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The Murder of Emmett Till | Article

Emmett Till Q&A

In 2003 American Experience held an online forum Q&A about Emmett Till's murder, the subsequent trial, the Civil Rights Movement and Till's legacy today. Questions sent in from the public were answered by the forum participants below. (Bios of participants at bottom of page.)

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Mamie Bradley (mother of Emmett Till) meeting Till's casket in Chicago, photo by William Lanier, 1955. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Q: What happened to Carolyn Bryant? Did she ever express remorse? - Kristen Ames Lovelace, Oklahoma City, OK

Answered by Moses Newson:
Carolyn Bryant divorced Roy Bryant in 1979 and remarried. Except for her court testimony at the trial in Sumner she has said very little publicly about the Emmett Till case, refusing requests for interviews. In fact, apparently neither Carolyn Bryant or her sister-in-law Juanita Milam talked to their husbands about the incident at the store in Money until after one of the teen-agers there with Till mentioned it to Roy Bryant a couple days later after the husband returned from a trip to Texas.

Q: As we review this documentary, has much really changed? A black man dragged to death in Texas a few years back. Racial intolerance practiced by high-ranking political officials, including the President. I'm not sure if Strom Thurmond did not win the war (not the battle). - Terrance Collier, Dallas, TX

Answered by Moses Newson: 
Justice still is not colorblind in this country, but there has been dramatic change for the better. The case you mentioned of a Black man in Texas being dragged to his death behind a vehicle, resulted in convictions and sentences. The struggle for racial equality in America continues but the tide is against the segregationist doctrine once trumpeted by former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond.

Q: How could a federal investigation not been done on this case? Was it the racial beliefs of Eisenhower and Hoover that stopped the reopening of the case or was it just too much for them to deal with? - J.L., Maryland

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
The Justice Department did claim to do some kind of investigation in 1955, issuing a statement that it was looking into whether Till's civil rights had been violated. Nothing came of it, obviously. The president was always reluctant to "interfere" in the South, and Hoover was clearly hostile to African Americans, but this alone doesn't explain the feds failure to respond. There simply were no federal investigations into lynchings at the time--at least no serious, thorough investigations. When Mack Charles Parker was lynched four years later, the FBI investigated but no one was prosecuted.

Q: I don't understand how it could be possible for these men to have not been on trial again, after the detailed confession of murdering this child. How could they have gotten away so blatently even in the fifties? - Jolynn Franklin, Chicago, Il

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
Legally, they were protected by what's called "double jeopardy," which means that one cannot be tried twice for the same offense. It is prohibited by the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. '[T]he Double Jeopardy Clause protects against three distinct abuses: [1] a second prosecution for the same offense after acquittal; [2] a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction; and [3] multiple punishments for the same offense.'

Technically, a civil suit might have been possible, but there was no strong Civil Rights legislation at the time that would enable prosecutors to argue that Till's civil rights had been violated.

It's also important to keep in mind that in the South even as late as the 1950s lynchers were simply not prosecuted. Just four years after the Till murder, Mack Charles Parker was lynched in Poplarville, Mississippi. Although the FBI investigated his case, no one was prosecuted

Q: I recently showed a white colleague (a Ph.D. educator at that) an editorial that outlined the institutional racism inherent in the death penalty in the state of Maryland from the Washington Post. His only response to me was "it was extremely well written."

That of course was not at all the point. Thus, my question: is the subtle racism by denial and trivializing more common today just as dangerous in a way as the blatant racism of 1955 which killed Emmett Till? - Gus Griffin, Forestville, MD

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
The subtle racism is certainly dangerous, though I would avoid comparing it with the lynching of Emmett Till. More importantly, I suggest that the issue of the death penalty is hardly subtle but direct. Black men are overwhelmingly represented on death row and it is not because they commit more murders than whites. It has to do with sentencing policy, the practices of prosecutors (not all), and a society that has been taught that black men are naturally more violent than others. Nevertheless, there are some significant changes. In the past, black men were lynched for no crime at all -- being insolent or rude to white people, owning too much property, being accused of rape despite overwhelming lack of evidence, etc. Now, those who commit such brutal, ritualized murder (lynching) will most likely be prosecuted if caught, whereas in the past there were no laws against lynching. Yes, things have changed. And yes, some forms of violence and racial oppression persist in other forms.

