The crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it. Citizens who drink from the “Whites Only” fountain in the courthouse breathe much easier now that the two fair-skinned half brothers, aged twenty-four and thirty-six, have been acquitted of the murder of a fourteen-year-old Negro boy. The streets are quiet, Chicago is once more a mythical name, and everyone here “knows his place.”
When the people first heard that there was national, even worldwide, publicity coming to Sumner and the murder trial, they wondered why the incident had caused such a stir. At the lunch recess on the first day of the trial a county health-office worker who had stopped by to watch the excitement asked a visiting reporter where he was from, and shook his head when the answer was New York City.
“New York, Chicago, everywhere,” he said. “I never heard of making such a mountain of a molehill.”
The feeling that it all was a plot against the South was the most accepted explanation, and when Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam ambled into court September 19 they were armed not only with their wives, baby boys, and cigars, but the challenge of Delta whites to the interference of the outside world. The issue for the local public was not that a visiting Negro boy named Emmett Louis Till had been dragged from his bed and identified later as a body that was pulled from the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton-gin fan tied around its neck with barbed wire—that issue was lost when people learned that the world was clamoring to have something done about it. The question of “nigger-killing” was coupled with the threat to the racial traditions of the South, and storekeepers set out jars on their counters for contributions to aid the defense of the accused murderers.
Donations to the fund disqualified several prospective jurors, as prosecutors Gerald Chatham, district attorney, and Robert B. Smith, special assistant attorney general appointed to the case, probed carefully at every candidate for a day and a half before accepting the jury. Judge Curtis Swango, a tall, quietly commanding man, combined order with a maximum of freedom in the court, and when he had Cokes brought in for the jury it seemed as appropriate a courtroom procedure as pounding the gavel.
While the jury selections went on inside, the crowds outside the building grew—and were automatically segregated. Aging, shaggy-cheeked Anglo-Saxons with crumpled straw hats lined a long wooden bench. Negroes gathered across the way at the base of the Confederate statue inscribed to “the cause that never failed.” The Negro numbers increased, but not with the Negroes of Sumner. A red-necked deputy whose pearl-handled pistol showed beneath the tail of his sport shirt explained that the “dressed-up” Negroes were strangers. “Ninety-five percent of them’s not ours,” he said. “Ours is out picking cotton and tending to their own business.”
“Beyond the shadow of a doubt,” she said, “that was my boy’s body.”
Moses Wright, a Negro locally known as a good man who tends to his business, was the state’s first witness. He pressed his back against the witness chair and spoke out loud and clear as he told about the night two white men came to his house and asked for “the boy from Chicago—the one that did the talking at Money”; and how the big, balding man came in with a pistol and a flashlight and left with Emmett Till. Mose fumbled several times under cross-examination but he never lost his straightforward attitude or lowered his head. He still of course was “old man Mose” and “Uncle Mose” to both defense and prosecution, but none of that detracted from the dignity of how he told his story.
The rest of the week he was seen around the courthouse lawn with his pink-banded hat tilted back on his head, his blue pants pulled up high on a clean white shirt by yellow-and-brown suspenders. He walked through the Negro section of the lawn with his hands in his pockets and his chin held up with the air of a man who has done what there was to do and could never be touched by doubt that he should have done anything less than that.
When Mose Wright’s niece, Mrs. Mamie Bradley, took the stand it was obvious as soon as she answered a question that she didn’t fit the minstrel-show stereotype that most of Mississippi’s white folks cherish. Nevertheless, the lawyers of both sides were careful always to address her as “Mamie,” which was probably wise for the favor of the jury, since a Clarksdale, Mississippi, radio station referred to her as “Mrs. Bradley” on a news broadcast and spent the next hour answering calls of protest.
J. J. (“Si”) Breland, dean of the defense attorneys, questioned her while he remained in his seat, occasionally slicing his hands through the air in the quick, rigid motions he exhibited throughout the trial. She answered intelligently, steadily, slightly turning her head to one side as she listened to questions, replying with a slow, distinct emphasis. “Beyond the shadow of a doubt,” she said, “that was my boy’s body.”
At lunchtime recess the crowds around the soft drink and sandwich concession debated her identification of her son, and many were relieved in the afternoon session when Tallahatchie County Sheriff H. C. Strider squeezed his 270 pounds in the witness chair and said the only thing he could tell about the body that had come from the river was that it was human.
A small town in the Delta is to an outsider an eerie place, especially during a murder trial.
Sheriff Strider, who owns fifteen hundred acres of cotton land, farms it with thirty-five Negro families, has the grocery store and filling station on it, and operates a cotton-dusting concern with three airplanes, is split in his commitments in a way that might qualify him as the Charles E. Wilson of Tallahatchie County. What’s good for his feudal plantation is good for the county, and his dual role as law-enforcement officer and witness for the defense evidently didn’t seem contradictory to him. His commitments were clear enough that prosecution lawyers once sent two state policemen to search a county jail for one Leroy “Too-Tight” Collins, a key witness for the prosecution who was missing (and never found).
