Wolf Whistle and Other Stories (1959)
Three years after publishing his first article in Look magazine, in which J.W Milam and Roy Bryant confessed to the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, author William Bradford Huie expanded upon the investigation he did at the time, and included a more lengthy version in his book, Wolf Whistle and Other Stories (New York: New American Library, 1959). The book contained four chapters, and chapter one, “Wolf Whistle,” dealt primarily with his investigation into the Till case, covering pages 7-51. Pages 8-16 prefaced the Till case by introducing the reader to Roosevelt Wilson, a young African American man convicted of the rape of a white woman in the 1930s, somewhere in an unnamed southern state. Against the wishes of his attorneys, but at the encouragement of Huie, who attended the trial, Wilson took the stand in his own defense and provided testimony that the sexual intercourse between himself and the white woman was consensual. His testimony was convincing to Huie, the judge, and even some of the jurors, but he was convicted and sentenced to death anyway. After all, as the governor of the state later told Huie, “When a niggah messes around with a white woman, that’s rape. In fact, when a niggah even thinks about messin’ around with a white woman, he’s gittin’ goddamn close to rape. Maybe that don’t make no sense, but that’s the way it is.” Huie’s inclusion of the Wilson case was significant, because, as he explained, “to understand Emmett Till, one needs first to understand Roosevelt Wilson.”
Like his 1956 and 1957 Look articles, Huie’s account in Wolf Whistle has often been accepted uncritically. Here, as before, he fails to acknowledge the testimony of Moses Wright that there were others present at the abduction of Till, as well as the testimony of Willie Reed that the beating of the Chicago youth took place on the Sheridan plantation near Drew, Mississippi. By the time Wolf Whistle was published, the investigative articles in the California Eagle, and the booklet Time Bomb (also included on this website) had been in print for two years. Huie fails to mention them at all. But again, the impact of the articles had been minimal anyway.
The following excerpt from chapter one of Wolf Whistle, with the same title, picks up on page 16, after Huie discusses the Wilson case, and continues through the end of the chapter. I have divided the pages as they are paginated in the book.
In August, 1955, a Negro youth named Emmett “Bobo” Till traveled from Chicago to Mississippi to visit his cousins. He returned in a plastic bag. Like Roosevelt Wilson, he had transgressed the taboo and lost his life.
Because it was a race-sex murder; because it followed the Black Monday decision; and because it was a mystery—murder was charged, not proved—it became a “spectacular.” It brewed more excitement in Europe, Asia, and Africa than had the Scottsboro case twenty-four years earlier. (Colored men are in revolt; the ideological struggle is deadlier; America more of an issue.)
Two white ex-soldiers, J. W. “Big” Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, were tried for murder. They didn’t testify; the prosecution had no witnesses to murder; the verdict was not guilty.
I was in California during the trial. When I got back to Alabama I read my newspaper and magazine files. The reporting depressed me. Much propaganda and little
truth. Life magazine’s coverage was like state-dictated falsehood in Russia.
The “anti-South” publications had their line: “A Negro child wolf-whistled at a white woman and they lynched him.” The “pro-South” forces had theirs: “It’s all a plot by them Naps (NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The Naps planted a body in the river, etc.”
The trial was a circus. Both prosecution and defense presented outrageous “evidence.” The mystery gave propagandists license to lie.
The case needed truth; so I went to Mississippi and Chicago and established it. Responsible journals published parts of it: Look and Reader’s Digest in the United States; eight Digest foreign-language editions; North American Newspaper Alliance in Canada and Britain; France Soir; and others.
In 1936 I couldn’t report the death of Roosevelt Wilson with one paragraph in one newspaper. But it 1956, with Bobo Till—times had changed.
Here, for clarity, I’ll first detail the messin’ around, the trial, and the murder; then I’ll explain how I established the truth, and I’ll compare truth with propaganda.
Carolyn Holloway Bryant is twenty-one, five feet tall, weights 103 pounds. An Irish girl, with black hair and black eyes, she is a small-farmer’s daughter who, at seventeen, quit high school at Indianola, Mississippi, to marry a soldier, Roy Bryant, then twenty, now twenty-four. The couple have two boys, three and two; and they operate a ramshackle store at a dusty crossroads called Money: post office, filling station, and three stores clustered around a school and a gin, and set in the vast, lonely cotton patch that is the Mississippi Delta.
Carolyn and Roy Bryant are poor: no car, no TV. They live in the back of the store which Roy’s brothers helped set up when he got out of the 82nd Airborne in 1953. They sell “snuff-and-fatback” to Negro field hands on credit; and they earn little, because, for one reason, the government has begun giving the Negroes food they formerly bought.
Carolyn and Roy Bryant’s social life is visits to their
families, the Baptist church, and, whenever they can borrow a car, to a drive-in, with the kids sleeping in the back seat. They call Shane the best picture they ever saw.
For extra money Carolyn tends store when Roy works outside—like truck-driving for a brother. And he has many brothers. His mother had two husbands, eleven children. The first five—all boys—were “Milam children”; the next six—three boys, three girls—were “Bryant children.”
This is a lusty and devoted clan. They are “poor whites” or “rednecks” but they work, fight, vote, and play as a family. The “half” in their fraternity is forgotten. For years they have operated a chain of cotton-field stores, as well as trucks and mechanical cotton pickers. In relation to the Negroes, they are somewhat like white traders in portions of Africa today; and they are determined to resist the revolt of colored men against white rule.
On Wednesday evening, August 24, 1955, Roy was in Texas, on a brother’s truck. He had carted shrimp from New Orleans to San Antonio, proceeded to Brownsville. Carolyn was alone in the store. But back in the living quarters was her sister-in-law, Juanita Milam, twenty-seven, with her own two small sons and Carolyn’s two. The store was kept open until nine on week nights, eleven on Saturday.
When her husband was away, Carolyn Bryant never slept in the store, never stayed there alone after dark. Moreover, in the Delta, no white woman or group of white women ever travels country roads after dark unattended by a man.
That meant that during Roy’s absences—particularly since he had no car—there was family inconvenience. Each afternoon a sister-in-law arrived to stay with Carolyn until closing time. Then, the two women, with their children, waited for a brother-in-law to convoy them to his home. Next morning the sister-in-law drove Carolyn back.
Juanita Milam had driven from her home in Glendora. She had parked in front of the store and to the left; and under the front seat of the car was Roy Bryant’s pistol, a .38 Colt automatic. Carolyn knew it was there. After nine, Juanita’s husband, J. W. “Big” Milam, would arrive in his pickup to shepherd them to his home for the night.
About 7:30 P.M., eight young Negroes—seven boys and a girl—in a ’46 Ford had stopped outside. They included sons, grandsons, and a nephew of Moses “Preacher” Wright, sixty-four, a sharecropper. They were between thirteen and nineteen years old. Four were natives of the Delta, and others, including the nephew, Emmett “Bobo” Till, were visiting from the Chicago area.
(Negroes emigrating North from the cotton states travel “straight nawth”—perhaps because bus lines and railroads run “straight.” Thus most Delta Negroes settle in Chicago; Alabama Negroes go to Cincinnati and Detroit, etc. Every Delta county has its “colony” in Chicago’s vast “Black Belt,” and there is visiting back and forth, particularly during the summer.)
Bobo Till was fourteen years old; born near Chicago on July 25, 1941. He was stocky, muscular, weighing about 160, five feet four or five. Preacher later testified: “He looked like a man.”
Bobo’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, had emigrated from the Delta—from Tallahatchie County—and married Louis Till, a Chicago Negro, who was born in Madrid, Missouri. Louis till, as a GI, lost his life in Europe in 1945.
Bob had traveled to the Delta with Preacher Wright. He had been there a week—the brash city youngster visiting his country cousins. He excited his cousins by saying “Yeah” and “Naw” to white filling station operators and storekeepers. (Delta Negroes say “Yassuh” and “Nawsuh.”) But Bobo’s most fascinating claim to distinction was the white girl he insisted was his back in Chicago. He carried her picture in his wallet; and he commanded the attention of jook-joint crowds of young Delta Negroes by passing her picture around and describing the qualities of “that white stuff” which he boasted he had enjoyed.
In front of Bryant’s store Bobo’s party joined a dozen other young Negroes, including two other girls. Bryant had built checkerboards there to attract Negro customers: Bryant sometimes played checkers with them. Some of the Negroes were playing checkers, others were wrestling and “kiddin’ about girls.”