Q: In the "confession" from Look Magazine, it seems to be presented as factual that Emmett Till did more than just whistle at the woman and was defiant to his killers. Is there any evidence that supports the parts of the confession that seem just to be self-serving "justifications" by the killers of their horrendous act? - Robert Nancy, Chico, CA

Answered by Moses Newson: 
Although William Bradford Huie's Look Magazine story was considered to have provided significant otherwise unavailable information about the Emmett Till murder, there is no reason to believe it was an entirely accurate story. It is known that the story Carolyn Bryant testified to during the trial was at odds with accounts by other witnesses. She sat in with her husband and J.W. Milam for the Huie article interview. At any rate, the murder was not in self-defense or accidental -- and in no way justified.

Answered by Stanley Nelson: 
The eyewitnesses that day (Wheeler Parker is in the film) said that Emmett only whistled. The killers would of course have their own reasons to attempt to "justify" the killing. I feel that the details of their story should be taken with a grain of salt.

Q: One of the quotes I just read led me to think that news of Emmett Till's killing was reported in the Black papers. Was it reported in the Chicago Tribune -- and if so, to what extent? - Karen Hollweg, Boulder, CO

Answered by Moses Newson: 
This was a major news story carried by all the nation's influential newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, as well as by many in foreign countries. Judging "extent" can be somewhat subjective but with the Chicago mayor and other leaders protesting the barbaric murder of a Chicago youth, the Tribune devoted considerable space to the story.

Q: Do you think that in the country's present conservative environment, it is difficult for young people and those not intimately affected by the violence of that era to appreciate the call for "hate crime" legislation? - M.G., Exton, PA

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
It's hard to guess how people will respond to anything given the diversity of experiences and the different ways people respond. Despite nearly a century of lynchings from the 1880s to the 1950s, the federal government never passed anti-lynching legislation, nor was there much of an outcry for it beyond the African American community and certain liberal whites. So, even when violence was pervasive, it seems as though most Americans were still not "affected" by the violence enough to move to action. Nevertheless, the only way to build support for such legislation is to educate people of past and present violence, and the impact it has on our culture more broadly. Remember that James Byrd was lynched by three white men in Jasper Texas a little over four years ago. Unlike the past, however, the men were prosecuted and people in Jasper have moved to memorialize his murder and some in the state have supported legislation against such "hate crimes."

Q: Wasn't President Eisenhower, as a general, the man that helped integrate the military during World War II? Why didn't he do anything? Votes? - David W. Steger, New Smyrna Beach, FL

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
The armed forces were not integrated until after World War II, under President Truman. At one point in 1952, while Eisenhower was running for president, a couple of articles portrayed him as a key supporter of the integration of the armed forces and, despite his advisors suggesting that this might win black votes, he nevertheless denied it. He was not a big supporter.

Why he didn't do anything about Till may not have any bearing on his position vis-a-vis the armed forces. Like the presidents before him, he was against any sort of intervention into Southern affairs, even if laws were violated. He certainly wasn't crazy about Brown v. Board of Education. Nevertheless, when efforts to integrate Central High School in Little Rock erupted in violence, he was willing to send troops to keep the peace.

Q. I would like to know, did the men that did this horrible crime, did they suffer later? Is there any history of their lives or what their lives were like afterwards? How did they die?

Answered by Stanley Nelson: 
The two men who admitted to the killing both died of natural causes, they were never punished for their crime.

Q. My question is has anyone been in contact with the kids of Milam and Bryant and their wives about where they live and if they have anything to say about the case? I would love to hear the answer to this. Thanks. - Dillon, Portland, OR

Answered by Stanley Nelson: 
Milam and Bryant were both divorced and their wives were remarried -- we spent a lot of time trying to find and contact them or their children but were unable to do so.

Q. Was there ever any form of apology for the Emmett Till murder and trial given to the Till family by any person holding Mississippi political authority? - Jonathan Carr, Charlotte, NC

Answered by Stanley Nelson: 
I believe Mamie Till Mobley received an official apology from the State of Mississippi a few years ago.

Q. Why is the present Justice Department regime reluctant to reopen this tragic case? Maybe they could review the success that former Atty. Gen. Reno had when she brought to justice the killers of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss. and the four little girls murdered in the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. - M.H., Los Angeles, CA

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
To put it simply, the current attorney general, John Ashcroft, is simply not interested in opening Civil Rights issues. His record in Missouri was not very good on race or Civil Rights, and his record in Washington, D.C., is no better. That can change if there is sufficient pressure from people outraged about the original verdict. There is a movement afoot, led in part by the NAACP, to re-open the Till case.

