Moses Wright has been a fieldhand in the Mississippi Delta for as many of his 64 years as he has been able to walk. For the last nine of them, he has cropped shares for G. C. Frederick, a planter near Money, Miss.
Before his troubles came, he was as much of a success as a field Negro could hope to be in the Delta. He even owned a narrow corner of land outright; with cotton at $175 a bale, he could expect this year to make a little more than $2000 from the land he farms for Frederick.
It is the essence of the Mississpipi Delta that white people live off Negroes. This month, in Sumner, the Negro picked cotton and the white man loafed open-mouthed around the county courthouse. The prime economic law is that the Negro owns nothing. He cannot even be a bootlegger for Negroes; Leroy Collins, a Negro, appears to have made his living selling sneaky pete to other Negroes; but he acted only as agent for J. W. Milam, a white storekeeper. By these standards, Moses Wright was almost a man of substance. Around Money, Negroes and whites alike called him "Preacher," an honorary title for good Negroes as "Judge" is for white lawyers who have escaped disbarment for 20 years.
Moses Wright was not a man with much impulse to escape Mississippi. Once every three or four years, he and his wife Elizabeth would travel North on the Illinois Central—W. C. Handy's "Yalla Dawg"—and spend a few days with their Chicago relatives. To the Mississippi white, who regards his Negroes with a mixture of fear and guilt, Chicago is a kind of Sodom of corruption, and Moses Wright's relatives were an astronomical distance removed from him.
The farthest away seems to have been Mami e Bradley, Elizabeth Wright's niece, a $3600-a-year federal worker living in a lower middle class section of South Chicago. She had been born Mamie Carthan in Webb, Miss., and been taken North when she was two. She was the widow of Louis Till, who had been killed in the war; their son Emmett was now 14.
Emmett Till was an average schoolboy who seems to have had most of the ambitions of the new Negro: he planned to go to college and learn a skilled trade, both expectations far above the cotton fields which were Moses Wright's destiny. One day, early in August, Elizabeth Wright suggested that Mrs. Bradley give Emmett a vacation in Mississippi. She was very happy with the invitation. On August 18 she went home early to help Emmett pack. While he was getting his clothes ready, she says she explained to him that Mississippi was not like Chicago, and that he must be especially polite to any white man he met and, in any crisis, be ready to go down on his knees.
Emmett appears to have been quite gay about the approaching adventure. As he was leaving, he picked up his father's old beat-silver ring, with its initials "L.T."; it had always been too big for him; he showed his mother that his finger was now large enough to wear it.
"Gee," she said to him, "you're getting to be a big boy now."
There were six boys at the Wright house in Mississippi. Their life appears to have been narrow enough to make any relief exciting. On Wednesday night, August 25, Moses Wright took them to church according to custom; he had hardly bowed his head there when the boys had sneaked out and taken his old car.
They rode up to Money, which is a row of stores and filling stations along the railroad track in the dust and there Emmett Till went into a store to buy a few cents worth of bubblegum. The store he chose was not one frequented by the Wrights; it was owned by Roy Bryant, a smoky-eyed young paratrooper, and the son of a fecund clan with a reputation for brawling, whose chief was his huge, balding 36-year-old half-brother J. W. Milam. Bryant was an ill-tempered, edgy man and a merchant with small appeal to quiet customers like Moses Wright.
The night Emmett Till went there for his bubble gum, Roy Bryant was out of town, and the store was tended by his wife, Caroline, a high school beauty already chipping and fading at 21. She and Emmett were alone in the store for a few minutes, and she is the last surviving witness to his conduct. With the Bryants in crisis, Caroline testified that Emmett, whom she described as a man, made her an indecent proposal. The only undisputed fact seems to be that he left the store with a suggestive "Goodbye" and that, when he was in the car and she came out, he emitted a woo-woo whistle.
It was a very small gesture, but one which Emmett's country cousins failed to report to Moses Wright, if only because it was part of an escapade which would have brought his wrath upon all of them. Moses Wright got his official notice of Emmett's capital crime at two o'clock the next Saturday morning. He had come home from an evening at Greenwood and had been asleep an hour when he was awakened by a voice outside his cabin shouting, "Preacher, Preacher!" He arose to answer the summons; as he was going to his door, the voice went on:
"It's Mr. Bryant. I've come for the boy that did the talking at Money."
When he opened the door, there was J. W. Milam standing with a flashlight and a pistol. "I'd know Mr. Milam if I seen him in Texas," said Moses Wright afterwards. "I want the boy from Chicago," Milam said. Moses Wright took the invaders back to the bedroom where Emmett Till was sleeping with Moses Wright's son Simeon. J. W. Milam shook him awake and asked if he was the boy from Chicago. Emmett Till answered "Yes," and J. W. Milam said, "Don't say 'yes' to me or I'll whup hell out of you."
At the door, Elizabeth Wright pleaded for Emmett; she promised to give Mr. Milam any money he wanted. Moses Wright stood on the porch; there was a third man out there in the column of blackness. Afterwards, out of six decades of training as a field Negro, Moses Wright said that it seemed to him that the two raiders treated the third companion as though he "were a colored man." They did not know Moses Wright; they did not even know Emmett Till's name; they were to learn it from the newspapers later; they had been led to their objective by a Negro. In the Delta, even the night riders have their body-servants.
And then Moses Wright entered a plea for Emmett that was rooted in his sense of place and tradition. He asked Milam just to take Emmett out and whip him. "The boy don't look like he's got good sense," he said. But Milam pushed Emmett out on the porch; as he went off, he turned and asked Moses Wright how old he was. Moses Wright said 64; and Milam asked him if he knew anybody present. " 'No,'" he said, " *I don't know nobody' and they said I'd better not or I wouldn't live to be 65."
