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The Murder of Emmett Till
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Online Forum

 Questions and Answers:    Day 1 |  Day 2 |  Day 3 |  Day 4
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Day 3:
January 23, 2003

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.

Los Angeles, California

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.

Robin D.G. Kelley

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.

William Winter

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.

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).

Robin D.G. Kelley

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 flow 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 $4000, 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.

William Winter

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, Ohio

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 ten years that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of l964 and the Voting Rights Act of l965. 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.

William Winter

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.

Robin D.G. Kelley

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?

Riverdale, Georgia

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.

William Winter

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.

Robin D.G. Kelley

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.

Moses Newson

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, Texas

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.

William Winter

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?

Washington, DC

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.

Moses Newson

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.


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