Bobo again bragged about his white girl. He showed
the boys the picture; and, to their jeers of disbelief, he told them how he had sampled “that good white pussy.”
“You talkin’ mighty big, Bo,” one youth said. “There’s a pretty little white woman in there in the sto’. Since you Chicago cats know so much about white girls, let’s see you go in there and get a date with her.”
“Yeah. You ain’t chicken, are yuh, Chicago?” another youth taunted him.
Bobo was caught. He had to fire or fall back. He entered the store alone, stopped at the candy case. The fascinated crowd of Delta Negroes watched from outside, through the glass. Carolyn Bryant came up behind the counter; Bobo stood in front. He asked for two cents’ worth of bubble gum. She handed it toward him. As their hands touched, he squeezed her hand and said: “How about a date, baby?”
She was a young white woman alone, after dark, with twenty-odd teen-age Negroes. She jerked away and started toward the back of the store, to Juanita Milam, who was behind the partition, in the living quarters.
Bobo was losing face. At the break between counters, he jumped in front of her, raised his hands and restrained her at the waist to keep her from “brushing him off” and said: “Don’t be afraid o’ me, baby. I ain’t gonna hurt you. I been with white girls before.”
This encounter lent itself to “Northern” and “Southern” interpretations. It was not an attempted rape or abduction. He didn’t “grab her” and feel her breasts and hiss “filthy proposals” to her. It was a rash youth trying to retrain the woman and persuade her to talk to him so he could go out and brag some more instead of being jeered at. He knew the Negroes looking through the glass couldn’t hear the conversation; they’d judge his performance by what they saw. All he needed was the appearance of conversation.
But neither was it a “childish act” to be dismissed by a woman. Bobo weighed 160; Carolyn 103. He was five inches taller; fifty-seven pounds heavier. Perhaps in Chicago white women “joke” with young Negroes about sex; but not in the Delta. The Negroes outside didn’t take it as a “joke.”
One of Bobo’s cousins ran in, grabbed him, and began pulling him out of the store. And Carolyn, when Bobo blocked her path, ran out the front and got the pistol from the Milam car.
Outside, with Bobo being ushered off by his cousins, and with Carolyn re-entering the store with the gun, Bobo—still trying to save face—executed the “wolf whistle” which gave the case its name.
THE WOLF-WHISTLE MURDER: A NEGRO “CHILD” OR “BOY” WHISTLED AT A WHITE WOMAN AND THEY LYNCHED HIM.
That was the sum of the facts for most newspaper readers. Journalism creates images with a sentence. So it distorts. It misleads. It encourages misunderstanding. And Americans, with TV to look at, want to be “briefed.” They want “news” in a photograph or a sentence. So they are misinformed; they misunderstand.
Only persons willing to read books can have information or understanding in 1959. Human conflict is complex: you can’t be “briefed” on it. You can’t understand it form a newspaper headline or from Life magazine.
The Negroes drove away; and Carolyn, shaken, told Juanita. The two women determined to keep the incident from their “menfolks.” They didn’t tell Big Milam when, an hour later, he came in his pickup to escort them to his home.
So this was not the messin’ around of Roosevelt Wilson. Carolyn Bryant was not the “white trash” who traded sex for a Negro’s ring. She didn’t run to anybody and holler rape. But she was so portrayed in much of the press. Stories had her “wearing shorts-and-bra in the “Delta heat” before young Negroes, “making provocative gestures,” and “running to her husband demanding death.” All lies. All efforts to make her into a Tennessee Williams or Erskine Caldwell character.
Carolyn Bryant is poor and pretty; but she is a responsible wife and mother. Her conduct was circumspect. Far from wanting anybody beaten or killed, she wanted the incident forgotten. Neither she nor Juanita Milam would ever have told a white man.
But by next afternoon, in the store, Carolyn could see that the story was getting around. To those twenty-odd young Negroes it was exciting: they were spreading it. Carolyn spent Thursday night, too, at the Milams’, where, at 4 A.M. (Friday) Roy got back from Texas. Since he had slept little for five nights, he went to bed at the Milams’ while Carolyn returned to Money and opened the store.
During Friday afternoon, Roy reached the store, and shortly thereafter a Negro told him what “the talk” was, and told him that the “Chicago boy” was “visitin’ Preacher.” Carolyn admitted “the talk,” urged Roy to forget it.
Once Roy Bryant knew, however, in his environment, in the opinion of his Negro customers—for him to have done nothing would have marked him a coward and a fool.
Bryant must, at least, “whip the niggah’s ass.” Indeed, the Negroes who knew of the Wednesday-night incident—and who didn’t know Bryant was away—wondered why he didn’t “deal with the Chicago boy” on Thursday.
Friday passed without Bryant’s “doing anything.” He couldn’t: he and Carolyn were alone and he had no car. Saturday was collection day, the busy day in the store. About 10:30 Saturday night—near closing time—Big Milam drove by. Roy took him aside.
“I want you to come over early in the morning,” he said. “I need a little transportation.”
Big Milam protested: “Sunday’s the only morning I can sleep. Can’t we make it around noon?”
Roy then told him of the incident. “So you see,” Roy concluded, “I gotta go over there and whip that niggah’s ass, and I want to catch him before they start runnin’ around.”
“I’ll be here,” Big Milam agreed. “Early.”
Big Milam returned to another brother’s store at Minter City, where he was working. He closed that store about 12:30 A.M., drove home to Glendora. Juanita and the children were away, visiting her folks at Greenville. Big Milam had been thinking. He thought Carolyn or Juanita should have told him on Wednesday night, so he could have done the ass-whippin’ promptly: “that’s the best policy; the niggahs expect it.” Now he feared the “Chicago boy” might have escaped. He decided not to wait for daylight. He pumped the pickup—a half-ton ’55 Chevrolet—full of gas and headed for Roy’s store at Money: six miles away.
THE TABOO ENFORCER:
Big Milam is thirty-six; six feet two, 235 pounds; an extrovert. Short boots accentuate his height; khaki trousers; red sport shirt; sun helmet. Dark-visaged; his lower lip
curls when he chuckles; and, though bald, his remaining hair is jet-black.
He is slavery’s plantation overseer. In addition to helping with the stores, he rents Negro-driven mechanical cotton pickers to plantation owners. They say he can handle Negroes better than anybody else in the county.
Big Milam soldiered in the Patton manner. With a ninth-grade education, he was commissioned in battle by the 75th Division. He was an expert platoon leader, expert street fighter, expert in night patrol, expert with the “grease-gun,” with every device for close-range killing. A German bullet tore clear through his chest; his body bears “multiple shrapnel wounds.” Of his medals, he cherishes one: combat infantryman’s badge.
Big Milam is comforting to have on your side when there is killing to do The United States needed him on dark nights during the Battle of the Bulge. He killed Germans; and the United States thanked him, honored him. Like many soldiers, he brought home his favorite gun: the .45 Colt automatic pistol.
“Best weapon the Army’s got,” he says. “Either for shootin’ or sluggin.”
He used to “slap the shit” out of German prisoners with that .45 when they didn’t tell him quick where he could find more Germans. He can knock a turtle’s head off with it at thirty paces.
Big Milam reached Money a few minutes shy of 2 A.M., Sunday, August 28. The Bryants were asleep; the store was dark but for the all-night light. He rapped at the back door, and when Roy came he said: “Let’s go. Let’s make that trip now.”
Roy dressed, brought a gun: this one also a .45 Colt. Both men were—and remained—cold sober. Big Milam had drunk a beer in Minter city around nine; Roy had had nothing.
There was no moon as they drove to Preacher’s house: 2.8 miles east of Money.
Preacher’s house stands 50 feet right of the gravel road, with cedar and persimmon trees in the yard. Big Milam drove the pickup in under the trees. He was bareheaded, carrying a five-cell flashlight in his left hand, the .45 in his right.
Roy Bryant pounded on the door.
Preacher: “Who’s that?”
Bryant: “Mr. Bryant, from Money, Preacher.”
Preacher: “All right, sir. Just a minute.”
Preacher came out on the screened-in-porch.
Bryant: “Preacher, you got a boy from Chicago here? The boy who did the talking to my wife?”
Bryant: “I want to talk to him.”
Preacher: “Yessir. I’ll get him.”
Preacher led them to a back bedroom where four youths were sleeping in two beds. In one was Bobo Till and Simeon Wright, Preacher’s youngest son. Bryant had told Preacher to turn on the lights; Preacher had said they were out of order. So only the flashlight was used.
