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November 27, 2006 Updated 3/12/07
The brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 galvanized the fledgling civil rights movement like no other killing of a black by white racists before it. After an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Till's two killers, the case festered for 49 years until the U.S. Justice Department reopened it in 2004. In late February of 2007, a Lefore County, Miss. grand jury declined to issue any new indictments, effectively bringing the case to an abrupt and ignoble end.
by Denise Noe
Mississippi Is Not Chicago
People in the Chicago neighborhood where Emmett "Bobo" Till lived knew the 14-year-old as an attention-getter. Despite the stutter left by a bout with polio in his infancy, he had a confident, even cocky, personality and relished pranks and jokes. In an interview that appeared in the PBS documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till, childhood acquaintance Richard Heard recalled how Emmett entertained his schoolmates one day in gym: "I remember Emmett raising his shirt up to about his navel and making his belly roll, waves of fat rolling and it just broke us up. The whole gym went crazy."
In early August 1955, Emmett's great-uncle, Moses "Preacher" Wright, traveled to Chicago from Mississippi and asked Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, if her son could spend the summer with his family. Wright also invited two of Emmett's Chicago cousins to come on the trip.
Mamie agreed to let Emmett go but worried about how he would behave in the South. Although Chicago was racially segregated, its racism was not of the Jim Crow stripe.
Chris Crowe in Getting Away with Murder quotes Mamie saying, "Emmett was born and raised in Chicago, so he didn't know how to be humble to white people. I warned him before he came down here; I told him to be very careful how he spoke and to say 'yes sir' and 'no ma'am' and not to hesitate to humble himself if he had to get down on his knees . . . I was trying to really pound into him that Mississippi was not Chicago . . . I explained to Emmett that if he met a white woman, he should step off the street, lower his head, and not look up. And he thought that was the silliest thing he'd ever heard."
Mamie may have been especially protective of Emmett because he was her only child and she had long been raising him on her own. She had divorced his father, Louis Till, in 1943, when Emmett was only 2. In 1945, she received word that Louis Till, a private in the military serving overseas, had died. Sent along with the letter informing her of his death was one of his prized possessions: a signet ring with his initials, "L.T." Mamie gave that ring to Emmett right before she kissed him goodbye for his visit to Mississippi.
Emmett and his cousins arrived in Money, a hamlet in the Mississippi Delta with only 55 residents on Sunday, Aug. 21, 1955.
Three days later, on a Wednesday evening, Emmett and his cousins were in church listening to Moses Wright preach. Restless and bored, the boys made an early exit from the church, took Wright's car, and drove to Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market.
The Murder of Emmett Till describes Bryant's as a store that sold candy and provisions, primarily to blacks. Roy Bryant, 24, and Carolyn Bryant, 21, a white couple, owned and operated it. As the documentary states, "The Bryants lived with their two boys in cramped rooms behind the store." The Bryants owned neither a car nor a TV. They were unable to eke out a living from the store alone so Roy frequently took trucking jobs.
On this particular day, Roy was on the road, hauling a load of shrimp from New Orleans to Brownsville, Tex. According to "The Shocking Story of An Approved Killing in Mississippi" by William Bradford Huie that was published in Look magazine in January 1956, when Roy was absent, Carolyn and their sons did not spend the night in the rooms behind the store. Juanita Milam, her sister-in-law, would come to the store during the day to stay with Carolyn until the store closed at which time her husband would pick both women up, together with their kids, and drive them to his home.
Outside of Bryant's, Emmett and his cousins joined a group of young blacks already gathered there. Emmett was soon bragging about his romantic success with white women and flashing photos of white women, he had in his wallet, bragging that they were his "girlfriends." According to Crowe, Emmett and his cousins had cut photos of white women out of magazines and put them in the compartments of their wallets for precisely this purpose.
Crowe continues, "one of the boys pointed at the store and challenged Emmett: 'You talkin' mighty big, Bo. There's a pretty little white woman in there in the sto'. Since you Chicago cats know so much about white girls, let's see you go in there and get a date with her."
Emmett went into Bryant's while the others crowded around its window to watch the interaction. The account of what happened next is pieced together from the courtroom testimony of Carolyn Bryant and the recollections of those who watched through the window.
