): 30.

1 3 : M I S S I S S I P P I U N D E R G R O U N D

1 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 120–21. See also Booker, Black Man’s America, 167–68.2  James Hicks, “Sheriff Kept Key Witness in Jail During Trial,” Cleveland Call and Post,

October 8, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 155–61.3 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 150.4 Evers, For Us, the Living, 172.5 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 120–23.6  Hicks, “White Reporters Double-Crossed Probers Seeking Lost Witnesses,” in Metress,

ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 164–66.7 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 122–23.8 Hall, “Lynched Boy’s Mother Sees Jurymen Picked.”9 Featherston, “Till Murder Trial.” See also Boston Globe, September 20, 1955.

10 Hall, “Lynched Boy’s Mother Sees Jurymen Picked.”11  “Congressman Diggs, Till’s Mother in Attendance at Sumner Trial,” Jackson Advocate,

September 24, 1955.12  James Hicks, “Awakenings,” Eyes on the Prize, transcript, Accessed October 31, 2016.See also Mace, “Regional Identities and Racial Messages,” 384; Cobb, This NonviolenceStuff’ll Get You Killed, 132.

13 Hall, “Lynched Boy’s Mother Sees Jurymen Picked.”14 “Roman Circus,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 60.15 Featherston, “Till Murder Trial”; Anderson, Emmett Till, 100, 101–3.16  Simeon Booker, “A Negro Reporter at the Till Trial” (1956), Nieman Reports, Winter

1999–Spring 2000, 136–37; Kempton, “Heart of Darkness,” in Metress, ed., TheLynching of Emmett Till, 62–64.

17 Anderson, Emmett Till, 105.18 Booker, “A Negro Reporter at the Till Trial”; Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 123–24;

James Hicks, “The Mississippi Lynching Story: Luring Terrorized Witnesses from thePlantation Was Toughest Job,” Cleveland Call and Post, October 22, 1955, in Metress,ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 168–70; “Defender Writer in Witness Hunt,” ChicagoDefender, October 1, 1955.

1 4 : “ T H E R E H E I S ”

1  Delta Democrat-Times, September 20, 1955. Greenwood Morning Star, September 21,1955, estimates the courtroom crowd at “more than 400.” This seems a little high. For theatmosphere, see Herbers, “Jury Selection Reveals Death Demand Unlikely,” 45–53.

2  Bill Minor, Eyes on Mississippi (Jackson, MS: J. Prichard Morris, 2001), 191. For thechurch fans, see Kempton, “Heart of Darkness,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of EmmettTill, 62–64.

3 New York Times, September 22, 1955; Moses Wright, “How I Escaped from Mississippi,”Jet, October 13, 1955.

4 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 11–12. This statement has often been renderedas “Dar he,” originating with an interview of James Hicks in Eyes on the Prize:Awakenings, almost twenty-five years later. The transcript and all of the othercontemporary accounts of the trial instead report “There he is.” See also Sam Johnson,“Uncle of Till’s Identifies Pair of Men Who Abducted Chicago Negro,” GreenwoodCommonwealth, September 21, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 68;Rob Hall, “Acquittal in the Till Murder Shows Federal Intervention Is Needed,” DailyWorker, October 2, 1955.

5  James Featherston, “Dim Light Casts Some Doubt on the Identity of Till’s Abductors,”Jackson Daily News, September 22, 1955; Booker, Shocking the Conscience, 74.

6  Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 17–18; Featherston, “Dim Light Casts SomeDoubt on the Identity of Till’s Abductors.”

7  Murray Kempton, “He Went All the Way,” New York Post, September 22, 1955, inMetress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 65.

8 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 18–24.9  Ibid., 27; Kempton, “He Went All the Way,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett

Till, 66.10 Moses Wright testimony, trial transcript, 32–66.11 Wakefield, “Justice in Sumner,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 120–24.12 Chester Miller testimony, trial transcript, 66–67.13 Ibid., 67–83, 94–102.14 Kempton, “Heart of Darkness,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 64.15 Robert Hodges testimony, trial transcript, 103–12; B. L. Mims testimony, trial transcript,

113–18.16 George Smith testimony, trial transcript, 122–33.17 John Ed Cothran testimony, trial transcript, 139–46.18 Ibid., 159–71.19 “UPWA Carries Fight for Justice to the Scene of Trial,” 1.20 New York Times, September 23, 1955; Murray Kempton, “The Future,” New York Post,

September 23, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 84; GreenwoodCommonwealth, September 22, 1955.

21 Mamie Bradley testimony, trial transcript, 185–87.22 “Mother Insulted on Witness Stand,” Washington Afro-American, September 24, 1955, in

Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 83–84.23 Mamie Bradley testimony, trial transcript, 188–90.24  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Evening Bulletin, quoted in Mace, “Regional

Identities and Racial Messages,” 147–48; Mamie Bradley testimony, trial transcript, 189.25 Mamie Bradley testimony, trial transcript, 190–91.26 Ibid., 192–209.

1 5 : E V E R Y L A S T A N G L O – S A X O N O N E O F Y O U

1 Bryant, interview.2  “Till Witness Starts Guarded Life Here,” clipping, n.d., box 369, folder 7, United

Packinghouse Workers Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society. Clipping is probably from

Packinghouse Worker, c. October 1955.3 Willie Reed testimony, trial transcript, 213–25.4 Baltimore Afro-American, October 1, 1955.5 Willie Reed, Amanda Bradley, and Add Reed testimony, trial transcript, 226–59.6  James Hicks, “Youth Puts Milam in Till Death Barn,” Washington Afro-American,

September 24, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 87–88.7 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 150–51.8 Carolyn Bryant testimony, trial transcript, 268.9 Ibid., 261–79.

10 L. B. Otken testimony, trial transcript, 296–304.11 H. C. Strider testimony, trial transcript, 284–95.12 Trial transcript, 350–51.13 James Hicks, “Called Lynch-Murder ‘Morally, Legally’ Wrong,” Cleveland Call and Post,

October 1, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 102.14 James Featherston, “Bryant, Milam Still in Custody of Law to Face Kidnapping Charges

in Leflore County after Acquittal of Murder,” Jackson Daily News, September 24, 1955.15 Hicks, “Called Lynch-Murder ‘Morally, Legally’ Wrong,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of

Emmett Till, 102–3.16 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 153.17 Hicks, “Called Lynch-Murder ‘Morally, Legally’ Wrong,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of

Emmett Till, 104.18 Wakefield, “Justice in Sumner,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 3.19  Sam Johnson, “Jury Hears Defense and Prosecution Arguments as Testimony Ends in

Kidnap-Slaying Case,” Greenwood Commonwealth, September 23, 1955.20 James Featherston and W. C. Shoemaker, “Verdict Awaited in Till Trial—State Demands

Conviction; Defense Says No Proof Presented, Asks Acquittal,” Jackson Daily News,September 23, 1955.

