of the Till Murder Revisited
This article was written
30 years after her original Land of the Till Murder (also included on
this website). It is significant in showing changes in race relations
in the Mississippi Delta in the three decades following Emmett Till’s
murder, and interviews some people, including one of the killers, who
were original players in the case. It was published in Ebony
41 (March 1986): 53–58. Each section is divided and numbered with
Land of The
TILL MURDER Revisited
Former Ebony staffer
returns after 30 years to report on ‘the new Mississippi’
By Clotye Murdock Larsson
There are some stories
that a journalist can never forget no matter how hard one tries. Like
fading pictures in a photo album, certain impressions remain in the mind
long after time has erased the details of the events. For me, the Emmett
Till murder case was that kind of assignment. For 30 years, 24 of which
I spent outside the United States, I found my thoughts drifting back to
it, edging away from it, tip-toeing around it...as though around an all-too-well-remembered
grave...whenever I compared life in America with life abroad.
I had left the United States too soon to witness the birth of the “new
Mississippi,” which my friends described in letters from home. Their
reports left me skeptical. Had they not painted too bright a picture?
Could democracy truly have come tot he Black man’s mental Auschwitz?
Did the dark “star” of skin color no longer limit his right
to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of the wider dimensions of happiness?
For me, there was only one way to find out. I had to go back. And so,
this past autumn, I returned for the first time in three decades to the
place where a 14-year-old Black boy, with the same birthday as mine, had
tally murdered for
allegedly violating a Southern White woman’s honor by “wolf
whistling” at her.
For those too young to remember it, the Emmett Till story began in the
summer of 1955 in Money, Miss., a dusty crossroads settlement too obscure
to merit a turn-off sign on the main highway. At 2 a.m. on Aug. 28, a
truck stopped in front of the home of an aging minister and share-cropper,
Moses Wright. Two White men stepped out and pounded on the Black man’s
door. When he opened it, they announced that they had come for the boy
who was visiting from Chicago. Moses Wright asked where they planned to
take his nephew, Emmett Till. “Nowhere,” he was told, “if
he’s not the right one.”
Four days earlier, Emmett had gone to buy candy at the country store which
Roy Bryant and his wife, Carolyn, operated in Money. According to Carolyn,
the boy had flirted with her and “wolf whistled” as he left.
Roy, who had been away on a trip, was told about the incident as soon
as he returned.
Emmett Till was pushed into the truck and driven away. When he failed
to return, his uncle called the sheriff. Roy Bryant and his half-brother,
J. W. Milam, were arrested and charged with kidnapping. On Aug. 30, Sheriff
George W. Smith was quoted in the Clarion-Ledger as saying, “I’m
kinda scared there’s been foul play.”
He was right. Emmett’s body was found the following day by 17-year-old
Floyd Hodges, who was running a trout line in the Tallahatchie River,
25 miles north of Greenwood. Entangled in driftwood, the corpse was floating
upside down, with the feet and legs protruding from the water. Floyd summoned
Sheriff H. C. Strider of Tallahatchie county. Sheriff Strider told the
press that Emmett had a bullet hole “above the right ear, and the
left side of his face had been cut up or beat up, plumb into the skull.”
To keep the body submerged, Emmett’s killers had wired a cotton
gin fan to his neck. Sheriff Strider turned the body over to a Black undertaker.
The charge of murder was then added to the kidnapping charge already lodged
against Milam and Bryant.
I was a member of the team of writers and photographers from Johnson Publishing
Co. who volunteered to cover the murder trial in Sumner, Miss. Between
Sept. 19, when the proceedings began, and Sept. 23, when the all-White
jury returned an acquittal, I saw a side of “the American way of
life” that even I, a Southerner, found shocking. Prejudice was a
phenomenon that I was prepared for...but not open, raw, vulgar menacing
On the day before the trial, Ebony and Jet photographer David Jackson
and I visited Rev. Wright at his weathered gray tenant farmhouse. While
we sat talking on the porch, an open truck came rumbling down the road.
It slowed as it approached the house, and in my mind’s eye I can
still see the six White men standing in the back, armed with shotguns
that glittered in the sun. How slowly the truck seemed to move...so slowly
that I could see the eyes of the men regarding us with a cold and ageless
hostility. The menace was obvious, the message clear. The spell was not
broken until, abruptly, the truck picked up speed and raced on.
Jackson was the first to react.
“Is it hunting season now, Rev. Wright?” he asked.