Carolyn Bryant claimed the teenager requested two cents worth of gum and that, when she held her hand out for the payment, he grabbed her hand and brashly asked, "How about a date, baby?" She jerked her hand away and headed to the apartment at the back of the store to summon her sister-in-law. According to Carolyn Bryant's account, before she could get to that apartment, the boy stepped in front of her and put his hands around her waist, saying, "You needn't be afraid of me, baby, I've been with white women before."
The store's door flew open and another black male rushed inside, grabbed Emmett and hustled him out the door, but before they left, Emmett said, "Bye, baby." Carolyn left the store to get a gun from her sister-in-law's car. According to Emmett's friends as well as Carolyn Bryant, Emmett let out a wolf whistle – a whistle that would turn out to be the most infamous in the history of civil rights. Then he and his friends piled into the pickup and sped off.
Stephen J. Whitfield in A Death in the Delta writes that Carolyn Bryant confided the story of the incident to her sister-in-law. Both women agreed to keep quiet because they feared what their husbands might do if they knew about it.
While Carolyn Bryant and Juanita Milam kept silent, Emmett's amazed young friends did not. Soon just about everyone in Money had heard about it.
When Roy Bryant came home from his Texas trip on Saturday, a black customer at his store told him of the encounter that was the talk of the town. Bryant was infuriated. He asked his wife about it. According to Crowe, she confirmed the truth of it but begged him to let it pass.
Bryant learned that Emmett was staying at his great-uncle's home and decided to confront the boy. Lacking a car, he asked his 36-year-old balding half brother, J.W. "Big" Milam, Juanita's husband, if he could borrow one. When Bryant explained what he wanted it for, Milam insisted on accompanying him. Each man brought along a .45 Colt revolver.
According to both Crowe and Whitfield, a loud call at the door awakened Moses Wright in the wee hours that Sunday morning. Wright went to the door to find Milam and Bryant standing there. Milam carried his pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other. He demanded to see "the boy who done the talking at Money."
Wright pleaded with them to leave the boy alone, saying, "He ain't got good sense. He was raised up yonder. He didn't know what he was doing." Wright's wife Elizabeth joined her husband and said they would "pay you gentlemen for the damages," but Milam brushed aside her desperate offer.
All accounts say that before leaving the home, Milam asked Wright how old he was. Wright said he was 64. "If you tell anybody about this, you won't live to get 65," Milam warned.
Wright later testified that the boy was "marched" to a car where someone was asked if he was the "right boy" and a woman's voice answered, "It is."
One of Emmett's cousins, Curtis Jones, rushed to a neighbor's house to use the phone to call the county sheriff to report the abduction. Then he called his own mother in Chicago who in turn called Emmett's mother. Mamie Till-Mobley phoned Chicago police and asked them to ask their Mississippi counterparts to find her son's kidnappers. Crowe records her as recalling, "I began calling every newspaper I could think of . . . I had expected no response from the newspapers, but to my surprise, everyone I called responded instantly."
Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping the following day, a Monday. They admitted forcing the boy away from his home but claimed they let him go after Carolyn Bryant said he was not the one who had offended her. The two men stayed in jail while police searched for Emmett.
Crowe writes that on the following Wednesday, Aug. 31, 17-year-old Robert Hodges was fishing on the Tallahatchie River when he was shocked by what looked like a human body. He contacted the Tallahatchie County sheriff's office.
Fearing it was the body of the missing child, officers took Moses Wright to the river with them. A ferocious beating and days underwater had rendered the corpse's face unrecognizable, but it had a ring bearing the inscription "May 25, 1943, L.T." Crowe wrote, "Mose Wright recognized it as the ring of Louis Till, Emmett's father, a ring that Emmett had worn."
Murder charges were filed against the jailed Bryant and Milam.
Emmett's body was shipped to Chicago for burial. The mutilated body was displayed under glass at the Roberts Temple Church of God. As Mamie Till related in an interview shown in The Murder of Emmett Till, she wanted to "let the people see what I've seen . . . everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till." About 50,000 African-Americans massed into the churchto look at the dead child. Many burst into tears; some fainted. The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, and Jet, a national black magazine,ran photographs of Emmett's disfigured face.
