Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mississippi Madness: The Story of Emmett Till


"It's about the biggest farce I've ever seen," Mamie Till told the Chicago Defender after the trial, "it is unbelievable and fantastic." Very few crimes in America have ever generated the kind of shock and anger as the murder of Emmett Till and the exoneration of his killers. The national press attacked the verdict as an insult to democracy and proof of the cancerous effects of racism in the Deep South. "Mississippi Jungle Law Frees Slayers of Child," said a Cleveland newspaper of the verdict. It seemed plain to everyone that a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. Eyewitnesses identified Milam and Bryant as the kidnappers and others testified the defendants had beaten Till inside Milam's barn. Though an acquittal was discussed in the press, most observers did not think that a jury would absolve Milam and Bryant while under the glare of national attention. The president of the N.A.A.C.P. said to an audience of 10,000 in New York, "The jurors who returned this shameful verdict deserve a medal from the Kremlin for meritorious service in communism's war against democracy." But still, the view persisted that what happened in the Till case was due to "unwelcome outsiders" who came to Tallahatchie County to force their views on others. "We must give due condemnation to the N.A.A.C.P. spokesmen for their part in the case," wrote the Delta Democratic Times on September 23, 1955, "For without their blanket accusations of decent peoplethose local officialsmight otherwise have made an honest effort to do more."

But most of the nation's press was not so kind. In the days that followed the verdict, angry newspaper editorials denounced the transparent decision of the Sumner jury. "Good people everywhere, "wrote the The Daily Worker, "in America and throughout the world-feel a deep sense of horror over the outcome of the murder trial in Mississippi." The nation's largest black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, said on October 1, 1955, "How long must we wait for the federal government to actFor too long it has been the device, as it was in the Till case, for the President to refer such matters to the Department of Justice."

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt remarked to a reporter, "It might be a reminder to us as a nation that we stand as the symbol of democracy to the world and that equal justice is looked upon as on the essential parts of democracy." But even her words were not enough to motivate an apathetic White House. Dwight D. Eisenhower, never known as a champion of civil rights, was curiously quiet on the murder of Emmett Till. In his book, Waging Peace (1965), President Eisenhower mentions the Till case only in passing. "The Communist Party declared the federal government should send troops into Mississippi," he wrote, "in order to avenge the murder in 1955 of a fourteen year old Negro boy, Emmett Till." Despite the national uproar, President Eisenhower never commented publicly on the case.

In Europe, there was universal condemnation of the verdict. "Having just come back fresh from Africa, Europe and England," said Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. on October 11, 1955, "I can objectively report that the lynch murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi was, in the eyes of Europe, a lynching of the Statue of Liberty." A Paris newspaper said, "Never was there a more abominable travesty of the truth." In Germany a nation only a decade removed from its own especially noxious form of widespread lynching one editorial said "the life of a Negro in Mississippi is not worth a whistle."

Mississippi's own Jackson Daily News published an editorial on September 25, 1955 that probably represented the feelings of many citizens in the delta. It read, "Practically all the evidence against the defendants was circumstantial evidenceit is best for all concerned that the Bryant-Milam case be forgotten as quickly as possible. It has received far more publicity than it should have been given."

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