Bryant and Till Observations
Carolyn Bryant Observations
As I was working on the previous article, some things came to mind. I read numerous articles, including William Bradford Huie’s Look article of his interviews of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam and his more in-depth article Wolf Whistle, in which he referred to his interview of Emmett Till’s mother and other family members, including the cousins who were present at the store. I also purchased and read Mamie Till-Mobley’s memoir as well as numerous internet articles, all of which were written by people who seemed to be convinced that Carolyn Bryant was somehow responsible for Emmett’s death. I also read the 2006 FBI report of their investigation, an investigation that led nowhere. Several things stood out.
Let me start off by saying that Mrs. Mobley said some things in her book – which was written over a half century after he son was murdered – that she represented as fact when they were actually rumor. For instance, she stated that a young college student from Tallahatchie County wrote in his thesis about the Till murder that an attorney told him that the two Negroes Willy Reed claimed to have seen were jailed by the sheriff in another town to prevent them from testifying. (The student practically quoted W.B Huie’s Wolf Whistle article.) This was rumor, not a fact as the FBI report of the investigation in 2005-2006 reveals. In fact, the two men in question said that they were in Clarksdale, Mississippi on a job at the time of the trial. They both denied that they were involved in the abduction and murder in any way. She says that when she saw Emmett’s body, he only had two teeth. When his remains were disinterred and autopsied, he was found to have all of his teeth but one. She also claimed he’d been hit in the head with a hatchet.
Gin fan used to weight Till's body
Nothing I have read takes into consideration that Till’s body was being dragged along in the current of the river for three miles and more than three days while being tied to a heavy gin fan to which he had been secured by a length of barbed wire wrapped around his neck. The photo above shows the fan with a link of barbed wire at the top. They most likely tied him to the fan with the back of his head against the fan and the wire under his chin which meant his head was touching the fan. His head would have been banging against that metal fan the entire time. The fan and his body would have bounced off of rocks, logs and other debris as it journeyed the three miles from which it was thrown in the river to the snag where it was found. Much of the battering of his head may have been caused by banging against the fan. The constant pounding could have fractured his skull, which was found with part of it broken away. Milam admitted that he pistol-whipped Till, but he also said he had no intention of killing him. In fact, the pistol was probably loaded – unless he loaded it after he beat him – and it would have been dangerous to have used the pistol with the barrel pointed toward himself.
One thing that struck me is Simeon Wright’s claim that Emmett did nothing wrong yet at the same time he said that one of his older brothers or cousins sent him in the store to get Emmett. If Emmett was doing nothing wrong and hadn’t gone into the store on a dare, why the necessity to get him out of the store and away from Carolyn Bryant? He stated that they wanted to get him out of the store BEFORE he said something. She was used to waiting on Negroes. Why the urgency? Wright claimed Emmett was in the store for less than a minute. How did he know? Surely he wasn’t timing him! One of the women who was outside claimed that she could see in the store and that Emmett didn’t do anything but put his money in Carolyn Bryant’s hand rather than putting it on the counter. She – and others – have claimed that Negroes didn’t put money in the hands of white women but laid it on the counter to avoid touching them. (They could have simply dropped the coins into the clerk’s outstretched hand. Actually, I believe putting money on a counter in front of a clerk rather than in their hand is normal for most people. Thinking back, I realized that’s how I do it.) Did she actually see Emmett grab Carolyn Bryant’s hand as she testified? I don’t know. What I do know is that country stores in the 1950s didn’t have the best lighting. My uncle operated a country store when I was a boy in the fifties and there were several stores around where I grew up. The lighting in the stores was usually a few bare bulbs suspended from the ceiling; they didn’t have fluorescent lighting. The incident occurred sometime after dark, around 7:30-8:00. I’ve never been to Money, Mississippi and never looked in the Bryant store but I doubt that anyone outside would have been able to see much of what was going on inside. They would have to have been just outside the window. If there was a group clustered outside, the question would be why? There must have been a reason they were watching Emmett.
Moses Wright testified that he heard “a lighter voice” outside. His son claimed he later said it was a woman’s voice. Now, there are men with high-pitched voices not unlike a woman. He didn’t claim to have heard a woman’s voice when he testified. Carolyn Bryant Donham has denied being present for the abduction. She told FBI agents that her husband and his brother brought the boy to the store and she told them it wasn’t him. Milam told Huie that Wright himself said he’d “go get him” after they announced they were looking for the boy “who did the talking in Money.” They claimed Emmett Till admitted to being the one. There is an explanation for the contradiction in Mrs. Donham’s account – she was interviewed over a half century after the event. Stories change over the years for a number of reasons. I heard a Federal prosecutor claim in a TV documentary I watched just last night – unrelated to the Till case – that “traumatic” events are etched in our brains. This is not true. I’ve been involved in a number of traumatic events over the years, including some in which I feared for my life. I don’t remember every detail. My recollections are like snapshots, not a video. I have to fill in the blanks to remember what happened.)
