Land of the Till Murder Revisited
This article was written 30 years after her original Land of the Till Murder (also included on this website). It is significant in showing changes in race relations in the Mississippi Delta in the three decades following Emmett Till’s murder, and interviews some people, including one of the killers, who were original players in the case. It was published in Ebony 41 (March 1986): 53–58. Each section is divided and numbered with the pagination.
Land of The
TILL MURDER Revisited
Former Ebony staffer returns after 30 years to report on ‘the new Mississippi’
By Clotye Murdock Larsson
There are some stories that a journalist can never forget no matter how hard one tries. Like fading pictures in a photo album, certain impressions remain in the mind long after time has erased the details of the events. For me, the Emmett Till murder case was that kind of assignment. For 30 years, 24 of which I spent outside the United States, I found my thoughts drifting back to it, edging away from it, tip-toeing around it...as though around an all-too-well-remembered grave...whenever I compared life in America with life abroad.
I had left the United States too soon to witness the birth of the “new Mississippi,” which my friends described in letters from home. Their reports left me skeptical. Had they not painted too bright a picture? Could democracy truly have come tot he Black man’s mental Auschwitz? Did the dark “star” of skin color no longer limit his right to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of the wider dimensions of happiness?
For me, there was only one way to find out. I had to go back. And so, this past autumn, I returned for the first time in three decades to the place where a 14-year-old Black boy, with the same birthday as mine, had been bru-
tally murdered for allegedly violating a Southern White woman’s honor by “wolf whistling” at her.
For those too young to remember it, the Emmett Till story began in the summer of 1955 in Money, Miss., a dusty crossroads settlement too obscure to merit a turn-off sign on the main highway. At 2 a.m. on Aug. 28, a truck stopped in front of the home of an aging minister and share-cropper, Moses Wright. Two White men stepped out and pounded on the Black man’s door. When he opened it, they announced that they had come for the boy who was visiting from Chicago. Moses Wright asked where they planned to take his nephew, Emmett Till. “Nowhere,” he was told, “if he’s not the right one.”
Four days earlier, Emmett had gone to buy candy at the country store which Roy Bryant and his wife, Carolyn, operated in Money. According to Carolyn, the boy had flirted with her and “wolf whistled” as he left. Roy, who had been away on a trip, was told about the incident as soon as he returned.
Emmett Till was pushed into the truck and driven away. When he failed to return, his uncle called the sheriff. Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, were arrested and charged with kidnapping. On Aug. 30, Sheriff George W. Smith was quoted in the Clarion-Ledger as saying, “I’m kinda scared there’s been foul play.”
He was right. Emmett’s body was found the following day by 17-year-old Floyd Hodges, who was running a trout line in the Tallahatchie River, 25 miles north of Greenwood. Entangled in driftwood, the corpse was floating upside down, with the feet and legs protruding from the water. Floyd summoned Sheriff H. C. Strider of Tallahatchie county. Sheriff Strider told the press that Emmett had a bullet hole “above the right ear, and the left side of his face had been cut up or beat up, plumb into the skull.” To keep the body submerged, Emmett’s killers had wired a cotton gin fan to his neck. Sheriff Strider turned the body over to a Black undertaker.
The charge of murder was then added to the kidnapping charge already lodged against Milam and Bryant.
I was a member of the team of writers and photographers from Johnson Publishing Co. who volunteered to cover the murder trial in Sumner, Miss. Between Sept. 19, when the proceedings began, and Sept. 23, when the all-White jury returned an acquittal, I saw a side of “the American way of life” that even I, a Southerner, found shocking. Prejudice was a phenomenon that I was prepared for...but not open, raw, vulgar menacing hate.
On the day before the trial, Ebony and Jet photographer David Jackson and I visited Rev. Wright at his weathered gray tenant farmhouse. While we sat talking on the porch, an open truck came rumbling down the road. It slowed as it approached the house, and in my mind’s eye I can still see the six White men standing in the back, armed with shotguns that glittered in the sun. How slowly the truck seemed to move...so slowly that I could see the eyes of the men regarding us with a cold and ageless hostility. The menace was obvious, the message clear. The spell was not broken until, abruptly, the truck picked up speed and raced on.
Jackson was the first to react.
“Is it hunting season now, Rev. Wright?” he asked.