Resuming his rocking, Emmett’s uncle, remarkably unperturbed, replied,
“Not as I know of, Mr. Jackson. Unless it’s us they got in
I met Sheriff Strider, another unforgettable Mississippian, the following
day. Standing in the entrance to the courtroom, like the anointed defender
of the unreconstructed South, he rested his right hand meaningfully on
his gun as he saw the members of the Black press approach. Malevolently
aware that we could do nothing except accept his insult, swallow our rage
and go on, he said with a poisonous smile, “Mawnin’, niggers!”
Again, we got the message. We were behind enemy lines now. We had no rights
that a White man was bound to respect. Our press cards were no guarantee
of safety. Not even a member of the U. S. Congress could expect a courteous
welcome, not if he happened to be both Northern and Black. Congressman
Charles Diggs of Michigan discovered that quickly enough when he joined
us to witness the proceedings. “A nigger congressman!” scoffed
a White deputy at the door. “It ain’t possible. It ain’t
Convinced, after inspecting Diggs’ credentials, that, up North,
a Black man could hold this high office, he frisked the congressman and
directed him and his party to the segregated
press table hastily
set up for Blacks.
Since any interracial encounter was likely to arouse suspicion, we pretended
not to know the White photographer on our team who had come to photograph
the aspects of the trial and of Mississippi life which it would have been
impossible for Black reporters to cover. We met Mike Shea secretly and
exchanged information quickly at carefully arranged rendezvous points.
Since the telephones in the homes of Black activists were tapped, we dared
not use them to make contact. We could have exposed our White companion
and drawn unnecessary attention to our hosts, militant Blacks of Mississippi
who were already in trouble enough. Dr. T. R. M. Howard, with whom some
of us stayed in Mound Bayou, had received many death threats. For his
family’s protection and ours during the Till trial, he kept a small
arsenal of shotguns behind the door.
The majority of the spectators at the Till trial were White Mississippians.
With excitement on their faces, they pushed and shoved their way into
the courtroom, craned their necks to see the accused, to see the Northern
reporters, Black and White, and maybe even be seen themselves later on
television. With them they brought their children and their box lunches.
They bought soft drinks from vendors who curtly refused to sell their
wares to Blacks, and peered admiringly at Carolyn Bryant, the “victim”
of the alleged wolf whistle.
On the second or third day of the trial, when sheriff Strider was called
to testify, I did something I immediately regretted. I forgot where I
was. When he told the court that the body which he had pulled out of the
water had deteriorated to such an extent that he couldn’t be sure
whether it was that of a Black person or a White, my temper flared. During
a pause in the trial, I pushed my way through the milling crowd of Whites
and asked Judge Curtis Swango, whose impressively evenhanded conduct of
the trial was like a breath of fresh air, why, if Sheriff Strider was
unsure of the victims racial identity, he had asked a Black undertaker
to take charge of the body!
Heads turned. Eyes measured me. I felt like a marked woman. The White
Citizen’s Councils were active in the area. I had seen a letter
on White Citizens’ Council stationery on Sheriff George Smith’s
desk when David and I had visited his office. I knew that a White reporter
from the North had been run out of town, and I knew that Sheriff Strider
was perhaps the
last man in Mississippi whose truthfulness I should publicly challenge.
Even though no personal harm came to any of us, we were closely watched
and a threat seemed to linger in the air. As the trial proceeded, the
tension in the courtroom approached the breaking point. At one point,
somebody dropped a glass bottle. It shattered. The sound was like a shot.
In a single, reflex reaction, everybody, Blacks and Whites alike, ducked.
On the fifth day, the jury adjourned to deliberate the evidence. When
they returned only 60 minutes later with their verdict–not guilty–some
Whites appeared jubilant, others merely relieved. Blacks were resigned,
angry, fearful or dismayed.
I was dismayed. To me, it seemed clear from the evidence that a strong
case had been made against the accused. Till may or may not have wolf
whistled. What did it matter? He had a right to life. I thought about
his last moments, the terror...the blows...the bullet. How could anyone
have done such a thing to a 14-year-old child?
And yet, this was America. The two men had been tried and freed in a court
of law. That should be the end of it. But I felt that it was not the end...rather
a terrible beginning. Freedom would be long in coming. When would it come?
And how would it be won?
Standing there in that Southern courthouse, I suddenly remembered how,
as a schoolchild, I had recited the pledge to the flag of the United States...