Much of the country viewed this slaying as symbolic of racism's evil. As Whitfield wrote, an outraged Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, observed, "It would appear that the state of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children."
Journalist Rose Jourdain recalled for The Murder of Emmett Till, "I think black people's reaction was so visceral. Everybody knew we were under attack and that attack was symbolized by the attack on a 14-year-old boy."
Whitfield records that while some white Southerners were horrified that their region had been the cradle for this dreadful homicide, others were swept by a wave of sympathy for men they regarded as defending the "Southern way of life." Many derided the "outside agitators" they blamed for the burgeoning civil rights movement as well as the prosecution of Bryant and Milam.
The Trial in Sumner
Bryant and Milam were tried in the city of Sumner, the county seat of Tallahatchie County. As Whitfield notes, there were only five attorneys practicing law in Sumner, but sympathy for the accused men was so strong among whites that all five attorneys agreed to defend the impoverished defendants pro bono. Leading the defense team was J. J. Breland, whom Crowe quotes as saying that he and his co-attorneys wanted to "let the North know that we are not going to put up with Northern Negroes 'stepping over the line.'"
Crowe further quotes Breland as telling The Greenwood Commonwealth, "The state has got to prove three things: That the boy was murdered. That it happened in the second judicial district of Tallahatchie County. That Bryant and Milam did it."
D.A. Gerald Chatham was the lead prosecutor. Mississippi Assistant Atty. Gen. Robert B. Smith assisted him.
The judge was Curtis M. Swango. An all-white, all-male jury was impaneled.
The trial opened Sept. 19, 1955.
Dozens of journalists descended on Sumner, including reporters from the Daily Worker, The Nation, the African-American Amsterdam News, and the New York Post. Whitfield reports that their courtroom seating was assigned according to race. White reporters sat close to the judge and jury while their black counterparts, along with Emmett's mother, sat at a distant bridge table.
U.S. Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. of Michigan came to the trial to observe it. Whitfield records how James Hicks, a reporter for the Amsterdam News and the National Negro Press Association headed for the bench to secure Rep. Diggs a place in the courtroom. Whitfield elaborates that a deputy stopped him and asked him his mission. The first deputy called a second to whom he said, "This nigger said there's a nigger outside who says he's a Congressman."
"A nigger Congressman?" the second deputy asked incredulously before bursting into laughter. The deputies summoned their boss, Sheriff Clarence Strider, who told Hicks, "I'll bring him in here, but I'm going to sit him at you niggers' table."
The Murder of Emmett Till reports that Sheriff Strider habitually greeted the journalists and Rep. Diggs throughout the trial with a cheery, "Hi, niggers."
The state's first witness was Moses Wright. Whitfield writes that he told the court how two men had come to his house early on that fateful Sunday. One said, "This is Mr. Bryant" and told Wright they wanted to see "the boy who done that talk at Money."
Asked to identify the two men he had seen, Wright pointed to Milam, then to Bryant and said, "Thar he."
Crowe writes that in cross-examination, defense attorney Sidney Carlton suggested it unlikely Wright could positively identify men he had seen only in darkness.
Sheriff George Smith of nearby Greenwood testified that Bryant confessed to the kidnapping. Undertaker Chester Miller and Officer C.A. Stickland testified to the horrendous state of Emmett's body when it was recovered.
Perhaps the most moving testimony was that of Mamie Till-Mobley. Chatham asked if she was certain the horribly mutilated body was that of her son. She replied, "Yes, sir, positively." She described painstakingly examining his feet, hands, teeth, gums, and hairline. "A mother knows her child," she said. "I just looked at it very carefully, and I was able to find out that it was my son, Emmett Louis Till." Crowe records the following courtroom exchange.
[Chatham] asked her if she could identify the body in the photo. She looked at it and nodded. "That's my son, my son, Emmett Till." Her voice broke, and she took off her glasses to wipe away tears.
"Are you sure?" Chatham asked.
"If I thought it wasn't my boy, I would be out looking for him now."
