As part of Black History month the AFRO is celebrating the life of Moses Newson, the former executive editor of the paper, who turned 90-years-old this month.
In the Fall of 1955 Newson covered the trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant in Sumner, Mississippi, two men who were charged with brutally killing Emmett Louis Till who was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, and throwing his body into the Tallahatchie River. Till was fourteen and his crime, such as it was, was that he had whistled at a White woman, Carolyn Bryant. A new book on the case discloses that Bryant made up the charges against Till. Milam and Bryant, who are both dead, were acquitted by an all White jury. In 1956 they confessed to Look Magazine.
Below Newson recounts how he and his editor L. Alex Wilson covered the trial for the Tri-State Defender, a Chicago based publication.
As told to Kamau High, AFRO Managing Editor
“Most of what I did was pre-trial. I was there for the first day of the trial and not so much after that. One of us had to be in Memphis to get copy off to Chicago.
Sumner was a tiny little place back then. We had to walk through some silence from people going up to the courthouse. When we first heard about this case, someone whistling at a White woman in Mississippi, I got down to Money right away. I got into town and shot pictures around town. They called it town but it was a little jump off place.
First thing I did, was shot pictures. I found my way out to talk to Moses Wright [Till was Wright’s nephew]. Moses Wright was in a cotton field, so I’m interviewing him in a cotton field. I shot pictures and went over to talk to Sheriff [George] Smith. [Smith was Sheriff of Leflore County, where Milam and Bryant were arrested. They were tried in Tallahatchie County because that was where Till’s body was found.] His office arrested Milam and Bryant.
It didn’t take long to set a trial date once the body was found.
Sheriff Strider Helps the Killers
When I got back down there we found out Sheriff Clarence Strider [Sheriff of Tallahatchie County], hadn’t done much as far as coming up with witnesses. He sided with the guys who committed the crime. He testified for them. [Strider testified for the defense and laid out his theory that Till was still alive.]
They didn’t have much space for the Black press to operate in the courtroom. About four seats had been designated and it was in a bad location. It was the biggest turnout of Black reporters I had ever seen at such an event.
Search for Witnesses
There were rumors that there were people who had known something that they could provide at a court hearing. That’s when the question came up about searching for witnesses who could testify.
It was decided that I and some NAACP people would go out and see if we could turn up some people who would testify.
Ruby Hurly then regional NAACP director in Alabama, Amzie Moore [ then NAACP Cleveland Miss. branch and Medgar Evers [NAACP state field director] went on the first search.
It was decided we should all change clothes so that we could wear clothes that people on plantations wear. So we put on overalls and plaid shirts, etc.
On the search, we would go around and ask questions. A lot of the questions were asked by Medgar, who seemed to know a lot of people.
Finally we located Willie Reed. He was the guy who had seen stuff happen on the plantation. He had heard the boy [Till] being beat up and seen Milam going in with a gun. He had seen White people in a truck that took Till away and seen a couple of Black guys in the back with Till. That resulted in a bigger trip by officials and newsmen.
Our thing also turned up Amanda Bradley. She was one of the people who did testify at the trial.
This whole thing was happening about a year after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation. And it was tense throughout the South. All the politicians were making statements and stirring up things.
Strider and some others apparently stashed the Black guys witnesses claim were on the truck with Till, [Levi “Too Tight” Collins and Henry Lee] and some others in jail in a nearby town. Although their names came up, they were never seen around the trial.
Carolyn Bryant Changes Her Story 62 Years Later
Everything she said most people knew already. Bryant and Milam were out of town when this happened. Bryant’s wife was staying around her. As far as I know, neither of those women told their husbands what had happened. When they got back in town, apparently one of the young guys who was there with Till at the store said something that brought that to the attention of those two guys.
It started off being a whistle and him apparently saying something to her. When she got in court she went on and on about the things he said to her and indicated to her. The judge didn’t allow that testimony to be heard by jury but I’m pretty sure in that little place word got around. Her story just kept growing. So now she has written this book.
Nothing was said or done that should have resulted in him being killed she says.
She was a strong witness against Till and stirred up a lot of bitterness against Till.
Apparently she was at the scene when they kidnapped him from the house. She would have been the most likely to I.D. Till to be taken away
The only place where I went back to was Little Rock where four of us Black newsmen got chased around by a mob at Central High School. [Newson covered the integration of Central High School in 1957, when nine Black students were denied entry to the school.]
About 30 years later I went back to Little Rock do a story on them.
No one in the world could understand someone killing a kid because he was supposed to have whistled at a White woman. But in Mississippi and other places, that was how the South was.”