The visit was not a complete surprise. Preacher testified that he had heard of the “trouble at de sto’,” that he “sho’ had jacked-up” his nephew about it. Bobo himself had been uneasy; he had wanted to go home the day after the incident. The Negro girl in the party had urged that he leave. “They’ll kill him,” she had warned. But Preacher’s wife, Elizabeth Wright, had decided that the danger was being magnified—particularly since Thursday passed, then Friday, and Bryant did nothing. She had told Bobo to “finish yo’ visit.”
Preacher testified at the trial: “I thought they might say something to him, but I didn’t think they’d kill a boy.”
Big Milam shined the light in Bobo’s face, said: “You the niggah who did the talking?”
“Yeah,” Bobo replied.
Big Milam: “Don’t say ‘Yeah’ to me, niggah: I’ll blow your head off. Get your clothes on.”
(The “pro-South” propagandists who magnify what Bobo did to Carolyn Bryant—he “grabbed her,” etc.—should note that both Bryant and Milam inquired for “the boy who did the talking.” They had come to chastise him, not for grabbing, but only for what he said: for asking her “for a date.” So, other than squeezing her hand, if Bobo touched her at all, it wasn’t a grab.)
Bobo had been sleeping in his shorts. He pulled on a shirt and trousers, then reached for his socks.
“Just the shoes,” Milam hurried him.
“I don’t wear shoes without socks,” Bobo said; and he kept the gunbearers waiting while he put on his socks, then a pair of canvas shoes with thick crepe soles.
Preacher and his wife tried two arguments in the boy’s behalf.
“He ain’t got good sense,” Preacher begged. “He was raised Up yonder. He didn’t know what he was doing. Don’t take him.”
“I’ll pay you gentlemen for the damages,” Elizabeth Wright said.
“You niggahs go back to sleep,” Big Milam replied.
They marched Bobo into the yard, told him to get in the bed of the pickup and lie down. He obeyed. They drove toward Money.
Elizabeth Wright rushed to the home of a white neighbor, who got up, looked around, but decided he could do nothing. Then she and Preacher drove to the home of her brother, Crosby Smith, as Sumner; and Crosby Smith, on Sunday morning, went to the sheriff’s office at Greenwood.
The other young Negroes stayed at Preacher’s house until daylight when one of them went to a white man’s house and telephoned Bobo’s mother, Mamie Bradley, thirty-three, 6427 South St. Lawrence , Chicago. Mamie Bradley notified Chicago police, who began telephoning Mississippi sheriffs.
Around noon Sunday, on the complaint of Preacher Wright and Crosby Smith—and “a lot o’ telephoning by Chicago police”—the sheriff of Leflore County arrested Big Milam and Roy Bryant. Each of them was at his home “catching up on his sleep.” They admitted the abduction, but denied murder.
“Sure, we got him,” they said. “We whipped his ass a little, told him to get the hell back to Chicago. Last time we saw him he was walking down the railroad at Money.
The sheriff jailed them at Greenwood on suspicion of murder.
Seventy-two hours after the abduction a white youth found a body in the Tallahatchie River. While fishing, he noticed two feet sticking above the water. Sheriff’s deputies and funeral-home attendants recovered the body, using deodorant “bombs” to neutralize the stench.
The body was hideous, recognizable only as human and male. An 80-pound gin fan had been barb-wired to the neck; and the current and bloated body had pulled the weight along the river bottom until the weight had
caught on a snag in a shallow water. Much of the left side of the head was gone. The tongue protruded, eight times normal size; an eye dangled. Though the torso evidenced no blows, the head suggested “torture, horrible beating.”
The sheriff brought Preacher to identify it. On one finger was a silver ring with the initials “L.T.”—Louis Till—the youth’s legacy from his soldier-father. Preacher said it was Bobo, but, looking closer, he admitted doubt. A funeral home submerged the body in formaldehyde for thirty-six hours, then, as directed by Mamie Bradley, shipped it “as is” to Chicago in a plastic bag and case.
(Formerly, such shipment of bodies was illegal. Law required embalming before shipment. Now, with airtight plastic bags, “as is” shipment is legal.)
Arrival of the monstrous corpse in Chicago triggered an emotional explosion. To show “what Mississippi has done to a child,” the corpse was displayed “as is” to thousands of cursing, shrieking, fainting Negroes who demanded the vengeance which Black Monday seemed to promise. Cash was collected at the bier in wastebaskets: Mamie Bradley received 5,000 dollars the first week.
Black Monday; the “child’s” age; his father being a “dead GI”; so many Chicago Negroes being Delta émigrés—everything magnified the hate.
The explosion was a godsend to NAACP. Before Bobo, efforts to finance suits to implement the Supreme Court decision had been disappointing. Now Milam and Bryant became NAACP’s champion fund-raisers.
It was a godsend to the Negro press, which doubled, then trebled, circulations.
Mamie Bradley took leave-of-absence from her civil-service job, acquired a new wardrobe and a retinue, and hit the lecture circuit. From a sound truck she spoke to 15,000 in New York’s Harlem. Then Mamie and NAACP quarreled. Mamie felt “if anybody is gonna make money from this, it ought to be the child’s mother.” NAACP thought the “cause” should get everything above expenses. So NAACP divorced Mamie; and thereafter Preacher told the Till story to NAACP fund-raising rallies.
The timing was also right for “war” in Mississippi. The race-sex taboo defies reason; and what reason this particular case might have admitted, had flown before
Black Monday. The Citizens Councils were forming to “protect our way of life.” If the “enemies of Mississippi” were using Bobo to “make Mississippi the most lied-about state in the union,” then the Councillors would retaliate by protecting Milam and Bryant.
Mississippi Governor Hugh White, for the first time in racial strife in the South, called the National Guard to protect white men: Milam and Bryant in the Greenwood jail. Someone “close” to the Illinois Central Railroad had reported that “hundreds o’ niggahs” in Chicago were buying railroad tickets for an “invasion” of Mississippi.
Big Milam was amused. “Goddamn,” he laughed, “let them Nap sonso’bitches come on. Just give me my .45 and a case o’ shells and take cover. I’ll kill so goddamn many niggahs the rivers won’t hold ‘em.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation entered the case—to halt the abusive mail. Hundreds of letters to Milam and Bryant contained human excrement.
In the atmosphere a trial would be an exercise in racial and sectional hate. The verdict was certain as sunrise.
The abduction had occurred in Leflore County. So Milam and Bryant had been arrested by the Leflore County sheriff. The body, however, was recovered in Tallahatchie County. The murder therefore was presumed to have occurred in Tallahatchie County; so Milam and Bryant were indicted and tried for murder in Tallahatchie County. A Leflore County grand jury subsequently declined to indict them for the kidnapping, which they had admitted to arresting officers.
Tallahatchie County is divided: the Delta Half—plantations, big landowners and sharecroppers, mostly Negro; and the Hill Half—small farms, poor land and poor whites/ Sumner is the county seat for the Delta Half; Charleston for the Hill Half.
There are five lawyers in Sumner—and it was Roosevelt Wilson in reverse. All five represented Milam and Bryant. A tipoff was the announcement by Breland & Whitten for the defense. For old J. J. Breland and young John W. Whitten, Jr., represent the power…the responsibles…the banks and municipalities…the Democratic Party…the big landowners and farm equipment companies. John Whitten is the cousin of Jamie
Whitten, who has long and capably represented the district in Congress.
Breland and Whitten had never before defended a Milam or a Bryant. They had prosecuted them for not paying their taxes, or for selling bootleg whisky in their stores. Breland & Whitten had always been “on the other side of the docket” from these poor men who own no land.
Now Breland and Whitten were defending Milam and Bryant. So more than the “niggah-hating rednecks” were supporting the taboo-enforcers. The calculating responsibles—the Ole Miss and Princeton alumni who decide who to hire and who to fire, when to renew notes and when to dispossess—had decided, as a maneuver against their “enemies,” to free Milam and Bryant.
Only those of us who “belong to the lodge” know how these Southern communities are organized. Who serves on juries in Tallahatchie County? Qualified male electors. These three words eliminate Negroes, women, white men who haven’t paid their poll taxes. Whenever meddlers are at the gates, or a way of life is threatened, a jury’s verdict is decided before the trial starts.
Suppose a lawyer is chairman of the loan committee of the only bank in a farm community? Suppose his bank holds mortgages on the homes of eight of the twelve members of a jury? Does the lawyer ask for a verdict? Or does he direct it?