Mamie Till recalled for The Murder of Emmett Till how the defense suggested she conspired in an elaborate scheme to pretend her son had been murdered. She was asked if it was not true that she had plotted with the NAACP to dig up a body, throw it in the river, and then pretend it was Emmett for political purposes. "Isn't it true," a defense attorney prodded, "that your son is in Detroit, Michigan with his grandfather right now?"
Willie Reed, 19, a sharecropper's son, testified that on that Sunday, he saw four white men and two black men drive to a barn on property owned by Milam's brother Leslie. Crowe recorded that he claimed, "The two black men rode in the back of the pickup with Emmett Till. When the truck stopped, the men carried Emmett into the barn from where Willie later heard screams and 'licks and hollerings.'"
On cross-examination, Reed admitted that he had not seen Milam in the truck.
According to Whitfield, Reed's aunt, Amanda Bradley, "also testified to hearing the beating from the shed."
Whitfield further writes that Lefore County Sheriff George Smith testified that Bryant had confessed to kidnapping Emmett but claimed he had released him alive and unharmed. Deputy Sheriff John Edd Cothran testified to a similar confession from Milam.
Then the defense began. It called Carolyn Bryant to the stand. Whitfield states that "Over the objections of the defense," Judge Swango sent the jury out while she testified. The judge ruled that he believed the store incident occurred too long before the abduction for it to be legally admissible. Carolyn Bryant told the story recounted earlier in this article to the judge, attorneys, spectators and reporters.
With the jury back, the defense called Sheriff H.C. Strider to the stand. According to Crowe, "Strider testified that based on his previous experience, the body found in the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 31 had been missing for at least 10 to 20 days. He said the corpse was so decomposed that it was impossible for him to recognize the victim or even determine if the body was black or white."
An African-American reporter noted that it was odd that if the sheriff was unsure of the victim's race, why had he asked a black undertaker to treat the body.
Another doctor and an embalmer both testified that the victim had been dead for over a week before his body was found.
In their summations before the jury, both the prosecution and the defense appealed to the jurors as fellow segregationists. Prosecutor Smith urged the jury to prove wrong those who thought Mississippi's racial policies meant it condoned murder. Smith said, "I tell you, gentlemen, that Emmett Till was entitled to his constitutional rights; he was entitled to his liberty, and once we go taking away his rights, then we are on the defensive and we can't complain what people do to us. Those people, outside agitators, want J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant turned loose."
Defense attorney John Whitten argued, "There are people in the United States who want to destroy the custom and way of life of Southern white people and Southern colored people. . . . They would not be above putting a rotting, stinking body in the river in the hope it would be identified as Emmett Till."
The trial was over in five days. On Sept. 23, 1955, the jury – after 67 minutes of deliberations – came back with verdicts of not guilty for both defendants. (One juror told a journalist that the jury would not have taken even that long had the jurors not interrupted their deliberations to drink soda pop.) A photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of the verdict shows the defendants and their wives smiling and hugging; Roy Bryant is chomping on a recently lit cigar.
Kidnapping charges were still pending but a grand jury refused to return indictments. On Nov. 9. Milam and Bryant were set free.
According to The Murder of Emmett Till, a European newspaper commented that, "the life of a Negro in Mississippi is not worth a whistle." The program continued that African-Americans packed meeting rooms to hear Mamie Till's story. The grieving mother told an assembled crowd: "What I saw was a shame before God and man and the way the jury chose to believe the ridiculous stories of the defense attorneys. I just can't go into detail to tell you the silly things, the stupid things that were brought up as probabilities and they swallowed it like a fish swallows a hook, just anything, any excuse to acquit these two men." Whitfield writes that Roy Wilkins denounced the trial as "a travesty, a farce, a joke as far as it demonstrated the American principle of trial by jury to secure a just verdict."
The injustice galvanized the civil rights movement. Crowe notes that Mamie Till and Moses Wright had spoken to more than 250,000 people by the end of 1955. Just over three months after Emmett Till's death, seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, leading to Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous Montgomery bus boycott. According to Whitfield, Parks "acknowledged the impact of the Till case in arousing blacks to indignation." The success of the Montgomery bus boycott led to similar and similarly successful protests in other major cities.
