A Memory of The Emmett Till Murder Trial

51omoemumsl-_sx331_bo1204203200_A new book, EMMETT TILL: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled The Civil Rights Movement, by Devery S. Anderson, is the best and most complete account of the harrowing story. The author called me several years ago while doing research for the book and apologized: “I’m sure you get a lot of calls and emails about this, and I’m sorry to bother you, but you are the only one who was at the trial who is still alive.” I was twenty-three when I went to the Mississippi Delta and covered the trial for The Nation magazine. I had no idea that the story would  become so relevant more than sixty years later that three movies, as well as a spate of new books on the trial, are being produced.

I was sent by The Nation magazine to cover the Emmett Till Murder trial in Mississippi in September of 1955.  It was the first major “race” story after the Supreme Court Decision banning desegregation in the schools, and reporters from all over the world were there. The trial lasted one week, and it only took the all-white jury an hour and seven minutes to decide the “not guilty” verdict that was a foregone conclusion.  Reporters heard later that the reason it took so long was that the jurors had a hard time figuring out how to complete the form that gave their decision to the judge. The last lawyer summed up his case for the defense by announcing his faith that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men in this jury has the courage to set these men free.”The two Anglo-Saxon men charged with murder had come at night to the house of Moses Wright, asking for “the boy from Chicago” who had violated local standards by whistling at a white woman.  The body of that boy – fourteen-year-old Emmett Till – was found in the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. He was tortured before he was killed. I summed up the aftermath of the trial in the first sentence of my story:

14emmetttillbefore_2534273093The two Anglo-Saxon men charged with murder had come at night to the house of Moses Wright, asking for “the boy from Chicago” who had violated local standards by whistling at a white woman.  The body of that boy – fourteen-year-old Emmett Till – was found in the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. He was tortured before he was killed. I summed up the aftermath of the trial in the first sentence of my story:“The crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

“The crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”A crowd was gathered on the lawn outside the courthouse during the trial, and the crowd itself was segregated. There was a Princeton student from Mississippi who was defending his state from the negative attention it was getting in the press. He said the image of Mississippi as an exotic place that seemed full of bizarre characters and dark doings, was merely fictional, expressed in the imaginative writing of William Faulkner, who was born and lived most of his life in the nearby town of Oxford. Lowering his voice, as if to explain the reason for what he felt was the novelist’s distorted vision, the student said “Mr. Faulkner, he drinks a good deal.”

tillmurdertrial1A crowd was gathered on the lawn outside the courthouse during the trial, and the crowd itself was segregated. There was a Princeton student from Mississippi who was defending his state from the negative attention it was getting in the press. He said the image of Mississippi as an exotic place that seemed full of bizarre characters and dark doings, was merely fictional, expressed in the imaginative writing of William Faulkner, who was born and lived most of his life in the nearby town of Oxford. Lowering his voice, as if to explain the reason for what he felt was the novelist’s distorted vision, the student said “Mr. Faulkner, he drinks a good deal.” This “explanation” seemed as bizarre as everything that happened that week. In some tragic way that trial, with the white perpetrators set free, seems doomed to be repeated in different guises in different parts of the country, decade after decade, year after year, like a national nightmare from which we can never seem finally to wake.  It’s been a long time since New Yorkers and others up north could smugly blame the South for being the exclusive province of prejudice. Hate, fear, and bigotry have no boundaries.

This “explanation” seemed as bizarre as everything that happened that week. In some tragic way that trial, with the white perpetrators set free, seems doomed to be repeated in different guises in different parts of the country, decade after decade, year after year, like a national nightmare from which we can never seem finally to wake.  It’s been a long time since New Yorkers and others up north could smugly blame the South for being the exclusive province of prejudice. Hate, fear, and bigotry have no boundaries.

One Response to A Memory of The Emmett Till Murder Trial

  1. John Myers August 5, 2017 at 6:23 pm #

    It’s time to accept that we as a country have made some terrible decisions. How we have treated people of color as an historically white majority; and how we continue to insist we are holding the moral “high ground”, is easily our worst example.

Leave a Reply

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield