All-White Jury Acquitted J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant for the Murder of Emmett Till
Mrs. Bradley traveled to Mississippi to testify at the trial, staying in the home of Dr. T.R.M. Howard in the all-black town of Mound Bayou.
Others staying in Howard's home were black reporters, such as Cloyte Murdock of Ebony magazine, key witnesses, and Congressman Charles Diggs of Michigan, later the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Howard was a major civil rights leader and fraternal organization official in Mississippi, the head of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), and one of the wealthiest blacks in the state.
The day before the trial, Frank Young, a black farm worker, came to Howard's home, stating that he had information indicating that Milam and Bryant had help in their crime. Young's allegations sparked an investigation that led to unprecedented cooperation between local law enforcement, the NAACP, the RCNL, black journalists, and local reporters. The trial began on September 19, 1955, 22 days after the murder. Moses "Mose" Wright, Emmett's great-uncle, was one of the main witnesses called up to testify by lead prosecutor Gerald Chatham. Pointing to one of the suspected killers, he identified the man who had killed his nephew.
Another key witness for the prosecution was Willie Reed, an 18-year-old high school student who lived on a plantation near Drew, Mississippi in Sunflower County. The prosecution had located him, thanks to the investigation sparked by Young's information. Reed testified that he had seen a pickup truck outside an equipment shed, on a plantation near Drew managed by Leslie Milam, a brother of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. He said that four whites, including J.W. Milam, were in the cab and three blacks were in the back, one of them Till. When the truck pulled into the shed, he heard human cries that sounded like a beating was under way. He did not identify the other blacks on the truck.
On September 23 the all-male, all-white jury acquitted both defendants. Deliberations took merely 67 minutes; one juror said, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken us too long."The hasty acquittal outraged people throughout the United States and Europe and energized the nascent Civil Rights Movement.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Emmett Till provide chilling insight into the racism that dominated the South in the 1950s. Till was a fourteen-year-old Chicago native visiting relatives in Mississippi. While out with his cousins and friends on the night of 24 August 1955, he allegedly accosted a white woman in the grocery store owned by her husband. Accounts vary as to what Till actually said or did. According to the woman Till grabbed her and made lewd remarks. Some witnesses claimed that he only whistled at her. Still others asserted that he made no advances at all, that he whistled habitually to control a speech defect.
A Brutal Murder
Roy Bryant considered his wife's honor tainted by the incident. Several nights after the episode, Bryant, his half brother J. W. Milam, and possibly other accomplices kidnapped Till from his relatives' home in the middle of the night. The two men beat him severely and, apparently enraged that he had a picture of a white woman in his wallet, shot Till and threw him in a nearby river. Several days later the body was found, and Bryant and Milam were charged with murder.
A Surprise Verdict
Mississippi politicians and newspapers unanimously condemned the murderers and promised swift justice. However, Mississippians became more defensive as for weeks the press bombarded them with harsh condemnations of racial violence in the South. The highly publicized trial of the two men was charged with racial tension. African-American politicians and reporters from the North were treated contemptuously and were segregated in the courtroom. The prosecution was poorly prepared, and the substance of the defense was the astounding claim that Till was not actually dead. The badly decomposed body was identified only by Till's ring on its finger. The sheriff of Tallahatchee County, who investigated the case, speculated on the witness stand that an unnamed group of "rabble-rousers" had planted the evidence. The all-male, all-white jury was apparently convinced: they acquitted Bryant and Milam after deliberating slightly longer than an hour.
The World Reacts
News of the verdict was received around the country and the world with astonishment. A survey of European reactions conducted by the American Jewish Committee reported that American prestige had been "seriously damaged" by the outcome of the trial. The press in Mississippi, on the other hand, closed ranks and praised the fairness of the trial.
The Killers Tell the Truth
The truth of what happened that night became public knowledge several months after the trial. William Bradford Huie, an Alabama journalist in Mississippi to report on the aftermath of the case, offered Bryant and Milam money to tell their story. Since the two could no longer be prosecuted for a crime of which they had already been acquitted, they gladly told for a fee of how they had beaten and killed young Till. Huie reported what the killers told him in the 24 January 1956 issue of Look magazine. Now publicly exposed as murderers, Bryant and Milam were ostracized by the community, and both moved elsewhere within a year. Emmett Till in death became a martyr for the civil rights movement, a symbol of the racial hatred African-Americans had yet to overcome.