Milam and Bryant Confess
All sources report that Milam and Bryant were ostracized after the trial. Blacks boycotted the small stores that the extended Milam and Bryant families owned in Money, Glendora, and Sharkey so that all three quickly went out of business. Even segregationist whites, who supported Bryant and Milam during the trial, shunned them after it. Their inability to get jobs led them to grant interviews for $4,000 to reporter William Bradford Huie in which they purported to tell the truth of Till's death. (Constitutional protection against double jeopardy meant they could not be prosecuted again for the slaying. Attorneys for Milam and Bryant were in the room when they gave the interviews to Huie.) The January 1955 Look magazine published Huie's "The Shocking Story of An Approved Killing in Mississippi."
The confessions should be taken as proof that Milam and Bryant got away with murder but cannot be assumed to be completely accurate. Huie recalled, "Milam did most of the talking . . . Milam was a bit more articulate than Bryant was. Bryant did some talking, particularly when they talked about what they were told had happened in the store."
Milam told Huie that when they rousted Emmett Till out of bed on the night of Saturday, Aug. 15, 1955 their intention was to "whip him . . . and scare some sense into him." Milam continued that they planned to drive him to a bluff over the Big River that Milam considered "the scariest place in the Delta." The "whipping" planned was no spanking but a pistol-whipping with the threat of being thrown down the bluff and into the Big River.
They drove about 75 miles but Milam could not find that bluff in the darkness. He claimed that they also could not intimidate their captive. "We were never able to scare him," Milam said. "They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless."
After driving to the tool house in back of the Milam home, Milam and Bryant told Huie that they took Emmett in there and began pistol whipping him. According to his killers, the 14-year-old boy remained defiant even after vicious blows to his head from a .45. "You bastards, I'm not afraid of you," Emmett supposedly told them. "I'm as good as you are. I've 'had' white women. My grandmother was a white woman."
Milam claimed he felt he had to murder Emmett. "I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice," he said. "As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place . . . And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin.'" Milam decided to murder the 14-year-old and sink his body into the Tallahatchie River. Needing a weight to drag the body down, he remembered a big discarded fan at a gin in which he had recently installed new equipment.
The captors ordered the badly bruised Emmett back into the truck. They drove to the Progressive Ginning Company. "When we got to that gin, it was daylight," Milam recalled, "and I was worried for the first time. Somebody might see us and accuse us of stealing the fan."
They claimed in the interview with Huie that they forced Emmett, who was strong for his age, to pick up the 75-pound fan and load it into the truck. Then they drove to the Tallahatchie River and stopped beside a riverbank. Milam ordered Emmett to pick up the fan. The child staggered under its weight.
Milam ordered Emmett to take off his clothes. It was a little before 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. Milam claimed the following exchange took place.
Milam: "You still as good as I am?"
Milam: "You still 'had' white women?"
With that, Milam shot Emmett in the head. He fell to the ground. Milam and Bryant tied the fan to his neck and rolled him into the water.
Parts of this account defy credibility. Anyone who was pulled out of bed in the middle of the night by menacing people with guns would have to be disoriented and terrified and it is not believable that a teenager, however spunky, would have shown no fear under the circumstances. Rather, it is more likely that Milam and Bryant described their victim as fearless and defiant because they believed such an attitude would justify the murder in the eyes of their peers.
They do not mention anyone else with them but it is likely there were others.
Moses Wright testified he heard a woman in the car identify Emmett. Many observers believe this must have been Carolyn Bryant. Willie Reed testified to seeing four white men and two black men in the truck in which Emmett was driven to his death.
After the trial, bitterly ironic information about the father Emmett had never known, Louis Till, came to light. It was already widely reported that Louis Till had been a soldier in World War II at the time of his death. An Oct. 10, 1955 editorial in Life magazine wrote that the elder Till "was killed in France fighting for the American proposition that all men are equal."
Army Private Louis Till did not die honorably in combat. The American military executed him for raping two Italian women and murdering a third.