No one connected with the trial—judge, jurors, prosecution, defense, defendants—entertained any doubt as to the outcome. No evidence could cause the jury to bring a verdict of guilty. A judge cannot direct a verdict in a capital case. Milam and Bryant could testify to a killing; the jury would still say not guilty. So the trial was a play, played not for the jury, but for the nation and the world.
The trial was played for the television cameras, with their truckloads of equipment. For newsreels and still cameras. For the battery of Western Union machines which clattered in the courthouse halls. For the scores of white reporters—some of them “from across the water”—whose headquarters was in the Chinese grocery. And, for the first time in the South, the trial was played for Negro reporters: fourteen of them. With a Negro Congressman from Detroit, they sat at a segregated press table. Their headquarters was a flyblown restaurant in an alley. They were guarded, transported each day to the
all-Negro community of Mound Bayou, where they slept and ate.
Sumner is a single square of dilapidated buildings around a decaying courthouse. The farmers, their wives and children, filled the square and the courthouse, to look curiously at “outsiders” who, strangely, believed that a Negro youth who tries to “mess around” with a white woman should be allowed to live.”
Milam and Bryant conducted themselves as spectators, not as defendants. They sat, not in a dock, but in the crowd, relaxed, with their wives and children and numerous kin. They were the last persons in the courtroom whom the world would have called to testify.
In this play before the world, Mississippi, in several ways, fared well. With his aristocratic fairness this assured informality, is respect for the Anglo-Saxon legal heritage, the judge captured the admiration of everyone. He bent far over backward to favor the prosecution. He dismissed Carolyn Bryant’s story of the “incident” as irrelevant. It occurred four days before the abduction. He refused to allow the jury to hear her. (Meaningless, except for the record: every juror knew the story.)
The prosecution’s case was the abduction, the corpus delecti identified by the mother, and the circumstantial evidence that murder was done during the seventy-eight hours between the abduction and the recovery of the body.
Drama for the prosecution was old Preacher rising from the witness chair and pointing a long, black arm and finger at Milam and Bryant as the men “who come in de night and got de boy.” This was dramatic in the Delta because, under slavery, no Negro could testify against a white man; and this was the first time in race-sex struggle for a Negro to confront and accuse a white man.
Nor could a rabid anti-Southerner have asked more of the prosecution. The attorneys were skilled, determined and eloquent. One of them moistened eyes when, summing up, he envisioned the murder and quoted the Saviour Himself in demanding a conviction.
The defense clung to the Constitution: the constitutional right of every American to be presumed innocent until proved guilty “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” And
the constitutional right of every American not to testify in his own behalf.
The defense needed no assistance in the courtroom: they couldn’t lose. But before the world they were aided by a curious circumstance. Only seventy-eight hours elapsed between the abduction of Bobo Till and the recovery of the body identified by Mamie Till Bradley as being that of her son, Bobo. The body was taken from a river which, except over a few sand bars, is thirty feet deep; and near the bottom, even in August, the water is cold—42-45 degrees.
Yet the body identified as Bobo appeared, from it state of decomposition, to have been in the water longer than three days. The skin on much of the body, including the hands, was “slipping.” This enabled the defense to create doubt, even in some objective minds, as to the identify of the corpus delicti.
The defense qualified several “experts” who had examined the body. They testified that in their expert opinions the body “could not have been in that river less than ten days.”
With this testimony the defense—along with Mississippi newspapers—charged that a body had been “planted” in the river, that Bobo Till was “still alive Up Yonder somewhere,” that the “whole mess” was a plot by NAACP and other “South-haters” to “smear Mississippi.”
To impeach Mamie Bradley’s identification of the body, the defense called the sheriff of Tallahatchie County. He said he examined the body; that it was in such “bad shape” that he could ascertain only that it was human and male “and probably a Negro from the kinky hair.”
“But had that been the body of my own son,” the sheriff testified, “in that condition I could not have identified it.”
When the defense rested, the case against Milam and Bryant was convincing but circumstantial. About 2:30 A.M., Sunday, August 28, 1955, Milam, Bryant and Bobo left Preacher Wright’s house in a Chevrolet pickup. About 7:30 A.M., Wednesday, August 31, 1955, a body identified by his mother as Bobo’s was sighted in the river. Whatever happened in the intervening hours was mystery.
As the eight lawyers addressed the jury, oratory rattled the rafters. Loud-speakers carried it to the crowd
outside, but the crowd could have followed most of hit without amplifiers.
Mr. Breland was anchor man for the defense. He left argument over law and evidence to his younger associates; he got “right down to brass tacks.” Fixing the faces of those twelve poor white men, he pulled back the curtain and exposed the carcass of the old beast: “a niggah in a white woman’s bed.”
“Gentlemen,” he intoned, “…these fine young soldiers…protecting the womanhood of Mississippi from defilement…if you find them guilty of any crime, your granddaddies will turn over in their graves!”
The jury brought the verdict quickly; and Milam and Bryant, smiling, standing with their pretty wives, holding their children, posed for the photographers.
A month after the trial I began work on the case. I knew only what I had read; therefore, in a sense, I knew very little. I knew much less than I have told here—to this point. For the trial revealed nothing about the human being named Bobo Till, or the human beings named Big Milam, Roy Bryant and Carolyn Bryant.
The scores of reporters had added little. No reporter established why Bobo entered the store, or what happened in the store to cause Carolyn to go after the gun and to cause Bobo’s cousin to rush into the store and pull him out. Bobo’s attitudes and motivations were neglected. The press stories began with “a Negro boy wolf-whistling at a white woman.” The wolf whistle, in the press, caused the abduction.
No one explained why the abduction was delayed four days after the wolf whistle; or why Milam and Bryant “did their duty” at 2 A.M. on a Sunday. No one even hoped to dispel the mystery of why and how Bobo was murdered.
Here was a tragedy commanding world attention at a pivotal moment in racial conflict. It involved human beings who needed knowing. Yet the characters in the drama had not been delineated for the consideration of thoughtful men.
My motivation was curiosity. I was curious about Big Milam and Bobo and every other character in the drama. Moreover, I believe that progress in human relations is possible only after understanding.
I drove alone at night across Mississippi. Reflecting, I realized my advantages. I was independent…and Southern…had my own money…and I knew about such cases from Roosevelt Wilson and Ruby McCollum and all the others.
I knew enough to assume that Big Milam and Roy Bryant would tell me everything they knew and felt. No other reporter had assumed this. Even Southern editors and columnists—those who have lived too sheltered too long—were dumfounded at my assumption.
I knew enough to assume that I could go to Chicago, with the co-operation of the NAACP, and that the Negro youths who were Bobo’s playmates would tell me all they knew and felt about Bobo—how he talked and felt and why he did whatever he did. No other reporter had gathered these young Negroes around him, put them at ease by using their four-letter words, communicated with them as one human being to another.
I make these comparisons, not boastfully, but to illustrate the melancholy deterioration of the press in America. The day of the initiating newspaper and the resourceful reporter is fast going if it isn’t gone.
Why shouldn’t Milam and Bryant tell me the truth? The trial was over; they can’t be tried for murder again: the Constitution forbids it. No Mississippi grand jury will indict them for kidnapping. They were not and are not in jeopardy. They are not on the defensive, legally or psychologically. Since childhood they have heard racial separation preached in their churches. From 1894 to 1954 racial separation was the “law of the land,” pronounced so by a Supreme Court whose members included Brandeis, Cardozo and Holmes. White Supremacy is the slogan of the Democratic Party. In their trial Milam and Bryant were defended, commended, slapped on the back, by community leaders who had never before spoken to them. Defense money came form Chicago, from New Jersey, from twenty different states.
At their trial Milam and Bryant assumed that every person in the courtroom—judge, jurors, lawyers, spectators—knew that they had killed Bobo Till. So Milam and Bryant assumed that the murder was approved by their relatives, their neighbors, their community leaders, their newspapers, their state—by every institution which they respect.
So, why wouldn’t they tell me every thing? What was there to hide? Why hadn’t somebody already asked them?
I was the first man to confront Milam and Bryant who wanted the truth, and knew enough about them and their society to assume I’d get it.
I didn’t, however, go directly to them. I breakfasted early at Holiday Inn, Greenwood, and at 8 A.M. I was sitting in the modern, red-brick offices of Breland & Whitten in Sumner. I had never been in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, but I didn’t have to ask anybody where to start.
Except that he is heir to the agrarian, biracial society of the Delta, John Whitten, thirty-six, is the decent, intelligent, young lawyer you can find most anywhere in America. He’s cultured, educated, honest, a fine soldier, secretary of his county’s Democratic Party organization, an Ole Miss alumnus.
