Sumner, Mississippi, Till Murder Trial; ‘First, Great Media Event of the Civil Rights Movement’

Bridge over the Cassidy Bayou in Sumner, Miss. Tallahatchie County courthouse in background — site of the 1955 Milam-Bryant trial, the men who killed Emmett Till. Photo by Susan Klopfer.

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In observance of the 54th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955), I am blogging my new book, Who Killed Emmett Till? Your comments and feedback are appreciated and I hope for the entire blog-book to be finished by Sept. 15, 2009. I enjoy and appreciate your comments. Susan

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This is Post #15 in the Blog Book, Who Killed Emmett Till?

Link to Selected Bibliography
Link to Lists of the Dead
Link to A Map of the Mississippi Delta

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“In a way, life had been too easy for me. Always someone there to look out for me, to take care of the hard things. Even Bo. I could see that things were about to get very hard, more difficult than they had even been. Impossible, really. And the only one I could count on would be myself.”

Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, in Death of Innocence

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FRED AND I MET ADA GUEST of Sumner, Miss. one Sunday afternoon while driving around her small, Mississippi Delta town and looking lost, I guess.

Old Ada had been following us not-very-subtly in her fancy white Cadillac for the past half-hour. So after letting her chase us a while longer, we finally got curious and stopped our car, pulled over to the side of the street, across from the drugstore, and she pulled over, too.

With a little friendly back and forth chit-chat through car windows, we assured her that we (Yankee strangers) were simply driving around her pretty town because of its history, so she relaxed and gave us a tour of the Cassidy Bayou, Tallahatchie County courthouse and then shared some personal memories about the day she attended her town’s biggest event ever back in the fall of 1955.

IN HER mid-eighties and living independently in Sumner 54 years later, she told us about attending The Trial, “the biggest week ever in Sumner,” for one day, as guest of her boss, a Sumner attorney, who arranged for her to stand at the back of the hot and humid courtroom.

“He told me this was something I should not miss. I remember the courtroom was crowded and it was so hot. Mostly I remember that Emmett Till’s mother came to the trial every day, very well-dressed; her car door was opened courteously by the black courthouse janitor each morning when she arrived at the courthouse.”

Guest remembered seeing the black reporters working at a table separated from white reporters.

“The black Congressman [Diggs] was sitting by the black reporters at their table,” she said. Wives of the defendants sat with their husbands and their children stayed close by.

“The children played sometimes, and they slept and got cranky, too.”
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Throughout her life, Emmett Till’s mother, carried a frightening story close to her heart – a story she often replayed in her mind. She didn’t have to own the story, since her family had left Mississippi and its inherent meanness when she was just a baby – like many black Mississippians, they moved to Argo, on the outskirts of Chicago, to escape the misery of the Delta.

A little black girl brought to work by her mother, out of necessity, had become a playmate of the white family’s daughter and one day the white child complained to her father about something the black child had done. The father became so angry that he slammed the black woman’s child into a tree. The black mother was forced to complete her housework before caring for her child; her daughter ultimately died from the injuries.

For black people, every generation has a cautionary tale much like this, – a story (true or untrue) based on real or imaginary events and that teaches something important, Mrs. Till Mobley once told writer, Christopher Benson, as they wrote her book, Death of Innocence.

Before her 14-year-old son left for the Delta, Mamie Till Mobley wanted Emmett to be aware he would be leaving the world of Chicago – the only world he knew — for a place that could be extraordinarily mean to black folks, even to black children like the cleaning lady’s daughter.

She coached her son to be aware of the unwritten Jim Crow rules – don’t start up conversations with white people, only talk if you’re spoken to, respond with “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am.” Step off the street for white women and lower your head. Don’t look white women in the eye and when passing the on the sidewalk, keep going and don’t look back. If you must, get onto your knees and apologize.

How did she know these rules so well, the basis of reality for Mississippi blacks?

