Major Resources on the Case

 

Whitaker Thesis

This thesis, "A Case Study of Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case" by Hugh Whitaker, is available for free download at Florida State University. Click on the title page above or here to go to the download page. The thesis is a large (52 Mb) PDF file.

“A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case.” By Hugh Stephen Whitaker. Master’s Thesis, Florida State University, 1963, xii, 205 p.

This work by a graduate student in Florida in the early 1960s is the foundational study of the Emmett Till case. Written only eight years after the sensational murder and trial, Whitaker had the benefit of interviewing many of the participants who, unfortunately for present day researchers, are now dead. Their perspective on the case, preserved within this thesis is one reason it has traditionally been quoted more than any other major source. Although the original thesis was never published, the most relevant portions dealing directly with the Till case were finally published as "A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Murder and Trial of Emmett Till" in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 8:2 (Summer 2005): 189-224.

The work is about more than just the Emmett Till case, however, although its purpose is to help us see southern justice through the events surrounding this particular tragedy. The first section, “The Setting,” is divided into four chapters and provides a context for the Till slaying. Chapter one deals with the issue of race and sex, and the place of segregation in Mississippi. Chapter two is a study of Tallahatchie County, where Till was killed and the trial held. Whitaker includes several important tables that illuminate the reader to the social and economic disparity between the races. For example, he lists the annual incomes of Tallahatchie County families for 1949 and that disparity is clear: of the 6,915 families earning under $500 annually, 1,980 were white, while 4,935 were black. Another shows that 195 white families earned an income between 6,000 and 10,000 annually, while only 10 black families enjoyed a similar prosperity. He also provides statistics on home ownership verses those who then rented, and even a table showing how many homes had toilets that flush as opposed to those that did not. Again, the contrast between the races is striking.

Another chapter deals with Mississippi since Reconstruction, and the success of legislation that disenfranchised blacks. The rise of Jim Crow laws and the unfortunate consequences of the loss of suffrage is laid out clearly. Quoting another writer, Whitaker notes that “the vote determined ‘whether the streets in a given part of town are paved and whether the town spends money for lighting those streets.’” In Tallahatchie County, Whitaker adds, due to disenfranchisement, “Streets in Negro sections of town are not only not paved, they are often not even graveled. They are generally narrow and are seldom graded by the elected supervisor for their beat. There are few or no sidewalks. Street lighting is poor. Sewers and water mains are often not put into their homes” (47).

Whitaker also provides lynching statistics as compiled and evaluated by the Tuskegee Institute. Between 1882 and 1945, 475 lynchings took place. Of that number, 433 of the victims were black. After the late 1920s, however, lynchings decreased and there were none from January 1952 and May 1954, just prior to the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and a year before Till was killed. In fact, he points out some areas where race relations had improved and some degree of social mixing seemed to quietly occur.

With that background, Whitaker then examines the Till case in part two of his study, and he provides the reader with a wealth of information. One benefit that he had was access to the official court transcript of the murder trial, and he quotes from it often.  Whitaker received his copy of the trial transcript from one of the defense attorneys, but it eventually was destroyed in a basement flood. For decades, it was the only known copy to exist until the FBI located one during their 2004-2006 investigation into the case.

Whitaker chronicles the events surrounding the kidnapping and murder, using William Bradford Huie’s book, Wolf Whistle, and even interviewing Huie himself (Huie had paid the acquitted killers, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant $3,500 for their story soon after the trial). Trial participants that Whitaker interviewed include several members of the jury, two of the three prosecuting attorneys, and a few of the defense attorneys. Interesting admissions come from the interviews. “Why did the jurors vote for acquittal?” he asks. “The answer may surprise many of the people involved in the case, including the prosecutors and the defense attorneys. Of the jurors polled, not a single one doubted that Milam and Bryant, or the Negroes supposedly with them, had killed Emmett Till. Only one juror seriously doubted that the body was Till’s” (155). Whitaker even interviewed Sheriff H. C. Strider supplied Whitaker with many of his own materials on the case (mainly the 150 letters he received before and during the trial), and from him comes a story—one that Whitaker was able to corroborate. Apparently, someone made an assassination attempt upon Strider a few years after the Emmett Till murder, in retaliation for his (Strider’s) conduct during the trial. We even see--possibly--a different side to Strider. “The last thing I wanted to do was to defend those peckerwoods [Milam and Bryant],” prosecutor Hamilton Caldwell told Whitaker, quoting Strider. “but I just had no choice about it.” Although one source close to Strider said the sheriff sided with Milam and Bryant from the beginning, Caldwell was adamant that Strider’s work for the defense was one of “changing horses in mid-stream” (127).

"A Case Study in Southern Justice" is a crucial contribution in understanding 1950s Mississippi justice. It was undertaken while key figures in the Emmett Till case were alive, but long enough after the events where participants could discuss them more objectively. Later studies have been able to better place the Till case within the civil rights movement, something that Whitaker could not yet foresee fully. However, his study certainly is an important source in the overall quest for understanding. Truly it is the first word on the case, one that will greatly aid the last word—if there ever is such a thing.

Emmett Till