“and to the democracy for which it stands, one nation, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.” Now, staring at the American
flag in the courtroom, I wondered what it was doing there.
When I returned to the Mississippi Delta this past summer, it no longer
felt like the same old place. Just as the letters from home had informed
me, there had been a positive change. The remembered symbols of segregation
had vanished...where had they scrapped the “Whites Only” signs?
In the cities and towns I visited...Jackson, Clarksdale, Greenville, Drew
and Ruleville, restaurants, restrooms and hotels were open to everyone.
In Money, however, a White woman, who ran a business down the street from
Roy Bryant’s former store, became so upset when she saw Ebony photographer
Moneta Sleet’s camera that she began to scream and yell.
“No pictures!” she shouted, even though the camera was not
pointed in her direction. “Agitators!” she called
us. “Coming down
South...stirring up trouble...just like in South Africa.”
When we attempted to interview Roy Bryant at his present place of business,
a country-style general store in Ruleville, we found that he, too, would
like to let things rest. Shortly before our arrival, for example, a Mississippi
newspaper marked the 30th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death by
doing a full-scale update of the story that Roy Bryant would rather forget.
Although he granted them an interview, he was not in the mood to say anything
to us. He didn’t “trust” reporters. “They misquoted
me,” he said. “Claimed I said money would jog my memory. I
never said nothin’ like that. I don’t wanta be hard, but this
thing has hurt me.”
The case had indeed hurt him, financially. After the trial, his customers
in Money found other places to shop. Forced to give up the business, he
left Mississippi, and his wife Carolyn eventually left him. His half-brother,
J. W. Milam, also moved out of state and, like Roy, split up with his
Milam is dead now. Cancer took his life. Dead, too, is Sheriff Strider,
and the courageous Moses Wright. After the trial, Rev. Wright moved North,
away from the memories, away from the hate. We went to Money to photograph
his house. It had been leveled.
I remember him as a brave man whose finger never shook when, in that hostile
courtroom, he pointed out Milam and Bryant.
The Till case is not a comfortable memory for anyone who witnessed it,
least of all for Blacks.
“It showed us how little we counted for in the total scheme of things,”
a Black man reflected. “Milam and Bryant admitted taking the boy
forcibly from Rev. Wright’s house, but they weren’t even sentenced
For Whites, the Till case was, at the least, an embarrassment. What in
the past would have been a quiet lynching now made news around the world.
“The fact that there was a trial at all was somewhat unique,”
mused civil rights activist Aaron Henry, a Black Mississippi pharmacist
who is now serving his second term in the state legislature. We interviewed
him at his drug store in Clarksdale this past autumn. During the Till
trial he had put on tattered clothes, taken a sack onto his back, and
gone into the cotton fields to talk with workers who, he believed, knew
more than they were saying about the case. He was one of the NAACP officials
who had helped produce the “missing witness” that the FBI
may never have found.
“I think sometimes that the hand of God was in the whole thing,”
he says now. “White men had been killing Black boys down here for
years without anybody making much of a fuss. The Emmett Till case became
a cog in the wheel of change. Perhaps we have television to thank for
“Television and the printed media turned the spotlight on Mississippi,”
Dr. Henry adds. “Much of Mississippi officialdom reacted as they
should have...with shame. Many Whites were a little bit intimidated after
Even so, the terror was to continue mounting, and scenes of naked force
would be televised to the world.
We wanted to find Roy Bryant. In a courtroom in Clarksdale, Miss., we
met Cleve McDowell, the man who would take us to him. A Black attorney,
who is also the regional director of the NAACP in his state, he looked
vaguely familiar. We had seen his picture in the newspapers. In 1963,
he was the first Black student, after James Meredith, to be admitted to
the University of Mississippi and the first ever to study
law there. After the
murder of NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers, McDowell learned that he
and James Meredith were next in line for assassination. McDowell bought
a gun. “Most everybody else had one,” he says, ‘but
when mine was discovered, I was expelled. He finished his education at
a Black university in Texas.
McDowell now has his law office on Main Street in the little town of Drew,
Miss., but his practice and his NAACP activities carry him all over the
As we approached the “new” Bryant store, Sleet and I expressed
surprise that it was in a Black neighborhood. “Blacks forget,”
McDowell told us. “Roy Bryant isn’t worried. Many times, even
when our people feel sure they know what certain Whites have done, they
don’t do anything about it.”