21  Murray Kempton, “2 Face Trial as ‘Whistle’ Kidnappers—Due to Post Bond and GoHome,” New York Post, September 25, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of EmmettTill, 107–11.

22 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 188.23 Featherston, “Bryant, Milam Still in Custody of Law to Face Kidnap Charges in Leflore

County after Acquittal of Murder in Sumner.”24 Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 188.25 Johnson, “Jury Hears Defense and Prosecution Arguments as Testimony Ends in Kidnap-

Slaying Case”; Sam Johnson, “District Attorney Not Concerned by Outside Agitation andPressure,” Greenwood Commonwealth, September 23, 1955.

26  Jack Telfer to Richard Durham, box 369, folder 7, United Packinghouse Workers ofAmerica Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, September 21, 1955, 3.

27  Kempton, “2 Face Trial As ‘Whistle’ Kidnappers,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching ofEmmett Till, 108.

28 Ibid., 107–11.29 John Herbers, “Not Guilty Verdict in Wolf Whistle Murder,” Greenwood Morning Star,

September 24, 1955.30  Kempton, “2 Face Trial As ‘Whistle’ Kidnappers,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of

Emmett Till, 107–11.31  Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 189; “Till Witness Starts Guarded Life


1 6 : T H E V E R D I C T O F T H E W O R L D

1 Arkansas Gazette, September 2, 1955. See also Chicago Defender, September 10, 1955.2 All of the major antilynching organizations agreed in 1940 that lynching was a murder by

a group acting in service to race, justice, or tradition. See Christopher Waldrep, “War ofWords: The Controversy over the Definition of Lynching, 1899–1940,” Journal ofSouthern History 46.1 (2000): 75–100.

3  Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America,1890–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). See James Allen,Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers,2000). See also James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynchingin America, Accessed October 31, 2016.

4 John Herbers, interviewed in Nelson, The Murder of Emmett Till.5  James Kilgallen, “Defendants Receive Handshakes, Kisses,” Memphis Commercial

Appeal, September 24, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 104–7.6 Bryant, interview; Kempton, “2 Face Trial as ‘Whistle’ Kidnappers,” in Metress, ed., The

Lynching of Emmett Till, 107–11; Minor, Eyes on Mississippi, 195.7  Kilgallen, “Defendants Receive Handshakes, Kisses,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of

Emmett Till, 104–7.8 Chicago Defender, October 1, 1955; Arkansas Gazette, September 24, 1955.9 Dittmer, Local People, 57; Bryant, interview. Carolyn told me years later that the marriage

never recovered from the Emmett Till murder and its consequences.10 Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1955.11 Herbers, “Not Guilty Verdict in Wolf Whistle Murder.”12 Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1955; Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 154–55; Whitfield, A

Death in the Delta, 42.13 Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1955.14 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 155.15  Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 189; “Till Witness Starts Guarded Life

Here.”16  Herbert Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to

Montgomery (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 411.17 Hicks, “Mississippi Jungle Law Frees Slayers of Child,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of

Emmett Till, 101–4.18 Mace, “Regional Identities and Racial Messages,” 153–54.19 Johnston, Mississippi’s Defiant Years, 36–37.20 Greenwood Morning Star, September 28, 1955.21 Delta Democrat-Times, September 23, 1955.22 Mace, “Regional Identities and Racial Messages,” 430.23 Greenwood Morning Star, September 23, 1955.24 Hodding Carter, “Acquittal,” Delta Democrat-Times, September 23, 1955.25  Hodding Carter, “Racial Crisis in the Deep South,” Saturday Evening Post 228.25

(December 17, 1955): 26.26 Roi Ottley, “Pathetic Mississippi,” Chicago Defender, December 31, 1955.27 Mrs. H. D. Schenk to the editor, Memphis Commercial Appeal, September 25, 1955, in

Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 147–48.28 Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights,

1945–1975, reprint edition (New York: Vintage, 2007), 40.

29 Greenwood Morning Star, September 30, 1955.30 William Faulkner, open letter, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 42–43. See

also Joel Williamson, William Faulkner and Southern History (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1993), 303.

31  Carol Posner, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (New York:Norton, 2001), 17. See also “Faulkner Challenged,” New York Times, April 18, 1956;William Faulkner to W. E. B. Du Bois, April 17, 1956, in Joseph Blotner, ed., SelectedLetters of William Faulkner (New York: Scholar Press, 1977), 398; Williamson, WilliamFaulkner and Southern History, 307.

32  Fred Hobson, But Now I See: The White Racial Conversion Narrative (Baton Rouge:Louisiana State University Press, 1999), 129.

33 Barrow, “Here’s a Picture of Emmett Till by Those Who Knew Him.”34  Office of the Honorable Adam Clayton Powell Jr., press release, October 11, 1955, in

Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 133–36.35 New York Times, September 25, 1955. See also Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and

the Color Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 99.36 A. Philip Randolph, “Call to Negro Americans,” July 1, 1941, office file 93, Franklin D.

Roosevelt Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. For a full scholarlyexamination, see Beth Tomkins Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics inBlack America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), especially 148–74.

37 U.S. Department of State, “Progress Report on the Employment of Colored Persons in theDepartment of State,” March 31, 1953, box A617, group 2, NAACP Papers, Library ofCongress.

38  Mary Dudziak, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” Stanford Law Review 41(1988): 95; Walter White, A Man Called White (New York: Ayer, 1948), 358–59.

39 Deyton J. Brooks to W. E. B. Du Bois, October 13, 1947, box A637, group 2, NAACPPapers, Library of Congress.

40  President’s Committee on Civil Rights, To Secure These Rights: The Report of thePresident’s Committee on Civil Rights (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1947), 147.

41 Dudziak, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” 95.42 Ibid., 111–12.43 Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line, 98–99.44  Baltimore Afro-American, October 29, 1955. The writer noted newspapers in Paris,

Rome, and Berlin, among others.45  Eleanor Roosevelt, “I Think the Till Jury Will Have an Uneasy Conscience,” Memphis

Press-Scimitar, October 11, 1955, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 136–37.46 Grimm, “Color and Credibility,” 107.47 Carl T. Rowan, Breaking the Barriers: A Memoir (New York: Little, Brown, 1991), 123.48 U.S. State Department, Treatment of Minorities in the United States, 10.49 United States Information Agency, “World Wide Press Comment on the Race Problem in

the United States,” April 10, 1956, quoted in Grimm, “Color and Credibility,” 64–65. Fora fuller discussion of larger issues around these incidents, see Mary Dudziak, Cold WarCivil Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), especially 114, 118.

50  U.S. State Department, Foreign Service Dispatch, American Embassy, Brussels toDepartment of State, Washington, March 20, 1956, RG 59 811.411 / 4-1956, box 4158,General Records of the Department of State, National Archives, College Park, MD.