Resuming his rocking, Emmett’s uncle, remarkably unperturbed, replied, “Not as I know of, Mr. Jackson. Unless it’s us they got in mind!”
I met Sheriff Strider, another unforgettable Mississippian, the following day. Standing in the entrance to the courtroom, like the anointed defender of the unreconstructed South, he rested his right hand meaningfully on his gun as he saw the members of the Black press approach. Malevolently aware that we could do nothing except accept his insult, swallow our rage and go on, he said with a poisonous smile, “Mawnin’, niggers!”
Again, we got the message. We were behind enemy lines now. We had no rights that a White man was bound to respect. Our press cards were no guarantee of safety. Not even a member of the U. S. Congress could expect a courteous welcome, not if he happened to be both Northern and Black. Congressman Charles Diggs of Michigan discovered that quickly enough when he joined us to witness the proceedings. “A nigger congressman!” scoffed a White deputy at the door. “It ain’t possible. It ain’t even legal!”
Convinced, after inspecting Diggs’ credentials, that, up North, a Black man could hold this high office, he frisked the congressman and directed him and his party to the segregated
press table hastily set up for Blacks.
Since any interracial encounter was likely to arouse suspicion, we pretended not to know the White photographer on our team who had come to photograph the aspects of the trial and of Mississippi life which it would have been impossible for Black reporters to cover. We met Mike Shea secretly and exchanged information quickly at carefully arranged rendezvous points. Since the telephones in the homes of Black activists were tapped, we dared not use them to make contact. We could have exposed our White companion and drawn unnecessary attention to our hosts, militant Blacks of Mississippi who were already in trouble enough. Dr. T. R. M. Howard, with whom some of us stayed in Mound Bayou, had received many death threats. For his family’s protection and ours during the Till trial, he kept a small arsenal of shotguns behind the door.
The majority of the spectators at the Till trial were White Mississippians. With excitement on their faces, they pushed and shoved their way into the courtroom, craned their necks to see the accused, to see the Northern reporters, Black and White, and maybe even be seen themselves later on television. With them they brought their children and their box lunches. They bought soft drinks from vendors who curtly refused to sell their wares to Blacks, and peered admiringly at Carolyn Bryant, the “victim” of the alleged wolf whistle.
On the second or third day of the trial, when sheriff Strider was called to testify, I did something I immediately regretted. I forgot where I was. When he told the court that the body which he had pulled out of the water had deteriorated to such an extent that he couldn’t be sure whether it was that of a Black person or a White, my temper flared. During a pause in the trial, I pushed my way through the milling crowd of Whites and asked Judge Curtis Swango, whose impressively evenhanded conduct of the trial was like a breath of fresh air, why, if Sheriff Strider was unsure of the victims racial identity, he had asked a Black undertaker to take charge of the body!
Heads turned. Eyes measured me. I felt like a marked woman. The White Citizen’s Councils were active in the area. I had seen a letter on White Citizens’ Council stationery on Sheriff George Smith’s desk when David and I had visited his office. I knew that a White reporter from the North had been run out of town, and I knew that Sheriff Strider was perhaps the last man in Mississippi whose truthfulness I should publicly challenge.
Even though no personal harm came to any of us, we were closely watched and a threat seemed to linger in the air. As the trial proceeded, the tension in the courtroom approached the breaking point. At one point, somebody dropped a glass bottle. It shattered. The sound was like a shot. In a single, reflex reaction, everybody, Blacks and Whites alike, ducked.
On the fifth day, the jury adjourned to deliberate the evidence. When they returned only 60 minutes later with their verdict–not guilty–some Whites appeared jubilant, others merely relieved. Blacks were resigned, angry, fearful or dismayed.
I was dismayed. To me, it seemed clear from the evidence that a strong case had been made against the accused. Till may or may not have wolf whistled. What did it matter? He had a right to life. I thought about his last moments, the terror...the blows...the bullet. How could anyone have done such a thing to a 14-year-old child?
And yet, this was America. The two men had been tried and freed in a court of law. That should be the end of it. But I felt that it was not the end...rather a terrible beginning. Freedom would be long in coming. When would it come? And how would it be won?
Standing there in that Southern courthouse, I suddenly remembered how, as a schoolchild, I had recited the pledge to the flag of the United States... “and to the democracy for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Now, staring at the American flag in the courtroom, I wondered what it was doing there.