There were still missing witnesses, dark, whispered rumors of fleeing men who saw the crime committed, when Gerald Chatham tugged the sleeves of his shirt and walked over to the jury Friday morning to make the summation of the case for the prosecution. Both he and Smith, who is a former FBI man, had followed every search of the Mississippi witnesses, but only two of the four who were named—Willie Reed and Mandy Brandley—were found. The time had come for Chatham to work with what he had.
In a matter of minutes from the time he started talking, the atmosphere of the court was charged with tension as he raised his arm toward the ceiling and shouted that “the first words offered in testimony here were dripping with the blood of Emmett Till.” The green plaster walls of the room had grown darker from the clouds of the rain that was coming outside, as Chatham went on with the tones, the gestures, the conviction of an evangelist, asserting that “the guilty flee where no man pursueth,” and retelling the story of the boy’s abduction in the dark of night.
J. W. Milam, the bald, strapping man who leaned forward in his seat during most of the sessions with his mouth twisted in the start of a smile, was looking at a newspaper. Roy Bryant lit a cigar. With his eyebrows raised and his head tilted back, he might have been a star college fullback smoking in front of the coach during season and asking with his eyes, “So what?”
“Pretty hot today, huh, J. W.?” Milam craned his neck up, surveyed the reporter in silence a moment, and said, “Hot enough to make a man feel mean.”
When Chatham was finished, C. Sidney Carlton, the able attorney for the defense whose large, fleshy face was usually close to where the cameras were clicking, poured a paper cup of water from the green pitcher on the judge’s desk, and opened his summation. He spoke well, as usual, but after Chatham’s oratory he was doomed to anticlimax. There had been a brief rain and the sun was out with more heat than ever. Defense Attorney J. W. Kellum, speaking briefly after Carlton before the noon recess, had the odds of discomfort against his chances of stirring the jury, but he did his best with the warning that the jurors’ forefathers would turn in their graves at a guilty verdict. And then he asked what was undoubtedly the question of the week. If Roy and J. W. are convicted of murder, he said, “where under the shining sun is the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
The question was a fitting prelude to the harangue of John Whitten, the defense’s last speaker. The clean-shaven pale young man in a neatly pressed suit and white shirt that defied perspiration announced his faith that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men in this jury has the courage to set these men free.”
Mr. Whitten went on to declare he had an answer for the state’s most convincing evidence—the ring of Emmett Till that was found on the body discovered in the Tallahatchie River. The body really wasn’t Emmett Till, Whitten said, and the ring might possibly have been planted on it by the agents of a sinister group that is trying to destroy the social order of the South and “widen the gap which has appeared between the white and colored people in the United States.”
He didn’t name any group, but the fondly nurtured local rumor that the whole Till affair was a plot on the part of the NAACP made naming unnecessary.
It took the twelve jurors an hour and seven minutes to return the verdict that would evidently help close the gap between the white and colored races in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Tradition, honor, God, and country were preserved in a package deal with the lives of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam.
Reporters climbed tables and chairs to get a glimpse of the acquitted defendants, and the newspaper, magazine, and television cameras were aimed at the smiles of their wives and families in a flashing, buzzing finale. Then the agents of the outside world disappeared in a rush to make their deadlines, and the stale, cluttered courtroom was finally empty of everything but mashed-out cigarettes, crushed paper cups, and a few of the canvas spectator chairs that the American Legion had sold across the street for two dollars each.
The trial week won’t be forgotten here soon, and glimpses of the “foreign” Negroes who don’t till cotton fields but hold positions as lawyers, doctors, and congressmen have surely left a deep and uncomfortable mark on the whites of the Delta. But at least for the present, life is good again. Funds are being raised for separate-and-equal school facilities in Tallahatchie County and on Wednesdays at lunchtime four of the five defense attorneys join with the other Rotarians of Sumner in a club song about the glad day “When men are one.”
Going to the Mississippi Delta on your first trip to the South is roughly comparable to drinking a straight fifth of tequila the first time you ever try hard liquor; it is too undiluted an experience and is liable simply to pulverize your senses. The scenery itself is heavy and oppressive, like the moss that hangs from the cypress trees by the Tallahatchie River where it slides through the town of Sumner. The air is heavy, dusty, and hot, and even the silence has a thickness about it—like a kind of taut skin—that is suddenly broken with a shock by the crack and fizz of a Coke being opened.
The widow who ran Sumner’s only “hotel,” a dilapidated mansion converted to boardinghouse, sat in a wicker chair next to the giant red Coke machine, fanning herself and grinning with nervous curiosity at me and the many other strangers who had so mysteriously and quickly alighted beneath her roof to fill the place for perhaps the first and last time. The house seemed to buckle and bend, as if bowing beneath the weight of the guests and the atmosphere. The town square was built to stare at the old courthouse in the center, where crowds gathered and silently—without need of signs or orders—segregated themselves on the lawn. On one side red-necks with faces shaggy from lack of a shave sat on benches, on the other side Negroes sat on the burnt grass beneath a Confederate statue dedicated to “the cause that never failed.” Deputies wearing gun belts ambled in and out, as if it were the set of a TV western, and frisked everyone who entered the courtroom. One of our band of outsiders from a New York daily stood on the courthouse steps, surveyed the scene, and said, “Faulkner is just a reporter.”