Answered by William Winter: 
As I understand the difficulty of opening this case is compounded by the fact that just about all of the people who would have known anything about the case are no longer living. I believe that efforts are now under way to determine the viability of opening it.

Q. Mr. Nelson's film shows the effects of Emmett Till's murder on the black community, and on the civil rights movement. What has the impact been in the white community, especially in the Mississippi Delta region. What has become of the Milam and Bryant families. Have they felt any remorse for their crime? Have their views on human rights changed at all over the years? Thank you. - J.P., Cambridge, MA

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
There is no evidence that either men, or their wives, felt remorse over the incident or that their views on human rights had changed. However, there is evidence that they were eventually ostracized by some of their white neighbors who felt embarrassed by the murder and by Milam and Bryant's behavior afterward (i.e., their willingness to tell the story for money).

Answered by Bill Minor: 
You may be surprised to know that we working journalists who covered the Emmett Till case and the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam back in 1955 frankly saw no link then between it and the yet-to-unfold civil rights movement. Young Till had not come to the Mississippi Delta to help fellow blacks register to vote or to test segregation in schools or public facilities, (as did many civil rights activists who came to the Delta in later years.) Obviously, he was a cocky kid horsing around with cousins when the alleged "wolf-whistle" happened. He became an innocent victim of the Deep South's code of avenging white womanhood for any breach by a lustful black male, miniscule though his could have been.

But I, then a 35-year-old reporter who had been covering Mississippi for the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune for almost nine years, saw the historic significance of the moment in the Sumner courtroom when Milam and Bryant were acquitted and I so wrote in the dispatch (included in "Eyes on Mississippi -- a 50 year Chronicle" a collection of articles I published in 2001) which I filed:

"To the sweaty, tense courtroom audience, it was clear that not two men but a system as old as the Constitution of the United States, and a way of life which may be older, had been on trial."

In the flow of the civil rights struggle that began when Rosa Parks in December 1955 refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, AL, coursing on though the 1960s (much of the 60s action which took place in Mississippi, I witnessed and chronicled as a journalist) and the early 1970s, the Till case, because of its shocking brutality and the momentous decision of Mamie Till to let the world view the battered body of her teenage son in an open pine casket and with the massive coverage the trial received, logically place it as a triggering event in helping to launch the movement.

When you ask about the impact of the Till murder on the white community, I assume you meant back then. Regrettably, most Mississippi whites refused to acknowledge the gravity of the murder, in fact were defensive because the Milam-Bryant trial attracted dozens of reporters from all over the country. A bumper sticker appeared shortly afterwards reading: "Mississippi -- the most Lied About State in the Nation." But when Milam and Bryant confessed to slaying the Chicago schoolboy in an article that appeared in Look Magazine three months after the acquittal and it was learned they were paid $4,000, public opinion quickly switched. The two half-brothers suddenly were viewed as white trash and literally drummed out of the state with their families. Bryant , who had two young children, a few years later was divorced from his wife, Carolyn. After working at odd job in Texas he quietly moved back into the state in the late 80s and for awhile ran a country store in neighboring Sunflower county, until he died in 1994. Milam had died of cancer outside the state in 1981.

No, there's never been any apology from the surviving family and I don't know where they live. Bryant, tracked down by a Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter after reappearing in the state was still in denial of having murdered the youth. He merely added: "I'm just sorry it happened."

A friend tells me that Milam has a grandson who now lives in Clarksdale, MS. The young man, according to my friend, is not only unrepentant about the crime his grandfather was accused of, but his only regret is that the young fisherman who discovered Till's body had not snagged his trotline and found it. "Otherwise that body would still be there in the Tallahatchie River, and that trial would have never happened," the Milam grandson was quoted by my friend.

Q. Gov. Winter:

Thank you for your participation in this extremely important program.

I am extremely interested in your thoughts as to why the racial situation in Mississippi became so volatile. In the program, the white population were portrayed as ignorant. I am Jim Eastland's grandson, and I know that some of the racist white population of Mississippi was educated and very intelligent. I am very interested in why Mississippi became so rabidly racist.

