Emmett Till, an African American boy from Chicago, Illinois, was murdered at the age of 14 in Money, Mississippi. His murder helped motivate the American Civil Rights Movement. The main suspects were acquitted, but later admitted to the murder.
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"Symbol of the movement" sits in ruin; family looking for buyer
By Jerry Mitchell
The place where the civil rights movement began now lies in ruin.
Bryant Grocery and Meat Market has been broken by years of neglect and battered by high winds from Hurricane Katrina, but few have forgotten the events during the summer of 1955 that started here with a wolf-whistle and ended with the slaying of a black teenager named Emmett Till.
"Like the Liberty Bell, it's the symbol of the movement," said state Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood. "That ought not to be lost."
Leflore County Tax Assessor Leroy Ware said the store isn't worth a penny on the county's books, but that didn't stop owners from initially asking local officials last year for $40 million for the crumbling store before reducing their price to $4 million.
Local officials say they balked at the price, countering with a $50,000 offer. Talks broke off, and the store has continued to rot, despite being placed on the Mississippi Heritage Trust's list of 10 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Harold Ray Tribble of Greenwood, whose family owns the property, doesn't recall the $50,000 offer, but said he plans to start working in March with local, state and national officials to return the property to its original condition.
"We want to restore it," he said. "It's a part of history, and it's about to fall down."
The family wants to sell the property to someone who can restore it or keep it and hire someone to complete the restoration, he said.
David Preziosi, executive director of the trust, said officials must move quickly because the roof and second floor have collapsed. "I think it would really make a great addition to the civil rights trail the state is working on," he said.
Those who believe they'll get rich from historic properties are often disappointed, he said.
For example, a man turned down $100,000 for the dilapidated Ritz Theater on Commerce Street in Natchez, holding out for $250,000, he said. "Eventually the roof fell in, and he sold it for $10,000."
In August 1955, Till was 14 when he took the train from Chicago to visit his cousins in this Delta town. When he walked into this general store, some said he asked for candy. Some said he asked the pretty proprietor, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, for a date.
She testified Till grabbed her, called her "baby," and asked her for a date, but Till's cousins say he never touched her or said anything inappropriate. As Till exited the store, he wolf-whistled at her, the cousins say.
Several nights later, Bryant's then-husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till and beat him repeatedly before finally shooting him. They weighed down Till's body and tossed him into the Tallahatchie River.
Till's mother, Mamie Mobley, insisted on an open casket so the world could see what was done to her son, and the world joined her in outrage.
After their arrests, the half brothers admitted they had taken Till, but denied killing him.
In their September 1955 trial in Sumner, defense lawyers said civil rights leaders had planted the body in the river, and then-Tallahatchie County Sheriff H.C. Strider suggested Till was alive and well.
Jurors bought the claim and acquitted Bryant and Milam, who confessed their guilt months later to Look magazine.
Jordan said it seems wrong to him the Tribble family should make millions from selling the store since Tribble's father, Ray, was one of those jurors. "It's almost asinine to do that," the senator said.
Tribble said he and Jordan are good friends. He said of his family: "We've always been Democrats and always stood up for what was right."
His father did serve on the Till jury but was not the foreman, Tribble said. The only remark his father ever made to him about serving on the jury was the prosecution had failed to prove the body was Till's.
Tribble said his family wants to preserve history and has artifacts from the old store that could help return it to its original condition. "We've got all the signs, the cash registers, the shelves," he said.
Fred Carl, CEO of Viking, is among those who want to see the ruin rebuilt in this tiny town 10 miles west of Greenwood.
"It's an important historic landmark that needs to be preserved," he said. "That's what history's all about."
Decades after the Civil War, Mississippians worked to restore historic sites. The same thing is now happening with the civil rights movement.
"That's what history's all about," Carl said. "You preserve where significant things took place."
If the store were returned to its original condition, it would be a major tourist attraction, he said.
Last year, dozens of student groups from across the United States came to the Delta to visit civil rights sites, including the store, which has become "hallowed ground" for the civil rights movement, Jordan said.
