Sex and Race
How did whites like Milam and Bryant see themselves in relation to blacks?
John David Smith:
It's not too much to say that the racial and social mores of slavery remained very much alive in Mississippi in 1955. While whites begrudgingly recognized that blacks were free, they were unwilling to accept them as social and racial equals. White sexuality, before and after slavery, always provided a means of white control over blacks. Till crossed the line of white propriety; he committed what whites considered a betrayal of racial lines. Till insulted Bryant's wife and insulted the very bases of white racial control and hegemony.
The deference expected of blacks varied in intensity, depending on the region, and also depending on whether the setting was urban or rural, upper South or Deep South. In the Mississippi Delta in 1955, deference was about as thorough as could be imagined. Blacks were not expected to have serious opinions of their own, to exercise independence of judgment, to have the capacity to educate themselves in any advanced, formal manner, to be qualified to vote or to serve on juries (or of course to hold public office). In that part of the Deep South, whites arrogated to themselves the right to control whatever they wished of black life, and exercised the power to do so. As the forces of modernization gathered momentum, whites in the Deep South became especially keen to detect any challenges to that deference.
Poor whites like Bryant and Milam prided themselves on easy-going, informally "good" relations with blacks. So long as the etiquette of Jim Crow was understood by both sides, so long as no disruptive signals were emitted, blacks and whites seemingly got along without any overt signs of intimidation, though the threat of violence was always there, whether or not a Mississippi black was "uppity" or not. J. W. Milam made a living by renting Negro-driven mechanical cotton pickers for plantations in the Delta. He prided himself on knowing how to get along with blacks, on knowing how to "handle" them.
Few white residents of Tallahatchie County would have been prepared to deal with a black boy like Bobo. Bryant and Milam claimed that they had never intended to kill Till but simply wanted to beat him and frighten him by threatening him with death. But Bobo would not react as expected. He was defiant, refusing to beg for mercy or to be remorseful. Even in the face of beatings, he continued to defy Southern racial/sexual taboos, bragging to his attackers about his intimacy with white girls, and showing them the picture from his wallet to support his case. These were not the actions of black people with whom Bryant and Milam were familiar.
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