California Eagle, Thursday, February 23, 1956
South Wins Out in
Till Lynching Trial
BY AMOS DIXON
(This is the final article in a series giving the true story of the lynching of Emmett Till.)
The last act in the Emmett Till case was the trial. In many respects it was the most important because by it the people of Tallahatchie County, Miss., put their stamp of approval on the murder of a 14-year-old boy.
The people of the county and the state recoiled in instinctive disgust and shock when they first heard of the murder.
Powerful and influential voices had called for the swift punishment of J. W. Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant.
Yet they were acquitted. Why?
The answer is many-sided. The South blames it on intervention of the NAACP and outside “agitators.” That is only part of the story.
It is true that the South has been on the defensive ever since the founding of the nation. This defensiveness revolves around its long effort to keep and justify its system of race relations. Any interference with that system causes the South to double up its fists and hew to its course even when it knows it is wrong. That is entirely human.
Any wrong-doer blusters and tries to justify his acts when he is caught red-handed. A vigorous offensive is the best defense, runs an old military saw.
There was more than that in the Till case.
After the first blush of anger over the murder, Mississippians began to realize that punishment of Milam and Bryant for the murder of Emmett Till would undermine the structure of race relations in the state.
Their acquittal would weaken the written law; their conviction would strike a blow at the unwritten law which is far more sacred in the South.
The unwritten law rests on the premise that the law for Negroes is whatever the dominant whites of the community say it is.
Under the unwritten law, Negroes can be, and are, denied all manner of rights and privileges supposedly guaranteed under state and federal constitutions and laws.
Keep Negro Down
The written law forbids discrimination in voting, in jury service, in all manner of civil rights and civil liberties. Hew to that law and Negroes would participate in government and in community activities. That they must never do.
The unwritten law denies Negroes the right to vote or sit on juries or exercise other civil rights and civil liberties.
If Mississippi is to remain the kind of Mississippi it has been ever since reconstruction, the written law must yield to the unwritten law. It did in the Till case.
There remained only the mechanics of securing the triumph of custom and morals over the statues.
Credit for the result belongs largely to Sheriff H. C. Strider, the typical “high sheriff” of the rural southern counties. As soon as Emmett Till’s body was discovered, Sheriff Strider went to work.
At the outset, he pretended to accept Milam’s word that Emmett had been turned loose some two miles from Mose Wright’s home.
But there was the body.
The sheriff had an answer to that, too.
He announced right away that he doubted that the body found in the Tallahatchie was that of Emmett Till.
He took the ring found on the finger of the body, which could have been proved to belong to the boy, and gave it to Mose Wright without impounding it or marking it for evidence.
Sheriff Strider never did examine the truck belonging to J. W. Milam. If he had, tell-tale blood stains would have been found. Nor did he examine the headquarters’ barn of Leslie Milam where there would have been other blood stains.
The sheriff found no witnesses. When the trial finally opened he had no witness except Mose Wright, who had volunteered. He was disgruntled when Dr. T. R. M. Howard produced Willie Reed and Mandey Bradley to tell what they heard that fatal morning at the Leslie Milam plantation.
And Sheriff Strider told everybody who would listen that he was sure the body found in the river had been there for “at least ten days” and couldn’t have been that of Emmett Till.
He finally took the witness stand to make that same statement.
In short, Sheriff Strider concocted a defense that Milam’s attorneys could use to create a “reasonable doubt” in the defendants’ favor.
What of the prosecutor?
He did his best – in a way.
The prosecutor’s task was no easy one. On the one hand he genuinely desire to prosecute to the best of his ability. On the other hand, he did not want to endanger the structure of race relations in Tallahatchie County in particular and Mississippi in general. He was like the fighter who wanted to win the battle with one hand tied behind his back. He tried it and lost.
The prosecutor was in the unhappy position of trying to enforce the written law which condemned murder, and of trying, at the same time, to uphold the unwritten law which permits white men to take the law in their hands in order to keep the Negro in his place. He summed it all up in one sentence of his final argument, when he said, “If the boy had done something, why didn’t they just take him out and give him a good hiding?”
Apparently it never dawned on the prosecutor that the lawlessness which he condoned—“giving the boy a good hiding”—was the genesis of murder itself.
Sheriff Strider—and the sheriff is always the prosecutor’s right arm—never had any doubt as to his course. He was for the unwritten law—hook, line and sinker. His job as he saw it was to be sure that the trial resulted in a vindication of the Mississippi way of life.
There is one more factor. In the South, the word of a Negro weighs little in a court of law. That, too, is part of the mechanics by which the unwritten law triumphs over statutory principles.
The jury, judge and prosecutor can always punish a Negro for a crime he did not commit or acquit those who commit crimes against him by simply refusing to take the word of Negro witnesses as proof.
Thus, a Negro accused of rape can be sentenced to death on little or no evidence on the say-so of any white person. Or a Negro who seeks justice according to the terns of the written law in either civil or criminal proceedings can always be denied that justice if any white person can be found to dispute what he says.
The witnesses against Milam and Bryant were Negroes. Their words were worthless, according to the unwritten law.
That’s the whole story of the trial.
It is useless to recite chapter and verse of the law which requires punishment for murder. The murder had been done to keep the Negro in his place.
It does no good to rail at the sheriff. He reflected the sentiment of his constituents in helping construct a defense for the killers.
It is idle to detail the damning evidence against the killers—that evidence came from Negroes.
Nothing is gained from sneering at the prosecutor. He was trying to uphold the written law and the unwritten law at the same time. He couldn’t do both. The unwritten law was more important.
Figure it all up, add it up any way you will, and the result is always the same. Emmett Till was the victim of the system of race relations in Mississippi. There will be more Till cases as long as that system prevails.