My own thoughts are that the black and white population of Mississippi were operating under the vestige of a "slavery mentality," and were afraid to change. I know that my grandfather was arguing for a Southern "way of life," and that the racist situation was key to this "way of life." What do you think? - James Howdeshell, Los Angeles, CA

Answered by William Winter: 
Thanks for your message. Your grandfather was my life-long friend. He represented a generation which sincerely believed that the maintenance of racial segregation was absolutely essential to an orderly society and which also fervently believed in the inherent superiority of white people. That thinking was behind the monolithic public opinion that approved or at least acquiesced in the acquittal of the Till murderers. Mississippi has come a long way from those days, even though as in the rest of the country there is still a subtle racism that we must still work to overcome. I hope that we can keep in touch. Please give my regards to your father and mother

Q: Has Emmett's death improved race relations in Mississippi? Do school children learn of the significance of Emmett's death in starting a movement against the unfair treatment of blacks? Or has this death become like many, many others -- just our story? - Carla Chapman, Akron, OH

Answered by William Winter: 
The main significance of Emmett Till's death was the focusing of national attention on civil rights abuses in the South. The result was the massive effort in the next 10 years that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That legislation has done more to change race relations in the South than anything else. I fear that not very many young people in the country appreciate the impact of the Till case, but it ultimately contributed mightily to a vastly improved atmosphere of racial tolerance and understanding, although much still remains to be done.

Q. Since the Till case seemed to have had such an impact on the Civil Rights Movement, why haven't the NAACP, or other groups, held the State of Mississippi accountable through suing for the conducting of that "bogus" (for lack of a better word) trial? - Allexcia Adams Thuss, Springfield, SC

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
From the moment of the verdict, the NAACP did hold the state of Mississippi accountable for the murders. Roy Wilkins delivered a scathing speech denouncing the injustice, but without the federal government's willingness to investigate and intervene, there was not much they could do legally. There have been several efforts to re-open the case in Mississippi, the most recent is being spearheaded by two filmmakers, Stanley Nelson and Keith Beauchamp, who is also completing a film on the murder of Emmett Till. The NAACP supports re-opening the case and appealing to the attorney general of Mississippi, as well as groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Q. Although Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were found innocent of murdering Emmett Till would it have been possible for Emmett Till's mother to file a civil suit during that time period (1955)? Also, can Emmett Till's surviving relatives file a civil suit in a court of law today (2003) and be compensated? - P.H., Riverdale, GA

Answered by William Winter: 
Emmett Till's mother undoubtedly could have filed a civil suit at the time, although she would have been confronted with the same juror mentality that acquitted Bryant and Milam of criminal charges. The statue of limitations would now preclude a civil action, although criminal charges could still be brought against anyone who might have been involved in the crime.

Q. Was this horrific event, the murder of an innocent African American teenager at the hands of two white men, and the subsequent lack of justice, an anomaly, or was this type of brutal crime commonplace in the United States, particularly the American South? If this type of crime was common, then what was its intended effect on African Americans? - Jonathan Carr, Charlotte, NC

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
The murder of Till was essentially a lynching, a brutal ritualized murder intended to scare other African Americans into submission and subordination. Now, by the 1950s lynching was not as common place. Some of the state's more notorious racist murders in that decade were the lynching of Mack Charles Parker and the killing of George Lee, an NAACP activist registering voters. But before this decade, notably between 1882 and 1946, almost 5,000 people died by lynching, and many were very young black men (teenagers). Lynching in the 1950s was driven underground and done in secrecy; in earlier periods, however, lynching was very public. Whole families sometimes came out to the see this mob style hanging, which always involved torture and mutilation of the body, especially genitalia. Once again, the burned, mutilated carcass of a black man or woman hanging from a tree served as a reminder to other what could happen if they were insolent or (for men) if they consorted with white women.

Answered by Moses Newson: 
Between 1882 and 1962, there were 4,736 lynchings in the United States, most of them in the South, most victims Black. Mississippi had 578 of the total, 538 of those being Black. In 1955, Rev. George Lee of Belzoni was murdered in May and farmer Lamar Smith of Brookhaven in August, just before Emmett Till's death. Both were interested in registering Blacks to vote. Shortly after Till's death a Black service station attendant was slain by a friend of J.W. Milam. Not one was convicted. These murders were meant to intimidate and to maintain a white supremacy culture.