51 Grimm, “Color and Credibility,” 79; Chicago Defender, November 5, 1955.52 Grimm, “Color and Credibility,” 72–73, 83.

53 Caro, Master of the Senate, 708.54 U.S. State Department, Treatment of Minorities in the United States, 10.55 “Lynching Acquittal Shocks All of Europe,” Daily Worker, October 11, 1955. The writer

quotes Figaro and Le Monde.56 Green, Selling the Race, 201.57 Quoted in “Summary Fact Sheet of the Emmett Till Lynching Case,” 8, box 369, folder 7,

United Packinghouse Workers of America Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.58 Jerry Ward and Robert J. Butler, eds., The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (Westport, CT:

Greenwood Press, 2008), 373.

1 7 : P R O T E S T P O L I T I C S

1  “Two Rallies in North Protest Decision in Mississippi Trial,” Arkansas Gazette,September 26, 1955, from United Press reports.

2 “6000 at Detroit Rally Protest Mississippi Verdict,” Detroit Free Press, n.d. [September1955], box 26, folder 4, Carl and Anne Braden Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.

3 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 168.4 “6000 at Detroit Rally Protest Mississippi Verdict”; Rob Hall, “Lynchers Pals Stack Jury;

Protests Mount thru Land,” Daily Worker, September 25, 1955; “Summary Fact Sheet ofthe Emmett Till Lynching Case,” 4; “Two Rallies in North Protest Decision in MississippiTrial.” Howard’s speech is reported in Chicago Defender, October 1, 1955; GreenwoodCommonwealth, September 26, 1955. The Cleveland, New Rochelle, and Newark ralliesare reported in Daily Worker, September 26, 1955.

5 “Two Rallies in North Protest Decision in Mississippi Trial.”6 Green, Selling the Race, 201; Daily Worker, September 25, 1955.7 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 168; Hall, “Lynchers Pals Stack Jury”; Green, Selling the Race,

201; Nelson, The Murder of Emmett Till; “NAACP Mass Meetings,” GreenwoodCommonwealth, September 26, 1955.

8 “Summary Fact Sheet of the Emmett Till Lynching Case.”9 New York Times, October 25, 1955.

10 Daily Worker, September 29, 1955.11  “6000 at Detroit Rally Protest Mississippi Verdict.” For Hurley and Marshall, see

“Overflow Rally Voices Anger in Brooklyn,” Daily Worker, October 3, 1955. See alsoEvers, For Us, the Living, 172.

12 Whitaker, “A Case Study,” 168. Whitaker states that Detroit’s rally drew 65,000; if thiswere true, the combined figure would be something like 175,000, but since several othersources say 6,000, I assume that 65,000 is a typographical error. For Detroit and NewYork, see William P. Jones, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the ForgottenHistory of Civil Rights (New York: Norton, 2014), 88–89.

13 Governor Frank Clement at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, quoted in W. H.Lawrence, “Democratic Keynote Talk Assails Nixon as ‘Hatchet Man’ of G.O.P.; Lays‘Indifference’ to President,” New York Times, August 14, 1956.

14  For the movement to free the Scottsboro defendants, see Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: ATragedy of the American South, rev. ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,1979); James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro (New York: Pantheon, 1994).

15  Rob Hall, “Set Marathon Service to Hit Till’s Murder,” Daily Worker, September 25,1955.

16 Chicago Tribune, September 30, 1955.17 “100,000 Across Nation Protest Till Lynching,” Chicago Defender, October 8, 1955.18 “Harlem Rally,” Chicago Defender, October 8, 1955.19  Robert Birchman, “10,000 Jam Till Mass Meet Here,” Chicago Defender, October 8,

1955.20 “Minneapolis AFL Asks U.S. Act in Till Murder,” Daily Worker, October 3, 1955.21 Daily Worker, October 3, 1955.22  “Rally of 20,000 Here Cheers Call for Action Against Mississippi Goods,” New York

Times, October 12, 1955. See also Daily Worker, October 12, 1955. For the March onWashington Committees, see Jones, The March on Washington, 89.

23 Daily Worker, October 9, 1955.24  “Donate $10,000 at Till Rally in Los Angeles,” Chicago Defender, October 22, 1955;

Memphis Tri-State Defender, October 22, 1955.25 Chicago Defender, November 19, 1955.26 Evers, 1955 Annual Report.27 Huie, “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” 46–48.28  “Shake-up at Look,” Time, January 11, 1954; Christopher Metress, “Truth Be Told:

William Bradford Huie’s Emmett Till Cycle,” Southern Quarterly 45.4 (Summer 2): 48–75. See also Flournoy, “Reporting the Movement in Black and White,” 83.

29 Flournoy, “Reporting the Movement in Black and White,” 83.30 Huie, “Wolf Whistle,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 235.31 William Bradford Huie interview, in Raines, My Soul Is Rested, 388–89.32 Sparkman, “The Murder of Emmett Till,” Slate, June 21, 2005.33 Huie, “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” 46–48.34 Ibid.35 Huie, “Wolf Whistle,” in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 242.36 Hugh Stephen Whitaker, interview by Devery S. Anderson, Emmett Till Murder, June 22,

2005, accessed April 3, 2016, A. Philip Randolph to Martin Luther King Jr., May 7, 1956, in Clayborne Carson et al.,

eds., Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997),3:247–48; Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1955–1963(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 209.

38 Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 167–68; Carson et al., eds., The Papers of Martin LutherKing, Jr., 3:252–53.

39 T. R. M. Howard, speech, Madison Square Garden, May 24, 1956, tape in Chicago PublicLibrary.

40 Ibid.41  A. Philip Randolph, speech, Madison Square Garden, May 24, 1956, tape in Chicago

Public Library; Nichter, “ ‘Did Emmett Till Die in Vain?,’ ” 31.42 Daily Worker, September 10, 1955; Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, “About

the Authors.”43 Rose Jourdain, in Nelson, The Murder of Emmett Till.44 “Clean Up Chicago First,” Greenwood Morning Star, September 11, 1955.45  District No. 1, United Packinghouse Workers of America, Chicago, press release,

September 3, 1955, box 369, folder 7, UPWA Papers, Historical Society of Wisconsin.46 Daily Worker, October 2, 1955.47  For the importance of the Till case in stimulating the movement in the North and how

those struggles built upon strategies in earlier campaigns, see Martha Biondi, To Stand and

Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, 2003), 207. The quotation from Herbert Hill came from several of ourmany conversations when we were colleagues in the Department of Afro-American Studiesat the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1994 until his death in 2004.

1 8 : K I L L I N G E M M E T T T I L L

1 David Blight, “Healing and History: Battlefields and the Problems of Civil War Memory,”Rally on the High Ground: the National Park Service Symposium on the Civil War(Online book: National Park Service, 2001).Http:// Accessed October 30, 2016.

2 FBI Report, 28–29, 87–91.3 Anderson, Emmett Till, 333–34, 372–73, 375.4 Willie Reed testimony, trial transcript, 223–25; Daily Worker, October 13, 1955; Mandy

Bradley testimony, trial transcript, 253–55; Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 125.5  Autopsy report, FBI Report, 99–110; “Emmett Till,” FBI Records: The Vault, accessed

April 5, 2016, See also Chester Millertestimony, trial transcript, 97–99; John Ed Cothran testimony, trial transcript, 150–61.For Strider’s description of Till’s face, see “Ask Mississippi Governor to Denounce Killingof Boy,” Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1955.

