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Covering a Mississippi Murder Trial:
The Emmett Till Lynching
By Craig Flournoy
Assistant Professor, Southern Methodist University
For submission to the 2005 AEJMC Convention, History Division.
Dr. Craig Flournoy
SMU, Division of Journalism
PO Box 750113
Dallas, TX 75275
FAX (214) 768-3307
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On August 28, 1955, two white men appeared at the home of Mose
Wright, a 64-year-old black sharecropper who lived outside the small
northwest Mississippi town of Money. The men, Roy Bryant and J.W.
Milam, were armed with .45 Colt automatic pistols. They demanded that
Wright turn over Emmett Till, his 14-year-old nephew from Chicago who
was spending a few weeks in Mississippi. Bryant and Milam, who were
half-brothers, were livid. Bryant's wife Carolyn claimed that four
days earlier, Till had asked her for a date. As the men left with
Till, Milam told Wright, "If you know any of us here tonight, then
you will never live to get to be 65."
On August 31, Garland Melton, a Tallahatchie County deputy sheriff,
pulled the decomposed, naked body of a young black man from the
shallow waters of the Tallahatchie River. Someone had administered a
beating so vicious that one side of the skull had been crushed. Above
the right ear was a hole the size of a bullet. A 74-pound cotton gin
fan was tied around the neck with barbed wire. Mamie Till Bradley
later identified the body as that of her only child, Emmett Till.
He was found fifteen miles from where she had been born.
Till was the victim of a lynching, according to the Tuskegee
Institute's definition: "There is no process for establishing the
guilt of the accused; the punishment is death, often accompanied by
torture and other sadistic acts, applied in many instances to persons
charged with offenses which according to the ordinary standards of
civilization are of a minor character." That hardly made Till's
murder different. Over the previous 83 years, more than 3,600 African
Americans were lynched in the South.
But the events that followed the Till lynching were unprecedented.
Bradley put her son's body in an open casket at a Chicago funeral
home on Saturday, September 3. An estimated 10,000 persons paid their
respects that day. Thousands more did so on Sunday and Monday. A
black newspaper in Cleveland polled the nation's major black radio
preachers and found that five of every six of delivered sermons about
the Till case; half wanted something done immediately. On Tuesday,
September 6, a grand jury returned indictments against Milam and
Bryant, charging them with murder and kidnapping. The murder trial
began on September 19 and took five days. It was Mississippi justice.
Ruby Hurley, who had opened the first NAACP office in the Deep South,
attended the legal proceedings. "It was like a circus," she recalled.
"The defendants were sitting up there eating ice-cream cones and
playing with their children in court just like they were out at a picnic."
A jury of twelve white men acquitted the defendants. The verdict was
a sham. In January 1956, Milam and Bryant confessed to the murder in
Look magazine after a magazine writer paid them several thousand
dollars. Milam—who stood six feet, two inches and weighed 235
pounds—said he told Till his murder had a message. " 'Chicago boy,' I
said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down her to stir up
trouble. Goddamn you, I'm going to make an example of you just so
everybody can know how me and my folks stand.' " Because of Look,
that message was delivered to more than three million households.
A few months later, Reader's Digest printed an excerpted version of
the murder confession for its eleven million subscribers.
Scholars have given little attention to the Till case. Only one has
published a full-length historical account. One has published a
study examining media coverage of the murder trial. This is
puzzling given the significance of the case. Activists, officials and
journalists have said the Till murder, particularly the response in
the black community and in the media, marked the emergence of the
civil rights revolution. "Personally, I think this was the
beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in the
twentieth century," said Amzie Moore, a black World War II veteran
who helped spearhead efforts by the NAACP in Mississippi. Robert
Patterson, a white World War II paratrooper who helped found the
first Citizens Council in Mississippi, said the Till case led to
unprecedented media attention. After that, Patterson lamented,
"Whenever something happened to a Negro in the South, it was made a
The Till case as a nexus joining the movement and the media raises
several questions. Why did the trial draw national attention? Which
news organizations provided the best coverage? This researcher
defines best as those publications that quoted a diversity of
sources, provided historical context and identified the central
problem while following accepted journalistic routines such as
attribution and balance. In reporting on the trial, did coverage by
mainstream news organizations change when compared to their coverage
of blacks in previous decades? If so, in what ways?
To explore these questions, this paper will examine coverage by the
white press (Life, Look and New York Times) and the black press (the
Birmingham World and Jet). The researcher chose these publications
for a number of reasons. The New York Times has long been considered
the nation's best newspaper. For example, three opinion polls
taken in 1960 and 1961 asked 335 editors, 331 publishers and 125
journalism professors to rank the best newspapers in the country. The
Times ranked first in all three polls. Life was the nation's
best-selling weekly magazine throughout the 1950s. Its penetration
was enormous: The magazine estimated that in 1955 it reached more
than one-third of all American families. Look also was an
enormously popular magazine. The Birmingham World was headed by one
of the best editors in the country regarding civil rights
coverage. Jet was one of the nation's most influential black
magazines. In addition, Jet publisher John J. Johnson was seeking to
change the longstanding perception of the black press as primarily a
"fighting" press. The paper will focus on those stories that
appeared in these five publications between September 1955 (when the
initial news stories about the murder of Till were published) and January 1956.
Comparing coverage in the black and white press allows for the
testing of some longstanding assumptions. One is that the black press
has long been a "fighting" press more interested in advancing a point
of view than in providing superior news reporting. Another is
that New York Times, as the nation's newspaper of record, provides
the best journalistic coverage of significant events in the twentieth
century, particularly the Civil Rights Movement. Certainly, many
at the Times believed this to be the case. Some of the Times' most
distinguished reporters, including Harrison Salisbury and David
Halberstam, adamantly maintained that John N. Popham, the Times' Deep
South correspondent from 1947 to 1958, did a better job of reporting
on the South in those years than any other journalist in the country.
In Salisbury's view, "To not a few reporters Popham didn't just cover
the South—he was the South." Claude Sitton, Popham's successor,
said, "Popham knew the South's Negro leaders better than they knew
Many of the journalists who covered the Till case said they were
profoundly affected by the experience. "I had covered the courts in
many areas of this country, but the Till case was just unbelievable,"
said James Hicks, a reporter for the Amsterdam News and the Negro
Press Association. "I just didn't get the sense of being in a
courtroom." Dan Wakefield, a reporter for the Nation, was struck
outside the courtroom by the omnipresent shadow of race and violence.
"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 statute dedicated to 'the cause that never failed,' " he
observed. "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.' "
More than 70 reporters and photographers attended. Among the news
organizations represented were the New York Times, the three
television networks, Life, Look, Time, Newsweek and the black press.
Together, they provided unprecedented national coverage of a
lynching. The Times alone published more than three dozen
articles about the murder. Moore was not overstating matters when he
called the Till case "the best advertised lynching that I had ever heard."
The New York Times and the Birmingham World began coverage of the
Till case on the same day—September 2, 1955. One was the pre-eminent
newspaper in the United States; the other was a black semiweekly
whose circulation barely topped 10,000. Their coverage could hardly
have been more different. The first story in the Times appeared on
the next-to-last page of that day's final edition below two other
race-related articles. The Associated Press story carried a
one-column headline: "Mississippi to Sift Negro Boy's Slaying." The
brief story quoted one person, Mississippi Governor Hugh White. The
story reported that in a telegram to the NAACP, White promised that
the "court will do their duty in prosecution." The story also
reported that in a press conference, White denied Till had been
lynched. "This is not a lynching," the Governor said. "It is
straight-out murder." That first story would set a pattern for the
newspaper's coverage of the Till case: The Times would rely on few
sources, provide little context and seldom include interviews with blacks.
Not so with the Birmingham World. Its first story included statements
from five persons—Sheriff George Smith of Leflore County, where Milam
and Bryant kidnapped Till; NAACP head Roy Wilkins; a deputy sheriff;
an NAACP spokesman; and Till's uncle. The front-page story
described the killing as a "murder" but noted an NAACP spokesman said
it "appeared to 'qualify as a lynching.' " Wilkins was incensed. "The
state of Mississippi," he said, "has decided to maintain white
supremacy by murdering children."
