California Eagle, Thursday, February 9, 1956
TORTURE AND MURDER
BY AMOS DIXON
(This is the third installment of the true story of the murder of Emmett Till.)
Here’s What’s Gone Before
A Negro hanger-on told Roy Bryant that 14 year old Emmet[t] Till had wolf-whistled at Roy’s wife, Carolyn, at a cross roads store in Money, Miss., on Wednesday, Aug. 23. Roy was out of town at the time. Carolyn didn’t hear the whistle. Roy told J. W. Milam, his bully-boy half-brother, about the incident.
On Saturday night, Aug. 27, J. W. Milam and two other Milam brothers, aided by a Negro employe[e], Henry Lee Loggins, took Emmett from the home of his uncle, Mose Wright. They took the lad on a Chevrolet truck to J. W.’s home in Glendora where they cuffed and manhandled him until about 5 o’clock Sunday morning, Aug 28. Then they put him on the truck and drove to Leslie Milam’s plantation in near-by Drew, Miss. Now go on with the story…
It was daylight when J. W. Milam’s green Chevrolet truck pulled in to Leslie Milam’s plantation near Drew, Miss.
The three Milam brothers and Roy Bryant were riding in the cab. Emmett Till, guarded by Henry Lee Loggins and Willie Hubbard, was seated on the bed of the truck.
There was no attempt at concealment although it is probable that the Milams and Bryant did not think they would be seen that early in the morning. Fate played a queer trick on them.
Eighteen-year-old Willie Reed was on his way to the store to do some early morning shopping for his grandmother. Like many another country boy in similar circumstances, Willie took a short cut. When he reached Leslie Milam’s plantation, the truck passed him.
Willie didn’t know anything about the kidnapping but he took a look at the boy riding with the two men. He would
take the witness stand and identify that boy as Emmett Till when the trial got under way.
Willie also got a look at two of the men in the cab—J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant. He couldn’t, or didn’t, identify the other two when he testified.
Hustled Into Barn
The boy was hustled into the “headquarters barn” by his two guards. Willie trudged on. Then he heard cries:
“Save me, save me. Oh, mama, mama, help me, help me mama, save me. Save me.”
Willie is a Mississippi boy. The words struck terror to his heart. He knew what was happening, as any Mississippi boy would have known. He rushed to the nearby home of Mandy Bradley.
“Aunt Mandy,” he shouted, “they’re killing somebody in Mr. Leslie’s headquarters barn.”
Mandy Bradley didn’t want to become involved. It is better for Negroes not to know too much in Mississippi. She appealed to her husband to see “what the matter was.” He refused. He didn’t want to know either.
Willie kept up his entreaties, begging somebody to do something.
Then Mandy Bradley enlisted the assistance of a visitor in her home, Frank Young.
Young, Mrs. Bradley and Willie Reed rushed to the pump, pretending to be getting some water.
The cries were dying down when they got there. They could only hear moans, the soft low moans that come after a man’s body has yielded and he is able to cry out no more.
They saw something else.
Thrown in Trunk
They saw two “colored men” throw something on the truck, like “you throw an animal on a truck after it’s been killed. Then they saw a tarpaulin thrown over the something that was tossed on the truck. They saw the truck drive off.
Emmett Till had been beaten, so close to death that the Milams and Bryant believed he was dead.
Four men had beaten, or believed they had beaten, a helpless 14-year-old boy to death with .45 Colt revolvers.
Told that way, the story sounds unbelievable.
It doesn’t stand to reason that four Americans, themselves the fathers of little children, would beat a 14-year-old kid to death with .45 Colt revolvers.
That’s not like America, you’ll want to say.
There’s an ironic answer to that.
Last spring Homer Bigart, reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, was in Sunflower county, Miss. (Drew is in Sunflower county.) He, too, expressed amazement at the activities of the White Citizens Council and said something to the effect that what was done didn’t sound “like America.”
A Sunflower county, Miss., official looked him in the eye: “This isn’t America,” he said, “this is Sunflower county, Miss.”
Last week I pointed out that Negroes comprise 60 per cent of the population of Le Flore, Sunflower and Tallahatchie counties where the Till episode took place and that no Negro is permitted to register or vote.
I threw in a few words about the lack of schools and the pall of ignorance that hangs over whites and blacks alike.
I said, too, that whites have been keeping Negroes in their “place” by violence, first the violence of slavery and then the violence that came in with Reconstruction to prevent Negroes from getting the upper hand in the state where they were in a majority.
That way of life has shaped Negroes and whites alike. It shaped the attitude of Mose Wright who let the killers kidnap his 14-year-old grand nephew without a word of effective protest..
It conditioned the attitude of Henry Lee Loggins, J. W. Milam’s trusted Negro employe[e], who stood guard over 14-year-old Emmett so his employer could kidnap and kill the boy.
J. W. Milam is a product of Mississippi, too. So are his brothers and his half brother, Roy Bryant.
They believe in White Supremacy.
They believe in a way of life in which Negroes are, and must stay, at the bottom of the heap.
They believe that “uppity” Negroes must be put in their place.
They believe that violence is the way to keep Negroes in their “place.”
Consider, too, the atmosphere of last Aug. 28.