6 E. S. Gurdjian et al., “Studies on Skull Fractures with Particular Reference to EngineeringFactors,” American Journal of Surgery 78.5 (1949): 738–39. See also Steven N. Byers,Introduction to Forensic Anthropology (New York: Routledge, 2016), 266–83.

7 Bryant, interview; Anderson, Emmett Till, 334–35.8 FBI Report, 89–91.9 FBI Report, 64, 89–91; Anderson, Emmett Till, 336, 376.

10 Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in James Melvin Washington,ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York:HarperOne, 1986), 295–96.

11  William H. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II (2003; NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2011), 148.

12 Chester Himes, letter to the editor, New York Post, September 25, 1955, in Metress, ed.,The Lynching of Emmett Till, 117.

13 William Faulkner, open letter, in Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till, 43. See alsoWilliamson, William Faulkner and Southern History, 303.

E P I L O G U E : T H E C H I L D R E N O F E M M E T T T I L L

1  Stephanie Kingsley, “ ‘So Much to Remember’: Exploring the Rosa Parks Papers at theLibrary of Congress,” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the AmericanHistorical Association, April 2015, accessed June 21, 2016.

2  Beito and Beito, Black Maverick, 139; interview with Rosa Parks by Blackside, Inc.,November 14, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954–1975),Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, accessed

April 10, 2016,;cc=eop;rgn=main;view=text;idno=par0015.0895.080.

3 Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Boston: Beacon, 2013), 45, 62.4 Mace, “Regional Identities and Racial Messages,” 19–22.5  Raylawni Branch, interview by Kim Adams, October 25, 1993, transcript, 21, Oral

History Collection, University of Southern Mississippi.6 Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 54.7 Charles McDew, in Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New

Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 68.8 Bond, “The Media and the Movement,” 26–27.9 Fay Bellamy Powell, in Holsaert et al., Hands on the Freedom Plow, 475.

10 William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the BlackStruggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 71–72; ClayborneCarson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 1981), 9–12.

11  Frederick Harris, “Will Ferguson Be a Moment or a Movement?,” Washington Post,August 22, 2014.

12  John Lewis discusses the powerful effect of the Till lynching on him in his memoir,Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon & Schuster,1998), 57–58.

13 For a full text of the speech, see Lynn Sweet, “Attorney General Eric Holder RemembersChicago’s Emmett Till,” Chicago Sun-Times, November 17, 2014.

14  Jerome Hudson, “Eric Holder Compares Michael Brown to Emmett Till: ‘The StruggleGoes On,’ ” Daily Surge, November 18, 2014, accessed April 5, 2016, -emmett-till-struggle-goes.

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18  Kim Severinson, “Weighing Race and Hate in a Mississippi Killing,” New York Times,August 22, 2011.

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(New York: New Press, 2010), 6–7, passim.22 Martin Luther King Jr., “Who Speaks for the South?,” Liberation 2 (March 1958): 13–14.23  James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, in Toni Morrison, ed., James Baldwin: Collected

Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), 334.24  James Baldwin, “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” in Randall Kenan, ed., James

Baldwin: The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon, 2010),34.

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A note about the index: The pages referenced in this index refer to the page numbers in theprint edition. Clicking on a page number will take you to the ebook location that correspondsto the beginning of that page in the print edition. For a comprehensive list of locations of anyword or phrase, use your reading system’s search function.

Abbott, Leroy, 15Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem, 211Abner, Willoughby, 21, 24, 191, 194Acheson, Dean, 187Adams, Cornelius, 74AFL, 191, 194Africa, 188Afro-American News Service, 127, 134Ali, Muhammad, 211Alinsky, Saul, 19Anderson, Albert, 74Anderson, James Craig, 215Angelou, Maya, 215Argo, Ill., 25–28, 31, 32Atlanta, Ga., 78Aurore, 1

Baker, Ella, 198Baldwin, James, 203, 217Baltimore Afro-American, 163Barlow, E. C., 120Barnett, Ross, 96Battle, C. C., 120Beauchamp, Keith, 53Belzoni, Miss., 108, 110, 111, 113–15, 121, 199Bigart, Homer, 181Bilbo, Theodore, 90, 198Billingsley, Walter, 148Birmingham News, 61Black Lives Matter, 213, 217–18Black Monday, 76, 78, 174, 188Black Monday (Brady), 76, 92–94, 102, 214

Citizens’ Councils and, 92, 94Bond, Julian, 211–12Booker, Simeon, 70, 110, 111, 134, 138, 139, 142, 191, 194Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The (Kundera), 210, 214Braden, Anne, 66Bradley, Amanda “Mandy,” 143, 148, 163, 205Bradley, Mamie, see Till, MamieBradley, Pink, 31, 33Brady, Thomas, 76–79, 89, 91–96, 101, 119–20

Black Monday, 76, 92–94, 102, 214Breland, J. J., 49, 78, 106, 138, 142, 149, 152, 154–59, 162, 166, 168, 196Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 191, 193, 198Brown, Frank, 132, 152, 194Brown, Michael, 212–13Brownell, Herbert, Jr., 119, 187, 208–9Brown v. Board of Education, 76–78, 84, 88–90, 91, 92, 94–95, 103, 104, 107, 108, 110,

187–88, 199, 217Brown II, 104

Bryant, Aileen, 42Bryant, Carolyn, 1–3, 6, 7, 35–50, 57

Barnes Freeman and, 38–40, 41beauty of, 1, 40birth of, 35childhood of, 35–41memoir of, 6J.W. Milam and, 49–50Mamie’s testimony and, 160Milam-Bryant family and, 41–42, 44–46, 60, 61Roy’s marriage to, 43–44, 46–47Roy’s meeting of, 32on Strider, 46, 124, 126Till’s encounter with, 2, 4–7, 9, 11, 51–55, 106, 196, 202, 203and Till’s kidnapping and murder, 12, 58–62, 206–7trial testimony of, 4–6, 53, 141, 164–68, 171trial verdict and, 179–80

Bryant, Doris, 42Bryant, Eula Lee, 42–46, 48, 49, 141Bryant, Henry Ezra “Big Boy,” 42–43, 50Bryant, James, 42Bryant, Lamar, 47Bryant, Raymond, 42, 60–61Bryant, Roy, 42, 43, 47, 210

acquittal of, 179–80, 196, 209arrest of, 7, 59–61, 124Carolyn’s marriage to, 43–44, 46–47Carolyn’s meeting of, 43J.W.’s relationship with, 50murder charges against, 64, 127

Smith’s testimony and, 150–51story of Till’s murder told by, 196–97Till kidnapped by, 9–12, 53, 56–62, 64, 68, 77, 83, 119, 158Till murdered by, 2, 45, 58, 64, 77, 78, 120, 196–97, 202–9; see also murder of Emmett