Q. (To William Winter): I grew up as one of the few whites who stayed in the Tallahatchie County schools after integration. Nearly all the other whites fled to Strider Academy, no doubt named for Sheriff Strider and his family. I witnessed horrible injustice and awful conditions in the school, but I'm glad I had the experience to really get to know black people in the delta in a way the segregation academy students never will. What can be done to bring about integration in the delta public schools? I believe they're about 99.7 percent African-American now. How tragic that these kids are STILL growing up in a segregated society. It's outrageous. What can be done? - Amelia Franz, Austin, TX

Answered by William Winter: 
I share your dismay over the almost total segregation of the public schools in many parts of Mississippi. Jackson for example has experienced a massive withdrawal of whites from the public schools, which are now 95% black in the city. Some of us have worked to create an organization called Parents for Public Schools, which now has chapters in ten states, to encourage parents to join together to keep their children in public schools. It has been moderately successful in some communities . Unfortunately segregated schools are not confined to the old Confederate South. It is a national phenomenon, which attests to the considerable distance we still have to travel to achieve a good biracial society.

Q. In the documentary, a man called "Too Tight" heard the beatings and washed the blood from the truck and conversed with another man about the shoe. Later in the documentary we were told he disappeared as a message to frighten local blacks. Was he killed? Was he forced to leave town? What happened to him? - J.N., Washington, D.C.

Answered by Moses Newson: 
Leroy "Too Tight" Collins and Henry Loggins were said to have been at the plantation run by Leslie Milam, brother of defendant J. W. Milam, during the beating of Emmett Till, by witness Willie Reed. Collins later was interviewed in Chicago, probably having decided he'd be safer out of Mississippi. Congressman Charles Diggs and Till's mother were quoted as saying Sheriff H. C. Strider had arranged to have Collins and Loggins held in a Charleston, Miss., jail until after the trial. Strider denied it. A woman who knew Collins said she saw him at the jail.

Answered by Stanley Nelson: 
Too Tight Collins showed up after the trial, he claimed that Milam had sent him to do a job in the next county. He later was interviewed by the Chicago Defender newspaper and he denied any involvement in the Till murder. He is believed to be still alive.

Q. I'm interested in what happened to Willie Reed in Chicago after he testified. Any information you could offer would be a great addition to this story. He's a true American hero! - Dr. Matthew J. Zagumny, Cookeville, TN

Answered by Stanley Nelson: Willie Reed still lives and works in Chicago, he is doing fine. He came to screenings of the film that we recently had in Chicago, New York and Washington, where he was given the standing ovation that he so richly deserves.

Q. The letters to the editor lean toward the defendants in the trial. Southern and Northern respondents seem to feel what these two men did was unfortunate but okay. The fact that Emmett Till was a child, did this make a difference about how the majority of Mississippians felt about what happened? Were black children lynched in the South just like black men? Did the city, county, state local governments feel any responsibility for what happened? Did the southern press try to suppress the story and did the northern press exploit the situation? - C.S., Columbus, OH

Answered by Bill Minor: 
I'll address a couple of points you raised. No, to my knowledge, certainly in Mississippi, no other black child was lynched. One dastardly thing happened, however, in 1940 or 41, before I arrived on the scene, when the state put to death by electrocution two black youngsters, one only 15, charged with killing a law enforcement officer.

As far as how the Southern press treated the Till case: The two largest Mississippi papers then, the (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News, shamefully wrote stories and editorials denigrating Till's family background. I distinctly remember the Daily News sent a reporter to Chicago to dig out the information that Till's father, who died in service in Europe in 1945 was not killed in combat, but in some non-military altercation involving a civilian, (a French woman as I recall) and they played up the story on page one.

However, there were some other Mississippi newspapers, especially the (Greenville) Delta Democrat-Times, edited by Hodding Carter, Jr. which not only covered the story with complete objectivity, but with leaning towards punishing the murderers. Both my paper (The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune), which was well circulated then in South Mississippi, and the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, which was by far the primary newspaper read in North Mississippi, gave the story prominent play throughout (even more so in the Commercial Appeal) and covering it with total objectivity, and expressing dismay when the two men were acquitted.

