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The 1955 Emmett Till Trial Transcript: A Map Of American White Supremacism

The New York Times has a better article (via Prometheus 6) than the one I linked to last night. The Times article goes through the interesting history of the last copy of the transcript that had been known before the new one was found:

Investigators verified the transcript's authenticity, Mr. Garrity said, by comparing it with what people who had seen the trial remembered, and with a book written by Steve Whitaker, a scholar who had a copy until his basement flooded in the 1980's. . . .

Until yesterday, the last person known to have had a trial transcript in the Till case was Mr. Whitaker, now a researcher for the Florida Department of Health. As a graduate student in 1962, he was assigned to revisit the trial for his master's thesis in political science. He says the jurors, who received him openly because he had grown up in the county, told him they did not doubt that Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam had been responsible for the killing.

Mr. Whitaker says he obtained his copy of the transcript, a thick sheaf of onionskin with a binder clip, from the lead defense lawyer, J. J. Breland, after interviewing him for hours over a fifth of Jack Daniel's.

"He just gave it to me," Mr. Whitaker said in an interview yesterday. "They looked on it as assisting me with my research. They never asked for it back."

Mr. Whitaker said he believed that the transcript had been ordered by the defense team and had never been an official court document.

The Times article is also good because it touches on two aspects of the American racist power structure that obstructs justice in those Civil Rights era murder cases which have actually been brought to trial. First reason mentioned is that the evidence keeps disappearing.

Scholars and filmmakers have long sought a copy of the transcript. But other important pieces of evidence have long been lost as well. For instance, the cotton gin fan that was attached to Emmett's neck with barbed wire to weigh down his body in the river disappeared when the county courthouse was remodeled.

Leesha Faulkner, a reporter who covers courts and government for The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, said old documents were often hard to find in Mississippi.

"If something didn't suit somebody, they took it home and put it in their attic and never said anything about it," Ms. Faulkner said. In the 1980's, she said, she was at an auction in Greenwich Village when she found government photos, and a state official's detailed account, of the 1962 rioting by whites in response to the earliest desegregation at the University of Mississippi. (Emphasis added.)

The second reason mentioned is a social atmosphere that supports white supremacism. In their closing arguments in the 1955 murder trial, the defense lawyers told the jurors that

even in the face of national press coverage, "every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men," and warning that the jurors' "forefathers would turn over in their graves if these boys were convicted on such evidence as this."

What protected the two murderers in 1955 (who later confessed the crime in Look magazine) and the others since implicated, who may be prosecuted in a new trial, is not unique to the South and it is not only in the past. Remember the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia that I mentioned yesterday? Note this detail from Professor Kim's historical essay:

The MOVE members denied that they had fired on the police and there was little forensic evidence available at trial because the city had the house destroyed right after the gunfight -- notwithstanding that it was a crime scene that would normally have been secured (emphasis added).

The evidence wasn't just stashed in somebody's southern attic: it was destroyed outright by the city authorities. Moving further out of the South and into the immediate present, David Neiwert has made this important observation in connection to a rash of hate crimes in Davis, California.

"You have to recognize that most hate criminals see themselves as acting on the secret wishes of the community," he said. "If they get a slap on the wrist, they see that as tacit approval. Inevitably, that escalates.

Social approval of homegrown domestic terrorism against people of color, gays and lesbians, Jews and Muslims might not be stated quite so directly in courtroom arguments, but it is still a big part of the problem, along with the pervasive attitude that if we ignore them, the extremists will just go away. This is unfortunate, especially now, when white supremacist, antisemitic, anti-Muslim, homophobic extremism is on the rise (via David Neiwert) and its exponents are increasingly embraced by the mainstream.

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Susan Klopfer May 23, 2005, 8:27 am

    Paul: The wonderful part about living in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is hearing the “whispers” of what went on years ago. Mississippi’s history, oral but not always written, includes routine reports of brutality and murder.

    Early Delta planters were always fearing a race war and in September of 1889, the Governor sent three regiments to Minter City (in Leflore County but close to Money in Tallahatchie County where Emmett Till was kidnapped) to ensure that CFA members were unarmed. Completing their assignment, the state regiments withdrew and allowed a massacre of CFA members and families to proceed.

    There were no reports of blacks being armed or of whites being shot; estimates of African Americans murdered reached as high as one hundred. From his research on the massacre, historian William F. Holmes observed that neither the National Guard, nor the governor and black residents of Leflore County were forthcoming with accounts of the incident. But he discovered several first-hand accounts by travelers who happened to be in the region, including the observations of J. C. Engle, an agent for a New York textile company, who was in and about Greenwood during the trouble:

    When he arrived at New Orleans several days later, Engle told reporters that Negroes “were shot down like dogs.” Members of the posse not only killed people in the swamps, he said, but they even invaded homes and murdered “men women and children.” Engle recalled one act in which a sixteen year old white boy “beat out the brains of a little colored girl while a bigger brother with a gun kept the little one’s parents off.” Several sources reported that the posse singled out four well-known leaders of the Colored Farmers Alliance whom they shot to death: Adolph Horton, Scott Morris, Jack Dial and J.M. Dial. “A black undercover reporter sent to the region stated that the truth may never be known because terrified blacks dare not speak of the matter, even to each other.”

    The lack of coverage of this massacre by the Mississippi press, and the failure of state and federal officials to lead investigations, left researcher Holmes wondering how many other instances of violence of a “greater and lesser magnitude” happened in Mississippi during this era. (There were many.)

    Recently, one young African American who grew up in Minter City in the late 1970s and early 1980s told me he had never heard of the massacre but did report of folk lore from his youth about “dead bodies” in the “Singing River,” who could sometimes be heard at night. sk

    BTW I have put up one more blog that should interest you. I’m posting relating Mississippi Sovereignty Committee records to http://Mississippisovereigntycommission.blogspot.com and they are pretty fascinating. I noticed that you mentioned the middleoftheinternet.com but that’s not the blog site and you might have trouble posting there. The other blogs are emmett-till.com and civilrightsbooks.com. Interesting stuff, isn’t it?

    Susan Klopfer

  • Lashanae June 4, 2005, 1:13 pm

    i feel very sad about what happen to Poor Emmitt Tilll. and when i seen that picture of him when he was beaten i cried cause it was wrong and he was a good looking boy i hpoe the people that did this go to jail fo life.

    love Lashanae shaneice Robinson

  • jasmine November 6, 2005, 5:36 pm

    i think poor emmett did not diserve that and they should of not did that to him and may god bless him and his family r.i.p emmett till

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