Tilltrial of, see Emmett Till murder trial

Bryant, Roy, Jr., 47Bryant-Milam family, see Milam-Bryant familyBryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, 10, 47–48, 57

Till’s encounter with Bryant at, 2, 4–7, 9, 11, 51–55, 106, 196, 202, 203

Caldwell, Hamilton, 126Calloway, Cab, 198Campanella, Roy, 15Campbell, Mary Louise, 42Campbell, Melvin, 10, 42, 44, 59, 61, 203–4, 207Carlton, C. Sidney, 122–23, 141, 147, 151, 152, 171–72, 182Caro, Robert, 131Carthan, Alma, 25, 28, 31, 32, 57Carthan, Wiley Nash “John,” 25, 28, 31, 140Carter, Hodding, Jr., 127, 182–84Cash, W. J., 97Charleston church shooting, 214Chatham, Gerald, 125, 141–42, 145–46, 151–52, 169–71, 181Chicago, Ill., 13–24, 36

African Americans and segregation in, 5, 14–24, 34, 73, 159doo-wop scene in, 32media coverage of Till case in, 57–59, 66, 67–69, 71, 73–75, 156–57Mississippi and, 16–17, 19, 22, 24, 26, 75, 155, 200–201Till’s life in, 14–16, 19, 31–34, 155, 159Trumbull Park Homes in, 20–22, 24, 201violence in, 17–21

Chicago Daily Tribune, 61Chicago Defender, 18–19, 67, 72–73, 74, 135, 139, 142, 156–57, 184, 193, 195Chicago Sun-Times, 67–68, 71Chicago Tribune, 73, 74, 193Chicago Urban League, 20Citizen, 99Citizens’ Councils, 40, 77, 78, 94–102, 105, 119, 181, 199, 208, 209

Black Monday and, 92, 94death list of, 106Evers murder and, 102founding of, 40, 92, 95–96growth of, 96–98in Indianola, 40, 95–96intimidation, reprisals, and violence by, 99–102, 106, 111, 116, 117, 136in Mississippi, power of, 98NAACP and, 98–102

Till murder and, 101, 102Till murder trial and, 130voting and, 110, 111, 116, 117

City of New Orleans, 16, 24civil rights movement, 184

becomes national, 192, 201communism and, 97, 103gains of, 215March on Washington, 186, 191, 195Montgomery Bus Boycotts, 198–200, 211Moore’s network in, 84protests, 5, 190–201, 212sit-ins, 212, 218television and, 75Till’s murder and, 2, 74–75, 106, 133, 190–201, 202UPWA and, 133see also segregation and integration; voting rights

Clark, Arthur B., Jr., 95Clark, Hubert, 10, 203–4, 207Clarksdale Press Register, 125Cleveland Call and Post, 135Coates, Ta-Nehisi, 216Cold War, 94, 185–88, 193, 198Collins, Levi “Two Tight,” 137, 138, 203–4, 207Colmer, William, 94Committee on Civil Rights, 187communism, 94, 97, 103, 184–88Connor, Mike, 89–90Constitution, 93–94

Fourteenth Amendment to, 92, 119Fifteenth Amendment to, 109

Cothran, John Ed, 59, 63, 127, 141, 148, 206testimony of, 151–52

cotton, 89Courts, Gus, 84, 111, 115–21, 123

attempted murder of, 118–20Crawford, Roosevelt, 51Crawford, Ruthie Mae, 51, 53criminal justice system, 216Crisis, 18Current, Gloster, 102

Daily Worker, 139Daley, Richard, 22–24, 200–201Davis, Sammy, Jr., 198Dawson, William, 22–23, 88Death of Innocence (Till-Mobley and Benson), 5–6, 210Delta Democrat-Times, 127, 128, 144, 182

Delta State College, 80–81democracy, 186–87Democratic Party, 22, 89, 90, 109Dickens, Charles, 172Diggs, Charles, 75, 88, 113, 137, 140–41, 175–76, 181

rally of, 190–91Dittmer, John, 84Dixiecrats (States’ Rights Democratic Party), 79, 89Dogan, Harry, 129, 130, 180domestic workers, 38drugs, 216Du Bois, W. E. B., 18, 78, 185, 187Duncan, Steve, 135

Eagle Eye: The Women’s Voice, 106, 119Eastland, James O., 79, 96, 98, 198East St. Louis, Ill., 78Ebony, 75, 88, 131, 134, 142Eisenhower, Dwight D., 191, 192, 200–201, 208Elaine, Ark., 78Elks’ Rest, 112, 114Emmett Till murder trial, 2, 4–5, 75, 122–35, 139–43, 144–59, 160–76

Carolyn Bryant’s testimony in, 4–6, 53, 141, 164–68, 171closing of prosecution’s case in, 163–64consequences for African American witnesses in, 160–61Cothran’s testimony in, 151–52first day of, 123, 129jurisdiction and, 123–24, 127, 138, 139, 143, 163jury in, 5, 130, 134, 172jury retired during Carolyn Bryant’s testimony, 164–66jury selection in, 129–30, 134, 141, 145justification for Till’s murder offered in, 164–65, 168Mamie at, 139–41, 172, 173, 179Mamie’s testimony in, 152–59, 160–61, 174, 175, 180Miller’s testimony in, 148–50Otken’s testimony in, 168–69protests following, 190–95, 213reactions to verdict in, 181–89Reed’s testimony in, 161–64, 174, 175, 205reporters and photographers at, 128–29, 131–32, 134–35, 146, 179, 181revealing oddity in, 164–65Smith’s testimony in, 150–51spectators and visitors to, 130, 132–34Strider and, 129, 130, 132, 135, 138, 140–43, 150, 156Strider’s testimony in, 169summations in, 169–75timing of, 123–24transcript of, 4, 6

UPWA delegation at, 132–34, 152verdict in, 169, 175–76, 178–81witnesses called in, 141, 148Wright’s testimony in, 122–23, 135, 141, 144–48, 152, 161, 174, 175, 217

Europe, 188–89Evers, Charles, 84–86Evers, Darrell Kenyatta, 85Evers, Medgar, 84–86, 88, 99, 105, 106, 111, 113, 116, 117, 120, 173, 192

at Alcorn State College, 85Lee murder and, 113–14murder of, 102speeches of, 195Till case and, 72, 138, 142, 143

Evers, Myrlie, 85–86, 88, 138

Falgoust, Grace, 133Faulkner, William, 184–86, 209FBI, 102, 119, 192

Lee case and, 112, 113, 115Till case and, 4, 49, 62

Featherston, James, 139, 142Fifteenth Amendment, 109Ford, Louis Henry, 68, 73–74Ford, Percy, 115–17Fourteenth Amendment, 92, 119France, 189Franklin, C. L., 190Franklin, William B., 135Frazier, E. Franklin, 28Frederick, G. C., 8–9Freeman, Annie, 38Freeman, Barnes, 38–40, 41Freeman, Isadore, 38