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
Teenagers were lynched many times in the past, so that was not unusual. And bear in mind that lynching was not limited to the South. Some of the most brutal lynchings of young black men took place in Indiana and other midwestern states. It is doubtful that the Northern press would have made this a big story, or any kind of story, had the black press not taken it up. Jet magazine's decision to publish photos of the body sent shockwaves throughout the world, and the international pressure on the United States from Europe, the Soviet Union, and newly decolonized countries compelled the government and mainstream press to do something. In fact, it was precisely the context of the Cold War and America's claim to being the leading force for democracy in the free world that made the murder of Emmett Till an international scandal, resulting in an arrest and a trial in the first place, even though it was all a sham. By arresting Milam and Bryant, the Mississippi authorities presented themselves as acting responsibly, despite the outcome. By not calling for a full-scale investigation and not intervening, President Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover believed they were acting "responsibly" by not meddling in Southern affairs. Obviously, none of this is responsible behavior, and it certainly flies in the face of established state and federal law, but this was the way they presented themselves.

Finally, the Southern press did not uniformly suppress the story. On the contrary, there were sharp divisions between the Southern liberal press, who were critical of Milam and Bryant and the criminal justice system in Money and LeFlore County, and there were those who harped on Northern meddling as the main problem. Very few white Southern papers simply ignored the story.

Q. What about the jurors. Did they ever repent and turn from a lie to the truth? When, how and where did they die? - K.S., St. Louis, MO

Answered by Stanley Nelson: 
There is one juror alive, he refused to be interviewed for the film. As far as I know none of the jurors expressed any remorse for their verdict.

Q: Has either Mr. Newson or Mr. Minor returned to Money since they covered the story originally in 1955? If so, what were your thoughts while revisiting the area? Thank you. - Al, Memphis, TN

Answered by Moses Newson: 
Moses J. Newson, as a reporter-editor for the Baltimore Afro-American Newspapers, returned to Mississippi to cover other stories, including James Meredith's historic admittance to the University of Mississippi, but never had an occasion to revisit Money.

Answered by Bill Minor: 
I have not been back through the tiny hamlet of Money. But some years ago, my travels through the Delta, covering various stories, political campaigns or civil rights events, took me through Sumner, where the historic Milam-Bryant trial was held. The old courthouse has been spruced up considerably. In particular, it has been air-conditioned. It's hard for me to imagine now (I'm 80 years old, soon to be 81) how I could endure the oppressive heat and cloying humidity day after day covering the trial, and as was de rigueur in those days, wearing a tie and coat. Thankfully, at one point during the trial, Judge Curtis Swango announced that anyone wearing a coat could shed it.

Ironically, the rotund Sheriff Strider later became a rather colorful state senator and, somehow, took a liking to me as I covered legislative sessions. He once invited me to visit him sometime at his big cotton farm outside Sumner. I did, just to see him plat the role of lord and master of all he surveyed. I always thought it vainly ironical that he had the lettered "S -- T -- R -- I -- D -- E -- R" spelled out on the roofs of his tenant houses leading up the driveway to his big farmhouse, to be seen by airplanes.

A major difference between a Money or a Sumner of 1955 and today is reflected in the electorate. Back then, the African-American community had no voice in the selection of their public officials. Today, the state senator who represents Tallahatchie County in the legislature is David Jordan (he was in the film), a black political activist who formerly was a city commissioner in Greenwood.

Q. I read in the new issue of Jet magazine that Emmett's father did not just "die" in the military overseas at the end of the war, but rather was executed for the rape and murder of an Italian woman. What are the facts behind this and why the omission on the documentary? - Liesse Hand, Baton Rouge, LA

Answered by Stanley Nelson: 
Emmett Till's father was executed during WWII for rape in Italy. Mamie Till was not told why he was killed until after Emmett's death when Mississippi senator Eastland found and released his records to the public. This was done after the trail in an effort to turn public sentiment against Mrs. Till and to insure that there would not be another trail for kidnapping. We felt that although this is an interesting story it was tangential to the documentary.

Q. What did the mass exodus of blacks from Mississippi to the north, and exodus from other deep south states, have on the southern economy then (1900-1970) and now? - Anthony Page, Lansing, MI

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
The Migration North had a significant affect, especially the movement in the immediate post World War II period. During the first World War, a large number of African Americans fled the South, but the black population continued to have a majority in the rural South. But during the 1930s, with the New Deal, we witness limited mechanization of agriculture which transforms many tenant farmers and sharecroppers into agricultural wage workers. Without land, we see greater movement to Southern and Northern cities. However, World War II was the major watershed for the mass exodus. War-time industrialization generated job opportunities in Northern cities, and the mechanization of agriculture proceeded more rapidly than before. During the war about one million African Americans left the South for Northern cities, and the number of black farm workers declined by about 13%. By the end of the war, the majority of black people end up residing in cities. The effect on the Southern economy was not too negative because mechanization allowed for greater production without as much labor. What did change, however, was the South's expansion away from agriculture to more industry (chemicals, food processing, manufacturing, for instance).

