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May 20, 2005

"There he is," not "Thar he."

A flurry of news reports have appeared in the last two weeks relating to the Emmett Till case. First, the FBI announced that it will exhume the body and then that it had found a copy of the long lost trial transcript .

The transcript calls further into question one version of a statement made by Mose Wright (Emmett's great uncle) at the trial. The transcript reports that Wright answered"There he is; that's the man" when asked to identify one of the men who kidnapped his great nephew.

Nearly all of the news stories at the time, including those of Clark Porteous of the Memphis Press Scimitar, said it was"There he is." Many of these sources are reproduced in Christopher Metress's excellent collection and guide to the case, The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative.

For the past decade or more, however, the most popular rendition of Wright's testimony among journalists and historians is that he said"Thar he." As far as can be determined, the earliest recorded claim that Wright said “Thar he” was from an interview by James Hicks for Eyes on the Prize. While Hicks, a black reporter who covered the case, was a credible source, it should be noted that his original news story in 1955, like those of the other reporters, had “There he is.” Moreover, his interview for Eyes on the Prize was more than thirty years after the event.

There are other reasons to doubt that Wright said “Thar he.” In a filmed interview in 1955, he comes across as well-spoken and careful with his words, not as some kind of illiterate. Also, Wright apparently had a local reputation as a relatively well educated man. Simeon Wright, Wright's son, who was also at the trial, strongly rejects the Hicks' version.

Perhaps the more interesting question is why “Thar he” caught on so quickly among journalists and historians. Simeon Wright has put his finger on part of the answer:"I guess it was more colorful and stereotypical to make him sound like an illiterate country farmer. But that wasn’t the case."

On a related matter, nothing in the last two weeks has changed my original view, shared by my co-author Linda Royster Beito (as stated here), that the investigation, though it might produce some useful information, will probably not result in an indictment or reveal conspirators who are still alive.

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