Christopher R. Waldrep: Why It Matters How Many People Murdered Emmett Till

Roundup: Talking About History

Christopher R. Waldrep, a professor of history and the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Endowed Chair in history at San Francisco State University, in the San Francisco Chronicle (May 13, 2004):

The Justice Department announced this week that it intends to work with Mississippi authorities in re-investigating the murder of Emmett Till, hoping to identify suspects other than the two who were identified in 1955 and who have since died. One can hope that if any of Till's killers still walk free, they can at long last be brought to justice.

A few elderly individuals involved in a murder committed nearly half a century ago in an obscure part of rural Mississippi would hardly attract the FBI's attention in these perilous times if the crime had not achieved great symbolic and historical importance. It matters a great deal to us how many people killed Emmett Till.

Not long after their acquittal by an all-white Mississippi jury, journalist William Bradford Huie paid Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for their story. Bryant and Milam recounted how they drove Milam's new pickup to Moses Wright's house around 2 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, 1955. Milam and Bryant told Huie that they alone went into Wright's home and abducted young Till and killed him.

Unlike most earlier killings of blacks by white racists, numbering in the thousands, the murder of Emmett Till attracted journalists from around the world. Till's death became one of the most famous lynchings in American history. This story of an innocent boy, killed by white thugs after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, outraged America and spurred the drive for civil rights. Just three months after the trial, the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott began.

The problem is that the facts Huie published do not correlate with any known definition of the word"lynching." This is why the Huie story, focused on just two killers, seems so unsatisfactory. Nineteenth-century newspapers excused mob killings if they had community support. Journalists explained that a horrendous crime, occurring when the courts functioned badly or not at all, could drive a neighborhood wild, making mob violence inevitable and understandable. When journalists first began applying the word"lynching" to mob killings of African Americans, white newspaper editors so completely understood lynching as carried out by the community that they insisted that African Americans actually joined mobs themselves. One thing seemed clear: to be called a"lynching" by the press, a killing had to have community approval.

In the 20th century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People found it had to define lynching as it lobbied Congress to pass a law against such mobbing. In 1921, the NAACP proposed setting the size of the mob at no fewer than five. By the 1930s, three seemed a better number. On Dec. 11, 1940, when the NAACP met with other lynching opponents, those attending agreed that for a killing to qualify as a lynching, the killers had to act under pretext of service to justice, their race or tradition.

In his interview with Huie, Milam did his best to meet the requirement of service to justice, race or tradition. In what now seems a sickening spectacle, Milam pleaded with white people through Huie, claiming he had killed Till,"just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand" against agitation for civil rights.

But the historical image of a lynching as a spectacle, not merely sanctioned by the larger community but actually carried out by a large group, is so set in our culture that if only two people killed Till, it might almost seem that he does not deserve his martyr status. Or so the continued insistence that there must be more suspects would imply.

Given the long history of lynching as a word, for the killing of Emmett Till to properly stand as a symbol for all racial violence, Mississippi white people had to have acted in numbers greater than two. That is the meaning of lynching. Traveling back 49 years to construct a murder case will be like passing through a frustrating hall of mirrors, one populated with dead and lying witnesses. Yet we are driven to the journey by the history of lynching, its meaning and the symbolic importance Emmett Till has assumed in the American historical imagination.

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David T. Beito - 5/13/2004

We address many of the issues raised by Professor Waldrep here:

David T. Beito
Department of History
University of Alabama