Mississippi is still one of the poorest states in the South and the miracle of Southern industrialization (fueled in part by strict anti-labor laws and anti-union activity) did not affect Mississippi as much as, say, Georgia or North Carolina. There is a growing black middle class, however, but part of the growth is due to return migration, which began to take off in the 1970s.

Politically, the mass exodus had a huge impact. Whatever limitations the cities imposed, it was a freer space for organizing against racism, for developing a national agenda for Civil Rights and for publicizing the conditions of the South. I don't want to overstate this because the most significant Civil Rights organizations and leaders came out of the South and remained there. However, the fact that Chicago now had such a larger black population meant that 50,000 black people could attend Till's funeral and that made a big difference.

Q. I teach Advanced Placement United States History to high school juniors in Coppell, Texas. My students were assigned to watch this very moving story and then complete a special project I designed based on this tragedy. We debriefed the day following the presentation and the students had some interesting questions. One of the best I thought was this: Considering the outcome of the trial of Bryant and Milam, we realize they could not be tried twice for the same crime and that's what gave them courage to sell their story for $5,000. However, my students' question is this: why didn't the federal government step in and invoke the Lindbergh Kidnapping law against these two. They were tried for murder, not kidnapping, of which they were obviously guilty. Why wouldn't the federal government bring kidnapping charges against them and try them in a federal court far away from all that good old boy stuff? My students would really appreciate a response from your expert. - Jim Griffin, Coppell, TX

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
Great question. The federal government could have brought kidnapping charges against Milam and Bryant if the Justice Department had been interested in the case. From the outset they claimed to investigate and then pass. On the other hand, the two were tried for kidnapping, too (one need not be in a federal court to be tried for kidnapping) but they were found innocent.

But the real question is why they were not tried again. Remember that the Lindbergh kidnapping case was different. Remember that Bruno Hauptmann was convicted and sentenced to death in the first trial, unlike Milam and Bryant who were found innocent of all charges. The defense team for Hauptmann then filed several appeals and even the governor of New Jersey looked into granting a pardon but chose not to. No appeal was successful so he was executed. Because he was convicted, "double jeopardy" does not apply. The Lindbergh law essentially made kidnapping a federal crime.

By double jeopardy, legally that means that one cannot be tried twice for the same offense; it is prohibited by the 5th Amendment. The Double Jeopardy Clause protects against three kinds of abuses: [1] a second prosecution for the same offense after acquittal; [2] a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction; and [3] multiple punishments for the same offense. Because Milam and Bryant had been acquitted, they could not be tried again for the same offense.

Q. First I would like to say that I am a relative of Emmett Till. His mother is a first cousin of my grandfather Allen Jackson. My mother is the same age as Emmett. One day when I was 8 or 9 years old, while passing the elementary school that Emmett attended, my mother told me the story of her distant cousin Emmett. And over the years it has been repeated many times.

Less than a mile from where Emmett Till grew up, in 1959 the year I was born, only a few years after Emmett till's death. There was started what became the most powerful black American street gang in America. It is called the Black Stone Rangers.

As I was growing up. I never got involved in street gang activity. I feared the street gangs. In getting robbed or beaten up. Yet the Black Stone Rangers gave me a sense of comfort. I knew that I would never be killed like Emmett Till because the fear created by the street gangs kept white people out of the south side of Chicago neighborhoods.

This program said that the death of Emmett Till may have inspired the Civil Rights movement to get started. My question is, have you considered that the death of Emmett Till also started the idea of large, powerful, very violent black American street gangs? In specific the Black Stone Rangers and the Gangster Disciples on the south side of Chicago. And this idea still lives in the "Thug Life" attitude expressed by Tupac and other Gangster Rappers in the Hip hop music of today?

