Mississippi Trial, 1955

Media discourse

Reactions from newspapers in major international cities and Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and socialist publications were furious about the verdict and very critical of American society. Southern newspapers, particularly in Mississippi, wrote that the court system had done its job.[77] Till's story continued to make news for weeks following the trial, especially sparking debate between Southern, Northern, and black newspapers, the NAACP and various high-profile segregationists about justice for blacks and the propriety of Jim Crow society.

In October 1955, the Jackson Daily News reported facts about Till's father that had been suppressed by the U.S. military. While serving in Italy, Louis Till raped two women and killed a third. He was court-martialed and hanged by the Army near Pisa in July 1945. Mamie Till Bradley and her family knew none of this, having only been told that Louis had been killed for "willful misconduct". Mississippi senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis probed Army records to uncover Louis Till's crimes. Although Emmett Till's murder trial was over, news about his father remained on the front pages of Mississippi newspapers for weeks in October and November 1955, further engaging debate about Emmett Till's actions and Carolyn Bryant's integrity. Stephen Whitfield writes that the lack of attention paid to identifying or finding Till is "strange" compared to the amount of published discourse about his father.[78] Emmett Till's urges, to white Mississippians, were genetic instincts violently apparent in Louis Till. According to historians Davis Houck and Matthew Grindy, "Louis Till became a most important rhetorical pawn in the high-stakes game of north versus south, black versus white, NAACP versus White Citizens' Councils".[79]

Protected against double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam struck a deal with Look magazine in 1956 to tell their story to journalist William Bradford Huie for between $3,600 and $4,000. The interview took place in the law firm of the attorneys who had defended Bryant and Milam. Huie did not ask the questions; Bryant and Milam's own attorneys did. Neither attorney had heard their clients' accounts of the murder before. According to Huie, the older Milam was more articulate and sure of himself than the younger Bryant. Milam admitted to shooting Till and neither of them thought of themselves as guilty or that they had done anything wrong.[80]

Reaction to Huie's interview with Bryant and Milam was explosive. Their brazen admission that they had slain Till caused prominent civil rights leaders to push the federal government harder to investigate the case. Till's murder was one of several reasons the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed; it allowed the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in local law enforcement issues when civil rights were being compromised.[26] Huie's interview, in which he said that Milam and Bryant had acted alone, overshadowed inconsistencies in earlier versions of the stories. Details about Collins and Loggins and anyone else who had possibly been involved in Till's abduction, murder, or the clean-up of it, were, according to historians David and Linda Beito, forgotten.[81][note 8]

If the facts as stated in the Look magazine account of the Till affair are correct, this remains: two adults, armed, in the dark, kidnap a fourteen-year-old boy and take him away to frighten him. Instead of which, the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone, in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him.... What are we Mississippians afraid of?

William Faulkner, "On Fear", 1956[82]

Emmett Till began to seep into the consciousness of Americans through media and literature. Langston Hughes dedicated an untitled poem (eventually to be known as "Mississippi—1955") to Till in his October 1, 1955 column in The Chicago Defender. It was reprinted across the country and continued to be republished with various changes from different writers.[83] Author William Faulkner, a prominent Mississippi native who often focused on racial issues, wrote two essays on Till: one before the trial in which he pleaded for American unity and one after, a piece titled "On Fear" that was published in Harper's in 1956, in which he questioned why the tenets of segregation were based on irrational reasoning.[82] Till's murder was the focus of a 1957 television episode for the U.S. Steel Hour titled "Noon on Doomsday" written by Rod Serling, who was fascinated with how quickly Mississippi whites supported Bryant and Milam. Although the script was rewritten to avoid mention of Till, or even that the murder victim was black, White Citizens' Councils vowed to boycott U.S. Steel. The eventual product bore no resemblance to the Till case.[84] Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem titled "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon" in 1960. The same year Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in which a white attorney is committed to defending a black man named Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. Lee, whose novel had a profound effect on civil rights, has not publicly stated Robinson's origins, but literature professor Patrick Chura notes several compelling similarities between Till's case and that of Robinson.[85] James Baldwin loosely based his 1964 drama Blues for Mister Charlie on the Till case. He later divulged that Till's murder had been bothering him for several years.[86]

Bob Dylan recorded a song titled "The Death of Emmett Till" in 1962. Till was mentioned in the 1968 autobiography of Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi, in which she states she first learned to hate during the fall of 1955.[87] Audre Lorde's poem "Afterimages" (1981) focuses on the perspective of a black woman thinking of Carolyn Bryant 24 years after the murder and trial, and Bebe Moore Campbell's 1992 novel Your Blues Ain't Like Mine centers on the events of Till's death. Toni Morrison's only play as of 2010 is Dreaming Emmett (1986), a feminist look at the roles of men and women in black society, which she was inspired to write while considering "time through the eyes of one person who could come back to life and seek vengeance".[88] Emmylou Harris includes a song called "My Name is Emmett Till" on her 2011 album, Hard Bargain. According to scholar Christopher Mettress, Till is often reconfigured in literature as a specter that haunts the white people of Mississippi, causing them to question their involvement in evil, or silence about injustice.[86]


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