In neighboring Tallahatchie County, the Emmett Till Memorial Tourism Commission is creating a civil rights trail for visitors that would include markers to recognize such places as the courthouse where Till's killers were tried and the spot in the Tallahatchie River where his body was found.
Supervisor Jerome "G" Little, who serves on the commission, said Tallahatchie County, with the help of the state Department of Archives and History, is hoping to raise $4 million to help restore the courthouse to the way it looked in 1955.
"It will be a working courthouse," he said. "And it will also be a museum."
In September 1955, swarms of media came from around the world to attend the trial there.
Bill Minor, who covered the case for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, remembers hearing jurors laugh from behind the closed door as they deliberated for a little more than an hour. "You definitely got a feeling they were making a charade of deliberating," he said.
The foreman of the jury emerged to tell reporters they wouldn't have taken so long, but they stopped to drink Cokes.
A few months after Till's killers went free, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., setting in motion the civil rights movement. Parks said later she was thinking the whole time about Till, whose brutalized body had appeared in a Jet magazine photograph.
In 1993, Jordan became one of the first African-American senators to serve from the Delta. "Do you think I would be a senator today if this had not happened?" he asked. "It's significant historically not only to African Americans, but to white Americans.
"The store epitomized the beginning of the civil rights movement. All of a sudden we were not afraid."
Fact, fiction of Till's murder
February 18, 2007
Legends abound regarding the events surrounding 1955 slaying
By Jerry Mitchell
Few homicide cases in this nation's history have been shrouded by as much legend as the 1955 killing of Emmett Till.
Now, more than a half century after the 14-year-old's slaying, prosecutors are preparing to present the case to a Leflore County grand jury, separating fact from fiction, what's known from what may never be known.
"Because of its importance to the civil rights movement, it has this mythic quality like the Kennedy assassination," said David Beito, a University of Alabama professor who's an expert in the Till case. "You get all sorts of conspiracies."
Some of those legends took root not long after the black youth from Chicago was abducted, beaten and shot to death after he reportedly wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant at a grocery store in Money. Some have sprung up since.
Less than a month after Till's Aug. 28, 1955, slaying, an all-white jury acquitted her then-husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam - only to see them confess their guilt months later to Look magazine. The half-brothers have since died.
In 2004, the Justice Department opened an investigation into Till's killing. A grand jury that will be impaneled in March is expected to take up the case.
The FBI's more than 8,000-page report on the Till case sheds new light on the legends surrounding the killing, and in some cases, contradicts them.
Legend No. 1: Up to 14 people were involved in Till's abduction and killing, and five of them are still alive.
This idea surfaced at the time the Justice Department opened its probe.
Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, who made the 2005 documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, said he found this information in his research. Those still living could be charged today, he said.
The FBI was unable to prove this claim.
Beito said the most people mentioned in 1955 news accounts were six - four white men and two black men.
In his testimony in 1955, Mose Wright said in the wee hours of Aug. 28, 1955, Milam and Bryant were not alone. He said someone in the truck with a "lighter" voice identified Till as the one. Some have speculated that someone was Carolyn Bryant, who has told relatives and the FBI she wasn't there.
Wright also described what he believed was a black man standing in the shadows. Wright's son, Simeon, said they believed that man, now dead, led Milam and Bryant to their house in the darkness.
The FBI report details an interview with Willie Reed, who testified in the 1955 trial. He saw five men with Till the morning of the slaying - three white and two black.
Reed since has identified the two black men as Levi "Too Tight" Collins and Joe Willie Hubbard. Collins is now dead, Beito said. "Another legend is that Collins committed suicide after this out of remorse. That's not true. He died of natural causes."
It is unknown if Hubbard is still alive, Beito said.
Some have speculated the third white man was Milam's brother, Leslie Milam, who managed a plantation and is now deceased. If a fourth white man were present, it's possible it could have been another brother, said Beito, who noted Bryant was a twin.
Alvin Sykes of Kansas City, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, said stating publicly how many may have taken part could hurt the case. "If the number is true, it could endanger the lives of potential witnesses," he said. "If it's not true, it may build false expectations."