The World story also provides important context: It noted that Till
was the third black killed in Mississippi in recent months in a
race-related case. "A Belzoni, Miss. minister, Rev. George Lee was
shot to death because he had urged Negroes to register and vote," the
story said. "And Lamar Smith, another Negro urging Negroes to vote in
the recent Mississippi primary, was killed on the court-house grounds
earlier this month." The Tuskegee Institute, the nation's most
authoritative source on lynching, determined that Lee and Smith, like
Till, were the victims of lynching. Lee's killing appeared to be
carefully planned. As he was driving home late one night, a shot was
fired into one of his tires. When Lee slowed down, another car pulled
alongside him and a shotgun blast tore away much of his face. Ike
Shelton, sheriff in the Delta town of Belzoni, initially said Lee
died in a traffic accident. An FBI autopsy found that lead pellets
had struck Lee, causing a fatal hemorrhage and asphyxiation.
Smith was shot to death while climbing the courthouse steps in
Brookhaven in southwest Mississippi at 10 a.m. on August 13,
1955—just 15 days before Till was kidnapped. Yet, reporters for
the Times never included information on the murders of Lee and Smith
in their coverage of the Till case. In fact, not one of the Times'
stories on the Till case addressed Mississippi's history of lynching.
The Scott Newspaper Syndicate produced the story in the World. W.A.
Scott, a black newspaper publisher based in Atlanta, launched the
syndicate and the Birmingham World in 1931. The World quickly became
the dominant black newspaper in Alabama and remained so for four
decades. The syndicate published newspapers in more than a dozen
cities and from these publications Scott created a black wire
service. The Birmingham World relied on it for much of its
coverage of the Till case.
The Times published eleven Till stories in the weeks leading up to
the trial. The wire services produced seven of these. The second
appeared on September 4 deep inside the newspaper, as did virtually
all the Till stories in the Times. The brief Associated Press
story reported that an estimated 10,000 persons had turned out in
Chicago to pay their respects to the dead boy. The story quoted one
person, an unidentified black minister. In the story's only direct
quote, the minister denied any Communist connections, asserting, "We
don't need Communists." Three days later, another Associated Press
story in the Times reported that a grand jury had indicted Milam and
Bryant on charges of murder and kidnapping. On September 13,
United Press reported that Till's mother had agreed to testify.
The next Till story in the Times carried the byline of John N.
Popham, the newspaper's chief correspondent in the Deep South.
Popham, 45, was unique. Based in Chattanooga, he was the sole
national newspaper correspondent covering the South fulltime. Turner
Catledge, the managing editor of the Times, had assigned Popham the
beat in 1947. The reporter and the editor shared a common
heritage: Popham was born in Virigina; Catledge was a native of
Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their heritage was hardly unique at the
New York Times. Southerners—including Edwin L. James from Irvington,
Virginia and Clifton Daniel from Zebulon, North Carolina as well as
Catledge—held the top editor's position at the Times from 1932 to 1968.
Popham was determined to know the South firsthand. Between 1947 and
1958, he drove 70,000 to 80,000 miles yearly searching for stories.
"I was like a troubadour," he later observed. "I was the one that
roamed from state to state to bring you all the latest stories and
all the little peccadilloes." Popham soon became a legend among
white journalists and southern officials. Both groups regarded him
as the quintessential southern gentleman. His dignified manners
beguiled local politicians. Journalists loved hearing his stories.
Claude Sitton, who succeeded Popham as the chief correspondent for
the Times in the South, said of the man he replaced:
"Eyes popping, eyebrows arching, knuckles cracking—all in furious
concentration on the tale at hand—Popham launches into a soaring
soliloquy. His delivery and Tidewater accent approximate nothing so
much as dollop of sorghum syrup spat from a Gatling gun. This tidal
wave of sound has been known to levitate a listener who, transfixed
by the onrush of oratory, rises up on tip toes, wide-eyed and
open-mouthed. The man comes as close as most to matching the legend,
an elfin figure with a twinkle of Irish con in his eyes."
In the view of many reporters, Popham was without peer in covering
the South. For some, it bordered on hero worship. Halberstam wrote,
"Popham was a true American original: a Virginia aristocrat with a
secret radical heart." That the New York Times was devoting this
much attention to a southern lynching was radical. The content of
Popham's stories was less so.
Popham published three stories prior to the trial. His most extensive
appeared on the eve of the proceedings. He began with the
obvious, noting that a "sordid murder case has focused the glare of
national attention" on race relations in Mississippi. His story
concentrated on the reaction among Southern whites, though he quoted
only Sheriff Smith by name. Initially, Popham wrote, "The white
community of Mississippi reacted to Till's slaying with sincere and
vehement expressions of outrage." But this was followed by a backlash
fed by fears regarding the NAACP. "Public speakers and writers of
letters-to-the-editor have blanketed the state with assertions that
the NAACP is a 'Communist-led organization' that seeks to
'mongrelize' the races," Popham wrote. Thus, two pre-trial stories in
the Times—one by the AP, the other by Popham—raised the specter that
black groups involved in the Till case may have had Communist connections.
The Birmingham World published five stories prior to the murder
trial. None mentions possible Communist involvement, and no evidence
has since emerged that suggests such involvement. The World provided
more detail and more named sources than the Times. In its story on
Till's funeral, the newspaper draws a far clearer picture of the
thousands of mourners who stood inside and outside the Church of God
in Christ on the South side of Chicago. "Services at the church were
carried by loud speakers to the huge group of mourners standing in
the street," it said. "The church, which seats 1,800, was filled to
capacity." Arichbald Carey, a minister and former Chicago
alderman, asked for forebearance. "A mob in Chicago is no better than
a mob in Mississippi," he said. Unlike the Times, the World story
noted the international implications of the case. It concluded by
quoting Bishop Louis Ford, who told mourners, "Our country is
spending millions trying to win the good will of colored people in
Africa and India." But, said Ford, President Eisenhower "ought to be
seeking the good will of colored people in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia."
The World also published several powerful photographs covering the
full cast of characters in the case. On a single day, it ran
eleven—Bryant and Milam staring stolidly ahead at they enter the
courtroom; Carolyn Bryant posing with a winsome smile; Wright lifting
his gaunt face to the camera beneath a straw hat; 270-pound
Tallahatchie County Sheriff H.C. Strider serving a subpoena on Till's
mother, their eyes locked as though in combat. The photos used by
the Times were much like its stories—focused almost exclusively on
whites. During its four-month coverage of the Till case, the
newspaper published three photos of Bryant, two of Milam and one of a
defense attorney. It published one photograph of African Americans
involved in the case.
The World did not publish the most famous photograph in the Till
case. That distinction fell to Jet, a four-year-old magazine that
covered celebrities and civil rights and successfully packaged it
into a pocket-sized weekly. Six months after its inaugural issue,
the black news magazine was selling 300,000 copies weekly. On
September 15, Jet published a four-page spread about the Till murder
that included a half-dozen photographs. One was a close-up of
Till's savaged head that resembled a bloated death mask. Johnson had
reservations about publishing the photograph. But the Jet publisher,
based in Chicago, believed it was his responsibility to include it.
The issue sold out immediately. The photograph of Till had a
profound impact on black Americans. U.S. Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr., a
black congressman from Michigan who attended the trial, recalled
years later, "I think the picture in Jet magazine showing Emmett
Till's mutilation was probably the greatest media product in the last
forty or fifty years, because that picture stimulated a lot of
interest and anger on the part of blacks all over the world."
Popham's final pre-trial story reported that Wright would
testify. The article is significant because it was the only one
in which Popham interviewed and quoted a black American. Even then,
he used a single paraphrased statement—that Wright could identify one
defendant as the man who took Till from his home. Popham added, "The
interview was arranged through one of the defense attorneys, a
development that puzzled observers." Puzzling, of course, because
Wright would be the prosecution's key witness. Popham's decision to
reveal the circumstances of this "interview" is equally puzzling. It
represents the only instance in his ten Till stories in which Popham
explained how he obtained an interview. Equally puzzling was Popham's
failure to quote Wright directly. Standard journalistic practice
calls for a reporter to provide a direct quote to substantiate a
paraphrased statement, particularly in an important matter such as a
Jet's final pre-trial article focused on whether Till's family could
expect justice. As the headline put it: "Will Mississippi
Whitewash the Emmett Till Slaying?" The article includes seven
interviews—five whites and two blacks. It provided context, noting
that Till was the third black murdered in Mississippi in four months
in a race-related case. According to the article, Sheriff Strider
"has repeatedly said he doubts that the body found in the river is
Till's," a contention that would become the defense team's key
argument in seeking acquittal. The article provided balance, noting
that John Cothran, a Leflore County deputy sheriff, and Till's mother
strongly disagreed. Said Bradley, "I've seen the body and what mother
wouldn't know her own son." It concluded with a quote from an
editorial in the Clarksdale Press Register: "Mississippi may as well
burn all its law books and close its courts if the maximum penalty of
the law cannot be secured in this heinous crime."
