Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mississippi Madness: The Story of Emmett Till

Mississippi Trial

Sumner Courthouse, Tallahatchie
Sumner Courthouse, Tallahatchie

The trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant began on September 19, 1955 at the Tallahatchie County courthouse in the city of Sumner. Dozens of reporters clamored for the best seating in the room. The Chicago Defender dispatched their staff, as did the New York Times, the Atlanta Constitution, the New York Amsterdam News, the New York Post and many others. A black congressman from Illinois, Charles C. Diggs Jr., sat with Mrs. Mamie Till at the table reserved for black press only. "Diggs has about as much business being at the trial as he has being in Congress, where he has not distinguished himself for unbiased thinking" wrote the Jackson Daily News on September 22, 1955. A black politician was something so alien to Mississippi tradition, that when one deputy sheriff was told of Diggs' position in Washington, he exclaimed loudly for all spectators to hear, "What? A nigger Congressman?"

But there would be no black jurors. In a county where nearly 65 per cent of the 32,000 residents were black Americans, there was not a single registered black voter. That was because if a black man tried to register to vote, he could be killed for his efforts. On August 20, just a few days before Till was fished out of the Tallahatchie River, Lamar Smith, 63, a black activist who attempted to get blacks to vote, was found shot to death in the town square of Brookhaven, Mississippi. In his hand was a quantity of election leaflets. His killer was never found.

During jury selection, the courtroom was jammed with standing spectators, black and white, male and female, who mingled with each other in polite respect. But the New York Times described the scene as "an atmosphere of controlled hostility." Rarely, if ever, was a white man put on trial for the murder of a black man in the state of Mississippi. Blacks who would dare testify at such a proceeding did so at their own peril. But there was much pressure to punish the killers of Emmett Till. National organizations had taken up the cause and black leaders everywhere screamed out for justice. The searing memory of a 14-year-old's battered corpse would not simply fade away.

By the end of the first day, ten white men were selected for the jury. Before they were chosen, they were called upon to answer questions concerning racial issues. All said they could and would put aside racial prejudices when it came time to decide guilt or innocence of the defendants. When jury selection was completed the next day, the panel consisted of nine farmers and three carpenters, all of whom swore to remain impartial and unbiased.

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