The Clarion-Ledger
Jackson Daily News
August 25, 1985

World watched drama unfold in rural county courtroom

Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

SUMNER – The courtroom, with its pastel walls and rich appointments, exudes elegance – no scars from past battles.

Air conditioning has replaced the ceiling fans. Gilded chandeliers cast a gentle glow; the glare of bare lightbulbs is a memory. The benches are smooth and new, not the rough wood of old.

For five days in September 1955, people sweated in this room on the second floor of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, packed shoulder to shoulder, riveted by the trial of two white men charged with slaying a black youth.

When it was over, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant sat wreathed in the smoke of their victory cigars and kissed their wives for the newspaper photographers.

Powerful images remain with some of those who watched and participated in the trial. They say today, with hindsight’s advantage, that the Emmett Till trial portended the conflict to come.

The Great Uncle

“I will always vividly remember Uncle Mose. That slight man in his white shirt and suspenders rising from the witness stand and pointing his gnarled finger at Milam and Bryant as they sat stone-faced” — John Herbers, reporter.

Moses Wright was Emmett Till’s great-uncle, and it was from the 64-year-old sharecropper’s cabin that Till was abducted at 2 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, 1955.

Wright testified that he was awakened by shouts, and that when he went to the door, a man’s voice said, “I want to talk with you. I’m Mr. Bryant.”

Opening the door, he said he saw a big, balding man with a pistol in his right hand and a flashlight in the other. The man told Wright, “I want that boy who dirty-talked at Money.”

When Wright was asked to identify the man who spoke to him that night, he straightened and pointed directly at Milam, saying, “There he is. That’s the man.”

Uncle Mose, as he was called by prosecutors, said Milam was accompanied that night by another man. Using the same gesture and speaking the same words, Wright identified Bryant.

On cross-examination, Wright told defense attorney C. Sidney Carlton that he identified Milam because of his “big bald head.”

Jurors seized upon those words to ignore Wright’s testimony.

“He said it was a baldheaded man and 95 percent of the jury was baldheaded,” juror James Toole of Enid recalled in a recent interview. “How could he pick out a bald man in the dark?”

But Wright’s testimony was reinforced by Leflore County Sheriff George Smith and his deputy, John Edd Cathran, who each testified that Milam and Bryant both admitted abducting Till. But the defendants claimed they let “the little Negro boy go.”

J. W. Kellum, another of the five defense attorneys, today readily acknowledges that Wright was the state’s strongest witness. “He was strong because even if the boys were not the ones that did the murder, his testimony showed they were the ones guilty of the kidnapping.”

Wright was lauded by journalists who covered the trial for the courage he displayed on the witness stand.

“He was taking a tremendous risk by pointing that shaky finger at them,” said Murray Kempton, who covered the trial for the New York Post and is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at Newsday on Long Island, N. Y. “Any drunk could have burnt him out. It was odd that he didn’t suffer for that.”

To prevent such retaliation, Wright was whisked by car to Memphis after he testified. There, he caught a plane to Chicago. Wright later moved to Albany N. Y., where he died.

“Medgar Evers told me that we needed to get Mose out of there,” said Jimmy Hicks, now executive editor of the New York Voice. Hicks covered the trial for the Amsterdam News of Chicago and the National Newspaper Publishing Association, then a news wire service for about 35 black newspapers.

“It was such an electric moment that we all thought that the stuff was going to really hit the fan. Blacks just didn’t testify against whites.”

Hicks said he drove Wright to a pecan grove about 15 miles outside Sumner where he met Evers who, eight years later, was shot and killed in Jackson while he was NAACP field secretary for Mississippi.

Hicks, now 70, said black reporters covering the trial feared for their safety on the day Wright testified.

“We had a meeting the night before in Mound Bayou and many people were telling us not to go to the trial. I told them I had a gun. There was also a deputy who sat in front of me the whole trial who had a .45 strapped over him. The plan was: someone would take my gun and I would snatch the deputy’s gun and provide cover while the rest escaped out the window,” he said.

The Prosecution

“Curtis Swango was the best judge I ever saw; before or after I never thought there was one better. He ran the trial with complete informality and at the same time gave it tremendous grace and gentility.” – Murray Kempton, reporter.

Curtis M. Swango, then 47, presided over the trial. He had earned a reputation as one of the state’s finest trial judges since his appointment to the Circuit Court bench in 1950 by then Gov. Fielding Wright.

