Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mississippi Madness: The Story of Emmett Till

"Thar He!"

J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant entered the courtroom for opening testimony in a light, almost jovial mood. With their wives by their sides the entire time and the black spectators safely herded behind a railing, the defendants projected an air of confidence. The jury consisted of friends and neighbors who naturally shared the defendant's views, attitudes and beliefs about racial matters. Though Milam and Bryant were aware of the media attention given to the case, they were also aware that most Mississippians did not like or approve of outsiders interfering in local matters. Especially when those outsiders were Northerners, black, or both. From time to time, bystanders would approach Milam and wish him luck or shake his hand. Every man and woman who attended the trial was searched by the rotund Sheriff H.C. Strider, who proudly told reporters prior to trial, "We don't mix down here and we don't intend to start now!"

J.W. Milam (left), Attorney Carton and Roy Bryant (right)
J.W. Milam (left), Attorney Carton and
Roy Bryant (right)

As soon as the proceedings began, Milam and Bryant became quiet and appeared nervous. They were represented by five Mississippi attorneys, all who worked free of charge. Former F.B.I. agent and local district attorney, Robert Smith was appointed as special prosecutor by Governor Hugh White. He was assisted by veteran Mississippi prosecutor Gerald Chatham. County Judge Curtis M. Swango read off the rules and his expectations of the proceedings to come. Within a few minutes, Mamie Till, dressed in a neat black dress with a white collar and a black veil over her face, quietly walked down the center aisle amidst an enemy camp and took her seat. Photographers frantically snapped their cameras as testimony began.

Moses Wright was called to the stand. He was a very thin, wiry man with taut black leathery skin and gray hair. Wright wore a white shirt with a blue tie and suspenders. He came to the witness chair with an air of dignity and determination. Wright said he was awakened by a banging on his door on the night of August 28. When he opened the door, he found Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam standing there and demanding to see "the boy from Chicago who did the talking!" He said Milam had a gun and walked into his house to get Emmett Till. Wright described the next anxious minutes as Till was awakened from sleep and forced to get dressed while Bryant and Milam stood over him. He said his wife Elizabeth offered to pay the defendants for any damage Emmett may have caused, if they would just let him be. District Attorney Chatam asked if he could point out the man with the gun in the courtroom.

Moses Wright in court points to Milam and Bryant
Moses Wright in court points to Milam
and Bryant

"Yes, sir!" Wright said without hesitation. He stood up slowly and with an act of courage and defiance that would reverberate across the state of Mississippi and signal the beginning of the end of white supremacy in the South, an old, black sharecropper pointed a gnarled finger at white J.W. Milam and announced in a loud, clear voice, "Thar he!"

Later, Wright remembered the hundreds of white people in the courtroom, their faces twisted in hatred at what he had done. "It was the first time in my life that I had the courage to accuse a white man of a crime," he told the press, "I wasn't exactly brave and I wasn't scared. I just wanted to see justice done."

Categories
Advertisement