He received me cordially: most of us old-time Southerners are kin. If we aren’t fraternity brothers our brothers are. Or we met on some battlefield. Or our grandmothers were at Monteagle together escaping the fever. Or our granddaddies rode shoulder-to-shoulder at Gettysburg.
For a defeated people, a war never really ends.
After we had explored the lines of kinship, I said:
“John, I want the truth about the Till case. I want to publish it. Whatever our racial sins down here, I like to think we are less hypocritical than some of our enemies. I like to think that truth serves decent purposes better than mystery or propaganda.
“I assume this is about what happened,” I continued. “Milam and Bryant got the Negro boy and took him somewhere to whip him. They didn’t intend to kill him. But while they were whipping him, something went wrong. Maybe they were drunk. Perhaps, accidentally, they hit him too hard. Maybe they injured him and decided they had to kill him. In any case, they killed him and threw him in the river. Is that about right?”
“I’ll tell you the first truth,” John Whitten replied. “I don’t know what happened. We never asked them. We defended them…you know why. But we didn’t question them. I personally didn’t ask them because…well, my wife was disturbed about it. She kept asking me every day if they had killed the Negro boy. To make it easier
for her, I kept telling her no. So, I didn’t want to hear the truth. They were entitled to defense; I defended them; but I didn’t have to listen to them.”
He paused, then added: “As to what happened, my assumption is about what yours is. You and I both know the taboo; and we know what the Court decision has done to our people.”
I pulled photographs from my brief case.
“It’s my guess also,” I said, “that Milam was the killer and Bryant a coat-holder. Milam is older; he won a battlefield commission; he looks like the family leader.”
I’d guess that, too,” John Whitten said. “Milam was a good soldier; that’s one of the claims he has on me. He’s not a bad citizen…not rowdy or a disturber of the peace. He’s the overseer type; he works Negroes, lives among them.”
“I can proceed in either of two ways,” I said. “By now they’ve talked. So I can hang around here, spend a little money, take a boat up that river, walk down a few roads at night, meet a few people in graveyards, and I can find out what happened. Or they can sit down and tell me. They won’t be tried again; and even if they are, if they tell me, I won’t testify against them. I want to them to tell me the truth and help me verify it.”
John Whitten thought for a moment, then said: “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
It may be poor business for a writer to undersell his efforts, but that’s how it was done. Or how it was begun. Over the period of a week I cross-examined Milam and Bryant through three long night sessions. During the days I wrote and worked on verification. In a boat I found the spot on the riverbank where they killed the youth and threw him in. I found witnesses who saw the pickup and who verified the time. I found where they got the barb-wire and the gin fan. In Mississippi—and later in Chicago—I verified the story in every verifiable detail.
In the presence of witnesses Big Milam is speaking to me:
…After me and Roy left Preacher’s house…if the niggah had denied it, we intended to stop at the store
and let Carolyn identify him. We’d never seen the niggah…didn’t know his name….never did know it till we saw it in a newspaper. But, hell, Preacher identified him and the niggah didn’t deny it. We had the right niggah, so we didn’t stop at the store. We crossed the river [Tallahatchie] there at Money and drove west.
…I had no idea o’ killin’ him. Hell, I like niggahs—in their place—work ‘em all the time, been dealin’ with droves of ‘em all my life. I was just gonna whip him…scare some sense into him…kick his ass back to Chicago. I was driving along and Roy was sitting in the cab with me, keeping on eye on the niggah through that big wrap-around rear window which these new pickups have…The niggah wasn’t tied; he was just layin’ there in the bed. He knew I’d kill him if he ran, or I thought he knew it.
…I was gonna scare him and I knew the goddamnedest, scariest place in the Delta. I found it one time huntin’ wild geese. Over close to Rosedale the Big River bends around under a bluff. Brother, she’s a hundred-foot sheer drop off that bluff, and that water’s a hundred feet deep after you hit. I thought I’d stand that Chicago bastard up there on that bluff, whip him with the .45, then shine the flashlight off down there toward that water and make him think I was gonna knock him in.
…I figured after that the Chicago sonofabitch wouldn’t never be thinking about any more white pussy.
…Well, I drove all the way over there…about 75 miles I guess…through Shellmound, Schlater, Doddsville, Ruleville, Cleveland, to that intersection just south of Rosedale. I turned south on Mississippi 1 toward the entrance to Beulah Lake. I tried several dirt and gravel roads…hell, I drove along the levee…and I just couldn’t find that bluff in the dark. I finally had to give up.
…I then drove back to my house at Glendora…nobody was there…my wife and kids was at Greenville visitin’ her folks. It was close to five o’clock, but still dark. I pulled into my back yard, next to my tool house. It has two rooms, each room maybe twelve feet square. We marched the nigger in the tool house and I whacked him a few times over the head with the gun….Yeah, pistol-whipping. It’s court-martial offense in the Army, but MPs do it all the time: I used to slap the shit
out of German prisoners that way when they didn’t talk fast enough.
…And now this is hard to believe…I never thought I’d see it…but that black bastard never even whimpered. He just stood there and poison run out of his mouth. He said to us: “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve had white girls and my grandmother was a white woman.”
…Then you know what happened? That niggah pulled out his pocketbook and he had the pictures of three white girls in it…Chicago sluts, I guess, but there they were. And you know what he said? He pointed to one o’ them sluts and said: “You see this? She’s my girl. She likes for me to have her. She loves it. What you white bastards don’t know is that evah white girl wants us Negroes. You white bastards don’t know how to…”
(Some readers may find this difficult to believe. But I have heard Negro rapists do it to their white captors. It’s hate bursting the dikes—the doomed creature’s last desperate kick at his tormentor’s genitals. Bobo’s speech is in character with what he had been telling his Negro cousins. In Chicago the Negro cousins later showed me the white girl.)
Big Milam is talking again:
…Well, what else could I do? I couldn’t scare the niggah. They had just filled him so full of that poison he was hopeless. He thought he was good as any white man…He said he had done it to white girls and he was gonna keep on doing it….I’m no bully: I never hurt a niggah in my life. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as J. W. Milam lives and can do anything about it, niggahs are gonna stay in their place. Niggahs ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did they’d control the government. They’d tell me where to stand and when to sit. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a niggah even gets close to mentionin’ sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin…I’m gonna kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country and we’ve got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that niggah throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind….
… “Chicago boy,” I said, “I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddamn you, I’m gonna make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”
…Well, I decided to kill him, so I needed a weight to throw him in the river. I tried to think where I could get an anvil at that time on a Sunday morning. Then I remembered this gin which had installed new equipment. I had seen two men lifting a discarded fan—it’s about three feet high and maybe weighs a hundred pounds. I ordered the niggah out o’ the shed and made him get back in the pickup. He wasn’t bleedin’ much…pistol-whippin’ don’t cut much—you hit with the flat of the barrel. I drove west through Doddsville to the Progressive Ginning Company…it’s 3 to 4 miles east of Boyle; Boyle is 2 miles south of Cleveland. The road to the gin turns left off U. S. 61, after you cross the bayou bridge south of Boyle.
…When we got to that gin, it was daylight, and I was worried for the first time. Somebody might see us and accuse us of stealing the fan. We made the niggah get out and load the fan: it was about all he could handle—but he was a big, stout buck. I think he still thought I was bluffing.
…I drove back to Glendora, then north toward Swan Lake, and crossed the new bridge [over the Tallahatchie]. At the east end of the bridge, I turned right on that dirt road that runs along the river for a piece. After a couple of miles, I ran along the row-ends on property belonging to L. W. Boyce. It was nearly seven o’clock and Boyce was having breakfast. [Mr. Boyce was one of Milam’s bondsmen.] I passed within a few feet of Boyce’s house, but I knew he was O.K.
…A little more’n a mile southeast of Boyce’s place an old levee runs along the river. I used to hunt squirrels down there. Boyce’s is the closest house. I drove along the old levee to where the riverbank is steep. I stopped the pickup about 30 yards from the water. I got out an’ told the niggah to pick up the fan. He staggered with it, but he got it down to the riverbank.
…I stood there a minute looking at him. It was close to seven o’clock—the sun was up. “Take off your clothes,” I said to him. He didn’t say a word. He sat down, pulled off his shoes, his socks. Then he stood up, took off his shirt, dropped his pants, his shorts. He put his clothes in a pile, stood there naked, just looking at me.