According to the FBI report, none of those identified as being involved is still alive. The report goes on to urge District Attorney Joyce Chiles of Greenville to take a closer look at Carolyn Bryant, the FBI's lone living suspect who could be charged with kidnapping.
Beauchamp said he found proof of other possible co-conspirators in author Carolyn Haines' 2003 book on Peggy Morgan, My Mother's Witness. In that nonfiction book, Morgan overhears her father, Gene Albritton, uncle and other unnamed white men discussing the case. "Now all we have to do is keep our mouths shut," she quotes her uncle, Bob, as saying.
When Morgan's mother, Inez, threatens to make public what she knows about Till's killing, Morgan's father beats her unconscious, telling her "if she ever spoke the name Emmett Till again, she would pay a terrible price," the book says. After that, he committed her to a mental institution.
"For some reason, the FBI is not believing" Morgan, Beauchamp said. "Their focus was to find enough evidence on one person to bring that person to court. That person was Carolyn Bryant."
Legend No. 2: Henry Lee Loggins took part in the killing.
The names of two black field hands, Collins and Loggins, emerged in 1955 news accounts as potential prosecution witnesses then-Tallahatchie County Sheriff H.C. Strider jailed to keep from testifying.
Loggins told reporters in 1955 and later repeated to Beauchamp that he had no role in the killing. "God help me, I knew nothing about it," he said.
In his interview with Beauchamp, Loggins describes in detail what supposedly happened to Till - repeatedly saying that was what he was told. He said the sheriff jailed him for six months without charges.
News accounts from the time show Loggins was indeed in jail, but not during the trial, Beito said. "Loggins was accused of stealing iron."
The FBI concluded there was no proof Loggins had a role. Disabled by a stroke, he now lives with a sister in Ohio.
His son, Glendora Mayor Johnny Thomas, said he was "elated" to hear the FBI's conclusion.
Philip Dray, author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, said black field hands coerced into helping hardly fall into the same category as vicious killers.
"Maybe they helped wash out a truck of blood, but in a way they're like the other victims," he said. "They're frightened and have to keep their mouths shut."
Legend No. 3: Emmett Till was castrated.
In the wake of Reconstruction, castration was part of the ritual of the lynchings of African Americans, Dray said. "It was a very elaborate procedure done for public consumption."
Not surprisingly, castration rumors persist in the Till case.
But in her book and in interviews, Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, said her son was intact when she viewed his body.
Till's autopsy shows no evidence of castration.
Beauchamp said a relative of Till's told him Till had been castrated: "That's something we'll never really know."
Legend No. 4: Mose Wright pointed at J.W. Milam and said, "Thar he."
The words "Thar he" (also written "dar he") have become a legend surrounding the case for more than five decades.
In the documentary, Eyes on the Prize, African-American journalist James L. Hicks, who reported on the trial for the Cleveland Call and Post, quoted Wright as saying the famous phrase.
Wright's son, Simeon, said his father was articulate and never spoke those words.
Beauchamp agreed. "He said, 'That's him,'" the filmmaker said. "It came from the media trying to make him sound country."
The 320-page transcript records Wright as saying, "There he is."
But Beito asked, "Would the transcript actually say, 'Thar he'?"
One of those present said Wright indeed spoke those words. "No question," said Betty Pearson of Sumner, who attended the 1955 trial. "People have tried to put words in his mouth, but that's what he said."
Some may feel such a quote denigrates Wright, she said, but she felt it merely reflected who he was - an African-American sharecropper who dared to stand up and identify a white killer in court.
"It almost looked like he was standing on his tiptoes when he pointed at (Milam)," she said.
Veteran journalist Bill Minor of Jackson, who covered the trial for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, recalled Wright stood, pointed his bent finger at Milam and said, "thar's the one."
"It was the most dramatic thing I saw in my career," he said.
Mississippi writer Will Campbell immortalized the words, "Thar he," on his personal stationery.
"Mose Wright said, 'Thar he.' He didn't say, 'There's that gentleman,'" Campbell said. "He was a field hand, a proud man and, God knows, a brave man. Those are the two bravest words I think I've ever heard. Most of the people in that courtroom were hostile. He knew it, but it didn't stop him."