As a 12-year-old, Mrs. Till once returned to Mississippi to visit grandparents, and her grandfather let her wander while he was conducting business. She had left his side and walked into a drugstore, alone, where she unknowingly disobeyed the rules of Jim Crow, going into a white-only store to buy toilet paper – and being brazen, at that.

Because her grandfather was well known and respected (as much as any black man in the Delta could be), he was able to remove his granddaughter safely from the store and take her home without incident.

But upon return to her grandparents’ home, she was scolded and warned never again to cross over to the white side of town.

“He told me about the great danger that I had just faced, how I simply could have disappeared.”

And after her grandfather explained the impact on her parents should something happen to her while in Mississippi, the fear of “every black person in the state of Mississippi,” had been “pounded in to me,” a lesson that Mamie Till Mobley wrote she would never forget.

So, Mobley had really struggled in deciding if her son should be allowed to visit Mississippi, making a similar trip she had experienced at twelve – questioning if he would be safe or get into trouble.

But it was not uncommon for children to visit their Delta relatives – years had passed, after all, since her own frightening experience in Webb — and with assurances from her relatives, combined with Bo’s intense desire to see his roots, Mobley gave in, deciding the trip would be a good experience for her son.
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Dear Mom

How is everybody? I hope you and Jean is fine. I hope you’ll have a nice trip. I am having a fine time will be home next week. Please have my motor bike fixed for me (pay you back). If I get any mail put it up for me. I am going to see Uncle Crosby Saturday. Everybody here is fine and having a good time. Tell Aunt Alma hello. (out of money)

Your son
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The first telephone call to Emmett’s mother came early Sunday morning, August 28, 1955 from Emmett Till’s aunt, Willie Mae. The message was short and to the point:

Emmett had been kidnapped in the middle of the night.

A black child missing in Mississippi – who would care?

Would anything be done?

Here is where the Emmett Till story changes course, where history takes a turn.

Unlike most black families, Emmett Till’s family had some limited connections and clout, and quickly put them to work.

First, a hastily called press conference gave reporters the initial facts: Emmett had been taken away in the middle of the night by white men who came into her Uncle Moses Wright’s home in Money.

Then right away, Papa Spearman, her mother’s husband, suggested they contact his nephew, Rayfield Mooty, a union official, head of the Steelworkers Local who had good contacts with the steelworkers, autoworkers and sleeping car porters.

Mooty knew important politicians and civil rights people. A man of action, he quickly got to work.

By Monday morning, August 29, Mooty had arranged for Emmett Till’s mother to meet with the Chicago branch of the NAACP where they spoke with William Henry Huff, the Chicago NAACP counsel who promised to put resources to work.

Mooty did not leave the Till case, once he started the ball rolling. In fact, he traveled to Mississippi with Mamie and her father, Nash “John” Carthan, for the murder trial and later was quoted saying that two things made the Till case different: “the ugly brutality of it all,” and the “public outrage at this gruesome act” that “marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.”

Mooty would also sign a petition urging the President to call a special session of Congress in order to recommend passage of anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws.

Mooty stirred it up, he got things going; the story was appearing in Chicago papers. Local and state officials, including Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, Illinois Governor William Stratton, and William Dawson, the city’s powerful Southside congressman, quickly got involved.

Even a plane from a relative’s company, Inland Steel Container Company, was put into the air, flying over the area in Mississippi where Emmett had been taken.

But then on Wednesday, August 31, the second call came to Emmett’s mother from a reporter.

Emmett was dead. His body had been pulled from the Tallahatchie River, about twelve miles from Money.

Tallahatchie River, near the site where Emmett Till’s body was discovered. (Photo, susan Klopfer)

While she had been surrounded by so much strength, it would be Mamie Till Mobley who sucked it up and took the lead – insisting on a world-class funeral for her young son and then going down to Mississippi for the trial of her his murderers, realizing from that point forward her life had been “too easy.”
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“X,” a black Delta businessperson grew up in Minter City and was ten when Emmett Till was killed. “My mother was so worried about us. I had brothers and sisters, and she told the girls and then the boys about what happened. Sometimes we traveled to Drew and my mother was afraid for our safety.”