Some saw a chance to visit the sins of the father upon the son. On Oct. 15, 1955, next to a story titled "Till's Dad Raped 2 Women, Murdered a Third in Italy," the Jackson Daily New ran an editorial accusing the NAACP of raising "fabulous sums of money" based in part on the claim that Private Till had died fighting for his country. The editorial went on to tell "the Negro organizations . . . to stop peddling manufactured stories to the nation about Mississippi and about their own people."
Filmmakers Open the Closed Case
The Till case continued to send reverberations through society as years passed and the civil rights movement gained momentum. However, there was a persistent, gnawing sense of frustration on the part of Mamie Till-Mobley and others because justice had been thwarted.
The story of Emmett Till retained the ability to traumatize decades after the fact. According to an article entitled "Documentarian Keith Beauchamp Reveals the Truth about the Lynching of Emmett Till," Beauchamp was a 10-year-old African-American boy living in Baton Rouge, La., when he first learned of Emmett Till. It was 26 years after the acquittal of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam. Beauchamp happened to be leafing through old copies of Jet when the famous photograph of Emmett's mutilated remains arrested his gaze. The sight of a boy only four years older than himself murdered in such a grisly manner left Beauchamp badly shaken.
"I'm looking at this angelic face of a 14-year-old," he recalled, "and I'm looking at this horrific face beside it that looked like a monster, and I could not believe that a little boy could be brutally murdered for just a whistle."
As Beauchamp grew up, he was frequently warned not to let what had happened to Emmett Till happen to him. He knew other young African- American men who received similar warnings. In an article called "Murder He Wrote," Sara Faith Alterman quotes Beauchamp as stating, "The Emmett Till case is very deeply embedded in the African-American male psyche; it was something that was mentioned to me all the time, to teach me that racism still existed in America."
Alterman writes that Beauchamp has said that the horror suffered by Till was brought home to him in a most personal way when he went out to a nightclub with friends one evening in 1989 and danced with a white woman. A bouncer accosted him. Then another man dragged Beauchamp outside and started roughing him up. The stranger was an undercover police officer and arrested Beauchamp. In "Documentarian," Beauchamp recalled that at the station, "They tied me to a chair, pistol-whipped me, all kind of stuff." He was asked for his identification. Beauchamp told Alterman that he was released only when the detective on duty realized that he a close friend of the son of a major with the sheriff's department.
As a young adult, Beauchamp studied criminal justice at Southern University, but left before getting a degree to work with New York friends who owned a production company. He worked on music videos, and then was offered a chance to produce his own feature film.
The Emmett Till case was his natural subject. Beauchamp devoted nine years to researching what would become The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, a documentary released by THINKFilm and Till Freedom Come Productions in 2005. Alterman writes that Beauchamp started his research in a library where he assiduously read microfilm of archived articles connected to the case. What he found astonished and dismayed him. The pieces named witnesses that the authorities had never even bothered to question and possible participants who had never been charged. Alterman quotes Beauchamp, "It was very strange that you have all of this overwhelming evidence that was just there, and nobody ever took the time to go back and research all of that stuff."
Beauchamp was especially impressed by a series of articles published by James Hicks in 1955 in the Cleveland Call and Post. In these articles, later gathered by Christopher Metress in The Lynching Of Emmett Till, Hicks recounts his own investigation of the Till case while the trial was in progress. Both Moses Wright and Willie Reed testified to seeing black men in the truck with Emmett Till.
Hicks was determined to discover who those men were and believed he did. However, he discloses, "I did not write it in Mississippi for fear of bodily harm to myself, and to my colleagues." Early on in his investigation, a clearly frightened African-American woman offered a tip. She told him that a young man called "Too Tight" was in the truck and that he had since disappeared from the area. She suggested he go to "the only colored dance hall in town" to learn Too Tight's real name. Hicks followed her suggestion and visited a tavern called King's.
At King's, Hicks writes that he posed as "a drifting guy who had dropped in for a beer." He asked, "Whatever happened to my boy Too Tight?" The manager of King's stopped and stared. A group of men playing cards dropped them and turned to look at Hicks. Hicks "grabbed [the manager] by the arm and moved over in a direction away from [the card players] and nearer the kitchen." The manager asked what he wanted with Too Tight and Hicks replied that Too Tight was a friend of his. The manager told him that Too Tight was in jail.