“You could search all of Mississippi and couldn’t put a better balanced Circuit judge to try this case,” said defense attorney John Whitten. “He was absolutely honest, incorruptible, and my idea of a Southern gentleman.”

John Popham, who covered the trial for the New York Times, gave Swango credit for keeping tight reins on a potentially explosive situation. “He decided that the courtroom would be the center for the search for justice and had the courage to step forward and say, "Look, the law is above us all,’” he said.

If anything, observers said, Swango favored the prosecution. “The atmosphere of the courtroom was such that it was a foregone conclusion that they would be acquitted, so Swango did his best to hold up the standards of justice,” said Bill Minor, a Jackson columnist who covered the trial for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. 

The soft-spoken Swango, frailer than his strong looks suggested because of a childhood bout with tuberculosis, died in December 1968.

The task of convicting Milam and Bryant fell to District Attorney Gerald Chatham. Gov. Hugh White and Attorney General J. P. Coleman, who had won the Democratic primary for governor in June 1955, decided to appoint Robert B. Smith III of Ripley as a special prosecutor to aid Chatham.

“Chatham had the case perfectly prepared; he presented everything he could,” said defense lawyer Kellum. “He was quick to comprehend the incompetency of the evidence we tried to get before the jury.”

Chatham, 49 at the time, died within a year after the trial. His family believes the pressures it created were responsible for his fatal heart attack.

“Mother always told me how it aged him and how his health deteriorated after that,” said Gerald Chatham Jr., the prosecutor’s son who also served two terms as district attorney in the same district. “I remember him having violent nosebleeds and his blood pressure climbing after the trial, and then he died at 50 with a massive heart attack.”

The younger Chatham was only 11 years old during the trial, but remembers the media descending on his parents’ Hernando home and interviewing the black field hands on the family’s farm in DeSoto County. 

“I am very proud of the stand he took. It was a lot tougher then than it would be now, but he did what was right,” Chatham said.

Chatham and Smith, a former FBI agent and Marine officer, shocked the crowd on the second day of the trial when they abruptly sought and received a recess from Swango after the final juror was selected.

The prosecutors said they needed additional time to locate and interview new witnesses which Smith said “were of major importance.”

Willie Reed, 19, was the key witness discovered during that recess.

Reed testified that on the morning of the kidnapping he saw a boy, whom he later identified as Till, in a pickup truck with six men. He saw the same truck only minutes later, Reed testified, as he passed the farm of J. W. Milam’s brother, Leslie Milam.

In words spoken so softly that Swango repeatedly interrupted to tell him to speak up, Reed said he heard moans coming from the red barn and the sounds of “some licks.” He said Milam, wearing a pistol, walked from the building, got a drink of water from a nearby well, and returned inside.

The Defense

“The boys never did admit to us that they were guilty of doing it. But it put a question mark in your mind – that if they did not do it, then they did know who did. I would ask, but they never would tell.” – J. W. Kellum, defense attorney.

It was Milam’s idea to hire all five of the town’s lawyers to defend him and his half-brother Bryant. “He thought that if the state was going to get a special prosecutor, he would get all the lawyers in Sumner,” Kellum said.

Whitten, another member of the defense team, said the defense was built around the testimony of Dr. L. B. Otken, a Greenwood physician.

Otken testified that the corpse pulled from the Tallahatchie River was too decomposed to be identified. Till had been missing for three days when two fishermen saw legs above the water. The rest of the body had been kept submerged by a 70-pound cotton gin fan wrapped around the neck with barbed wire.

But Otken said the body he examined appeared to have been in the water for at least 10 days.

“Dr. Otken convinced me then that this can’t be and is not the body of Emmett Till,” said Whitten. “I believe Dr. Otken told the truth as he saw it. His reputation and veracity was never questioned, and he certainly had no ties with the defendants.”

Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider also testified that the body couldn’t be Till’s.

But Kellum now says there is no doubt that Till was the victim pulled from the muddy river. The key to the defense, he said, was the lack of evidence tying Milam and Bryant to the killing.

“I knew it was Emmett Till,” Kellum said. “Our whole case was that you got the wrong people; there was no evidence that either one of these boys were the ones who killed him."

“We put Strider on the stand just for the psychological effect of having the county’s law enforcement officer testifying for the defense,” he said.

Whitten said he never confronted Milam or Bryant to determine their involvement in the crime. “If I went to the moral heart of every case that came to me, I’d starve to death,” he said.