When I returned to the Mississippi Delta this past summer, it no longer felt like the same old place. Just as the letters from home had informed me, there had been a positive change. The remembered symbols of segregation had vanished...where had they scrapped the “Whites Only” signs? In the cities and towns I visited...Jackson, Clarksdale, Greenville, Drew and Ruleville, restaurants, restrooms and hotels were open to everyone. In Money, however, a White woman, who ran a business down the street from Roy Bryant’s former store, became so upset when she saw Ebony photographer Moneta Sleet’s camera that she began to scream and yell.
“No pictures!” she shouted, even though the camera was not pointed in her direction. “Agitators!” she called
us. “Coming down South...stirring up trouble...just like in South Africa.”
When we attempted to interview Roy Bryant at his present place of business, a country-style general store in Ruleville, we found that he, too, would like to let things rest. Shortly before our arrival, for example, a Mississippi newspaper marked the 30th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death by doing a full-scale update of the story that Roy Bryant would rather forget. Although he granted them an interview, he was not in the mood to say anything to us. He didn’t “trust” reporters. “They misquoted me,” he said. “Claimed I said money would jog my memory. I never said nothin’ like that. I don’t wanta be hard, but this thing has hurt me.”
The case had indeed hurt him, financially. After the trial, his customers in Money found other places to shop. Forced to give up the business, he left Mississippi, and his wife Carolyn eventually left him. His half-brother, J. W. Milam, also moved out of state and, like Roy, split up with his wife.
Milam is dead now. Cancer took his life. Dead, too, is Sheriff Strider, and the courageous Moses Wright. After the trial, Rev. Wright moved North, away from the memories, away from the hate. We went to Money to photograph his house. It had been leveled.
I remember him as a brave man whose finger never shook when, in that hostile courtroom, he pointed out Milam and Bryant.
The Till case is not a comfortable memory for anyone who witnessed it, least of all for Blacks.
“It showed us how little we counted for in the total scheme of things,” a Black man reflected. “Milam and Bryant admitted taking the boy forcibly from Rev. Wright’s house, but they weren’t even sentenced for that!”
For Whites, the Till case was, at the least, an embarrassment. What in the past would have been a quiet lynching now made news around the world.
“The fact that there was a trial at all was somewhat unique,” mused civil rights activist Aaron Henry, a Black Mississippi pharmacist who is now serving his second term in the state legislature. We interviewed him at his drug store in Clarksdale this past autumn. During the Till trial he had put on tattered clothes, taken a sack onto his back, and gone into the cotton fields to talk with workers who, he believed, knew more than they were saying about the case. He was one of the NAACP officials who had helped produce the “missing witness” that the FBI may never have found.
“I think sometimes that the hand of God was in the whole thing,” he says now. “White men had been killing Black boys down here for years without anybody making much of a fuss. The Emmett Till case became a cog in the wheel of change. Perhaps we have television to thank for that.”
“Television and the printed media turned the spotlight on Mississippi,” Dr. Henry adds. “Much of Mississippi officialdom reacted as they should have...with shame. Many Whites were a little bit intimidated after the trial.”
Even so, the terror was to continue mounting, and scenes of naked force would be televised to the world.
We wanted to find Roy Bryant. In a courtroom in Clarksdale, Miss., we met Cleve McDowell, the man who would take us to him. A Black attorney, who is also the regional director of the NAACP in his state, he looked vaguely familiar. We had seen his picture in the newspapers. In 1963, he was the first Black student, after James Meredith, to be admitted to the University of Mississippi and the first ever to study
law there. After the murder of NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers, McDowell learned that he and James Meredith were next in line for assassination. McDowell bought a gun. “Most everybody else had one,” he says, ‘but when mine was discovered, I was expelled. He finished his education at a Black university in Texas.
McDowell now has his law office on Main Street in the little town of Drew, Miss., but his practice and his NAACP activities carry him all over the state.
As we approached the “new” Bryant store, Sleet and I expressed surprise that it was in a Black neighborhood. “Blacks forget,” McDowell told us. “Roy Bryant isn’t worried. Many times, even when our people feel sure they know what certain Whites have done, they don’t do anything about it.”
After our non-interview with Bryant, we lunched with McDowell in a Ruleville café of the type we would never have entered 30 years ago. The White waitress at the counter said “Ma’am and “sir” to us, and the White diners, who were looking like truck drivers, not only were peaceful but even seemed friendly.