Because authorities recovered Till's body in Tallahatchie County,
the trial was held in Sumner, the county seat. Blacks accounted for
almost two-thirds of the 30,000 residents of Tallahatchie County.
But the twelve jurors and one alternate were all white men—ten
farmers, a carpenter, an insurance salesman and a retired
carpenter. They lived in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, a fertile
plain encompassing more than 7,000 square miles and bounded by the
Mississippi River on the west, a line of bluffs on the east and
stretching from just below Memphis to Vicksburg.
Ever since white planters and black slaves had settled the area, the
Delta had encapsulated extremes--white wealth and black poverty,
white violence and black suffering, white power and black
survival. For the historian Rupert Vance, the Delta embodied the
Old South more than 60 years after the end of the Civil War. "Nowhere
are antebellum conditions so nearly preserved than in the Yazoo
Delta," he wrote in 1932.
The novelist Richard Wright, born near Natchez in 1908, spent part of
one summer as a boy in the Delta and was astonished by the ignorance
he found among black children. "I had been pitying myself for not
having books to read," he wrote, "and now I saw children who had
never read a book." Simeon Booker, who covered the Till trial for
Jet, found most blacks in the Delta ruled by lethargy and fear.
The novelist Robert Penn Warren visited the Delta one year after the
Till trial and came away with a deep sense of foreboding. Warren
described it as "sad and baleful," an area of "ruined, gaunt, classic
clay hills, with the creek bottoms throttled long since in pink
sand." Yet the Delta was no cultural wasteland. It produced more
early blues performers—including Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters—than
any other area of the country. Richard Ford, a writer who lived
in the Delta for a time, said it was Mississippi in miniature. "What
the South is to the rest of the country, the Delta is to the
Mississippi," said Ford. "It is the South's South."
The atmosphere of the Till murder trial bordered on the surreal, a
mixture of palpable tension and comic opera. Jet best captured it in
a five-page spread entitled "The Strange Trial of the Till
Kidnappers." This was not surprising. Johnson assigned three
black reporters and a white photographer to cover the trial, almost
certainly the only inter-racial team to report on the case. The
article described Judge Curtis Swango sipping a Coke during jury
selection, while two spectators drank beer. Other spectators ate box
lunches during testimony. Milam's children crawled about restlessly.
According to the story, "One of them played a solitary game, waving
his toy water pistol at a sheriff and shouting 'boom, boom, boom.'
Another time, little Harvey Milam amused himself by slipping a rope
around his brother's neck and tugging at it." The Jet article
included seven photographs. One showed the "Jim Crow press table"
where black reporters and photographers were forced to sit. As
Sheriff Strider passed by the table, the story reported, he "liked to
demonstrate his friendliness with Negro reporters covering the trial
by greeting them each day with: 'Good morning, niggers.' "
The defining moment came on the trial's third day when Wright took
the stand. A prosecutor asked Wright if he could identify the men who
had come to his house and taken Till. Wright rose from his chair,
extended his right arm, pointed to Milam and said, "Thar he." Then he
gestured at the man sitting next to Milam and said, "And thar's Mr.
Bryant." Murray Kempton, a columnist for the New York Post,
described it as "the hardest half hour in the hardest life possible
for a human being in these United States."
The New York Times published ten stories about the trial. Popham
wrote seven. They largely failed to capture the drama—and
buffoonery—of the proceedings. His articles were straightforward,
focusing on testimony. He quoted blacks in two stories, in each case
relying solely on what they said in court. The Birmingham
World's trial coverage highlighted several points the Times
overlooked. In its initial story, the newspaper explained why the
jury included no blacks (none was registered to vote) or women
(Mississippi law prohibited this). The story also identified what
would become the defense team's key argument in asking for an
acquittal—that the boy's body could not be positively identified.
After the jury handed down its verdict, the World ran a package of
four stories. Again they contained historical background absent from
the Times. One noted that no jury in Mississippi had assessed the
death penalty against a white man accused of killing a black since
1890. The stories also highlighted the defense team's use of race
in its closing arguments. Attorney John W. Whitten denounced
activists, who, he said, had injected race into the case. As he told
the jury, "They would not be above putting a body in the river in the
hopes it might be identified as Emmett Till."
Popham's most ambitious piece followed the acquittal of Milam and
Bryant. It was the only Till story to appear on the front page of
the Times. Popham quoted ten persons, all white. Two items in the
story revealed the depths of racial prejudice in Mississippi. The
first came from jury foreman J.A. Shaw, Jr. after some jurors said
they reached a not guilty verdict because they believed the state had
not proven the dead body was that of Till. Asked about his mother's
testimony, which contradicted this, Shaw replied, "If she had tried a
little harder, she might have got out a tear." The second came from
Whitten. During his closing argument, he said the Till case "had
brought notoriety and national newspaper coverage to Sumner." But,
Whitten told the jurors, "He said he was 'sure that every last
Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face
of that pressure.' "
Despite such blatantly bigoted statements, Popham concluded the jury
acquitted Milam and Bryant not because of racial prejudice but rather
because of bureaucratic bungling. In his next story, Popham wrote,
"Perhaps the clearest lesson of the trial is the need for
improvements in law enforcement machinery." Here was a case in
which a dozen white men acquitted two other white men of murdering a
14-year-old black in Mississippi after a white defense attorney
implored them to remember their Anglo-Saxon roots, and the Times
concluded race was not the central issue. For their part, the
Birmingham World and Jet hammered away at racial prejudice as the
central issue. The magazine poignantly captured this in its final
paragraph on the trial:
When it was over and the jury had announced its 'not guilty'
decision, the mass of sweating, shirt-sleeved, cotton-farming
spectators arose to go, but first turned a damning glance toward the
handful of Negroes who sat crowded around their press table. And in
that single, hate-filled look it was obvious that to these white
southerners, some of whom had never seen television or could believe
that a Negro Congressman was not a violation of federal law, 'white
supremacy' had again triumphed. It was their way of letting it be
known that no white man in the state had been punished for the murder
of a Negro in 65 years.
Life did not shy away from race in its coverage of the case, which
it described as a "national cause celebre." It had a weekly
circulation that exceeded five million. The magazine's formula
for success relied on a minimum of text accompanied by a rich mixture
of illustrations and photographs. The Till case was no exception. The
story, just four paragraphs, never loses sight of the centrality of
race. It began by pointing out that "the prosecution was up against
the whole mass of Mississippi prejudice." It concluded by noting that
"the undertones of racial hatred in the case came out when the
defense suggested that the whole thing was a plot by outsiders to
help destroy 'the way of life of Southern white people.' "
The decision by the nation's best-selling magazine to devote three
pages to a lynching was unheard of. The magazine commissioned artist
Franklin McMahon who produced six black-and-white drawings. The
largest and most powerful shows Wright rising out of his chair to
identify the kidnappers and pointing a long black finger at Milam,
who glares back while Judge Swango looks on impassively. Another
shows the all-white jury, each man looking down sullenly. In a third,
Bradley wears a look of defiance when she testifies, "I just know
that it was my boy."
The magazine also published a half-dozen photographs. One showed the
Bryants' general store in Money where, the caption read, "Emmett gave
a wolf-whistle at Bryant's pretty young wife Carolyn." The largest
photograph shows Milam seated in the courtroom, smiling and playing
with his two young sons, both shirtless. Just below it is another
that captures Milam and Bryant just minutes after being acquitted.
Each has an arm draped about his wife's shoulder. Milam wears an
expansive smile punctuated by a large cigar jutting from the right
corner of his mouth.
If there is a hero in Life's coverage, it is Wright. Popham also
finds a hero in the Till case—the white judge. "The dominant figure
in the case was Judge Swango, 47 years old, handsome and impeccably
groomed, a blend of judicial dignity and great natural charm," wrote
Popham. "His voice was cultured, precise in grammar and soft in tone.
His commitment to the law and its search for equal justice was
total." The World and Jet found a richer collection of heroes,
black and white. Bradley for focusing media attention on the lynching
of her son. Judge Swango for his handling of the case. Wright for
identifying the kidnapers. Both publications gave special praise to
Tallahatchie County District Attorney Gerald Chatham, especially the
newspaper in a story written by Hicks. "Here was a southern-born
white man facing an all-white jury and asking that jury to render a
verdict which would hang two white men for killing a Negro," he
wrote. "It was a challenging and difficult moment in the career of
Mr. Chatham but . . . he rose to the challenge with all the ability
at his command." Chatham said testimony clearly showed the body
recovered from the Tallahatchie River was that of Till. "If there was
one ear left, one hairline, one part of his nose, any part of Emmett
Till's body, then I say to you that Mamie Bradley was God's given
witness to identify him," he said. When Chatham concluded, Bradley
whispered to Hicks, "He couldn't have done any better."
