It seems Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago black schoolboy, will never die. Of course it’s common knowledge his battered body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in August of 1955.
On September 24, 1955, two white men – J. W. Milam, 36, and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, 21, were swiftly acquitted of Till’s brutal murder following a week-long trial in a packed, steamy Sumner courtroom. Till’s mother had insisted that the
Chicago boy’s body be displayed in an open casket and some 10,000 mourners filed past the bier, heightening broad interest in the case.
As the Jackson-based correspondent for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, I had been one of the 70 national and international newsmen drawn to the tiny Delta town for the trial.
It happened that a former senior state lawmaker I knew was the trial judge. His conduct of the trial won praise from skeptical reporters.
Because the case stands as a classic example of racial injustice in the Deep South, Emmett Till’s name has become legendary in the pantheon of black civil rights martyrs and retold (sometimes with twisted facts) in documentaries and books.
His story essentially is this: a black schoolboy – big for his age – comes to the Mississippi Delta on a summer visit with his mother’s in-laws. Then, after smarting off to an attractive white woman storekeeper, he was yanked by a hulking white man (identified as Milam) from the cotton-patch house of his grand-uncle, winding up dead in the river with a discarded cotton gin fan around his neck.
The recent Trayvon Martin case in Florida – that of an unarmed 17-year-old black youth being shot dead by a white man on neighborhood watch who is acquitted of any crime – thrust the Till story back into national news because of the similarity of the two cases, though 58 years apart.
When the Emmett Till case came along, newspapers and news magazines provided virtually all the news. TV was really in its infancy, the Internet and cable news hadn’t even been born. Consequently, as a news event the Till story had a relatively brief shelf life.
By contrast, the Martin case is not only a daily story in broadcast news, but has also become the focal point of an unprecedented national dialogue on race initiated by America’s first black president.
Then last week, Willie Reed, 76, one of the few living prosecution witnesses in the Till trial, died of natural causes in Chicago, as noted in a 1,500-word New York Times obituary.
Reed, (he had changed his last name to Louis after literally fleeing his native state) was at the time of the trial a 17-year-old cotton field worker. In testimony, Reed placed young Till and Milam, the leading murder suspect, in a pickup farm truck believed to have been where Till was beaten and subsequently killed.
At trial, Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, testified she identified her son’s body (a point ridiculed by defense lawyers) because the youth still had on one finger a ring bearing the initials of his late father.
The all-white jury that included 10 farmers took only one hour and five minutes to come back with its verdict, an outcome everyone fully expected. Notably, three months after the trial, Milam and Bryant sold their story of what happened to
Look Magazine, virtually admitting they had murdered young Till.
In its obituary on Willie Reed, even the good, gray New York Times fell into the trap of distorted facts on the Till trial by picking up several errors that have emerged from supposed documentaries and books about the case.
Significantly the Times obit says when Reed come out of the courthouse he walked “through a thicket of Klansmen massed outside the courthouse.”
Say what? As a reporter on the scene – and one who closely watched for Klan activity to appear during the civil rights era – the Times piece is dead wrong.
There were no Klansmen evident outside the courthouse. And the Times got the name of Till’s great uncle wrong. It was Mose Wright, not Moses Wright.
Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.