The first defense decision, Kellum said, was to keep Milam and Bryant from testifying.

“Our position was that anything they said might hurt them,” he said.

The Mother

“When I first looked at Emmett’s body, my first reaction was, ‘My God! What is this?’ It looked like it came from outer space. If there was anything I could do to disclaim that body, I would have done it.” – Mamie Till Mobley, Till’s mother.

It was through Mamie Till Mobley’s testimony that prosecutors tried to refute the challenge to the body’s identity. “I knew it (was Emmett) without a shadow of a doubt,” she said on the stand.

Mobley also identified a ring removed from the body as belonging to her ex-husband, Emmett’s father Louis Till, which she later gave to her son. The silver band carried a simple inscription of May 25, 1943 and the initials “L. T.”

Whitten said that the ring caused a furor among defense attorneys. “We didn’t know about it and she made such a good impression that the ring was their (the state’s) key,” he said.

The jury never heard the defense’s cross-examination of Mobley; Swango ruled it had no bearing on what happened on Aug. 28. During the cross-examination, Mobley said she warned her son before he left Chicago to “be humble to white people and watch your step” during the Mississippi visit.

“She was extraordinarily constrained with a majestic maternal dignity,” recalls columnist Kempton. “But she certainly caused resentment because she was anything but a country colored; she was very sophisticated.”

The Brunette

“Mrs. Bryant was such a pretty young woman, so sure and confident but so shy and retiring. She knew how to handle herself and how to deal with people, both black and white. It came from working in those stores.” -- John Whitten, defense lawyer.

It had been four years since Carolyn Holloway, as a 17-year-old, had left high school in Indianola to marry Bryant.

Bryant supplemented his income driving trucks and was off on a run to Brownsville, Texas, when Till and his cousins visited the store in Money on Aug. 24. Carolyn Bryant was alone behind the counter. 

She said that at about 8 p. m., a “Negro man” with a “Northern brogue” entered the store. Mrs. Bryant never identified the man.

After the customer bought some candy, Mrs. Bryant testified, he grabbed her hand. She said she struggled to get free, but he followed her to the cash register and grabbed her waist and said, “How abut a date. I’ve been with white women before.”

Mrs. Bryant said another black then came into the store and dragged the man outside by the arm. She said she went to her sister-in-law’s car, parked in front of the store, to get a gun she knew was kept under the seat. Then, she said, the person who had grabbed her whistled. Mrs. Bryant recreated the whistle – a wolf-whistle – for those in the packed courtroom.

The jury did not hear her account. Swango refused to admit it as evidence, saying it was not directly related to Till’s death.

“The defense was built on emotion and Mrs. Bryant was the key,” said Bill Sorrels, now a professor at Mississippi University for Women but then a reporter covering the trial for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. “In the context of those days, no attractive woman was going to be whistled at by a young Chicago black in Mississippi.”

The Verdict

“The whole thing is closed and shut and it should stay that way. The prosecutors didn’t bring in any proof and didn’t prove nothing.” – Jim Pennington, juror.

Milam and Bryant were acquitted after 65 minutes of deliberation by the all-white male jury.

“I was sitting close to the jury room and heard them inside laughing and talking,” columnist Minor recalls. “The hour was just for show. They reached their verdict in five minutes.”

Juror Toole today agrees that it was easy to reach the verdict. “We took what came across and they never proved them boys were at that place at that time, “ he says.

Both Toole and Jim Pennington of Webb, another juror, said they do not regret the decision they helped to make 30 years ago: “We were just doing our civic duty. There was no pressure,” Pennington says.

Jimmy Hicks, one of the leading black reporters of the time, said that, despite the high expectations of his colleagues, the acquittal came as no surprise. “It was just one of those things where blacks lost another one, but it would have been pretty hard to convict anyone on the evidence brought out during the trial. They just didn’t have the smoking gun,” he said.

John Herbers, who covered the trial for United Press, thought the state proved its case but understood why Milam and Bryant were acquitted. “It was a simple case that an all-white-male jury wasn’t going to convict two of their neighbors for killing a black,” he said.

Defense lawyer Whitten said the verdict must be understood in the context of the times.
“Under the system as it then existed, these people got a fair trial. Nobody was threatened and nobody was bribed.”

“It was not a morality play of good vs. evil as it is often made out to be. The evil is in the act, the tragedy of a young boy’s death, and whatever cover-up occurred.” – John Popham, reporter.