Emmett was killed after he went into the store in Money with another boy, her mother told her: “She said he whistled at a dog that was sitting on a chair, and Carolyn Bryant thought Emmett was whistling at her.”

There were rumors that Emmett Till was castrated before he was finally killed – X was told by her mother. “W e grew up with the hurt of what happened to Emmett Till. My brothers were always afraid that someone would take them away and kill them, too – just like Emmett Till.
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Tallahatchie County is one of ten counties in Mississippi with two county seats – Charleston (named after the city in South Carolina) and Sumner, named after its pioneer settler. In 1902, the county was divided, and the second courthouse was built at Sumner, housing the records of lands in Tallahatchie County west of a line almost parallel with the Tallahatchie River.

One of the Delta’s most scenic waterways, Cassidy Bayou, runs through Sumner flowing southward and is the longest stream in Mississippi because it is so crooked. Sumner’s Baptist Church, erected in 1917, used the pews from the old Baptist church that were slid across the bayou on ice. The Presbyterian Church, designed after a great church in Paris, was finished in 1920.

The standing courthouse, built in 1909, features a somber monument to the memory of Southern Soldiers that was erected four years later on the Northeast corner of the courthouse square.

It was here in historic Sumner – a mile and a half from the birthplace of Till’s mother – where the Milam-Bryant trial unfolded in the fall of 1955; journalists and others were greeted to this Delta town by its slogan emblazoned on a prominent sign: “Sumner – a good place to raise a boy.”

Scores of national reporters and photographers – white and black – would come face to face with Sheriff H. C. Strider, “ …a big, fat, plain-talking, obscene-talking sheriff you would expect to find in the South,” wrote John Herbers, representing United Press.

Not used to caring for an international pool of journalists and photographers, Strider made sure black reporters were “provided” a Jim Crow card table to the side. When Detroit’s black Congressman Charles Diggs came to Sumner to observe the proceedings, Strider wouldn’t allow him into the courtroom until the presiding judge made the sheriff do so. Then Strider escorted U. S. Rep. Diggs to the “Jim Crow” table where black reporters sat.(Strider, who died in 2009, was memorialized by state legislators who named a portion of a highway after him.)

Opening Monday, September 19, and ending that Friday, September 23, this trial was named the “first great media event of the Civil Rights Movement,” by David Halberstam, then a young correspondent covering Mississippi. More than seventy reporters and thirty photographers attended, including Booker Simeon for Jet magazine; John Chancellor for NBC news; John Gunter for the Memphis Commercal Appeal, Halberstam for the West Point Daily Times Leader and Robert F. Hall for the Daily Worker.

An all-white grand jury had surprised most people in the first place by quickly ordering Bryant and Milam to stand trial. It was unusual in Mississippi for any action to be taken against whites who committed violence against blacks; it was not the first time a Mississippi court would hear a case of white men accused of murdering a black, but it would become the most famous example.

The trial began September 19, 1955 in Sumner with the entire jury composed of white men from the defendants’ home county. At trial, lawyers asserted that the body recovered from the river was not Till’s body. Instead, claimed Milam and Bryant, they had taken Till but had let him go. They alleged that the NAACP and Mamie Till had dug up a body and claimed that it was Till. According to their defense, Till was hiding out in Chicago.

It would be dangerous for any black person to testify again a white, and so it was difficult to find witnesses for the prosecution. Those who knew anything were afraid to come forward. A group of black journalists had tried to help the prosecution team of District Attorney Gerald Chatham and Robert Smith, a former FBI agent appointed to assist by Gov. Hugh White because “the people of Mississippi are anxious that justice be done.”

Prosecutors based much of their case on Willie Reed, an eighteen-year old high school student, who testified on the stand in barely a whisper that he had seen Bryant, Milam, and another man with Till. Reed said that he heard screaming coming from the Milam barn.

When Mose Wright took the stand, he testified that Milam and Bryant had taken Till at gunpoint from his home. After Reed and Wright testified, they were quickly escorted out of Mississippi by the NAACP.