…I don’t know…he was a strange niggah…but I believe it was just about then that he began to realize I was gonna kill him….Up until then he
thought I was bluffin’ him. He never shed any tears, but I could see on his face that he knew the jig was up.…I guess he had never met a white man like me: he had just been poisoned.
…I said to him, “Niggah, you still as good as I am?” I don’t know whether he ever got “Yeah” out or not, but he sort of nodded his head.
…I said: “You still done it to white girls and you gonna keep on doin’ it?
I shot him then. Just one shot…with a soft-nosed bullet. I would’a caught him right between the eyes, but just as I fired he sorta ducked his head and the bullet caught him at the right ear.
…Then me and Roy wired the gin fan to his neck and rolled him into the water. I guess it was about 20 feet deep.
…I took Roy back to Money, then drove to my house. I cleaned a coupla spots o’ blood outa the pickup—there wasn’t much—then I built a fire out there in my back yard and burned his clothes. His pocket book had about four dollars in it—a 2 dollar bill, I think, and maybe two ones—and there was his white sluts’ pictures. I didn’t take the money—I just threw the pocketbook on the fire.
...I had a helluva time burning up those crepe-soled shoes. Musta took me three hours. They’re the hardest goddamn things to burn I ever saw.
(This is the end of Big Milam’s narrative. I’ll comment on it subsequently.)
I flew to Chicago to see Mamie Bradley, Preacher and Elizabeth Wright, and the Negro youths who are Preacher’s sons, grandsons and nephews. (Having had two wives, Preacher has teen-age grandsons and teen-age sons.) Preacher had abandoned his cotton crop and was living in Chicago, assisted by NAACP.
I told Roy Wilkins, head of NAACP, what I was doing, and his Chicago attorneys arranged for me to see Preacher. Since NAACP and Mamie were estranged, I reached her through my friends on Ebony and Jet magazines.
I went to Mamie’s house about 11 P.M. She lives comfortably, upstairs in a two-family house. She is educated; and at thirty-four is an attractive, café-au-lait-
colored woman. She has married three men—the first was Louis Till—and she is now a divorcee with a steady friend. Bobo was her only child.
Three Negro men were with her: her father, her friend, and a policeman assigned to guard her. She said “Mississippi people” wanted to kill her.
She talked about the boy—she called him “Bo.” He had lived there with her and her husbands. He was in the ninth grade; he made average marks, seemed to be growing up rapidly. He had never been in trouble .
I clarified the dispute over his age and size. Milam and Bryant resented charges that they “murdered a child.”
“That wasn’t any child I killed,” Milam protested. “His head came up to my shoulder and I’m six two. I didn’t ask him his age, but he was muscled-up like a man. He could handle that hundred-pound gin fan. If he was just fourteen, he was the biggest fourteen-year-old I ever saw.”
He was just fourteen. He was born in a Chicago hospital; his birth certificate is of record.
But he was one of those fourteen-year-olds who can be mistaken for eighteen. Mamie showed me his clothes. Her father is a medium-sized man. He told me he wore the boy’s clothes. I’m five eight and weigh 155. I tried on his coat and it was a fair fit. Preacher testified in court: “He looked like a man.”
I told Mamie only that I was “investigating the case.” I didn’t tell her Milam’s story. So I was cautious when I asked her—and the men—about Bobo’s sex life.
“Did he have a girl—or girls?” I asked.
“He was at the age when boys are learning about girls,” Mamie replied. “And when they talk and boast a lot.”
“Do you think he had had a sexual relationship with any girls?”
Mamie answered: “Mr. Huie, how would I know? That isn’t the sort of thing a boy would discuss with his mother.
I turned to the men: “You gentlemen knew him. What would be your judgment?”
The friend, a good-natured man, chuckled. “I wouldn’t say yes and I wouldn’t say no,” he said. “They start might early nowadays.”
The six Negro youths and I sat in a vacant lot and talked. Look’s Chicago man, Jack Starr, was within earshot. I wanted him to check me, not only on what I heard but on my interpretations.
I asked the boys to tell me about Bob and what they did in Mississippi during the week before the incident at the store.
They told me that they rassled a lot: some said they could whip him, others admitted he could whip them. They told me he had not been afraid of white men: he said “Yeah” and “Naw” to white storekeepers and drew “hard looks” and they warned him. With no suggestion from me, they told me about “Bobo’s white girl.”
They showed me where the girl lived. I saw her in the front yard. I was tempted to talk with her, but prudence restrained me. Her father might resent a Kinsey inquiry.
“Tell me, fellows,” I said, “you think Bobo ever really got any from her?”
They argued. The most responsive one said: “Naw, I don’t think he’d ever really got any. He claimed he had, and he had her picture and he showed it to everybody and he talked big. He mighta been getting’ close, but I don’t believe he’d ever been in her nest.”
“Had he ever had any at all? Or was it just talk.”
“Oh, he’d got some. Yessir. He got some in Mississippi. He could do it, all right.”
The boys remembered the scene at the store. With two girls they were in the ’46 Ford going to a “jook.” But the “jook” wasn’t open yet, so they stopped in front of Bryant’s.
“Mr. Bryant was O.K.,” one of them said. “I played checkers with him. He let me have cokes on credit.”
They told me how—with everybody horsing around in front of the store—Bobo displayed his white girl’s picture and was dared to “try to get a date” with Carolyn Bryant.
“I told him not to go in there,” an older boy said. “We watched him, and when he jumped in front o’ Mrs. Bryant I run in and got him. He didn’t mean no harm, but he didn’t know where he was.”
I asked them why, after the incident, they hadn’t warned Bobo to leave Mississippi.
“I did,” one of them insisted. “I told him to make tracks.”
“I didn’t think they’d come after him,” another
added. “I told him Mr. Bryant would beat his ass if he caught him around the store again. But I didn’t think they’d come looking him up.”
Elizabeth Wright is a good woman, a sharecropper’s second wife with little education but much human understanding. She talked easily as we sat in a crowded kitchen in Argo, near Chicago.
“I feel partly responsible or the boy’s death,” she said. “He could’a been in Chicago when they come after him. I just didn’t get the straight of what happened at the store. I’ve lived my life in the South, just like you, Mr. Huie. We both know how things are. From what I could worm out of the boys, it seemed like a kind’a prank. Bob shouldn’a done it. I told him so; and Preacher told him so. The boys shouldn’a let him do it. But he didn’t know what he was doing—and I guess I thought the white folks’d realize that. And when they didn’t come lookin’ for him right off, I figgered maybe they’d forget it.”
Preacher said: “When they cojme and got him, I figgered they’d whup him. But I nevah in this world figgered they’d kill him. An’ I can’t figger yet what happened to make ‘em kill that boy.”
And in Mississippi Mr. Breland said to me: “They shouldn’t have killed him. They should have striped him, told him to get the hell back Up Yonder. But they shouldn’t have killed him. And they wouldn’t have killed him except for Black Monday. The Supreme Court of the United States is responsible for the murder of Emmett Till.”
“Maybe you and I are a little responsible, too,” I said.
“No,” he replied. “I don’t think so. We know how things are. We have a workable way of life. It’s those boys on the Supreme Court who want to go the unnatural and unconstitutional way. As a lawyer I respect the law. But I got no respect for the present members of the Court. They are responsible for the Till murder and for all the other murders we’re bound to have.”
There, for the objective mind, is the true story of the murder.
Emmett Till was not a bad youth. He can be called a good youth. You can call him a child—if you call 160-pound boys who have had sexual experience children. He was at the age when many youths are preoccupied with
sex. He lived in an environment where he was “getting’ close” to sex with a white girl.
His conduct at the store was…reckless. Few would approve it. Nothing in his experience had taught him to understand the risk of his “messin’ around” with Carolyn Bryant.
I found no reason to criticize Carolyn’s conduct. I met her in Mississippi. She impressed both me and my New York attorney as a responsible—and extraordinarily pretty—young woman. She tried to “prevent trouble.” You don’t have to take her word for it; the proof is in the facts. She saw Milam an hour after the incident. Had she told him, the reckoning would have come next day—not four days later.
Moreover, Negroes established that Bryant was “told” by a “Judas nigger.” A Negro “crusader” is Dr. T. R. M. Howard, formerly of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, now of Chicago. Dr. Howard addresses fund-raising meetings in the North. His target in the Till case is the “Judas nigger.”
“He was a two-bit nigger who wanted four bits’ worth of credit,” Dr. Howard exclaims.