Mississippi had just gone through a political campaign in which every office seeker, every last one, had tried to out-do his rival in plumping for segregation and in screaming defiance at the Supreme Court for its school decision.
Rev. George Lee had been killed in May in Belzoni for telling Negroes to register and vote.
La Mar Smith had been killed in Brookhaven in August for trying to vote—shot from a car in which the sheriff was riding.
Nobody has been punished. In fact, everybody had approved.
But that isn’t the whole story.
Add to that devil’s brew the personality of J. W. Milam, the strong man of the Milam-Bryant clan.
J. W. is a man who learned the technique of killing in World War II.
He knew how to beat men within an inch of death with a pistol. He liked the feeling of power it gave him.
J. W. bore, and enjoyed, a reputation for being able to “handle Negroes”—that means that he was the modern equivalent of the slave overseer, handy with gun, or whip, or club, or any other instrument necessary to beat or cow Negroes into submission.
There are men like J. W. Milam everywhere.
They’re the men who like to settle every argument with fists, or guns or knives.
They’re the trigger men for the mobs and gangs of our great cities.
Ordinarily, society puts some restraints on these bullies. They live outside the law, subject to arrest and imprisonment. They’re condemned by decent people.
These men are dangerous at any time, even when society disapproves of what they do.
They’re a thousand times worse when the society in which they live approves of what they do; when they know that their violent acts will win approval at best and only slight frowns at worst.
(In Hitler’s Germany men like J. W. Milam led gangs of Storm Troopers who roamed the streets to beat and maim and kill Jews and “liberals” and were hailed as heroes).
Would Be Hero
J. W. Milam has painted himself as a hero, upholding a way of life approved by every government official in his state. Listen to what he told Look magazine:
“What else could we do: he (Emmett Till) was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers in their place.
“But I just decided it was time a few people got to be put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. 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.
“I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said. ‘I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. God damn you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”
J. W. Milam made that statement as an after thought, when he was trying to depict himself as a hero in the cause of White Supremacy. The statement throws a great deal of light on the thinking and believing of four men turned into beasts who were willing to beat a 14 year-old boy to death but the fact remains that it is only the boasting of a bully. It’s an excuse, and attempt to make a horrible crime palatable to his neighbors by an appeal to their prejudices.
Remember that Milam’s crime originally shocked some of the most hardened Mississippians. Newspapers cried out for his conviction. The governor was stirred up enough to name a special prosecutor. Killing Negroes who try to vote is one thing; killing kids is another. (Even J. W. Coleman, the present governor, who is a bitter end supporter of White Supremacy, has said that Milam and Bryant should have been convicted and executed).
No Murder Plan
What Milam was doing in the Look confession was trying to picture himself as a man ready to go to any lengths to uphold the things in which he and his neighbors believe. If he could convince his neighbors that he killed to uphold the honor and sanctity of White Supremacy he would be transformed from a brutal murderer into a hero.
The truth is that Emmett’s murder was not deliberately conceived at any particular moment on that wild, bloody night of August 28. It grew out of the circumstances. It is only in retrospect that it seems to have been inevitable.
It is true that Emmett’s refusal to grovel and whine for mercy irked his killers—he insisted on saying “yes” instead of “yes sir” to them.
Then they got to drinking. Time wore on. There was a great deal of talking and boasting back and forth. A mob, a gang no matter how small, generates its own frenzy. The belief in the sacredness of their mission, the sense that they were defending Mississippi’s way of life grew with the passage of time and under the spur of the killers’ bragging about what they could do, and would do; it was nurtured, in an alcoholic haze.
And above it all, towered the personality of J. W. Milam, the bully. His role assumed ever more importance in his own eyes and in the eyes of his hero worshipping brothers as the night wore on. He had to live up to his own reputation of knowing how to deal with “niggers.” He had to show his brothers, and prove to himself, that he knew what to do in the situation.
Then there was the element of panic that is ever present in murder. Police records the nation over are full of instances where murder has been committed in the course of a crime for no good reason except that the killer just didn’t know what else to do. The Milams and Bryant had had Emmett Till out all night when they got to the murder barn. What would happen if they turned him loose? Nothing probably.
But Till was a Chicago boy. Maybe there would be a hue and cry up north. He had to be given such a thorough beating that he wouldn’t dare to squawk. Pistol whipping was a trick J. W. had picked up in the army. He would show the “nigger” a thing or two.
With Henry Lee Loggins holding the victim, the Milams led by J. W. began beating Emmett about the head with their pistols. He began to cry and beg for mercy. That only whetted their hatred. They smashed his head in, beat it to a pulp.
Emmett fell to the floor, still crying and begging. Their frenzy increased. The blows fell faster. The frenzy mounted higher. The killers kicked and beat their victim. Finally the cries died down to a moan and then ceased.
The Milams and Bryant thought their victim was dead.
A new panic seized them. What to do with the body? J. W. rose to the occasion: throw the body in the Tallahatchie river.
(Next week: What happened on the way to the Tallahatchie river? Where did the gin fan come from that was found wired to Emmett Till’s neck? Why did J. W. Milam fire that shot though Emmett Till’s brain. What did the killers do after they had disposed of the body? See next week’s Eagle.)