“What’s become of the people who used to do so many violent things publicly?” I inquired.
“They’re your leaders!” McDowell said. “They’re not wearing sheets any longer. They’re wearing gray flannel suits! But some of them have just gone under cover. And some of them are doing it to us in a different way–the Northern way. If Northern Whites had been in power down here, we’d still be in slavery!...Now, we have situations like Black lawyers being harassed by the bar association, and we have economic freeze-outs whenever big money is involved.”
Conditions in some places are worse now than in 1955, Atty. McDowell told us. “You can see open sewers, a level of poverty as bad as in some deprived, developing countries, with insects crawling over everything. Down here, we’ve still got a massive job to do.”
And yet, even he admits that there is another side. He was with us when we visited the home of a tenant farmer of the “new generation” in Money.
Alec Westbrook was at work when we arrived, but his wife, Jeannie, welcomed us warmly, even though we were total strangers.
All of Alec and Jeannie Westbrook’s seven children are either attending or have completed high school. The family lives in a comfortable six-room tenant house, rent-free. It is air conditioned, well equipped, and there are two cars in the garage. Even though jobs are scarce in the Delta, the young Westbrooks, far from feeling defeated, are optimistic, determined and forward looking. “A strong family,” Atty. McDowell acknowledged as we departed. “Black families like that one are the backbone of the state.”
In Greenwood, where Milam and Bryant were jailed while awaiting trial, we met Councilman David Jordan and his wife, Christine. Both teach science in Greenwood city schools and both have fought long and hard for civil rights. As president of the Greenwood Voters’ League for 20 years, he has been instrumental in initiating lawsuits aimed at democratizing the political and educational systems.
When Emmett Till’s body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River, the Jordans were at the movie theater. Recalling that day, David Jordan says, “It was shocking to learn that somebody in our midst, this close to Greenwood, could kill a 14-year-old child. “After that happened, we were ready to do whatever was necessary to change the social conditions which had made this possible.”
The Emmett Till case was “the overriding force in people’s minds down here during the remainder of the decade,” Jordan says. “We could never escape the memory of the way they had treated that child. The thing that hurt us most was that Whites didn’t care!”
“Has there been a change in the hearts and minds of White people in the Delta since that time?” I inquire.
“I doubt it,” he replies. “We haven’t won anything without a lawsuit!”
“Do you think that Whites as a group have learned anything from the past?”
“I wouldn’t put my life on the line that they have,” he replies. “I think the mentality is still there.”
“How do you feel towards Whites now?” I ask.
“I have no animosity towards anybody,” he replies. “Today, I work with Whites and teach their children. I work in an integrated school. And in my teaching I try to be absolutely sure that no child, Black or White, can say that I didn’t give them the best I have to give. But,” he adds, “I am intelligent enough to realize that the same kinds of things that happened once could happen again...We are still in the struggle, and even though we have made some gains, we are still skeptical.”
“When we really get to the point where our people who are stuck at the bottom can enjoy a good life, then perhaps we can say we have seen the Promised Land.”
“This state,” he predicts, “is going to be run by blacknecks and rednecks. We’re going to turn it into a paradise!”
Mississippi has changed. A Black visitor feels comfortable there. The signs are down. The shops are integrated. One never has to ask which elevator to board. The hotels are open to everybody, and the desk clerks even say “Enjoy your stay” and “Y’all come back.” Blacks serve in the state legislature, the courts. There are Black policemen, Black state troopers and hundreds of Black civil servants, even in the Sumner courthouse where the Emmett Till case was tried.
But the biggest change I discerned during my brief visit to Mississippi was in the minds and imaginations of its Black citizenry. Where once there was pessimism, now there is hope. “This state is going to be run by blacknecks and rednecks! We’re going to make it a Promised land!”
Who, 30 years ago, whould [sic.] have dared make a prediction like that?
History may prove me wrong, but I also believe that a great many ordinary, everyday White Mississippians feel relief that the years of turmoil are seemingly over...and that the day has finally come when they need no longer assert their Whiteness all the time.
I believe that what happens in Mississippi is important. If Mississippi, with its legacy of racial strife, can be turned into a Promised Land, surely there’s hope for the rest of the world.