Gainey, Andrew, 96Garvey, Marcus, 18Ghana, 188Great Migration, 17, 25, 195Green, Adam, 75Green, Ernest, 68–69Green, Lee, 27–28Greene, Percy, 105Greenwood Commonwealth, 125, 146, 153Greenwood Morning Star, 53, 61, 62, 74, 127, 129–30, 182, 183, 200–201

Hall, Rob, 139Harris, Frederick, 213Hatcher, Richard, 211

Hawkins, David H., 95Hayes, Charles, 194Henry, Aaron, 69, 84, 86, 105, 108

RCNL founded by, 86–87“Heroes of the South” rally, 198–99Hicks, James, 127–29, 134, 135, 137–40, 142, 163, 170, 181–82High, Arrington, 106, 119Hill, Herbert, 194, 201Hill, Lindsey, 31–32Himes, Chester, 209Hirsch, Carl, 14Hodges, Robert, 60, 62, 141, 150Hodges, W. E., 141Holder, Eric, 213–14Holloway, Tom, 36, 37, 40, 41Hoover, J. Edgar, 192Howard, Donald and Betty, 20–21Howard, T. R. M., 84–86, 88, 104, 110, 113–15, 120–21, 124, 136, 173, 205

at Madison Square Garden Civil Rights Rally, 198–99Mississippi underground of, 137–39, 143, 148, 150, 161, 163, 191Moore and, 86RCNL founded by, 86–87speeches of, 191–92, 195, 210–11Till case and, 125, 136–38, 141–43Young and, 136–38, 142, 163

Hubbard, Joe Willie, 204Hudson, Alex, 114Huie, William Bradford, 1, 3–4, 49, 77, 106, 195–97Hurley, Ruby, 100, 102, 113–14, 124, 138, 139, 142, 143, 192

imprisonment rates, 216Indianola, Miss., 40–41

Citizens’ Council in, 40, 95–96Information Agency, U.S., 188In Friendship, 198integration, see segregation and integrationItaly, 188–89

Jackson, David, 75, 134, 142Jackson, Mahalia, 88Jackson Advocate, 105, 119Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 7, 98, 113, 125Jackson Daily News, 98, 100–101, 102, 106, 109, 128, 129, 139–42, 183Jet, 70, 72, 75, 114, 131, 142, 211, 212Jewish Labor Committee, 191Johnson, Eva, 33Johnson, James Weldon, 18Johnson, Otha “Oso,” 204, 207

Johnson, Paul, 172Jones, Curtis, 9, 13, 57, 65Jones, Robert, 13Jones, Willie Mae, 13, 57Justice Department, 100, 115, 117, 119, 187

Kansas City Star, 135Kantrowitz, Stephen, 214Kellum, J. W., 172Kempton, Murray, 127–28, 130, 135, 142, 146, 147, 153Kennelly, Martin, 21, 22Kenyatta, Jomo, 85Kimbell, Elmer, 10, 204, 207King, Martin Luther, Jr., 198, 200, 210–11, 216, 217

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 208Ku Klux Klan, 77, 96, 102, 208Kundera, Milan, 210, 214

labor unions, 190–92, 194, 200, 201Ladner, Joyce, 211Lang, Charlie, 68–69Lawrence, Ellet, 98Lee, George, 84, 108, 110–16, 123

murder of, 69, 72, 112–16, 119, 120, 136, 184, 192, 199, 208, 211Lee, Rose, 110, 114Lerner, Max, 182“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (King), 208Levison, Stanley, 198Lewis, John, 213Lide, Caleb, 110Life, 131Little Rock, Ark., 188Loggins, Henry Lee, 137, 138, 203–4Look, 195–96Luce, Phillip Abbott, 102Lucy, Autherine, 198Luton, Savannah, 117–18Lynch, Sam, 31lynching, 178

in Greenwood, 26in Mississippi, 26, 68–69Till’s murder as, 177–78

Madison Square Garden Civil Rights Rally, 198–99Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company, 86March on Washington, 186, 191, 195Marrow, Henry, 2–3Mars, Florence, 92

Marsh, Harry, 75, 128Marshall, Thurgood, 88, 192McCoy, A. H., 100–101, 113, 115, 120McDew, Charles, 211McLaurin, Charles, 81McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 94Melton, Garland, 62, 141Memphis Commercial Appeal, 62, 130, 182, 183Memphis Press-Scimitar, 139, 142Memphis Tri-State Defender, 122, 128, 134, 143Meridian Star, 89Michigan Chronicle, 135Middle East, 188Milam, Dan, 42Milam, Edward, 42Milam, Harley, 47Milam, John Williams (J.W.) “Big,” 42, 47–50, 137–39

acquittal of, 179–80, 196, 209army service of, 48–49arrest of, 7, 60, 61, 124birth of, 48Carolyn Bryant and, 49–50Cothran’s testimony and, 151–52murder charges against, 64, 127Reed’s testimony and, 161, 162Roy’s relationship with, 50story of Till’s murder told by, 196–97Till kidnapped by, 9–12, 53, 56–62, 64, 68, 77, 83, 119, 158, 203–4Till murdered by, 2, 45, 58, 64, 77, 78, 120, 196–97, 202–9; see also murder of Emmett

TillTill’s murder justified by, 77, 78trial of, see Emmett Till murder trial

Milam, Juanita, 47, 49, 50, 141, 167, 168Milam, Leslie, 42, 137, 139, 142, 161, 204–5, 207Milam, Spencer Lamar “Buddy,” 42, 60Milam-Bryant family, 45–46, 50

Carolyn and, 41–42, 44–46, 60, 61racism of, 44, 49Strider and, 46, 126Till kidnapping and, 60

Miller, Chester, 63–65, 141testimony of, 148–50

Mims, B. L., 62, 150Mims, Charles Fred, 62, 141Mims, Jasper, 102Miranda v. Arizona, 151Mississippi, 107–21

Chicago and, 16–17, 19, 22, 24, 26, 75, 155, 200–201

Citizens’ Council’s influence in, 98; see also Citizens’ Councilslynchings in, 26, 68–69national criticism of, 125–26, 157, 181Reconstruction in, 77–78, 103sharecroppers in, 86social structure in, 44–45Till’s stay in, 13–14, 16, 24, 33–34, 51, 68, 158–59violence in, 103

Mississippi State Penitentiary, 36–37Mississippi underground, 137–39, 143, 148, 150, 161, 163, 191Mitchell, Jerry, 7Mitchell, Nannie, 135Mobley, Gene, 68, 71Modiest, Tyrone, 31Montgomery Bus Boycotts, 198–200, 211Moore, Amzie, 80–84, 102, 121, 142, 192

army service of, 81–83Howard and, 86RCNL founded by, 86–87Till murder trial and, 132, 138, 143Wright and, 83–84

