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The Murder of Emmett Till
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 Questions and Answers:    Day 1 |  Day 2 |  Day 3 |  Day 4
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Day 4:
January 24, 2003

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?

Columbus, Ohio

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?

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.

Memphis, Tennessee

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 $5000. 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, Texas

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, Florida

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.


Q: I had read somewhere that an address was going to be provided at the end of the program where one could "encourage" the state of Mississippi to "re-open" the case, if only to set the official record straight. Any point to this? And what happened to the idea?

Richard Broadbent
Emmitsburg, Maryland

Answered by Stanley Nelson
There is a link to the Mississippi Attorney General on our web site --


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