After the verdict, coverage by the New York Times and the Birmingham
World remained dramatically different. The Times published 17
follow-up articles. The wire services provided most, which the Times
buried deep inside the newspaper. The final eleven stories did not
quote a single black American; eight relied on a single white source,
usually a public official. Blacks were quoted in just four stories.
Two involved protests. The lesson in hindsight: Minorities who
want to get their message into the mainstream media should take to
the streets. The black-oriented publications had a broader focus. The
World's first post-trial story examined the international reaction to
the case. It noted that rightwing and Communist publications
alike denounced the verdict. "L'Aurore's report on the trial of the
accused kidnap-murderers of Emmett Till called the court proceedings
'an awful comedy,' " the World reported. "Paris' pro-Communist
Liberation said the trial 'scandalized all honest people in America.'
" Similarly, the story noted, London's Daily Mirror carried the
verdict in a three-column headline of heavy black type. Ironically,
the Times, which has long prided itself on its international
coverage, paid almost no attention to the reaction abroad.
Jet detailed what happened to several key participants after they
testified. Soon after the trial ended, the black news magazine
published a gripping first-person account by Wright explaining how he
escaped from Mississippi. A month later, Jet examined the impact
of the case on Bradley and other principal figures.
The most sensational post-trial story appeared in a most unlikely
publication—Look. The magazine published the story in January
1956. It was entitled "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in
Mississippi." The author was William Bradford Huie, an early
practitioner of checkbook journalism. Huie paid Milam and Bryant
approximately $4,000 to tell their version of the truth about the
Till case. Bryant and Milam described kidnapping Till intending
only to "scare some sense into him." They pistol-whipped him,
repeatedly smashing his face with their revolvers. But, they said,
Till wouldn't scare. "Bobo," as Till was nicknamed, was full of
"poison," according to Milam, adding, "He was hopeless. I'm no bully.
I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers in their place. I
know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got
put on notice."
There was a problem. Milam needed something to weigh down the body.
He recalled recently seeing a discarded cotton gin fan, so they drove
to get it. "When we got to that gin, it was daylight, and I was
worried for the first time," Milam said. "Somebody might see us and
accuse us of stealing the fan." So he and Bryant told Till to load
the fan into Milam's pick-up truck. Then the three drove to a
clearing on the Tallahatchie River where Milam sometimes went
squirrel hunting. Milam ordered Till to carry the fan to the
riverbank, then had him strip. This was followed by their last exchange.
Milam: 'You still as good as I am?'
Milam: 'You've still 'had' white women before?'
That big .45 jumped in Milam's hand. The youth turned to catch that
big, expanding bullet at his right ear. He dropped.
They barb-wired the gin fan to his neck [and] rolled him into 20 feet of water.
For three hours that morning, there was a fire in Big Milam's back
yard: Bobo's crepe-soled shoes were hard to burn.
Six photographs accompany the four-page story. A small one shows Till
looking expectantly at the camera. A larger one shows Milam laughing
with his wife Juanita. There also is a drawing that takes up more
than a half page. It shows Milam holding his pistol and standing over
Till's naked body as it collapses to the ground. The caption below
reads: " 'The youth turned to catch that . . . bullet . . . . He dropped."
The combination of the killers' confession, the photographs and the
artwork make for a powerful magazine package. Still, there are two
fundamental journalistic problems with Huie's account. First, he
makes no mention of having paid the killers to talk.
Second, the article includes no quotes from blacks, though the
brazenness of Milam's
confession begs for comment from Bradley, Wright, Wilkins and others.
Look, like other
mainstream news organizations, gave the Till case unprecedented
publicity but remained
largely one-dimensional in its coverage.
So which news organizations produced the most accomplished
journalistic coverage? The evidence suggests the black-oriented
publications did so by providing a greater range of sources, broader
context, more depth and a clear statement of the central problem
while following accepted journalistic routines such as attribution
and balance. Look at the persons interviewed. In covering the Till
murder case, the New York Times published 38 stories; one-third
contained quotes from more than one person (see Tables 1 and 2). The
Birmingham World published 15 stories about the Till case; 80 percent
contained quotes from more than one person (see Tables 3 and 4). In
other words, one in three stories about the Till case in the Times
relied on multiple sources compared to four of every five in the World.
The black publications drew on a broader range of sources. The
Birmingham World published 14 stories about the Till case in which at
least one person is quoted. Whites are quoted in 13—or almost 93
percent—while blacks are quoted in twelve, or almost 86 percent
(Table 4). Thus, the World quoted blacks almost as often as it quoted
whites. The New York Times had a decidedly different record. It
published 31 stories about the Till case in which at least one person
is quoted. Whites are quoted in 25, or 80 percent, while blacks are
quoted in twelve, or less than 39 percent (Table 2). Thus, the Times
quoted whites twice as often as it quoted blacks. Many of these
stories were produced by the wire services. However, the record of
Popham, the Times' southern correspondent, was no different. He wrote
nine stories for the Times about the Till case in which at least one
person is quoted. Popham quoted whites in eight and quoted blacks in
three. In every instance save one in which he quoted a black
American, Popham based it solely on testimony at the murder trial. He
interviewed and quoted an African American once, using a single
paraphrased statement. In Popham's most ambitious piece, which
examined the acquittal of the two defendants, he quoted ten whites
and no blacks.
The magazines displayed a similar disparity. Life, in its coverage of
the Till case, published one story. It used a minimum of text and
quoted no one. Look also published one article about the Till case,
Huie's checkbook expose in which Till's killers confess. Huie quoted
Milam and Bryant—two white men—and no one else. Jet published seven
stories about the Till murder case. Many contained a broad range of
sources. A September 15, 1955, story included interviews with four
blacks and three whites. A story published one week later
included interviews with five whites and two blacks.
The photographs published by the New York Times and the Birmingham
World of the Till case mirrored their written coverage. The Times'
photographs, like its news stories, were dominated by whites. The
Birmingham World published far more photographs, ones that
represented the full cast of characters. On a single day, it
published eleven. Jet published a wealth of photographs that captured
the diversity of actors in the murder case as well as the famous
one—the close-up of Till's savaged head.
In covering a news story, a reporter should identify the key players
and issues. The journalist also has a responsibility to provide
context for the actors and issues by examining their history,
communities and the social questions posed by the events at hand. The
New York Times failed to meet these challenges in covering the Till
case. Its first story included no interviews with blacks, provided no
context and quoted a single white official. By contrast, the
first Till story in the Birmingham World included statements from two
whites and three blacks. Throughout their coverage, the Times,
Life and Look provided little historical context. But early on, the
Birmingham World and Jet provided important context for the Till
case, noting he was the third black murdered in Mississippi in four
months in a race-related case. The two publications also examined
Mississippi's long history of sanctioning white violence against blacks.
The black publications also did a better job identifying the central
issue in the Till case. Popham concluded the jury acquitted Milam and
Bryant because of bureaucratic bungling. Jet said the fundamental
problem that led to their acquittal was racial prejudice. The
black publications also did superior work in tracing the reaction
abroad to the Till case. The Times paid minimal attention to the
foreign implications of the acquittal. The Birmingham World examined
the international reaction to the case in detail, noting that
newspapers in foreign capitols from London to Paris denounced the
verdict. That a tiny black newspaper in the Deep South could
trump the most influential newspaper in the country in documenting
the reaction overseas to the case is astonishing.
In reporting on the Till case, white and black publications framed
black Americans in decidedly different ways. The primary frame used
by the New York Times, Life and Look was that of a victim. Look
epitomized this. The magazine did so with words as when it quoted
Milam telling Till, "Goddamn you, I'm going to make an example of you
just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand." Look did
so with art, such as the illustration that showed Milam holding his
pistol and standing over Till's naked body. These events did happen,
and Look found a compelling—though journalistically dishonest—way to
present them. But the magazine did not examine the actions of Bradley
(Till's mother) and Wright (the chief prosecution witness) and Diggs
(the black congressman from Michigan) and other black actors involved
in the case. Look failed to provide a complete picture.
The Birmingham World and Jet provided a set of frames for the central
characters more diverse and nuanced than that of the New York Times,
Life and Look. This was particularly true in their coverage of the
black community. They graphically captured Till the victim,
epitomized by Jet's horrific photo of his savaged head. They also
found black activists (Bradley), heroes (Wright) and leaders (Diggs
and NAACP chief Roy Wilkins) along with white allies (Chatham, the
district attorney). The Till case was a rehearsal for the civil
rights revolution. The black publications captured this.