Then there is the issue of Curtis Jones, Till’s cousin, who traveled to Mississippi from Chicago at some point after Emmett went down with Preacher Wright. He later became a Chicago police officer. Jones was not a blood relative of Till. His mother was Moses Wright’s oldest daughter from a previous marriage. Curtis was interviewed for a PBS documentary. He stated that he was at the store, that Emmett had been showing a photograph of a white girl and that some of the blacks in front of the store dared him to go inside and ask Carolyn Bryant out. After the documentary came out, some of the Wrights claimed that Jones wasn’t there, that he hadn’t come down from Chicago yet. They convinced him to change his story and he recanted and apologized to Mamie Mobley for making the claim. Was Jones there? Who knows? He said he was then he said he wasn’t – after his relatives told him he wasn’t. Like most of those involved in the incident, he’s dead – he passed away in 2000, three years before Mamie Mobley.
In her book, Mrs. Mobley insinuates that Emmett had patronized the store numerous times before the incident. She claims she talked to him on the phone and he asked her for money, claiming he’d spent the money he took with him, at least $25.00, on candy and treats for his cousins and their friends. She claims he spent the money in Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Store. Carolyn Bryant testified that she’d never seen him before. Now, since he was from Chicago and the blacks in town knew he was from Chicago, it’s doubtful she wouldn’t have recognized him if she had seen him before. (Contrary to the oft-repeated claim that to whites all blacks look alike, whites can identify individual blacks by their facial and physical features just as we identify anyone else.) There were also two other stores in town as well as others in the other small towns around the area. Preacher Wright, who young Emmett was visiting, lived 2.8 miles east of Money. While Money was the closest community to Wright’s home, there were other communities around and the city of Greenwood was less than 10 miles away. The Wrights had a car. I suspect her claim that he spent his money in Bryant’s store is disinformation. Witnesses related to FBI investigators that Emmett had never been in the store before that night.
I also question her claim that she received letters from Emmett before he was abducted. She claims it took three days for a letter to reach her in Chicago from Mississippi. I’m not so sure about that. I grew up about 100 miles northeast of Memphis. I had a lot of pen pals all over Tennessee (mostly girls) including some in Memphis. My recollection is that it took five days for a letter to reach me from Memphis. Unless it is local, mail travels between numerous post offices during its journey from where it was mailed to its destination. Mail from Money would have probably gone to Greenwood where it would have been sorted then sent somewhere else then somewhere else before it was loaded on a train to Chicago where the process would have been repeated. Emmett arrived in Mississippi late on Saturday, August 20. The train trip was fifteen hours and he’d left that morning, meaning he didn’t get to his uncle’s house until early Sunday. The incident in the store occurred on Wednesday, the 24th then he was taken from Wright’s home early on Sunday the 28th. If Mrs. Mobley received mail from him and talked to him as she said she did, it would have to have been AFTER the incident at Bryant’s store, yet she makes no mention of him saying anything about it. There is no doubt that the cousins were concerned about his actions. They later claimed it was the whistle but Bryant and Milam made no mention of a whistle when they went to Wright’s house, they said they wanted the “fat boy from Chicago” who “did the talking down at Money.” Allegedly, Emmett’s cousins wanted him to leave for Chicago immediately and he wanted to go himself but his (great)aunt talked him out of it. She thought it would blow over. One would think he would have told his mother about the incident. Instead, she claimed he was having a ball and wanted to stay in Mississippi. Something does not compute.
It is commonly asserted by civil rights activists that whites hate blacks, especially in the South. I don’t think this is true. The blacks – and whites – that were lynched weren’t lynched because of their skin color, they were lynched because they were believed to have done something, usually murder or rape. Civil rights activists refer to any killing of a black by a white or whites as a “lynching” when, in fact, a lynching is an extra-judicial punishment, meaning it is carried out outside the law. While there is no doubt that some whites, not only in the South but throughout the country – and even the world – considered blacks to be a lower form of humanity, they didn’t hate them. The teaching of evolution started in the 1920s and many came to believe that blacks were further down the evolutionary ladder than whites. But hating blacks? I don’t think so. Not as a general rule. On the other hand, whites in the North resented Southern blacks moving up and competing with them in the job market. Civil rights activists maintain that Emmett Till was killed because of hatred of blacks. No, he was killed because he violated a taboo then, according to W.B. Huie, made the mistake of causing a man who had killed many and had no compunction against killing another to become enraged. Although it was alleged that J.W. Milam had killed Negroes before, the allegation wasn’t true – he’d killed Germans during the war. Huie said in Wolf Whistle that he received thousands of letters from black activists after the Look article. One in particular was from a black woman he knew and respected who chastised him because his article negated their claim that Till was killed because he was black and had whistled at a white woman. Milam told Huie he held no hatred for blacks, that he actually liked them. He maintained that Till had pushed him over a line.