After our non-interview with Bryant, we lunched with McDowell in a Ruleville
café of the type we would never have entered 30 years ago. The
White waitress at the counter said “Ma’am and “sir”
to us, and the White diners, who were looking like truck drivers, not
only were peaceful but even seemed friendly.
“What’s become of the people who used to do so many violent
things publicly?” I inquired.
“They’re your leaders!” McDowell said. “They’re
not wearing sheets any longer. They’re wearing gray flannel suits!
But some of them have just gone under cover. And some of them are doing
it to us in a different way–the Northern way. If Northern Whites
had been in power down here, we’d still be in slavery!...Now, we
have situations like Black lawyers being harassed by the bar association,
and we have economic freeze-outs whenever big money is involved.”
Conditions in some places are worse now than in 1955, Atty. McDowell told
us. “You can see open sewers, a level of poverty as bad as in some
deprived, developing countries, with insects crawling over everything.
Down here, we’ve still got a massive job to do.”
And yet, even he admits that there is another side. He was with us when
we visited the home of a tenant farmer of the “new generation”
Alec Westbrook was at work when we arrived, but his wife, Jeannie, welcomed
us warmly, even though we were total strangers.
All of Alec and Jeannie Westbrook’s seven children are either attending
or have completed high school. The family lives in a comfortable six-room
tenant house, rent-free. It is air conditioned, well equipped, and there
are two cars in the garage. Even though jobs are scarce in the Delta,
the young Westbrooks, far from feeling defeated, are optimistic, determined
and forward looking. “A strong family,” Atty. McDowell acknowledged
as we departed. “Black families like that one are the backbone of
In Greenwood, where Milam and Bryant were jailed while awaiting trial,
we met Councilman David Jordan and his wife, Christine. Both teach science
in Greenwood city schools and both have fought long and hard for civil
rights. As president of the Greenwood Voters’ League for 20 years,
he has been instrumental in initiating lawsuits aimed at democratizing
the political and educational systems.
When Emmett Till’s body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River,
the Jordans were at the movie theater. Recalling that day, David Jordan
says, “It was shocking to learn that somebody in our midst, this
close to Greenwood, could kill a 14-year-old child. “After that
happened, we were ready to do whatever was necessary to change the social
conditions which had made this possible.”
The Emmett Till case was “the overriding force in people’s
minds down here during the remainder of the decade,” Jordan says.
“We could never escape the memory of the way they had treated that
child. The thing that hurt us most was that Whites didn’t care!”
“Has there been a change in the hearts and minds of White people
in the Delta since that time?” I inquire.
“I doubt it,” he replies. “We haven’t won anything
without a lawsuit!”
“Do you think that Whites as a group have learned anything from
“I wouldn’t put my life on the line that they have,”
he replies. “I think the mentality is still there.”
“How do you feel towards Whites now?” I ask.
“I have no animosity towards anybody,” he replies. “Today,
I work with Whites and teach their children. I work in an integrated school.
And in my teaching I try to be absolutely sure that no child, Black or
White, can say that I didn’t give them the best I have to give.
But,” he adds, “I am intelligent enough to realize that the
same kinds of things that happened once could happen again...We are still
in the struggle, and even though we have made some gains, we are still
“When we really get to the point where our people who are stuck
at the bottom can enjoy a good life, then perhaps we can say we have seen
the Promised Land.”
“This state,” he predicts, “is going to be run by blacknecks
and rednecks. We’re going to turn it into a paradise!”
Mississippi has changed. A Black visitor feels comfortable there. The
signs are down. The shops are integrated. One never has to ask which elevator
to board. The hotels are open to everybody, and the desk clerks even say
“Enjoy your stay” and “Y’all come back.”
Blacks serve in the state legislature, the courts. There are Black policemen,
Black state troopers and hundreds of Black civil servants, even in the
Sumner courthouse where the Emmett Till case was tried.
But the biggest change I discerned during my brief visit to Mississippi
was in the minds and imaginations of its Black citizenry. Where once there
was pessimism, now there is hope. “This state is going to be run
by blacknecks and rednecks! We’re going to make it a Promised land!”
Who, 30 years ago, whould [sic.] have dared make a prediction like that?
History may prove me wrong, but I also believe that a great many ordinary,
everyday White Mississippians feel relief that the years of turmoil are
seemingly over...and that the day has finally come when they need no longer
assert their Whiteness all the time.
I believe that what happens in Mississippi is important. If Mississippi,
with its legacy of racial strife, can be turned into a Promised Land,
surely there’s hope for the rest of the world.