Wright had decided from the beginning that he would testify. One version of this dramatic court scene, when Preacher Wright forever changed courtroom testimony of blacks on whites in the state of Mississippi, is told by crime writer Mark Gado. (He wasn’t there, but he tells a terrific version in Mississippi Madness, The Story of Emmett Till.)

The story goes that Moses had put his wife Elizabeth on a train to Chicago, for her safety. She had begged him not to testify and most local whites didn’t think he’d show up. But once the trial opened, Moses defied all odds and spoke before the jury.

“Moses Wright was called to the stand. He was a very thin, wiry man with taut black leathery skin and gray hair. Wright wore a white shirt with a blue tie and suspenders. He came to the witness chair with an air of dignity and determination. Wright said he was awakened by a banging on his door on the night of August 28. When he opened the door, he found Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam standing there and demanding to see the boy from Chicago who did the talking!

“He said Milam had a gun and walked into his house to get Emmett Till. Wright described the next anxious minutes as Till was awakened from sleep and forced to get dressed while Bryant and Milam stood over him. He said his wife Elizabeth offered to pay the defendants for any damage Emmett may have caused, if they would just let him be. District Attorney Chatam asked if he could point out the man with the gun in the courtroom.

“Yes, sir! Wright said without hesitation. He stood up slowly and with an act of courage and defiance that would reverberate across the state of Mississippi and signal the beginning of the end of white supremacy in the South, an old, black sharecropper pointed a gnarled finger at white J.W. Milam and announced in a loud, clear voice, Thar he!”

(In fact, Papa Mose said, “There he is,” according to others in the courtroom, including Mrs. Till Mobley.)

Emmett’s mother’s first official appearance in the courtroom was Tuesday, September 20. With the humidity and heat, “…it felt like we had walked into hell,” she recalled.

Mamie Till Mobley testified that the body she buried was her son, Emmett Till. A key piece of evidence in the trial was a gold ring that Emmett wore. The ring was engraved with the letters L.T., the initials of his father Louis Till. Emmett’s father had left him the ring when he died. According to Mrs. Bradley, “Emmett was definitely wearing it when he left Chicago.”

Were others involved in the kidnapping?

At the time of the trial and over the years there has been speculation that others were involved – that several potential witnesses had been locked up in the Charleston jail, for instance. Historical researchers David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito believe this is entirely possible, just not provable.

“It is entirely possible that others, besides Milam and Bryant, took part in Till’s kidnapping and killing. Proving this is another matter entirely. Key witnesses, including, of course, Bryant and Milam are dead. Memories have become hazy and unreliable. Taken together, we believe that the evidence is too thin, too circumstantial, and too contradictory, for definitive answers,” they state in Why It’s Unlikely the Emmett Till Murder Mystery Will Ever Be Solved.

Neither Milam nor Bryant testified during the trial that lasted five days. In the defense’s closing argument, Milam and Bryant’s attorney forewarned the jury,”Your ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I’m sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.”

After the jury deliberated for only 67 minutes (lasting that long only because they stopped to drink soda), the jury found Milam and Bryant not guilty, concluding that the prosecution had failed to prove that the body recovered from the river was Emmett Till.

Some in the press corps wept when the jury acquitted Till’s murderers.

Journalist Hodding Carter, Jr. asserted the tension from the murder and trial was the worst [he] had ever seen. The Greenville publisher believed that matters were going to get “more violent down this way before things take a turn for the better,” and told others he had never before felt quite as discouraged about racial relations and attitudes, his biographer Ann Waldron wrote.

Reactions around the Delta to the entire Emmett Till saga were nearly as swift [and mean] as were most earlier reactions to Brown vs. the Board of Education. An editorial in the Yazoo Herald stated, “Through the furor over the Emmett Till case we hope someone gets this over to the nine ninnies who comprise the present U. S. Supreme Court. Some of the young Negro’s blood is on their hands also.”

On January 24, 1956, Look magazine published the confession of Milam and Bryant, who had agreed to tell their story to black journalist William Bradford Huie for $4,000.