So what can Carolyn Bryant be blamed for? At the trial she offered to testify that Bobo used “obscene words” to her. This may or may not have been true; but it was immaterial. She did not so testify before the jury.
Roy Bryant is pathetic. He’s a scrapper, but no killer. He “had” to “whip the niggah’s ass.” But I don’t believe Bryant would have killed him, even after the boasts about the white girl.
There is no reason to believe that Milam and Bryant intended to kill. Had Bobo acted as they expected him to act, he would have escaped with a “whipping.” It would have been brutal, since Milam learned to “pistol-whip” in the Army. But Bobo would have escaped severe injury.
Some persons point to the time of the abduction—2 A.M.—as evidence that Milam intended to murder him. The time has no significance. These men are accustomed to working all night. Mechanical cotton pickers are operated until the dew falls. Then they are serviced at night to have them ready to operate at sunup. Trucks run all night.
Bryant had gone to bed. Milam selected the time because (1) he had just learned of the incident, (2) it
was a convenient time for him, and (3) it was the “best time to catch the niggah.” Had Milam and Bryant arrived at Preacher’s much earlier they would have “missed him.” For it was Saturday night and the boys didn’t get home from Greenwood until 1 A.M.
Had Milam intended to kill he wouldn’t have waited until daylight to obtain the gin fan. He was observed getting the fan. Also: the drive to and from the Big River, looking for a “scary bluff,” was not the action of men determined to murder. Returning from that drive, Milam passed near the spot where he later obtained the fan. After he decided to kill, to obtain the fan he doubled back on a route he had already traveled.
Moreover, had Milam from the start intended to kill, he would not have taken the youth to his own tool shed. He would have driven directly to the river and been done with his crime before daylight.
So the decision to kill was Milam’s, and it was made in the tool shed. That Bobo showed Milam his white girl and made his claims is in character. This is what Bobo had been doing for a week.
The murder resulted from coincidence Just as nothing in his experience had equipped him to understand the recklessness of his prank in the store, so had nothing equipped Bobo to understand a character like Big Milam. Until he reached the riverbank, Bobo believed Milam was bluffing. Milam said: “I guess he’d just never run into anybody like me.” He hadn’t.
Bobo showed the girl’s picture once too often. He showed it in the wrong place to the wrong man, too soon after the Supreme Court had decreed a change in the Delta “way of life.”
Not once did I hear the term “wolf whistle.” In the excitement at the store Carolyn Bryant didn’t notice a whistle. Milam and Bryant knew nothing of a whistle. They abducted Bobo for what he “said” in the store; and Milam killed him, not for any act or word or whistle at the store, but for what Bobo said he did to a white girl in Chicago.
Nor did the Negro boys mention the wolf whistle. I finally asked them about it, after which they agreed that Bobo may have whistled, at the store. But it had not struck them as important.
Yet the case is known as The Wolf-Whistle Murder Case. Such is the yearning for simplicity.
When Look published some of these revelations, the reactions were startling.
The Associated Press refused to transmit comment. The assumption was that I had tape recordings; that Look published the material as a “calculated risk”…that we expected to be sued…that any paper which “touched” the story would risk being party to a suit.
AP reporters reached Milam, and when he said he never heard of Huie, AP carried his quotes without reservation. It occurred to no one that Milam was making comments I wrote for him.
Then came the Southern onslaught. An example is a columnist for a dozen newspapers, a confused, embittered man named John Temple Graves. His attacks on me and Look were savage.
“…A Southern renegade…a masterly and dastardly imaginist…telling this story as he imagines it…the defendants are made guilty in unknowable detail, with no chance overlooked to incite feeling against Mississippi and the South…Nothing in the Huie recital lets the reader know a jury acquitted these defendants…this shames the magazine world…write your protests to Look magazine, then fumigate your pen.”
That Milam and Bryant and Carolyn Bryant sat across a table from me and Look’s attorney; that after I obtained the story, I purchased rights to portray them in a film; that I as assisted by able citizens of Mississippi—this was incomprehensible for Mr. Graves and those like him. Black Monday has unbalanced them.
When my lawyers finished with Mr. Graves and dictated his reaction, he was the Southern colonel who has smashed into a freight train. He still makes war on the windmills—but not on me.
The opposite extremists reacted like Mr. Graves. One Negro newspaper tried to promote a suit against me for “libeling a child and a race,” for “confusing the racial conflict,” for “giving comfort to the racists.” A few white men felt I was “part of the plot to whitewash the killers and drag in sex.”
To them I replied:
If I am comforting any racists, I wish you’d convince them of it so they’ll quit trying to put me in jail….I drew Emmett Till’s portrait with the help of his mother and his playmates. Witnesses heard the conversations. NAACP as-
sisted me….Roy Wilkins told me that he and his wife read my story, found it “fair and reasonable.”
Five thousand letters reached me. About half are appreciative.
The writers of a few of these appreciative letters, however, feel that the truth justifies the murder, and these writers have send money to Big Milam.
A fourth of the letters curse me as a “nigger-lover” and “traitor to the white race.” A significant number of these are from Illinois and New Jersey. The other fourth curse me for the opposite reason: “for trying to make a Negro child into something detestable.”
I realized how diverse we are in the United States when television reporters telephoned me from Northern cities where I have spoken. They wondered how I can continue to live in the South. They assumed I am a pariah, that my home is guarded, that Milam and the Ku Klux must be “looking” for me.
“You make me feel as if we are separated by an ocean,” I told them. “My people and I have lived in this county more than a century. This morning I walked to the post office. This afternoon I played golf at the Decatur Country Club with the club pro and two bankers. The lock on my house hasn’t been used since the last Yankee soldier went home in 1876. My neighbors don’t care what I write. What matters in my county is whether the fish are biting or the ducks are flying.”
The disturbing reaction comes from a Negro woman writer, in the North, whom I respect. She wrote:
Your story is a disaster. The Till case has been of immense propaganda and fund-raising value to Negroes and their white supporters in the race struggle. Most persons, other than the racists, could feel sorry for “the little colored boy who whistled at the white woman and then was lynched for it.” Now you have spoiled the image. Not only have you made Emmett Till into a less sympathetic character, but after I read your account I felt sorry for everybody: for the murderers as well as the brash young Negro. You knocked some of the crusading zeal out of me: I just wanted to sit down and weep for the whole human race. But that’s a luxury I can’t afford because I’m a Negro and I must fight. You can afford it: you can afford to understand the tragedy of both the executioner and the victim. But I can’t. So I wish you had been just too busy to have bothered with the Till
case. For while you did not intend it, the effect of your effort has been to discourage me and to neutralize a valuable propaganda weapon in the fight for racial justice.
To that I replied:
Humanity needs crusaders; Causes need partisans. Crusaders and partisans prefer propaganda as their weapon, not truth. But humanity also needs understanding. And truth, not propaganda, promotes understanding.
To me a brash young Negro preoccupied with sex is not an unsympathetic character. And when I explain a murderer, I am not seeking forgiveness for him; I am seeking a cure, for him and for those who come after him. Will cancer be cured by making propaganda against it?
You have described the effect of my story on you; but you may be wrong in your evaluation of its effect on the “public.” We truth-seekers have more respect for the “public” than you propagandists have. Your propaganda presented with case as the wanton murder of a “child” by apes. My truth presents it as the deliberate murder of a youth by a man who is not an ape, but who was sober, who holds a commission in the United States Army Reserve, and who, when he fired an expanding bullet through Emmett Till’s head, thought he was dong right. And many Americans, not all of them Southern, have commended him.
Now I ask you: which of our pictures of this murder is the more disturbing? I have two thousand letters from thoughtful Americans who say that the crime, in the light of what I have written, is “even more terrible…shattering…awful in that one man, on such provocation from a youth, should arrogate to himself the power of life and death over a human being.”
Wanting to weep for the whole human race need not be a disastrous impulse, even for a crusader. You’ll regain any zeal you say I have knocked out of you. You may even come to regard truth as an effective weapon in crusades.
I illustrate the propaganda excesses with the horrible example. Here is an editorial from Life magazine:
IN MEMORIAM, EMMETT TILL
In Mississippi the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till still goes unpunished. It will be punished, nevertheless, for there is a higher law than Mississippi’s.
Emmett Till was a child. One of the South’s traditions is the religion of Jesus, who said: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Men can be forgiven for prejudice, as a sign of ignorance or imperfect understanding of their religion; no righteous man can condone a brutal murder. Those in Sumner, and elsewhere, who do condone it, are in far worse danger than Emmett Till ever was. He had only his life to lose, and many others have done that, including his soldier-father who was killed in France fighting for the American proposition that all men are equal. Those who condone a deed so foul as this are in danger of losing their souls.