Mainstream publications like the New York Times, Life and Look did
make significant journalistic strides in their coverage of the Till
case. Southern whites had lynched thousands of blacks without getting
widespread or sustained national publicity. That changed with the
Till murder case. Over a four-month period, the New York Times
published 38 stories about the case, about one story every three
days. Life magazine devoted a three-page spread to the trial and
traced the acquittal of Milam and Bryant to "racial hatred." Look
magazine published the sensational confession of the killers
including Milam's statement that he murdered Till because "I just
decided it was time a few people got put on notice." The
unprecedented coverage underscored two points. One, white violence
threatened southern blacks daily. Two, southern whites who assaulted
and killed blacks now faced unprecedented exposure. It is little
wonder activists like Diggs and Moore, segregationists like Patterson
and journalists like Booker and Halberstam and Popham said the civil
rights revolution began with the Till case. Indeed, reporters of
both races recognized this. Booker, who covered the case for Jet,
said it launched the Civil Rights Movement. Bill Minor, who
covered the case for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, said that
because of the Till case "for the first time you couldn't have a
quiet little lynching without getting real attention."
This was an important gain. White violence against blacks without
legal consequences had long been the norm in the South. As Myrdal
noted, "Any white man can strike or beat a Negro, steal or destroy
his property, cheat him in a transaction and even take his life,
without much fear of legal reprisal." This was still true in
1955 in the Delta and large areas of the rural South. In the space of
six months, four blacks were lynched in Mississippi. The Rev. George
Lee and Lamar Smith for voter registration activism. Till for,
in the memorable words of Penn Warren, "showing off before the
country cousins." And Clinton Melton, a black service station
attendant, after a disagreement with a customer about how much gas he
wanted. When Milam said he wanted to set an example by murdering
Till, he might have been speaking for the other killers as well.
Lynching, as the NAACP's Walter White has observed, "is much more an
expression of Southern fear of Negro progress than of Negro crime."
But white violence could not withstand the growth in black political
power coupled with national media coverage. There would be more
race-related murders, to be sure, but they would become national
scandals. National coverage meant the perpetrators, for the first
time, faced real consequences. The movement eventually provided
southern blacks with an unprecedented measure of personal safety.
Some political analysts consider this the movement's single greatest
accomplishment. According to Frances Fox Piven and Richard A.
Cloward, "In the South the deepest meaning of the winning of
democratic political rights is that the historical primacy of terror
as a means of social control has been substantially diminished."
In its coverage of the Till case, the New York Times and other
mainstream publications framed blacks primarily as victims. This was
unusual. So was the degree of attention the Times gave to the trial.
This also represented progress. These stories were evidence that the
most powerful newspaper in the country considered it news—indeed,
front-page news—when white southerners murdered a black southerner.
Why? Because, as the Till case foreshadowed, the mainstream media
were willing to abandon their longstanding treatment of African
Americans. Beginning with the Till case, those news organizations
adopted a new frame in reporting on blacks—neither invisible nor
criminals. Instead, the New York Times, Life and Look portrayed
blacks as the innocent victims of deadly racial hatred. King
understood the power of the media as a potential tool to fight
injustice. As he wrote in his 1964 book on the Birmingham campaign,
Why We Can't Wait, "The brutality with which officials would have
quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be
pursued with stealth and remain unobserved. It was caught—as a
fugitive from a penitentiary is often caught—in gigantic circling
spotlights. It was imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked
truth to the whole world."
The political scientist E.E. Schattschneider has noted that conflict
is the heart of politics and that in every conflict, the audience
plays the central role. In his words, "If a fight starts watch the
crowd, because the crowd plays the decisive role." In the Till
case, the media provided black Americans with a powerful new
instrument with which to attract a crowd. Once that happened, Jim
Crow did not have a chance.
Table 1: New York Times Articles about the Emmett Till Case
1 Associated Press, "Mississippi to Sift Negro Boy's Slaying,"
September 2, 1955, p. 37.
2 Associated Press, "Slain Youth's Body Seen by Thousands," September
4, 1955, sec. 5, p. 9.
3 Associated Press, "Report on Slaying Due," September 6, 1955, p. 52.
4 Associated Press, "2 Held for Trial in Slaying of Boy," September
7, 1955, p. 19.
5 United Press, "U.S. Urged to Halt 'Fury in Mississippi,' "
September 8, 1955, p. 10.
6 Associated Press, "Murder Trial Date Set," September 10, 1955, p. 5.
7 "Murder Most Foul," September 11, 1955, sec. 4, p. 2.
8 United Press, "Mother to Testify," September 13, 1955, p. 28.
9 John N. Popham, "Trial Tomorrow in Boy's Murder," Sept. 18, 1955, p. 50.
10 John N. Popham, "Racial Issues Stirred by Mississippi Killing,"
September 18, 1955, sec. 4, p. 7.
11 John N. Popham, "Slain Boy's Uncle Ready to Testify," September
19, 1955, p. 50.
12 John N. Popham, "Trial under way in Youth's Killing," September
20, 1955, p. 32.
13 John N. Popham, "Trial Is Delayed in Boy's Slaying," September 21,
1955, p. 24.
14 John N. Popham, "Slain Boy's Uncle on Stand at Trial," September
22, 1955, p. 64.
15 John N. Popham, "State Rests in Youth's Killing," September 23, 1955, p. 15.
16 John N. Popham, "Mississippi Jury Acquits 2 Accused in Youth's
Killing," September 24, 1955, pp. 1, 38.
17 Associated Press, "Boy's Mother 'Not Surprised,' " September 24,
1955, p. 38.
18 John N. Popham, "Mississippi Seeks Kidnapping Count," September
25, 1955, p. 32.
19 "Misssissippi Jury Denounced Here," September 25, 1955, p. 33.
20 John N. Popham, "The Mississippi Trial Is Deep South Drama,"
September 25, 1955, sec. 4, p. 8.
21 "Case of Emmett Till," September 25, 1955, sec. 4, pp. 33-34.
22 "10,000 in Harlem Protest Verdict," September 26, 1955, p. 10.
23 Associated Press, "Mississippi Pair Seeking Freedom," September
30, 1955, p. 18.
24 United Press, "Mississippi Men Released on Bail," October 1, 1955, p. 40.
25 Associated Press, "Negroes Protect Two in Till Case," October 2,
1955, p. 56/
26 Associated Press, "Till Trial Protested," October 8, 1955, p. 7.
27 "Boycott Is Urged in Youth's Killing," October 12, 1955, p. 62.
28 "Survey Finds U.S. Is Hurt by Till Case," October 22, 1955, p. 40.
29 "Day of Mourning Asked," October 24, 1955, p. 24.
30 United Press International, "U.S. Bars Till Action," October 25,
1955, p. 27.
31 "Till Case Linked to Negro's Plight," October 30, 1955, p. 86.
32 Associated Press, "Till Case Moves into New Phase," November 6, 1955, p. 82.
33 Associated Press, "2 Negroes Testify in Till Kidnap Case,"
November 9, 1955, p. 39.
34 United Press, "Grand Jury in Till Case Fails to Indict Two White
Men Accused in Kidnapping," November 10, 1955, p. 31.
35 Associated Press, "Till Case Inquiry Asked," November 11, 1955, p. 17.
36 Associated Press, "U.S. Aide Deplores Delay in Till Case,"
November 21, 1955, p. 33.
37 United Press International, "Federal Action Ruled Out," December
7, 1955, p.30.
38 "Till Case Decried by Brownell Aide," January 5, 1956, p. 22.
Table 2: Persons Quoted in New York Times about the Till Case by Race
1 The New York Times published 38 stories about the Till murder case
between August 1955, when the murder occurred, and January 1956.
2 There are seven stories with no quotes. There are 18 stories with
one quote. There are 13 stories with more than one person quoted or
34 percent of the 38 stories.
3 There are 25 stories in which at least one white is quoted or 80
percent of the 31 stories in which persons are quoted.
4 There are twelve stories in which at least one black is quoted or
38.7 percent of the 31 stories in which persons are quoted.
5 There are five stories in which at least one white and at least one
black are quoted or 16 percent of the 31 stories in which persons are quoted.