Young black men have decided to fight. Rather than have white people beat them down and kill them. And the black American street gang was originally a group of warriors because black people were not going to get protection from the police in the 1950s and 1960s. - Kevin Thomas, Miami, FL

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
Interesting question. First, there is no evidence that gangs in urban centers like Chicago developed in response to, or even grew as a result of, the murder of Emmett Till. On the contrary, the period from 1955 to the early 1960s witnessed a decline in crime among African American youth, even as arrests increased slightly. Why? Because social movements like the Civil Rights movement drew the energies of black youth, and the arrests reflect an increase in civil disobedience. Second, African American gangs predate the murder of Emmett Till; some go back to the 1920s and 1930s. They did grow exponentially, but not in the 1950s or 60s. The increase as well as the instances of violence, grew in the 1970s and 80s, partly with the expansion of the drug trade and the impact of deindustrialization in urban communities. It is true that the police have done little to protect African American communities and operate more like an occupying army, but the gangs were not created to battle the police. Certainly gang members joined and help form groups like Community Alert Patrol in Los Angeles, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland and elsewhere, but this was more in response to the rebellions of the mid to late 60s, not Emmett Till. In the end, however, much of the proliferation of violence in the 70s and 80s is tied to the drug trade and struggles over territory. One thing you never ever see, and that is the lynching of whites by black people.

Q. Does the panel believe that the recent national controversy stimulated by Senator Lott's endorsement of Segregationist views can cause a similar civil rights force as did Emmett Till's murder? - Dema Shevelenko, Bellevue, WA

Answered by Moses Newson: 
No. Senator Trent Lott's statement was seen as representative of a more sophisticated tact employed by certain people these days to indicate where they stand on certain issues. What he did accomplish was to reinforce the views of millions of minorities that the civil rights struggle is far from finished and that they must show responsive sophistication in their political choices. 

Answered by Robin D.G. Kelley: 
This is very doubtful, in part because the Lott incident did not generate much outrage and it doesn't carry the same emotional weight as a murder. Besides, Lott's opinions do not violate any laws, so there can be no real outcome besides censure in the Senate and some kind of demotion. More importantly, Lott has said the same thing before over a decade ago and nothing came of it. Indeed, Americans seemed to have forgotten. Finally, the most important issue is that on the substantive matters of race and social policy, the Republican Party has supported some policies that -- deliberately or not -- promote racial inequality and roll back many of the gains of the civil rights movement. This may be the real story, but Lott's remarks deflect attention from the Republican Party's broader racial politics.

Q. Does Money, MI have any memorial, plaque, etc. signifying this tragic event? Did Bryant or Milam have any children? Have any of their descendants ever repudiated the murder of Till? - Vic Toney, Las Vegas, NV

Answered by Bill Minor: 
Unfortunately, there is no memorial or plaque signifying what happened in Money or Sumner. As I had mentioned earlier to another inquiry, the only descendent of the two killers to make a comment that has come to my attention is a grandson of Milam who now lives in Clarksdale, MS. The grandson, rather than showing remorse, only regretted the fact that a young fisherman had found Till's body when he was trying to unsnag his trotline.

 

Forum Participants:

Robin D.G. Kelley
A historian at New York University, Professor Kelley's interests include working class radicalism and the African diaspora. His publications include Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (1997), Imagining Home: Class, Culture, and Nationalism in the African Diaspora with Sidney J. Lemelle (1995), and Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (1994). 

Bill Minor
Journalist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi for over half a century as a reporter and a syndicated columnist. He reported from the Bryant-Milam trial for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He published Eyes on Mississippi: A Fifty-year Chronicle of Change in 2001.

Stanley Nelson
The producer and director of The Murder of Emmett Till, Nelson is well known for bringing important but forgotten history to television, and was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2002. Till was selected for screening at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003. Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind was a 2001 Sundance selection. His 1999 film, The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords garnered the Sundance Film Festival's Freedom of Expression award, a coveted duPont-Columbia Silver Baton, Best Documentary at the San Francisco Film Festival, and an Emmy nomination for Best Historical Program.

Moses Newson
Journalist Moses Newson reported on the trial of Emmett Till's killers for the Memphis, Tennessee-based Tri-State Defender. Soon afterward, he moved to Baltimore where he had a long career as reporter, city editor, and executive editor for the Afro-American Newspapers.

William Winter 
A native of Grenada, Mississippi, Winter was serving in the state legislature at the time of Till's murder. His long career of public service culminated in the Mississippi governorship in the early 1980s. Through Winter's efforts Mississippi passed a heralded education reform act and worked toward racial reconciliation. Winter currently practices law in Jackson, Mississippi.

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