J.W. Milam told Huie that Moses Wright remarked that “he ain’t got good sense” when he and Roy Bryant went to his house to get Emmett Till. Mamie Till-Mobley said in her book that Emmett was a breech birth and that his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. It was also wrapped around his body – she mentions his knee. The doctor had to use forceps to get him out. She commented that his head was misshapen. She also said the doctors told her the boy would have to be institutionalized for the rest of his life, but she doesn’t expound on it. Was the doctor concerned that he had brain damage? Nowhere in her book does she indicate that Emmett had any kind of mental problems but, then again, the book is basically an ode to Emmett Till. If the umbilical cord is wrapped too tightly, it may cut off blood flow and cause damage to the brain. In Emmett’s case, not only was the umbilical cord around him, he had changed positions in the womb and was coming out butt-first, a breech birth. Did Emmett Till suffer some mild brain damage that affected his rationality? Does that explain why J.M. Milam didn’t think the boy was afraid of him, and that he didn’t seem to realize he was going to be killed?
Then there is Willy Reed. Emmett Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River in Tallahatchie County. It was assumed that he had been killed in Tallahatchie County, which gave the county jurisdiction over the case. However, it appears that certain black leaders in the area, particularly Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a black surgeon who lived in Mound Bayou, an all-black city some distance north of the area, wanted the case moved to Sunflower County. Howard believed that a Sunflower jury would be more likely to convict Bryant and Milam for Till’s murder. Another of the Milam/Bryant brothers, Leslie Milam, managed the Sturdivant plantation in Sunflower County. Desperate to find witnesses for the prosecution, Howard located 18-year-old Willy Reed who claimed he had seen J.W. Bryant’s green and white 1955 Chevrolet pickup with four whites in the front and three blacks in the back. He claimed one of the blacks was Emmett Till based on a photograph of Till that he saw in the newspaper. He also claimed that he had passed by Leslie Milam’s barn and had heard sounds that he took to be of someone being beaten. He claimed he saw J.W. Milam come out of the barn and get a drink of water from a well. Howard found a couple of other witnesses, all connected to Reed, who claimed to have seen the truck. Law enforcement from Sunflower County, possibly accompanied by Dr. T.R.M. Howard, searched the barn for evidence that Till had been beaten and murdered there but found none.
There is no way to determine if Reed’s testimony was true. There is no doubt that Howard promised to get him out of Mississippi and move him to Chicago if he testified. Howard apparently believed Reed’s testimony would cause the judge to declare a mistrial, which would have opened the door for Sunflower County to prosecute the two men. For some reason the judge did not declare a mistrial even though Reed’s testimony indicated that the murder had taken place in Sunflower, not Tallahatchie. Perhaps the judge did not believe Reed, who knows? Reed did leave Mississippi and moved to Chicago where he suffered a nervous breakdown soon after he arrived. Dr. Howard also left Mississippi and moved to Chicago where he got involved in politics as a Republican. He founded a hospital. After he recovered from his nervous breakdown, Willy Reed became a medical orderly. Incidentally, Mamie Till-Mobley doubted Willy’s testimony.
The autopsy also revealed something interesting. Pieces of metal were found in the head that investigators determined was 7 ½ or 8 shot – birdshot. The small shot – 00 buckshot is the largest – was loaded into light-loaded shotgun shells for hunting quail and doves. FBI investigators found that Remington Arms had produced .45-calibers for an Air Force contract. The Air Force wanted to put the cartridges in survival kits for crash survivors to shoot birds. Whether the cartridges were sold on the civilian market is not discussed in the FBI report. They would have been useful for killing rats in barns and warehouses. (I shot a lot of .22 cartridges loaded with birdshot at pests, mostly English sparrows. The sparrows nested under the eaves of our house and brought in mites.) That Milam had loaded his pistols with birdshot is an indication he did not intend to kill Till. The tiny shot are too small to do serious harm to anything but birds and small animals at normal ranges. A shot at close range, however, has the power to penetrate the skull while the load is still together and under the maximum power of the charge, as evidently happened with Emmett Till. Had Milam intended to kill the boy who “done the talking down at Money,” he’d have loaded his gun with cartridges containing bullets rather than shot. He evidently didn’t tell Milam and his attorney that his gun was loaded with birdshot.
The autopsy also revealed that rumors that had been spread were not true. One “witness” claimed there were as many as a dozen white spectators who sat on benches in Leslie Milam’s barn. He claimed they had drilled holes in Till’s skull with a brace and bit; he claimed other injuries. The autopsy revealed no such wounds. There seems to have been a lot of rumors spread around the Money area and possibly in Chicago as well, rumors such as the claim that the two blacks who worked for Milam and were alleged to have taken part in the crime were held by the sheriff in the Charleston, Mississippi jail. It was just that, a rumor, but Mamie Mobley repeated it in her book as fact.
I don’t recall when I first heard about Emmett Till. I was almost ten when he was killed. My family took the Memphis Commercial Appeal and I read it cover-to-cover. We also took Look as well as Life, as did my grandparents (or my aunt or uncle who lived in their house.) I don’t recall any discussion of the case by my parents or my uncles. My parents were sympathetic to the plight of blacks at the time (they changed their views, or my father did, after the civil rights movement became more prevalent.) One of my closest friends growing up was ostracized by some of our classmates for making some comments about how blacks were mistreated. They called her a nigger-lover. I was mortified when some of my classmates insulted some blacks I knew from the window of our school bus. They were about nine at the time. They had older brothers and sisters. I’m sure they got it from them. I don’t remember any discussion of Emmett Till at school, none at all. It was a long time ago.