Key: * -- story carries the byline of New York Times reporter John N. Popham
1) "Mississippi to Sift Negro Boy's Slaying" (9/2/55) 1 --
2) "Slain Youth's Body Seen by Thousands" (9/4/55) -- 1
3) "Report on Slaying Due" (9/6/55) 1 --
4) "2 Held for Trial in Slaying of Boy" (9/7/55) 2 1
5) "U.S. Urged to Halt 'Fury in Mississippi' " (9/8/55) 1 --
6. "Murder Trial Date Set" (9/10/55) 1 --
7) "Murder Most Foul" (9/11/55) -- --
8) "Mother to Testify" (9/13/55) -- 1
9) "Trial Tomorrow in Boy's Murder (9/18/55) * 2 --
10) "Racial Issues Stirred by Mississippi Killing" (9/18/55) * 1 --
11) "Slain Boy's Uncle Ready to Testify" (9/19/55) * -- 1
12) "Trial under way in Youth's Killing" (9/20/55) * 1 --
13) "Trial Is Delayed in Boy's Slaying" (9/21/55) * 3 --
14) "Slain Boy's Uncle on Stand at Trial" (9/22/55)
* 3 1
15) "State Rests in Youth's Killing" (9/23/55) * 6 4
16) "Mississippi Jury Acquits 2 Accused in Killing"(9/24/55) * 10 --
17) "Boy's Mother 'Not Surprised' " (9/24/55) -- 2
18) "Mississippi Seeks Kidnapping Count" (9/25/55) * 4 --
19) "Misssissippi Jury Denounced Here" (9/25/55) 2 2
20) "The Mississippi Trial Is Deep South Drama" (9/25/55) * -- --
21) "Case of Emmett Till" (9/25/55) -- --
22) "10,000 in Harlem Protest Verdict" (9/26/55) -- 3
23) "Mississippi Pair Seeking Freedom" (9/30/55) 1 2
24) "Mississippi Men Released on Bail" (10/1/55) 2 --
25 "Negroes Protect Two in Till Case" (10/2/55) -- 1
26 "Till Trial Protested" (10/8/55) -- --
27) "Boycott Is Urged in Youth's Killing" (10/12/55) 2 2
28) "Survey Finds U.S. Is Hurt by Till Case" (10/22/55) -- --
29) "Day of Mourning Asked" (10/24/55) -- --
30) "U.S. Bars Till Action" (10/25/55) 1 --
31) "Till Case Linked to Negro's Plight" (10/30/55) 1 --
32) "Till Case Moves into New Phase" (11/6/55) 1 --
33) "2 Negroes Testify in Till Kidnap Case" (11/9/55) -- --
34) "Grand Jury in Till Case Fails to Indict Two" (11/10/55) 1 --
35) "Till Case Inquiry Asked" (11/11/55) 1 --
36) "U.S. Aide Deplores Delay in Till Case" (11/21/55) 1 --
37) "Federal Action Ruled Out" (12/7/55) 1 --
38) "Till Case Decried by Brownell Aide" (1/5/56) 1 --
Table 3: Birmingham World Articles about the Emmett Till Case
1) Scott News Service, "Battered Body of Boy, 14, Found in River in
Miss.," September 2, 1955, pp. 1, 8.
2) "50,000 View Body of 14-Year-Old Boy Found Slain in Mississippi,"
September 6, 1955, p. 1.
3) Scott News Service, "Possibility of Early Trial Looms for Miss.
Lynch-Murder Suspects," September 9, 1955, pp. 1, 8.
4) E.J. Mays, "Rites Held in Chicago for Victim as Hearing Goes On,"
September 9, 1955, pp. 1, 8.
5) E.J. Mays, "Accused of Kidnap-Death of 14-Year-Old Chicago Boy,"
September 13, 1955, p. 1.
6) "Two White Men on Trial for Murder of Youngster," September 20, 1955, p. 1.
7) Raymond F. Tisby, "Lynch-Murder Victim's Mother Appears at Miss.
Murder Trial," September 23, 1955, pp. 1, 4, 6.
8) James L. Kilgallen, "Miss. Acquits Till Death Suspects," September
27, 1955, pp. 1, 4.
9) James Hicks, "Writer Reviews Passionate Closing Plea of Till Case
Atty.," September 27, 1955, pp. 1, 2.
10) "Principals in Emmett Till Case May Face $100,000 Suit,"
September 27, 1955, p. 6.
11) Scott News Service, "No White Man Given Death for Killing in
Miss. Since 1890, Writer Observes," September 27, 1955, p. 6.
12) Chester M. Hampton, "World Shocked by Till Trial," September 30,
1955, p. 6.
13) "2 Till Kidnap Suspects Released on $10,000 Bond in Greenwood,"
October 4, 1955, p. 1.
14) "Miss. Reporter Says Witness 'Captive,' " October 14, 1955, p. 5.
15) "Moses Wright Makes Appearance Before LeFlore County Grand Jury,"
November 11, 1955, p. 1.
Table 4: Persons Quoted in Birmingham World about Till Case by Race
1.The Birmingham World published 15 stories about the Till murder
case between August 1955, when the murder occurred, and January 1956.
1.There is one story with no quotes. There are two stories with one
quote. There are twelve stories with more than one person quoted or
80 percent of the 15 stories.
2.There are 13 stories in which at least one white is quoted or 92.8
percent of the 14 stories in which persons are quoted.
3.There are twelve stories in which at least one black is quoted or
85.7 percent of the 14 stories in which persons are quoted.
4.There are eleven stories in which at least one white and at least
one black are quoted or 78.6 percent of the 14 stories in which
persons are quoted.
1) "Battered Body of Boy, 14, Found in River in Miss." (9/2/55) 2 4
2) "50,000 View Body of 14-Year-Old Boy" (9/6/55) 1 1
3) "Possibility of Early Trial Looms"
(9/9/55) 4 2
4) "Rites Held in Chicago for Victim" (9/9/55) 3 2
5) "Accused of Kidnap-Death of Chicago Boy" (9/13/55) 2 2
6) "Two White Men on Trial for Murder of Youngster" (9/20/55) 3 1
7) "Lynch-Murder Victim's Mother Appears at Trial" (9/23/55) 1 2
8) "Miss. Acquits Till Death Suspects" (9/27/55) 5 --
9) "Writer Reviews Closing Plea of Till Case Atty." (9/27/55) 1 1
10) "Principals in Till Case May Face $100,000 Suit" (9/27/55) -- 1
11) "No White Man Given Death in Miss. Since 1890" (9/27/55) 2 1
12) "World Shocked by Till Trial" (9/30/55) 1 4
13) "2 Till Kidnap Suspects Released on Bond" (10/4/55) 1 --
14) "Miss. Reporter Says Witness 'Captive,' " (10/14/55) 2 4
15) "Wright Makes Appearance Before Grand Jury" (11/11/55) -- --
 Hugh Stephen Whitaker, "A Case Study in Southern Justice: The
Emmett Till Case," masters thesis, Florida State University, 1963,
pp. 102-105, 109-111, 117-119. Much of his work is based on the trial
transcript, which is no longer available. He also interviewed
attorneys for the state and the defendants, law enforcement officers
involved in the case, several jurors and William Bradford Huie, the
journalist who later paid Milam and Bryant for their confessions.
 "The Lynching Records at Tuskegee Institute," in Eight Negro
Bibliographies, No. 7 edited by Daniel T. Williams (New York: Kaus
Reprint, 1970): 1,2, 4.
 Tuskegee University figures as cited in Appendix 1 of Mark
Curriden and Leroy Phillips, Jr., Contempt of Court (New York: Faber
and Faber, 1999): 354-355.
 Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years,
1954-1965 (New York: Penguin Books, 1987): 44.
 Ruby Hurley Interview in Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested: The
Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (New York:
Penguin, 1977): 132.
 William Bradford Huie, "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing
in Mississippi," Look 20 (January 24, 1956): 50. For description of
Milam, see Whitaker, "Case Study," p. 108.
 Thomas C. Leonard, News for All: America's Coming of Age with
the Press (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 170.
 Huie, "The Shocking Story," in Reader's Digest 68 (April 1956): 63-68.
 Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett
Till (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988). Christopher
Metress has assembled a worthwhile collection of newspaper accounts
in The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative
(Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2002).
Mamie Till-Mobley published a memoir about her son's murder; see
Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America
(New York: Random House, 2003).
 Warren Breed, "Comparative Handling of the Emmett Till Case,"
Journalism Quarterly (Summer 1958): 291-298. Breed, a sociologist,
examined the New York Times and ten unnamed newspapers. He concluded
that all but one provided objective coverage. Breed based his
analysis on a content analysis in which he mixed news stories and
photographs with editorials and letters to the editor. He analyses
seven "themes" such as "lynching" and "all-white jury" without ever
explaining what constitutes objective—or biased—coverage. John
Tisdale interviewed three white reporters who covered the Till trial
but provides no assessment of their coverage. See , "Different
Assignments, Different Perspectives: How Reporters Reconstruct the
Emmett Till Civil Rights Murder Trial," Oral History Review 20 No. 1
(Winter/Spring 2002): 39-58. See also Gerald Baldasty, et. al.,
"News, Race and the Status Quo: The Case of Emmett Louis Till" (paper
presented at the annual meeting of the American Journalism Historians
Association, Portland, Oregon, October 1999) and Jane Rhodes, "Racial
Coverage of the 1950s Print Media and the Case of Emmett Till" (paper
presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in
Journalism and Mass Communication, San Antonio, Texas, August 1987).