When Hicks inquired as to what Too Tight was jailed for, the manager referred him to a woman seated nearby. Hicks asked the woman for a dance. As they twirled around, they exchanged pleasantries, then Hicks asked about Too Tight. She confirmed that Too Tight was in jail, but claimed she did not know why. She told Hicks that Too Tight had been residing with her and her boyfriend, Henry Lee Loggins, with whom she was cohabiting. She said Loggins was also in jail but did not know what he was charged with either, then added: "Both of them worked for one of those white men who killed that boy from Chicago and they came and got both of them." She said Too Tight's real name was Leroy Collins.
In researching the Till case, Beauchamp met Mamie Till-Mobley. The 24-year-old filmmaker and the then 74-year-old bereaved mother forged a strong friendship. In an article Beauchamp wrote called "The Murder of Emmett Louis Till: The Spark that Started the Civil Rights Movement," he stated, "Our relationship would soon blossom and sculpt me into the man that I have become today. Her charisma, wisdom and perseverance will always be a part of me."
According to "Who Killed Emmett Till?" an article by Rebecca Segall and David Holmberg in The Nation, Feb. 3, 2003 "Special Assistant to the Atty. Gen. Jonathan Compretta agreed to have a conference call on Jan. 6  with Beauchamp, Mamie Till-Mobley and Alvin Sykes, president of the Justice Campaign of America, as a possible first step [to re-opening the case]. Unfortunately, Mamie Till-Mobley died that very day of heart failure, on the eve of a visit to Atlanta for an appearance with Beauchamp."
Beauchamp traveled to Mississippi in his quest for the truth. According to Alterman, "He tracked down the people he had read about who allegedly witnessed the crime, but found they were reluctant to speak out. Many were African-Americans from the Delta who had kept silent for decades, afraid of meeting a similar persecution if they revealed what they knew about the people who brutally murdered a 14-year-old boy."
Eventually, Beauchamp was able to persuade several witnesses to speak frankly with him and even to tell their stories on camera for The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. Almost half of a century after the events, some witnesses apparently remained fearful. Ruthie Mae Crawford, a cousin of Emmett who saw the incident in Bryant's store from the window, allowed her name to be used and spoke on camera but only in shadow.
Mamie Till-Mobley, interviewed in The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, asserts that several people helped murder her son: "I know that Milam and Bryant had help when they murdered Emmett Till." She also stated that an African-American man, Leroy "Too Tight" Collins, was seen on the truck restraining Emmett.
Another interviewee who appears on camera in shadow, "Willie," backs up her assertion about Collins, claiming to have seen him and another man washing out blood from the truck. Willie says they told him the blood was from a deer.
"Justice, Delayed But Not Denied," a magazine article published at the CBS News website on Oct. 21, 2004, reports, "Beauchamp said that after reviewing thousands of old documents and talking to numerous witnesses with knowledge of the crime, he believes that at least 14 people may have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of Till and that five of them are still alive." According to an email from Beauchamp to this writer, Leroy "Too Tight" Collins died several years ago.
"Justice, Delayed But Not Denied" elaborates that the current Justice Department investigation focuses primarily on two individuals. One of them is the previously mentioned Henry Lee Loggins, one of two local black men jailed shortly after Till's murder. Now in his 80s and living in Ohio, Loggins vociferously denies he played any part in the crime.
Loggins spoke to Beauchamp and he appears in The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. He claims he was not involved in the killing of Till and knows nothing about it except what he has heard. However, Beauchamp says that witnesses have identified him as the black man on the truck with Collins and that FBI reports state that he was involved in it.
The other person whose role is being closely examined is Carolyn Bryant. According to "Justice, Delayed But Not Denied," she is now in her 70s, goes by the name Carolyn Donham, and lives in Greenville, Miss.
In the commentary section of The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, Beauchamp reveals, "I discovered in the course of my research that a warrant was made out for Carolyn Bryant in 1955 but it was never served." Beauchamp hopes she will be charged and tried because he feels certain that she was present when Emmett was abducted and that she identified him.