The two men said they beat Till with a .45 in Milam’s barn and then took him to the Tallahatchie River where they had him undress and then shot him in the head. A gin fan was tied around his neck with wire in order to weigh the body down in the river. Till’s shoes and clothes were burned, they said.

Milam and Bradley could not be legally prosecuted because of the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy. Yet even in their home community of Ruleville, Milam and Bryant were ostracized for “disgracing” their community for what they had done.

After the trial, blacks boycotted the Bryant’s’ store, which forced them out of business. Both men remained in Mississippi until their deaths; Milam died of cancer in 1980 and Bryant died of cancer in 1994.

As of 2009, Carolyn Bryant Donham, Bryant’s ex-wife, still lived in the Delta amid strong rumors that she was writing a book with her granddaughter about the incident.

Meanwhile, Mamie Till Mobley died in 2003 at the age of 81. She had kept frequent contact with several Mississippians, including Drew attorney Cleve McDowell of Drew, who was born in 1941, the same year as her son, Emmett.

McDowell spoke with Till’s mother often, confirmed his former office manager, Nettie Davis.

“Cleve kept many records on the Till Case. Unfortunately, they were burned up [or somehow disappeared] in a fire that happened six months after Cleve was murdered in 1997.”

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Keith Beauchamp, photo by Susan Klopfer

Keith Beauchamp initiates background research for a feature film he plans to make about Till’s murder, and asserts that as many as 14 individuals may have been involved. Beauchamp decides to produce a documentary and spends the next nine years creating The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. This film leads to calls by the NAACP and others for the case to be reopened.

David T. Beito, associate professor at the University of Alabama and Linda Royster Beito, chair of the department of social sciences at Stillman College, track down and interview on tape two key principals in the case: Henry Lee Loggins and Willie Reed while doing research for their biography of Dr. T.R.M. Howard.

Loggins denies any knowledge of the crime or that he was one of the black men on the truck outside of the equipment shed near Drew. Reed repeats his trial testimony, that he had seen three black men and four white men (including J.W. Milam) on the truck. When asked to identify the black men, however, he did not name Loggins as one of them. The Beitos confirm that Levi “Too-Tight” Collins, another black man allegedly on this car, died in 1993.

On May 10, the United States Department of Justice announces reopening of the case to determine whether anyone other than Milam and Bryant was involved. Although the statute of limitations prevents charges being pursued under federal law, they could be pursued before the state court, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and officials in Mississippi work jointly on the investigation.

Till’s body is exhumed on May 31, from the suburban Chicago cemetery where it was buried, which was conducted by the Cook County coroner. The body is reburied by relatives on June 4 after it has been positively identified as that of Emmett Till.

The FBI and a Leflore County Grand Jury empanelled by Joyce Chiles, a black prosecutor, finds no credible basis for Keith Beauchamp’s claim that fourteen individuals took part in Till’s abduction and murder or that any remained alive. The Grand Jury decides not to prefer charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham, Roy Bryant’s ex-wife. Neither the FBI nor the Grand Jury find any credible evidence that Henry Lee Loggings, living in an Ohio nursing home, has any role in the crime.
Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger labels as legend a rumor that Till had endured castration at the hands of his victimizers. The recent autopsy, as reported by Mitchell, confirms Mobley-Till’s original account that her son was not castrated and shows no evidence of castration.

In March, The FBI releases its report stating that Till died of a gunshot wound to the head and that he had fractured wrist bones and skull and leg fractures.

On July 9, a manager and three gravediggers at Burr Oak Cemetery are charged with digging up bodies, dumping them in a remote area, and reselling the plots. Till’s grave is not disturbed, but investigators find his original glass-topped casket rusting in a dilapidated storage shed. The casket is taken to the Rayner and Sons mortuary, to be restored for display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. Rayner and Sons also prepared Emmett Till’s body for burial in 1955.
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Next: The Story of Cleve McDowell

For more books, DVDs, and more about Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement, please visit my Civil Rights Library.