Faulkner’s home town of Oxford was not far away, and one day a young man who lived there and went to an Ivy League college came to watch the trial and talk with the visiting Eastern reporters (as one cosmopolitan to another). He was friendly and concerned, apologetic not only for the tragedy we’d come to describe to the outside world but also for the exotic impression of the neighborhood that his town’s distinguished resident had given in so many books. The young man suggested that the famous portrayal was not to be trusted; he confided in a low tone, as if sympathetically but sadly explaining the otherwise unaccountable action of a dangerous local gossip: “Mr. Faulkner, he drinks a good deal.”
My immediate reaction was not a suspicion or question, but only the thought: I don’t blame him.
As the trial wore on, I felt that whatever drinking the Yoknapatawpha chronicler did had not impaired his vision. Nearly all his characters seemed to be there in one guise or another, and if there were quite a few delegates from the Snopes clan, there were also prosecuting attorney Gerald Chatham and Judge Curtis Swango, both native Mississippians whose devotion throughout this occasion was to justice above states’ rights and local customs, and the two of them seemed proof enough that their country’s great historian had told us the truth when he gave us Gavin Stevens and Colonel Sartoris as well as Clem Snopes.
Watching the Judge conduct with dignity a proceeding that would otherwise have been nothing more than the grotesque midway sideshow that most of the facts and participants contributed to making it, offered one more of many demonstrations I had seen from childhood that there is nothing so gracious as a genuine Southern gentleman (a rare and distinguished phenomenon, not to be confused with the “country-club” Dixiecrat). And yet in Sumner I saw abundant evidence of the matching dark side to that shining coin; if there is nothing so gracious as a truly gracious Southerner, there is nothing so mean as a truly mean one. The one phrase I always will remember from the trial is one that did not go down in the official transcript, or in my report. It was uttered as an aside by J. W. Milam, one of the two men accused of the murder of the Negro boy. Milam was the big man who, with his buddy Roy Bryant, had been identified by Emmett Till’s uncle as the two who came in the night with a flashlight and demanded “the boy from Chicago” and took him away with a warning to “Uncle Mose” Wright that if he remembered them he wouldn’t live to see another year. J. W. Milam, a combat veteran with the build of an ox, sat one day after a recess in his shirt sleeves slowly pulverizing a wad of chewing gum. A visiting reporter walked by and remarked, “Pretty hot today, huh, J. W.?” Milam craned his neck up, surveyed the reporter in silence a moment, and then said with measured words, “Hot enough to make a man feel mean.” He may have been explaining why we all were there; the weather seems a better reason than any of the more elaborate ones found by sociologists to account for the kind of raw violence that flourishes along with magnolias in that oppressive climate.
I experienced a personal touch of that meanness during my stay, a reverse of the hospitality legend and just as typical as that happier habit. I wanted to go to a small town not far away where one of the witnesses was being held—and being observed by visiting reporters. I asked a couple of the deputies how I could get there, and they looked me up and down and asked where I was from. I uttered the black-magic words New York, and they looked at one another and nodded and said they were going over to the town themselves and would take me. They took me several miles out of Sumner, then slowed the car and came to a stop in a place that anyone could readily recognize as the exact geographical center of Nowhere. One of them leaned back, and smiling, said they had changed their plans and would have to leave me off right there. I said “Thanks a lot” with what I imagined was cutting sarcasm, and they zoomed off to leave me in a tent of dust. I loosened my tie and walked back to Sumner, aware on the road of white eyes from black faces, of shoeless children and screeching chickens, of people living in crude shelters like lean-tos; by the time I got back to the hotel lobby I approached the Coke machine as if it were a magic instrument from a strange modern world.
A small town in the Delta is to an outsider an eerie place, especially during a murder trial. You lie in bed at night listening to the hounds baying, and during the day you see more men wearing guns than you ordinarily do outside of your television screen. I am not ashamed to confess that I was afraid, and yet I find it embarrassing to confess that even in spite of being taken for a “ride” by those deputies, my principal fear, the one haunting me day and night, was not the terrible vengeance of the pistol-packing natives and their obedient bloodhounds, but rather, the wrathful judgment of New York editors. This happened to be my first magazine assignment and I was terrified I would botch it.
I have never quite lost this kind of fear while on a story, especially when it is out of town, and the more important the story the more uneasy I become—though bourbon and newly made friends who are willing to sip and talk always help. I suspected I was alone in this neurotic reaction, and once confessed these anxiety attacks on assignments to a friend. The friend, who is one of the magazine reporters I most, respect, listened to me with a faint smile and then calmly said, “Yes; when I’m on a big story I sometimes imagine my head falling off and rolling down the street.” Perhaps the two of us are alone, but I suspect that even our healthiest colleagues have sometimes experienced similar, if less bizarre, tremors of this nature.
[Photo Credit: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library]