 David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Ballantine Books,
1993): 437. Halberstam calls the trial "the first great media event
of the civil rights movement."
 Amzie Moore Interview in Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested: The
Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (New York:
Penguin, 1977), p. 235.
 Robert Patterson Interview in Raines, My Soul Is Rested, pp. 298-299.
 Studies covering four decades have found that the vast majority
of American intellectuals, the political elite and newspaper
publishers and editors consider the Times the nation's best
newspaper. See Charles Kadushin, The American Intellectual Elite
(Boston: Little Brown, 1974): 140-141; Leon V. Sigal, Reporters and
Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking (Lexington,
Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1973): 47; Ernest C. Hynds, American
Newspapers in the 1980s (New York: Hastings House, 1980): 284-285;
and Columbia Journalism Review Web site www.cjr.org, CJR Survey,
"America's Best Newspapers," (November/December 1999).
 Edwin Emery and Michael Emery, The Press and America: An
Interpretative History of the Mass Media, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs,
New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1978): 461-462.
 Leonard, News for All, pp. 80, 170.
 Lamont Yeakey, who wrote a massively-detailed doctoral
dissertation examining the Montgomery bus boycott, said Birmingham
World managing editor Emory O. Jackson was "the most astute and best
informed reporter covering the boycott." See Yeakey, "The Montgomery,
Alabama Bus Boycott, 1955-1956," Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia
University, 1979, p. 465. David J. Garrow, author of a Pulitzer-Prize
winning biography of Martin Luther King Jr. echoed this observation
in a January 2002 telephone conversation with this researcher.
 Adam Paul Green, "Selling the Race: Cultural Production and
Notions of Community in Black Chicago, 1940-1955," Ph.D.
dissertation, 1998, Yale University, pp. 150-157.
 Scholars have been advancing this idea for at least the past
six decades. See Charlotte G. O'Kelly, "Black Newspapers and the
Black Protest Movement: Their Historical Relationship, 1827-1945,"
Phylon 43 No. 1 (First Quarter 1982): 1, 6, 11; Gunnar Myrdal, An
American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Vols. I &
II (New York: Random House, 1944): 908-926; Tisdale, "Different
Assignments, Different Perspectives," p. 41; and Thomas W. Young,
"Voice of Protest, Voice of Change" in Race and the News Media,
edited by Paul L. Fisher and Ralph L. Lowenstein (New York: Frederick
A. Praeger Publishers, 1967): 125-132. The credo of the
black-oriented National Newspaper Publishers Association was to be a
crusader and an advocate for civil rights; see Benjamin F. Clark,
"The Editorial Reaction of Selected Southern Black Newspapers to the
Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968," Ph.D. dissertation, 1989, Howard
University, p. 5
 Scholarly reliance on the Times can be confirmed by consulting
the endnotes of hundreds of works of American history.
 Harrison Salisbury, Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times
and Its Times (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980): 358. (emphasis in
 Ibid, p. 353.
 "The Black Press at the Trial: An Interview with James Hicks"
in Williams, Eyes on the Prize, p. 51.
 Dan Wakefield, Between the Lines: A Reporter's Personal Journey
Through Public Events (New York: New American Library, 1966): 145.
 Whitaker, "Case Study," pp. 124, 131, 142-148.
 Moore Interview, My Soul Is Rested, pp. 234-235.
 "Mississippi to Sift Negro Boy's Slaying," New York Times, 2
September 1955, p. 37. The story incorrectly lists Till's age as 15.
It ran below other two articles: a one-column story on an increase in
black college students, and a two-column story by future Times editor
Max Frankel on a meeting of scholars to redefine the meaning of equality.
 "Battered Body of Boy, 14, Found in River in Miss.," Birmingham
World, 2 September 1955, pp. 1, 8.
 Officials and journalists criticized Wilkins for making that
statement, and several scholars later joined them. But journalists
and scholars did not criticize William Faulkner when, prior to the
trial, he issued a statement that echoed Wilkins's words. The Nobel
Prize-winning novelist concluded, "If we in America have reached that
point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no
matter for what reason or what color, then we don't deserve to
survive, and probably won't." See William Faulkner, "Faulkner Calls
Lynching Test of Man's Survival," Chicago Defender, 17 September 1955, p. 3.
 "Battered Body of Boy, 14, Found in River in Miss.," Birmingham
World, p. 1.
 "4,733 Mob Action Victims Since '82, Tuskegee Reports,"
Montgomery Advertiser, 26 April 1959.
 Simeon Booker, Black Man's America (Englewood Cliffs, New
Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964): 161-163 and Charles M. Payne,
I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the
Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1995): 37-39.
 Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of
Black America (New York: Random House, 2002): 426, and Payne, I've
Got the Light of Freedom, pp. 39, 41.
 Allen Woodrow Jones, "Alabama," in The Black Press in the
South, 1865-1979, edited by Henry Lewis Suggs (Westport, Conn.:
Greenwood Press, 1983): 43-46; and Alton Hornsby, Jr., "Georgia," in
The Black Press in the South, pp. 127-128.
 Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson, A History of the Black
Press (Washington: Howard University Press, 1997): 144.
 "Slain Youth's Body Seen By Thousands," New York Times, 4
September 1955, Sec. 5, p. 9.
 "2 Held for Trial in Slaying of Boy," New York Times, 7
September 1955, p. 19.
 "Mother to Testify," New York Times, 13 September 1955, p. 28.
 Oral history interview with John Popham, 4 April 1987, Archives
and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, University of
Mississippi, pp. 1-2;Turner Catledge, My Life and the Times (New
York: Harper & Row, 1971): 219.
 James was managing editor from 1932-1951, Catledge from
1951-1964 and Daniel from 1964-1969. Catledge was the first executive
editor at the Times (1964-1968). Adoph Ochs, the publisher who pushed
the Times to greatness after he purchased it in 1896, considered
Chattanooga, Tennessee his hometown. Howell Raines, who resigned as
editor in 2003, was born in Birmingham, Alabama. See Catledge, My
Life and the Times, pp. 185-186, 285, 305; Susan E. Tifft and Alex S.
Jones, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York
Times (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999): 5-7,30-40;
Harrison Salisbury, Without Fear or Favor: An Uncompromising Look at
the New York Times (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980): 354; and Gay
Telese, The Kingdom and the Power (New York: World Publishing
Company, 1969): 38-39, 338-341, 534.
 Interview with Popham, , J.D. Williams Library, University of
Mississippi, pp. 2, 24.
 Sitton as quoted in Salisbury, Without Fear or Favor, p. 353.
 Halberstam, The Fifties, p. 437.
 John Popham, "Racial Issues Stirred by Mississippi Killing,"
New York Times, 18 September 1955, Sec. 4, p. 7.
 "50,000 View Body of 14-Year-Old Boy Found Slain in
Mississippi," Birmingham World, 6 Sepember 1955, p. 1.
 "Raymond F. Tisby, "Lynch-Murder Victim's Mother Appears at
Miss. Murder Trial," Birmingham World, 23 September 1955, pp. 1, 4.
 Carla Hall, "John H. Johnson: From Office Worker to Millionaire
Publishing Mogul," Washington Post, 14 September 1980, p. L1; Raoul
V. Mowatt, "Jet Magazine Finds Niche, Manages to Stay Afloat in
Difficult Time," Chicago Tribune, 3 December 2001, Sec. K, p. 4.
 John H. Johnson, Succeeding Against the Odds (New York: Warner
Books, 1989): 207.
 "Nation Horrified by Murder of Kidnapped Chicago Youth," Jet,
15 September 1955, pp. 6-9. Jet also relied on a broader range of
sources than the Times. The magazine's September 15 story included
statements from seven persons, black and white.
 Johnson, Succeeding Against the Odds, p. 240.
 "An Interview with Congressman Charles Diggs" in Williams, Eyes
on the Prize, p. 49.
 John N. Popham, "Slain's Boy Uncle to Testify," New York Times,
19 September 1955, p. 50.
 The author, a reporter for 25 years, based the last statement
on his own experience.
