Uncomfortable Vignettes

I’m reading James Patterson’s volume Grand Expectations: The United States 1945 – 1974. The work is part of the acclaimed Oxford History of the United States series, which is perhaps the most authoritative historical survey available. Ditch your partisan sources and read some volumes in this series. It will open your eyes and make you a more responsible and informed citizen.

I wish to offer an excerpt from Patterson’s discussions of race in America in the post-war period. Specifically, the murder of Emmett Till in August 1955:

One of the most shocking incidents involved the killing in August of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, an area that was two-thirds black and where no black person was on the rolls of registered voters or of juries. Till’s “crime” was to whistle at a white woman in a grocery store.

Hearing of the transgression—a taboo in much of the Deep South—the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, John Milam, drove to the sharecropper shack of Moses Wright, Till’s great-uncle, snatched Till, and drove off with him. Three days later Till was found dead in the Tallahatchie River. He had been shot in the head and tied to a cotton gin fan so that he would sink. His body was badly mangled.

Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, had the body shipped back to Chicago, where she displayed it in an open casket for four days. Thousands of people paid their respects.

National media carried the story to the country. To the surprise of many Americans who understood what Mississippi “justice” was like in such cases, Bryant and Milam were actually arrested and charged with murder. The trial, which took place before crowds of reporters, took place in September. But it was heard before an all-white all-male jury and was a charade and a circus.

The sheriff greeted black people attending the trial with “Hello, niggers.” Blacks, including reporters, were segregated in the courtroom. Wright courageously testified and identified Bryant and Milam as the abductors.

But the defense attorney played openly to local white prejudices, reminding the jurors in his summation, “I am sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.” The jury took only an hour to deliver verdicts of not guilty. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” a juror explained, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

A grand jury, ignoring Wright’s eyewitness account, later declined to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping; their bail was returned, and they went free. Wright dared not return to his shack, moved to Chicago, and never came back home.

Patterson, Grand Expectations, 395-396

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