Moore, Herman, 95Mooty, Rayfield, 58, 68, 70, 73, 140Moral Mondays, 218“More than a Wolf Whistle: The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham” (Donham), 6mudsill, 44, 77murder of Emmett Till, 2, 41, 45, 58, 64, 77, 78, 120, 202–9

audience for, 177–78body found, 2, 60–64, 84, 102, 123, 125–27burial and funeral preparations in Mississippi, 64–65Carolyn Bryant and, 60–61Citizens’ Council and, 101, 102civil rights movement and, 2, 74–75, 106, 133, 190–201, 202contemporary racial violence and, 212–15funeral, 5, 65, 66, 70–74, 200Huie’s account of, 1, 3–4, 49, 77, 106, 195–97impact of, 211–12injuries in, 5, 63, 64, 75, 205–6investigation of, 123–24, 137–38, 142–43jurisdiction and, 64, 123–24, 127, 138, 139, 143, 163as justified, 77, 78, 164–65, 168, 180, 182, 184kidnapping in, 9–12, 53, 56–62, 64, 68, 77, 83, 119, 158, 203–4Lee’s murder and, 113, 184as lynching vs. murder, 177–78Marrow’s murder and, 2–3Milam and Bryant’s account of, 196–97NAACP and, 72, 74, 125–27, 142, 143, 156, 172–75, 180, 183, 184, 186open casket and public viewing of body, 5, 70–74

photographs of body printed, 75, 211–12press coverage of, 57–59, 66, 67–69, 71, 73–75, 125–26, 156–58search for body, 58, 60trial of, see Emmett Till murder trialwitnesses to events in, 137–39, 141–43, 163–64, 191, 192, 205

Murdock, Clotye, 134, 142

NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), 18, 21, 22, 24, 68,69, 83, 84, 91, 92, 97, 102–6, 107, 109, 111, 113, 117, 120, 124, 135, 170, 184, 187, 199,212, 218

Citizens’ Council and, 98–102Diggs rally and, 191donations to, 191, 194, 199Lee murder and, 113–14rallies and, 191–95RCNL and, 87Strider’s claim of plot by, 126–27, 156, 172–75Till case and, 72, 74, 125–27, 142, 143, 156, 172–75, 180, 183, 184, 186

Nation, 125, 131, 148National Negro Press Association, 127, 134, 142Nelson, C. M., 65–66, 141Newcombe, Don, 15New Deal, 89–90New Republic, 108Newsome, Moses, 122–23, 143Newsweek, 131New York Herald Tribune, 181New York Post, 61, 128, 130, 135, 182, 189, 209New York Times, 69, 119, 139, 153, 194Nixon, E. D., 198

O’Neal-McCrary, Helen, 19Oshinsky, David, 37Otken, L. B., 141

testimony of, 168–69Ottley, Roi, 184

Parchman Farm, 36–37Parker, Hallie, 30Parker, Milton, 31Parker, Thelton “Pete,” 51Parker, Wheeler, Jr., 9–11, 13, 24, 30, 31, 34, 51, 52, 54, 59Parker, Wheeler, Sr., 30, 32Parker, William, 31Parks, Rosa, 198, 210–11Patterson, Cora, 186Patterson, Robert “Tut,” 94, 95–97, 101, 116Payne, Charles, 85, 98

Pearson, Billy, 132Perez, Leander, 96Perkins, J. A., 74–75Picayune Item, 126Pikes, Lee, 39Pittman, Lillian, 133–34Pittsburgh Courier, 66, 138Plessy v. Ferguson, 95, 104PM, 69Popham, John, 139, 153Porteous, Clark, 139, 141, 142Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr., 186, 195, 198Powell, Fay Bellamy, 212prisons, 36–37, 216protest politics, 5, 190–201, 212

Randolph, A. Philip, 186, 191, 193, 198, 199Ratcliffe, Robert M., 138Ray, Peck, 112Rayner, A. A., 70–72RCNL (Regional Council of Negro Leadership), 86–89, 103, 137, 173

Lee and, 110–11, 113–14NAACP and, 87

Reader’s Digest, 196Reconstruction, 77–78, 103Reed, Add, 143, 148, 163, 205Reed, Willie, 143, 148, 176, 181, 205

testimony of, 161–64, 174, 175, 205restrooms, 87–88Roberts, Isaiah, 68Robinson, Jackie, 15Roosevelt, Eleanor, 188, 198Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, 89Rowan, Carl, 188Rustin, Bayard, 198

St. Louis Argus, 135Sandburg, Carl, 16Sanders, Stanny, 61–62, 64, 112, 115Saturday Evening Post, 183–84Schneider, E. D., 78school integration, 3, 76–78, 84, 88–90, 94–96, 100–101, 103–5, 107–8, 173, 184, 199

Brown v. Board of Education, 76–78, 84, 88–90, 91, 92, 94–95, 103, 104, 107, 108, 110,187–88, 199, 217

Brown II, 104petitions for, 104–6resegregation, 217

Scottsboro trials, 192

segregation and integration:Black Monday and, 92–94in Chicago, 14, 16–24, 34Eisenhower on, 208of lunch counters, 212miscegenation fears and, 22, 92–93, 96–98of restrooms, 87–88of schools, see school integration

Senate Judiciary Committee, 121servants, 38Shaw, J. A., 130, 179, 180Shelton, Ike, 111–13, 115, 118Shoemaker, W. C., 139, 142Sillers, Walter, Jr., 79, 91, 92Simmons, William, 96–97, 99sit-ins, 212, 218Skidmore, Matthew, 81slaves, 93Sledge, Wilma, 97–98Smith, Crosby “Sunny,” 30, 31, 56–58, 65, 68, 124Smith, George, 53, 58–62, 124, 126–27

testimony of, 150–51Smith, Lamar, 69, 119–20, 136, 184, 192, 199, 208, 211Smith, Lillian, 97Smith, Robert B., 141, 148–50, 153–54, 158, 161–63, 168, 169, 174–75, 181Smith v. Allwright decision on white primaries, 89, 109SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), 211–12socialism, 94, 97Sorrells, Bill, 182South Deering Bulletin, 22South Deering Improvement Association, 21, 22Soviet Union, Cold War with, 94, 185–88, 193, 198Spencer, Elizabeth, 185–86Springfield, Ill., 78State Department, 5, 187–89States’ Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats), 79, 89Stewart, Bill, 131Stokes, Gerald V., 27Strickland, C. A., 148Strider, Clarence, Jr., 62Strider, Henry Clarence (H.C.), 46, 124–25, 163, 175, 204

Milam-Bryant family and, 46, 126NAACP plot theory of, 126–27, 156, 172–75, 180Till murder and, 62–65, 123–27Till murder trial and, 129, 130, 132, 135, 138, 140–43, 150, 156trial testimony of, 169

Stringer, E. J., 84, 100, 103Sullens, Frederick, 106

Supreme Court, 93–94, 97, 100, 106, 165, 187, 197, 199Brown v. Board of Education, 76–78, 84, 88–90, 91, 92, 94–95, 103, 104, 107, 108, 110,