Another filmmaker, Gode Davis, who worked on a documentary about lynching, claims to have uncovered information about two other white men who participated in the Till murder. Segall and Holmberg in their article in The Nation about Emmett Till quote Davis as saying that he interviewed a white man who claimed involvement in the crime and that this man knew the identity of another white man who may have been involved. The article also states that Davis said he had contact with a white named Billy Wilson who claimed to have been a witness but not a participant. Beauchamp, however, reports having a copy of a 1970 story in the Mississippi Southern Patriot in which a man named Billy Wilson was said "by blacks to brag about being one of the killers of Emmett Till in 1955 in Money, Miss."
Following a 22-month FBI investigation, The U.S. Justice Department re-opened the Emmet Till case on May 10, 2004 by turning over more than 8,000 pages of information about the case to Joyce Chiles, the district attorney for the 4th Circuit Court District of Mississippi. In 2007, Chiles sought a manslaughter charge against 73-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the widow of one of the two confessed killers. On Feb. 26, a grand jury in Leflore County declined to issue any new indictments. The Till case, for all intents and purposes, is now officially closed.
Solving Cold Cases
Cold cases are notoriously difficult to solve. Memories and witnesses become extremely vulnerable to cross-examination. Principals die. Physical evidence gets misplaced or thrown out.
A few major cold cases have been successfully prosecuted. One of the most significant was the June 12, 1963 murder of prominent civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who had been publicly investigating the murder of Emmett Till at the time he was shot. In the interview with Mamie Till-Mobley shown in The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, she says Evers attended the trial every day, looked for witnesses, and escorted Moses Wright to and from the courtroom.
Ku Klux Klansman Byron De La Beckwith was arrested for the murder of Medgar Evers on June 23, 1963. He was tried twice before all-white juries that deadlocked, allowing him to go free.
Thirty years after his second trial, De La Beckwith was brought to trial for a third time in 1994. New evidence about statements he had made bragging about the murder was entered into this trial before a racially mixed jury that convicted him. He died in prison in 2001.
This intriguing story of belated justice was made into a movie released in 1996 and called The Ghosts of Mississippi that starred Alec Baldwin as Bobby DeLaughter, the prosecutor, James Woods as De La Beckwith, and Whoopi Goldberg as Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers.
According to "'Justice can't just forget' civil rights era killings [.pdf]," an article by Bob Kemper published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sept. 13, 2006, interest in several unsolved cases from the civil rights era has been renewed. The article discusses a few of them. One is that of Georgia couples George and Mae Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcom who were believed to have been pulled from a car on July 25, 1946 by a white mob and then beaten to death. Their murders were in apparent retaliation for Roger Malcom's having cut a white farmer with a knife a few days earlier. Another case mentioned by Kemper is that of Jimmy Lee Jackson who was fatally shot by police during a voter registration demonstration in Marion, Ala.
Kemper notes, "Congress is weighing whether to create special cold-case units at the Justice Department and FBI that, with a $5 million annual budget, would exclusively focus on unsolved killings from the civil rights era."
While there are major problems with prosecuting cold cases, there are advantages to pressing those specifically of the civil rights era. As Kemper writes, "Once-terrified witnesses and relatives of suspects are increasingly willing to reveal what they know."
None of those cases is more notorious than that of Emmett Till whose death struck a chord with so many people, including the martyred Medgar Evers. Decades after Evers's murder, a measure of justice was meted out to his murderer. No such justice awaits Emmett Till.
Beauchamp, Keith, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.
Crowe, Chris, Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case, Phyllis Fogelman Books, New York, 2003.
Huie, William Bradford, Look, "The Shocking Story of An Approved Killing In Mississippi," January 1956.
Kemper, Bob, "'Justice can't just forget' civil rights era killings [.pdf]," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sept. 13, 2006.
PBS Home Video, The Murder of Emmett Till.
Till-Mobley, Mamie, and Benson, Christopher, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, Random House, New York, 2003.
Whitfield, Stephen J., A Death In The Delta: The Story of Emmett Till, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1988.