 "Will Mississippi Whitewash the Emmett Till Slaying?," Jet, 22
September 1955, pp. 8-12.
 Ibid, p. 11.
 U.S. Census Bureau, Census of Population: 1950; Part 24,
Mississippi (Washington DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 1952): 24-71.
 Whitaker, "Case Study," p. 145.
 James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The
Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1992): 3-5.
 Ibid, pp. 28, 153, 183, 198, 231.
 Rupert Vance, Human Geography of the South (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1932): 270.
 Richard Wright, Black Boy (New York: Harper & Row, 1966): 151.
 Booker, recalling the funeral for Rev. Lee, said a white
detective moved through the crowd without touching a single black: "A
pathway opened automatically as if the Negroes, even with their backs
turned, could feel the presence of an approaching white man," he
wrote. See Booker, Black Man's America, p. 164. For a fascinating
account of how Booker and two white news reporters helped locate two
witnesses for the prosecution in the Till case, see Simeon Booker, "A
Negro Reporter at the Till Trial," Nieman Reports 53/53 (Winter
 Robert Penn Warren, Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the
South (New York: Random House, 1956): 5.
 See " 'The Blues Is a Lowdown Shakin' Chill,' " in Cobb, The
Most Southern Place on Earth, p. 325.
 Ford as quoted in Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth, p. 325.
 "The Strange Trial of the Till Kidnapers," Jet, 6 October 1955, pp. 6-11.
 Johnson, Succeeding Against the Odds, p. 240.
 "The Strange Trial of the Till Kidnapers," Jet, p. 8.
 "An Interview with James Hicks" in Williams, Eyes on the Prize,
50-51, 54; Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the
Senate (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002): 705.
 Murray Kempton, "He Went All the Way," in America Comes of
Middle Age: Columns, 1950-1962 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962): 135.
 Here is Popham's account of Wright's testimony: "The cotton
farmer twice rose from the witness chair and singled out the
defendants, Roy Bryant, 24, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, 36,
with the words, 'There he is. That's the man.' " Liberal protocol
probably accounted for the decision by the Times not to use Wright's
dialect. Still, by changing Wright's words, Popham whitewashed the
testimony of its powerful simplicity. See John Popham, "Slain Boy's
Uncle on Stand at Trial," New York Times, 22 September 1955, p. 64.
 "Two White Men on Trial for Murder of Youngster," Birmingham
World, 20 September 1955, p. 1.
 "No White Man Given Death for Killing in Miss. Since 1890,
Writer Observes," Birmingham World, 27 September 1966, p. 6
 James L. Kilgallen, "Miss. Acquits Till Death Suspects,"
Birmingham World, 27 September 1955, p. 6.
 John Popham, "Mississippi Jury Acquits 2 Accused in Youth's
Killing," New York Times, 24 September 1955, pp. 1, 38.
 Ibid, p. 38.
 John Popham, "The Mississippi Trial Is Deep South Drama," New
York Times, 25 September 1955, Sec. E, p. 8.
 "The Strange Trial," Jet, p. 11.
 "Emmett Till's Day in Court," Life, 3 October 1955, pp. 36-38.
 Leonard, News for All, p. 170.
 Jet published an equally powerful, though much smaller
photograph that shows Wright standing ramrod straight and leveling a
finger at Milam. See "The Strange Trial," p. 9.
 Popham, "The Mississippi Trial Is Deep South Drama," New York
Times, Sec. E, p. 8.
 James Hicks, "Writer Reviews Passionate Closing Plea of Till
Case Atty.," Birmingham World, 27 September 1955, pp. 1, 2.
 Ibid, p. 2.
 "10,000 in Harlem Protest Verdict," New York Times, 26
September 1955, p. 10, and "Boycott Is Urged in Youth's Killing," New
York Times, 12 October 1955, p. 62.
 Chester M. Hampton, "World Shocked by Till Trial," Birmingham
World, 30 September 1956, p. 6.
 This is all the more amazing considering the depth and range of
the criticism. Le Figaro in France called the verdict "scandalous"
and said it was certain to "arouse worldwide indignation." The
Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano in Rome expressed outrage. So did Das
Freie Volk in Germany, which said the verdict showed that "the life
of a Negro in Mississippi is not worth a whistle." See Whitfield, A
Death in the Delta, p. 46. The Times finally addressed international
reaction almost one month after the verdict, but it relied on
second-hand information. In an October 22 story, the newspaper
reported that the American Jewish Committee had issued a report that
said the Till case had seriously damaged the nation's prestige. The
group based its finding on a survey of public reaction in North
Africa and Europe. The story provides no details about the report's
findings abroad. See "Survey Finds U.S. Hurt by Till Case," New York
Times, 22 October 1955, p. 40.
 Mose Wright, "How I Escaped from Mississippi," Jet, 13 October
1955, pp. 6-11.
 "How the Till Case Changed Five Lives," Jet, 24 November 1955, pp. 10-13.
 Huie, "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi," pp. 46-50.
 William Bradford Huie Interview in Raines, My Soul Is Rested, p. 389.
 Huie, "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi," p. 50.
 Popham, "Slain Boy's Uncle to Testify," New York Times, 19
September 1955, p. 50.
 Popham, ""Mississippi Jury Acquits 2 Accused in Youth's
Killing," New York Times, 24 September 1955, pp. 1, 8.
 "Nation Horrified by Murder of Kidnapped Chicago Youth," Jet,
15 September 1955, pp. 6-9.
 "Will Mississippi Whitewash the Emmett Till Slaying?," Jet, 22
September 1955, pp. 8-12.
 "Mississippi to Sift Negro Boy's Slaying," New York Times, 2
September 1955, p. 37.
 "Battered Body of Boy, 14, Found in River in Miss.," Birmingham
World, 2 September 1955, pp. 1, 8.
 Ibid, p. 1, and "Will Mississippi Whitewash the Emmett Till
Slaying?," Jet, p. 9.
 See "The Strange Trial of the Till Kidnapers," Jet, 6 October
1955, p. 11.
 Hampton, "World Shocked by Till Trial," Birmingham World, 30
September 1956, p. 6.
 There were exceptions, such as the story in the Times and the
drawing in Life regarding Wright's testimony identifying Milam and
Bryant as the men who kidnapped Till.
 Huie, "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,"
Look, 24 January 1956, p. 50.
 Moore Interview in Raines, My Soul Is Rested, pp. 234-235;
Diggs Interview in Williams, Eyes on the Prize, p. 49; Patterson
Interview in Raines, My Soul Is Rested, p. 239; Popham as quoted in
the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 25 August, 1985, Sec. A., p. 1; and
Halberstam, The Fifties, p. 437.
 Simeon Booker, "Thirty Years Ago: How Emmett Till's Lynching
Launched Civil Rights Drive," Jet 17 June 1985, p. 12.
 Minor as quoted in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 25 August,
1985, Sec. A., p. 1.
 Myrdal, An American Dilemma, p. 559.
 Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown, p. 426.
 Robert Penn Warren, Who Speaks for the Negro? (New York:
Random House, 1965): 30.
 Elmer Kimbell, a cotton-gin manager and Milam's best friend,
put two bullets in Melton's head. Kimbell claimed self-defense; three
witnesses said otherwise. A Tallahatchie County jury acquitted
Kimbell of murder despite testimony from the white owner of the gas
station and two black witnesses that Melton was unarmed. See David
Halberstam, "Tallahatchie County Acquits a Peckerwood," The Reporter
14, 19 April 1956, pp. 26-30; and Whitaker, "Case Study," p. 172.
 White as quoted in Myrdal, An American Dilemma, p. 563.
 Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People's
Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books,
 There is a wealth of studies examining how the nation's news
media portrayed black Americans during the first half of the 20th
century. They overwhelmingly find that mainstream newspapers either
ignored blacks or presented them negatively. The dominant image was
that of a criminal. See Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The
Negro in Chicago: A Study in Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1922): 524, 635; Noel P. Gist, "The
Negro in the Daily Press," Social Forces 10 No. 3 (March 1932):
405-411; Ira B. Harkey, Jr, The Smell of Burning Crosses: An
Autobiography of a Mississippi Newspaperman (Jacksonville, Illinois:
Harris-Wolfe & Co., 1967): 52; Carolyn Martindale, "Changes in
Newspaper Images of Black Americans," Newspaper Research Journal
(Winter 1990): 40-50; and Southern Regional Council, Race in the
News: Usage in Southern Newspapers (Atlanta: Southern Regional
Council, 1949): 2.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait (New York: New
American Library, 1964): 39.
 E.E. Schattschneider, The Semisovereign People: A Realist's
View of Democracy in America (New York: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1960): 3.