(Historical Background)

Part 2

The "smiling brothers walkin' down the courthouse stairs"
Left to right: Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant, Juanita Milam, J. W. Milam (UPI).

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The Death of Emmett Till
(Words and Music by Bob Dylan)
© 1963, 1968 Warner Bros. Inc
© Renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime,
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.

I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin' down the courthouse stairs.
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.

Following clues from a white reporter from Jacksonville, Florida, that a gin fan (because of the unique set of grooves it left in a cotton gin) could be matched to a specific machine, the fan tied to Emmett Till's body was traced to J. W. Milam's barn. J. W. Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, were arrested for murder and tried in a segregated courtroom in Sumner by an all-white jury. "Blacks were not allowed to stand in the halls or sit anywhere in the court..." (Brown, p. 112.)

Moses Wright points to the men accused of abducting and murdering Emmett Till.

Mose Wright, eyewitness to Emmett Till's abduction, despite the danger to himself, took the stand. When the prosecutor (referring to this sixty-four-year-old man as "Uncle Mose") asked Mr. Wright if he could see any man involved in Emmett Till's abduction in the courtroom, Mose Wright "looked around, pointed right at J. W. Milam, and said 'Dar he!'" (ibid.).

But despite his identification, the evidence of the gin fan, and eyewitness reports, the jury acquitted Milam and Bryant after only one hour of deliberation.

Brown, p. 113.

If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

Two months after the trial, Alabama native William Bradford Huie (author of "They Slew the Dreamer" and other books on the Civil Rights movement), got the slayers of Emmett Till to confess -- in detail -- to the crime.

Not only did Milam and Bradley admit to abducting Emmett Till from his granduncle's house, Milam also stated that he shot Emmett in the head. Both claimed that they had not intended to kill him, but when Emmett (out of fear?) said that he had a white girlfriend in Chicago, "Milam and Bradley knew what they had to do. Milam said, '[White women are] what we got to fight to protect." (Brown, p. 114.)

Although Huie's interview was published in the January 1956 issue of "Look" magazine, due to the Constitution's prohibition on double jeopardy, Milam and Bradley, despite their confession, could not be legally prosecuted anymore. "But ironically, Milam and Bryant were ostracized for 'disgracing' their community for their well-publicized act." (ibid.)

Jennie Brown concludes:

The Emmett Till case was a turning point not only for Mississippi but for the nation as well. The cloak of darkness... was now lifted on the ugliest manifestations of Mississippi racism. White men would continue to get away with the murder of blacks -- but not without protest from both blacks and whites. Hodding Carter, the editor of the white newspaper "Delta Democrat Times"...: "Mississippi gave a sorry demonstration of an inadequate legal system... that presented an attitude of so little concern that even the people most convinced that two half-brothers were guilty of murdering a young Negro boy... had to admit that the case was not proved."

Brown, pp. 114-115.

In comparing the Till murder to another case tried in Sumner, in which a black gas-station attendant, Clinton Melton, had "been shot in broad daylight by a white customer who had complained that Melton didn't put enough gas in his car" (Brown, p. 115.) -- again, despite eyewitness testimony, this white man was also acquitted (by an all-white jury?) --, Carter stated that these cases "served to cement the opinion of the world... that no matter how strong the evidence nor how flagrant the apparent crime, a white man cannot be convicted in Mississippi for killing a Negro." (ibid.)

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