187–88, 199, 217Brown II, 104McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 94Miranda v. Arizona, 151Plessy v. Ferguson, 95, 104Smith v. Allwright, 89, 109Sweatt v. Painter, 94

Swango, Curtis M., 127–30, 135, 140–43, 147, 149, 151, 152, 156, 158, 159, 162–66, 169,179, 181–82

Sweatt v. Painter, 94

Taylor, Donny Lee, 31, 32television, 75

Till murder trial and, 131–32Telfor, Marjorie, 133Thomas, Norman, 198Thurmond, Strom, 79Till, Emmett:

baseball playing of, 15–16, 30birth of, 28in Chicago, 14–16, 19, 31–34, 155, 159childhood of, 14–16, 19, 28–34churchgoing of, 32–33encounter with Carolyn Bryant at grocery, 2, 4–7, 9, 11, 51–55, 106, 196, 202, 203in Mississippi, 13–14, 16, 24, 33–34, 51, 68, 158–59murder of, see murder of Emmett Tillpolio of, 11, 30, 31, 33trial for murder of, see Emmett Till murder trial

Till, Louis, 28, 29Till, Mamie, 14–16, 25–34, 52, 125, 137, 180, 192, 200, 202, 214, 217

Chicago newspapers and, 57–59, 66, 67–69, 71, 73–75childhood of, 25–28death of, 200at Emmett’s funeral, 73–74Emmett’s kidnapping and, 57–59and funeral preparations for Emmett in Mississippi, 65marriages and name changes of, 5nmarriage to Bradley, 5n, 31, 33marriage to Louis Till, 5n, 28, 29memoir of, 5–6, 210open-casket decision of, 5, 70–73at rallies, 191–95, 200and story of little black girl, 26–27at trial, 139–41, 172, 173, 175–76, 179trial testimony of, 152–59, 160–61, 174, 175, 180trial verdict and, 181

Time, 131, 188Tobias, Channing, 186Transport Workers Union, 200Truman, Harry, 79, 187Trumbull Park, 20–22, 24, 201Tubb, Thomas, 109Tulsa, Okla., 78

UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), 18United Auto Workers, 190, 191United Nations, 187United Packinghouse Workers of America, 21United Steelworkers, 193, 200University of Alabama, 188University of Oklahoma Law School, 94University of Texas Law School, 94UPWA (United Packinghouse Workers of America), 21, 132–34, 152, 191, 193, 194, 199–201Urban League, 193

Vicknair, Freida, 133, 134Vicksburg Post, 105, 125Voice at the Back Door, The (Spencer), 186Voice of America, 188voting rights, 78–79, 83–85, 88–90, 103, 104, 106, 108–12, 114–17, 119, 133, 184, 199,

208Citizens’ Councils and, 110, 111, 116, 117Smith v. Allwright decision on white primaries, 89, 109

Wakefield, Dan, 125, 132, 148Walton, W. M., 114Ward, Jason Morgan, 78Warren, Earl, 78, 208Washington Afro-American, 154Washington Post, 213Watson, Joe David, Sr., 112, 115Watson, Minnie White, 72Weber, Ed, 62Werner, Craig, 20West, Richard, 114whipping, 37Whitaker, Hugh, 180White, Ernest, 118White, Hugh, 117, 125, 127, 178White, J. H., 104White, Walter, 22, 187White Citizens Legal Fund, 102white supremacy, 79–81, 93, 97, 200, 201, 206, 213–17

Charleston church shooting and, 214

internalized, 204, 217Milam-Bryant family and, 44, 49

Whitten, John W., 5, 172–74Wilkerson, Isabel, 16Wilkins, Roy, 106, 111, 113–15, 125–26, 191, 198, 200Williams, Eugene, 17Williams, John Bell, 76Willoughby, Abner, 201Wilmington, N.C., 78Wilson, L. Alex, 134, 139, 142Withers, Ernest, 75, 128–29, 134–35, 146Woolworth’s, 212World War I, 18World War II, 81–82, 84, 186Wright, Elizabeth, 9–11, 26, 55, 56–57Wright, Ellis, 100Wright, Fielding, 79Wright, Maurice, 9, 11, 51, 54Wright, Moses, 8–9, 13–14, 24, 26, 34, 51, 55, 173, 179

Moore and, 83–84at rallies, 194, 195Till’s body identified by, 63–64, 127Till’s funeral preparations and, 64, 65Till’s kidnapping and, 9–12, 56–59, 83trial testimony of, 122–23, 135, 141, 144–48, 152, 161, 174, 175, 217trial verdict and, 181

Wright, Richard, 26, 79, 189Wright, Robert, 9Wright, Simeon, 9, 51–55, 57

Young, Frank, 136–38, 142, 143, 148, 163–64

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Copyright © 2017 by Timothy Tyson

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Interior design by Ruth Lee-MuiJacket Design by Archie Ferguson

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataNames: Tyson, Timothy B., author.Title: The blood of Emmett Till / Timothy B. Tyson.Description: New York : Simon & Schuster, [2017] | Includes bibliographical references and

index.Identifiers: LCCN 2016021595 (print) | LCCN 2016023098 (ebook) | ISBN 9781476714844

(hardcover) | ISBN 9781476714851 (pbk.) | ISBN 9781476714868 (ebook) | ISBN9781476714868 (E-Book)

Subjects: LCSH: Till, Emmett, 1941-1955. | Lynching—Mississippi—History—20th century. |African Americans—Crimes against—Mississippi. | Racism—Mississippi—History—20thcentury. | Trials (Murder)—Mississippi—Sumner. | Hate crimes—Mississippi. | United States—Race relations—History—20th century. | Mississippi—Race relations.

Classification: LCC HV6465.M7 T97 2017 (print) | LCC HV6465.M7 (ebook) | DDC364.1/34—dc23

LC record available at

ISBN 978-1-4767-1484-4ISBN 978-1-4767-1486-8 (ebook)

  • Dedication
  • Epigraph
  • Chapter 1: Nothing That Boy Did
  • Chapter 2: Boots on the Porch
  • Chapter 3: Growing Up Black in Chicago
  • Chapter 4: Emmett in Chicago and “Little Mississippi”
  • Chapter 5: Pistol-Whipping at Christmas
  • Chapter 6: The Incident
  • Chapter 7: On the Third Day
  • Chapter 8: Mama Made the Earth Tremble
  • Chapter 9: Warring Regiments of Mississippi
  • Chapter 10: Black Monday
  • Chapter 11: People We Don’t Need Around Here Any More
  • Chapter 12: Fixed Opinions
  • Chapter 13: Mississippi Underground
  • Chapter 14: “There He Is”
  • Chapter 15: Every Last Anglo-Saxon One of You
  • Chapter 16: The Verdict of the World
  • Chapter 17: Protest Politics
  • Chapter 18: Killing Emmett Till
  • Epilogue: The Children of Emmett Till
  • Acknowledgments
  • About Timothy B. Tyson
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Copyright

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