Mississippi Trial, 1955


When Roy Bryant was told of what had happened, he aggressively questioned several young black men who entered the store. That evening, Bryant, with a black man named J. W. Washington, approached a young black man walking along a road. Bryant ordered Washington to seize the young man, put him in the back of a pickup truck, and took him to be identified by a companion of Carolyn's who had witnessed the episode with Till. Friends or parents vouched for the young men in Bryant's store, and Carolyn's companion denied that the young man Bryant and Washington seized was the one who had accosted her. Somehow, Bryant learned that the young man in the incident was from Chicago and was staying with Mose Wright.[note 2] Several witnesses overheard Bryant and his 36-year-old half-brother John William "J. W." Milam discussing taking Till from his house.[31]

In the early morning hours—between 2:00 am and 3:30 am—on August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, Milam, and another man (who may have been black) drove to Mose Wright's house. Milam was armed with a pistol and a flashlight. He asked Wright if he had three boys in the house from Chicago. Till shared a bed with another cousin; there were eight people in the small two-bedroom cabin. Milam asked Wright to take them to "the nigger who did the talking". When they asked Till if it was him, he replied, "Yeah", for which they threatened to shoot him and told him to get dressed.[12][32] The men threatened to kill Wright if he reported what he had seen. Till's great-aunt offered the men money, but they did not respond.

They put Till in the back of a pickup truck and drove to a barn at the Clint Shurden Plantation in Drew. Till was pistol-whipped and placed in the bed of the pickup truck again and covered with a tarpaulin. Throughout the course of the night, Bryant, Milam, and witnesses recall their being in several locations with Till. According to some witnesses, they took Till to a shed behind Milam's home in the nearby town of Glendora, where they beat him again and tried to decide what to do. Witnesses recall between two and four white men and two and four black men who were either in or surrounding the pickup truck where Till was seated. Others passed by Milam's shed to the sounds of someone being beaten. Accounts differ as to when Till was shot; either in Milam's shed or by the Tallahatchie River. The group drove with him in the truck to Bryant's store, where several people noticed blood pooling in the truck bed. Bryant explained he killed a deer, and in one instance showed the body to a black man who questioned him, saying "that's what happens to smart niggers".[33]

Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'

J. W. Milam, Look magazine, 1956[12]

In an interview with William Bradford Huie published in Look magazine in 1956, Bryant and Milam said they intended to beat Till and throw him off an embankment into the river to frighten him. They told Huie that while they were beating Till, however, he called them bastards, declared he was as good as they, and in the past had sexual encounters with white women. They put Till in the back of their truck, drove to a cotton gin to take a 70-pound (32 kg) fan—the only time they admitted to being worried, thinking that by this time in early daylight they would be spotted and accused of stealing—and drove for several miles along the river looking for a place to dispose of Till. They shot him by the river and weighted his body with the fan.[12][note 3]

Mose Wright stayed on his front porch for twenty minutes waiting for Till to return. He did not go back to bed. He and another man went into Money, got gasoline, and drove around trying to find Till. Unsuccessful, they returned home by 8:00 am.[34] After hearing from Wright that he would not call the police because he feared for his life, Curtis Jones placed a call to the Leflore County sheriff and another to his mother in Chicago. Distraught, she called Mamie Till Bradley.[35] Wright and his wife also drove to Sumner, where Elizabeth Wright's brother contacted the sheriff.[36]

Bryant and Milam were questioned by Leflore County sheriff George Smith. They admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle's yard but claimed they had released him the same night in front of Bryant's store. Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping.[37] Word got out that Till was missing, and soon Medgar Evers, Mississippi state field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Amzie Moore, head of the Bolivar County chapter, became involved, disguising themselves as cotton pickers and going into the cotton fields in search of any information that might help find Till.[38]

Three days after his abduction, Till's swollen and disfigured body was found by two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River. His head was very badly damaged. He had been shot above the right ear, an eye was dislodged from the socket, there was evidence that he had been beaten on the back and the hips, and his body weighted to the fan blade, which was fastened around his neck with barbed wire. He was nude, but wearing a silver ring with the initials "L. T." and "May 25, 1943" carved in it.[39][note 4]

Confusion about Till's whereabouts and a positive identification of the body retrieved from the river compounded issues in the case that eventually influenced the trial. Hodding Carter in the Delta Democrat-Times, a local Mississippi newspaper, reported that Till may have been hidden by his relatives or perhaps returned to Chicago for his safety.[40] The body's face was unrecognizable due to trauma and having been submerged in water. Mose Wright was called to the river and identified Till. The silver ring Till wore was removed and returned to Wright, and further passed to the district attorney. Stories from witnesses, both black and white, conflict about whether the ring was on Till's body and who knew he had worn it previously.[41]

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