Grand jury issues no indictment in Till killing
June 7, 2007
FBI investigation had focused on woman at whom black teen whistled
By Jerry Mitchell
A Leflore County grand jury did not indict anyone in the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, bringing an apparent end to the resurrection of one of the nation's most notorious hate crimes.
A clerk in the Leflore County circuit clerk's office confirmed Monday that the grand jury finished meeting last week and took no action in the case involving the Aug. 28, 1955, slaying of Till, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago. Till was was killed after he reportedly wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, the last known living suspect in the case.
Her then-husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, admitted to Look magazine they repeatedly beat Till before shooting him, weighing him down with a gin fan and tossing his body in the Tallahatchie River.
In September 1955, an all-white jury acquitted the half-brothers, only to see them confess their guilt months later to the magazine. Both have since have died of cancer.
Assistant District Attorney Hallie Gail Bridges said she could not comment because it is a grand jury matter. What a grand jury does isn't public until a grand jury reports, she said. Such reports typically become public days or weeks after a grand jury finishes.
The grand jury considered possible charges against Carolyn Bryant, now 73 and living in Greenville. She has told relatives and the FBI she is innocent.
During the wee hours of Aug. 28, 1955, Roy Bryant and Milam arrived with guns at the Leflore County home of Till's uncle, Mose Wright, and took Till away.
Wright testified in 1955 that, as the pair left with Till, he heard someone in the pickup speak with "a lighter voice than men" identifying Till as the one who wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant. Some have speculated that the someone in the pickup was Carolyn Bryant.
That theory appears to be supported, in part, by the initial statement of her husband. They told Leflore County Sheriff George Smith they had abducted Till but released him unharmed after Carolyn Bryant, who was back at the store in Money, told them Till wasn't the one.
Carolyn Bryant denied being present when Till was abducted, according to the FBI report.
"As painful as it will certainly be to many people around the world, if Carolyn Bryant is truly innocent or there was not sufficient evidence to indict her or anyone else for crimes associated with Emmett Louis Till, then all justice-seeking people should be proud that the grand jury had the courage to do the right thing," said Alvin Sykes of Kansas City, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, whose work helped lead to the case being reopened.
The grand jury not returning an indictment didn't surprise Sykes.
"When I recently asked the district attorney, Joyce Chiles, after reading the whole FBI file, if she was on the grand jury, would she indict? She said, 'Knowing what I know now, if I were a juror on the grand jury, and I was going to follow the law, I would not indict.' That told me it was a weak case," he said.
In February 2004, Sykes met with Chiles and federal authorities about reopening the case. Months later, the Justice Department announced it would investigate, assigning an FBI agent to the case.
David Beito, a University of Alabama history professor who has researched the case exhaustively with his wife, Linda Royster Beito, a Stillman College professor, said the FBI's renewed investigation already has benefitted history by finding the long-lost transcript from the 1955 trial.
He said he hopes the FBI will make public its lengthy report on the case - something that could help historians sort out fact from fiction in the Till killing.
After wrapping up its investigation, the FBI in early 2006 turned over a more than 8,000-page report, which recommended that Chiles take a closer look at Carolyn Bryant, the only living suspect the report identified.
Aaron Condon, professor emeritus for the University of Mississippi School of Law, said of the Till case: "That's a mighty old case and mighty slim evidence unless they (authorities) have more than we know about."
But the grand jury's failure to indict wouldn't keep the case from being pursued at a later time, he said. "If you get additional evidence, you can bring it up again," Condon said.
A bill pending in Congress would create a cold-cases unit to track down unpunished killings from the civil-rights era. FBI field offices have uncovered 51 killings from that time period, and the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of 127 race-related killings between 1954 and 1968 - a number it concedes could be much higher.
A news conference is slated for today at FBI headquarters regarding the reopening of these cold cases.
Since 1989, authorities in Mississippi and six other states have reexamined 29 killings from the civil-rights era, leading to 28 arrests and 22 convictions.