The Clarion-Ledger
Jackson Daily News

August 25, 1985

Mississippi has come a long way since those dispirited days in 1955

Billy Skelton
Editorial Page Editor
The Clarion-Ledger

Midsummer of 1955 in Mississippi was highlighted by a typically torrid governor’s race in which the state’s 41-year-old state attorney general, J. P. Coleman, upset ex-Gov. Fielding Wright and first primary leader Paul B. Johnson Jr.

However, before summer’s end the governor’s race was overshadowed in public attention by the dramatic death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago who was killed while visiting relatives near Money in Leflore County.

The kidnapping of Till on Aug. 28, the discovery of his body in the Tallahatchie River Aug. 31, and the Sept 19-23 trial of two men accused of his murder attracted vast national and international coverage. The events also were widely chronicled in Mississippi newspapers, including the Clarksdale Press Register, for which I worked at the time and for which I wrote daily reports from the trial scene.

In looking back after 30 years, I think I was as astonished as most Mississippians at the media’s full-scale sortie into the state – and subsequently for their massive coverage of the civil rights revolution. Until then Mississippians had not known such exposure.

The civil rights movement was just beginning in an atmosphere of hardening attitudes in the state. The efforts of white racial moderates and black activists were being stymied or crushed.

Americans, though aware of the May 17, 1954, U. S. Supreme Court decree ruling segregation in public schools unconstitutional, were in the mid-‘50s mainly interested in getting ahead materially. That was the era of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, TV quiz shows, Davy Crockett caps and Cinerama Holiday.

If the status of blacks penetrated the consciousness of white Americans, it was more attributable to things such as Marian Anderson’s debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera House earlier that year than to blacks’ second-class citizenship.

The death of Emmett Till helped change all that. 

If a case championing the cause of equal rights for blacks had been chosen on its merits, it would have been made on behalf of individuals such as the Rev. George W. Lee of Belzoni. Lee, who had been active in voter registration in Humphreys County, was killed by a shotgun blast from a passing car in May 1955. But this basic approach to improving the lot of black people did not excite the national media. The murder of a Chicago youth allegedly for making lewd advances to an attractive white woman did.

By the time the trial opened Sept. 19, the case had become a nationwide sensation. Driving to the courthouse at Sumner, I submitted to frisking at the door and jammed myself into the small mob of more than 70 reporters who watched and scribbled though the proceedings. (Although Till had been kidnapped in Leflore County, the body was found in Tallahatchie County, and that county’s grand jury returned two murder indictments.)

My memories of the trial are not particularly vivid, but a few stand out:

* The put upon attitude of many Tallahatchie Countians, who were prone to say the case was not their dirty linen – and the defensiveness of white Mississippians generally, including even those who wanted any guilty persons convicted and punished.

* The crowded courtroom, packed with more people in less space than any enclosure I’ve ever seen with the possible exception of a northeast Mississippi high school gymnasium during 1940s basketball tournament finals.

* The convincing testimony of Moses Wright , Till’s elderly great-uncle, who identified defendants J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant as the persons who came to his home and abducted the youth.

* The skilled prosecution, particularly the impassioned closing argument, of District Attorney Gerald Chatham, who told the jurors the case was “dripping with the blood of Emmett Till.” The jury nevertheless found the defendants not guilty.

* The cool control of the case throughout by the able Judge Curtis Swango.

The evidence against the defendants was strong, but less than overwhelming, suffering from the fact that the sheriff maintained the body recovered from the river was not Till’s. In the absence of better police work, there is some doubt that an impartial jury would have reached a verdict of guilty.
However, reflecting 30 years later, I’m impressed less with memories of the trial than with memories of the times – the oppressiveness of the racial conflict and the stifling climate of opinion.
The dispiriting feeling of being trapped by an insolvable dilemma has been lifted. Problems of racial prejudice and injustice remain in Mississippi, but it’s a freer place today and one of more hope and opportunity.

The period since 1955 has been a generation in time – but an epoch in human relationships.