The soul of Emmett Till himself was known but to few but it was a thing of value. It was fashioned on July 25, 1941, by the Lord God Almighty who placed on it this distinctive seal:
This is My son, akin to all others, but unlike any one of them. Like each of My children he is unique, irreplaceable, immortal. I hereby send him among other men, who are his brothers.
He went, and was slain. In the dark night of this deed, his childish cries for mercy fell on deaf ears. But they were heard, nonetheless, and the Hearer made an entry, that night, beneath certain names, writing once more: “It must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”
Sleep well, Emmett Till; you will be avenged. You will also be remembered, as long as men have tongues to cry against evil. It is true now as it was when Christ said it almost 2,000 years ago: “Fr there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid that shall not be known…Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light….Be not afraid of them that kill the body….Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell….Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?…Fear not, therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”*
*Life, in reply to a letter to the editor, printed the following comment on the editorial:
At the time of writing, it was reported that Private Till was killed in action in France. War Department records, made public only last week, reveal that he was executed in Italy after conviction for murder and rape in 1945.—ED.
The Luce magazines sell images to Americans who are too busy to read. They are a sign of the times: the information pill in the Age of Briefing.
In three issues Life magnified one image: the murder of a child whose soldier-father gave his life in France for the American proposition that all men are equal.
But life laughs at Life. Emmett Till’s father, Private Louis Till, never saw Europe. He did indeed lose his life: at the end of a rope. The Army hanged him in Italy for a series of rape-murders.
Before me is the case of The United States vs. Private LOUIS TILL, 36382273, 177th Port Company, 379th Port Battalion, Transportation Corps.
Charge: Violation of the 92nd Article of War
Specification 1: In that Private Till…did at Civitavecchia, Italy, on or about 27 June 1944, with malice, aforethought, willfully, deliberately, feloniously, unlawfully and with premeditation kill one Anna Zanchi, a human being, by shooting her with a pistol.
Specification 2: In that Private Till...did…forcibly and feloniously, against her will, have carnal knowledge of Benni Lucrezia.
Specification 3: In that Private Till…did…forcibly and feloniously, against her will, have carnal knowledge of Frieda Mari.
The case is a dictionary of depravity. Obscenities fill every page. While Italian families huddled in darkness during air raids, Louis Till preyed on them. He drank wine, masked himself, then raged among the helpless, waving Big Milam’s favorite weapon: the Colt .45 automatic.
Anna Zanchi resisted stevedore Till. She told him that when daylight came she would identify him to the Military Police. He fired and expanding bullet through her stomach—same gun, same slug, which Big Milam fired through the brain of Louis Till’s son.
An old man tried to protect his family. But Private Till also knew how to pistol-whip. He whammed the old man with the .45—the same blows which were to fall on his son.
On July 2, 1945, at Aversa, Italy, the Army hanged Louis Till. He is one of 95 American soldiers—87 of them Negroes—hanged in the European Theater for the
murder and/or rape of unarmed civilians. Generations of Italian and French people will hate America for what Negro service troops did to them.
I don’t write such words to “confuse the Till case,” or to “libel a child or a race,” or to “comfort the racists,” or to “defend Mississippi.” I write them because they are true; and I refuse to omit truths in order to “make a case.” It is also true that Emmett Till never saw his father; he attempted no rape; and the manner of Louis Till’s death, heroic or shameful, was immaterial at the trial of Milam and Bryant.
But the manner of Louis Till’s death was introduced at the trial; and the heroism of it was magnified by Life. The prosecution, trying to neutralize Milam’s heroism with Louis Till’s heroism, questioned Mamie Till Bradley about the father’s death. Mamie knew how Louis Till died: the Army told her in 1948. So she testified cautiously. She said her husband “died in the service, in the European Theater, July 2, 1945.” The defense lawyers, ignorant of the hanging, let it stand. (What fun they would have had on cross-examination had they only known.)
Testimony that the “soldier-father” died two months after the war ended should have cautioned Life. The facts of the death were available to a Life editor for the flick of a finger. Life keeps a covey of intense Vassar graduates in Washington: “researchers.” A call to the Pentagon, or to Mamie, or to her lawyer, could have tempered zeal with knowledge.
Here’s how one mind worked. Roy Wilkins, head of NAACP, told me: “I almost got caught in that Louis Till trap. I had written a speech in which I referred to the soldier-father’s dying for the American proposition—all that stuff in Life. But before I delivered it, my intuition warned me. I cut it out—and am I glad I did!”
Here’s how my mind worked. When I read the Life editorial, I reached for a file.
In 1954 I wrote a book about the one American soldier since 1863 to be shot for desertion. (The Execution of Private Slovik.) I inspected the secret plot in France where Slovik is buried, along with the 95 murderer-rapists who were hanged. Those 96 graves are marked with numbers—no names. But I have a diagram which lists the names opposite the numbers.
When I examined this diagram I didn’t expect to find Louis Till: it was the instinctive beginning of a search. But there—three graves from Eddie Slovik—lay Louis Till!
For verification I called the Pentagon; and the manner of Louis Till’s death became known to a few Americans. To only a few, however, for the press associations ducked it; and Life buried it among its letters where one in a thousand of its readers would see it.
A year after the Till murder I went back to Mississippi. I met Milam in Ruleville. It was during cotton-picking, and he was servicing two mechanical pickers which were running in his field 9 miles from Ruleville. He was driving the same Chevrolet pickup in which he hauled Bobo to his death. I got in the pickup and we drove to his field. We sat talking and watching the pickers crawl up and down the rows.
“I see white men are driving your pickers,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied, “I don’t work niggahs no more. They’re leaving here by the thousands, going to Chicago.”
After the murder Negroes boycotted the Milam-Bryant stores, forced their sale or closing. When Roy Bryant closed his store, he couldn’t get a job. Now he was going to welding school under the GI Bill of Rights, drawing about $100 a month from the government. Had he been convicted of a felony, he’d have been ineligible for this assistance.
“Roy’ll have it tough,” Milam said. “It takes a long time to learn welding, and by the time you’ve learned it, you’ve ruined your eyes.”
With the stores gone, Milam turned to farming. He was shocked when landowners who had contributed to his defense declined to rent to him. In all of Tallahatchie County—the county which had “swarmed” to his defense—he couldn’t rent land.
Along with land, he needed a bank loan or “furnish” to put in a cotton crop. Even though he owned more equipment than the average renter, banks refused to “furnish” him.
When Milam had nowhere else to turn, John Whitten helped him rent 217 acres in Sunflower County; and the Bank of Webb, in which Whitten is on the loan committee, “furnished” him 4,000 dollars.
(John Whitten told me: “Yes, I helped him. He was a good soldier. In a mine field at night when other men were running and leaving you to do the killing, J. W. Milam stood with you. When a man like that comes to you and his kids are hungry, you don’t turn him down.”)
“I had a not of friends a year ago,” Milam continued. “They contributed to my defense fund—or they said they did. Bankers and plantation owners slapped me on the back. I got letters from all over the country congratulating me on my ‘fine Americanism.’ Now…I don’t get those letters any more and bankers are too busy to talk to me. Everything has gone against me—even the dry weather which has hurt my cotton. I’m living in a sharecrop house with no water in it. My wife and kids are having it tough.”
I watched him. He looked older, confused, uncertain. The poor, landless “redneck” with the mark of Cain on him.
“Tell me this, J.W.,” I said. “When you think back on that dark night of August 28, 1955…the night you loaded the Chicago boy into this pickup and took him down to the river and killed him and threw him in…you ever have any regrets?”
He shook his head.
“No,” he answered slowly, “I ain’t sorry. What else could I ‘a’ done under the circumstances? Everybody thinks I done right. So I ain’t sorry. But I guess it was about the unluckiest night of my life. You now why? Well, it’s som’pin I learned. You can do som’pin that everybody says you ought’a done. Like killin’ a German…or killin’ a niggah who gets out’a place. Everybody slaps you on the back for it. Hell, they give you a medal! Then…after a while…those same folks won’t come around you…they won’t even like you…because you done it.”
He inhaled a long breath on his cigarette, then blew smoke out the window.
“It’s a goddamn funny
thing, ain’t it?” he said. “They want you to do it. They are glad you done
it. Then they don’t like you for doing it…Crazy goddamn situation, ain’t