They took Emmett out in the dark; J. W. Milam flashed his light on the boy's face out by the car. Moses Wright, standing on the porch, heard a "light" voice from the rear of the car say, yes, that was the boy; and then the car, with lights out, was gone down the road to Money. Moses Wright went back in his house, and the boys told him what had happened in Money on Wednesday night. By now, Elizabeth Wright was hysterical; Wright drove her to Sumner for the Chicago train. Every day, for the next two weeks, she would write and tell him to concede defeat and come North.
But Emmett was gone and Moses Wright had to stay to find him. Afterwards, alone in his house with his gun, waiting for his crop to come in, he would explain his revolt only by saying that, if he had kept quiet, "They'd think I done it."
And so, that same Sunday afternoon, Moses Wright drove to Greenwood and told the story of Emmett Till's abduction to Sheriff George Smith. Bryant was a friend of Smith's; and, as a friend, Smith drove out to Bryant to ask him about the old Negro's complaint.
Smith found Bryant asleep in the back of the store on the hot Sunday afternoon which had followed his long Saturday night. They talked as friends in the sheriff's car; Smith asked Bryant whether he had taken a colored boy out of one of the cabins the night before. Bryant answered that he had brought a boy back to his store, decided that he was the wrong boy, and then turned him loose to find his way home. Thereafter, said Roy Bryant, the outraged husband, he had played cards all night with his kin.
The sheriff could do nothing but arrest J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant for kidnapping. They sat in Greenwood jail for three days while the rain came driving down. Moses Wright clung to his cabin; around noon Wednesday, Deputy Sheriff John Ed Cothran came there to report that a body which could be Emmett Till's had been found in the Tallahatchie River.
Moses Wright went out to the muddy Tallahatchie and was shown a body lying face down in a boat with its head beaten in. A sheriff's deputy turned it over, and Moses Wright saw it was Emmett. The ring the boy brought down from Chicago was still on the body's finger; the Negro undertaker pulled if off and gave it to Moses Wright.
The body lay on a slab in Greenwood for a day. A policeman took its picture and the print was buried somewhere in the city files. Dr. L. D. Otken, a local pathologist, came to certify death; he testified with considerable vehemence later that he hadn't touched it and had no views as to the cause of death. That was the closest the county came to an inquest; then the body was turned over to Moses Wright with the understanding that it would be buried at once in the graveyard at Money.
But then Mrs. Bradley called to tell him to ship the body to Chicago. He sent it off and went back to his cotton, seemingly unaware that, by now, Emmett Till's name cried out in every newspaper and that, just because he had gone to the sheriff to clear himself with Mamie Bradley, his life could never be what it had been.
Milam and Bryant were moved to the Tallahatchie County jail; their trial was set for Sept. 19 in Sumner, a dusty old village with 500 residents and the metropolis of a plantation county with a population of 30,000, two-thirds of them Negroes.
Governor Hugh White rasped in Jackson that Mississippi must prove to the world that its system of justice was capable of revenging the murder of a Negro boy by white men. To Hugh White the stake was Mississippi's old claim that it could deny the Negro property, the vote, and equality of education, and still grant him the equal protection of the criminal code. On almost the same day that he approved a legislative program to freeze segregation in the schools and make agitation for Negro rights a criminal offense, White appointed Robert B. Smith, a former FBI agent, to direct the state's case against J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant. He had been telling Tallahatchie County for years that the Negro was an object of fear and contempt; now he would try to persuade twelve of its white citizens that it was a capital crime to murder a Negro boy.
He had to take Smith, an alien from Ripley, which is 200 miles from the Tallahatchie, because no Sumner lawyer was available as special prosecutor. All five members of the Sumner bar had joined the defense; the friends of Bryant and Milam put glass jars in the stores and raised $10,000 to finance their case.
By now, the white minority which clutches the Delta had found the story it needed to believe: Emmett Till had been murdered and it was a good thing, because he had tried to ravish Caroline Bryant. And then again, he had not been murdered at all; he had been smuggled back North by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a fake body, with the Till ring on its finger, had been thrown in the Tallahatchie. County Sheriff H. C. Strider, who had seen the body and turned it over to Moses Wright as Emmett Till's, sat in his tax collector's office and talked and talked and finally decided that it had not been Emmett Till at all and might even have been a white man. All of a sudden, there were no witnesses for the state who were not Negroes.
There was, of course, Moses Wright alone in his cabin; he had sent his boys away and slept there near his cotton with a rifle under his pillow. Sheriff Smith had given him permission to defend himself, but no one bothered him. There was an assumption that, in the crisis, the tradition would triumph and he would collapse too. Sidney Carlton, of defense counsel, summed up the community view when he said: "Mose will tell one story in the cotton field, and quite another story on the stand."
J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant came to trial on Monday, Sept. 19, in Sumner's fetid second-floor courtroom, bulging to its dirty lime green walls with its all-white jury panel and with Bryants. They came with their little boys, who babbled and tottered and tugged at their daddies and from time to time aimed their empty water pistols at deputy sheriffs and went "boom-boom." It was so hot that J. W. Milam said once that it was hard not to feel mean on a day like this one; but he is an indulgent father, and, from time to time, he would tickle his son Billy and both would laugh.
The courtroom was so crowded that there was no room for Moses Wright to sit down; he stood in the back, a thin old man, in a tieless shirt and his galluses and old, cracked shoes. There was a concerted, metronomic ballet of waving fans between him and the judge's desk before which Smith and District Attorney Gerald Chatham struggled to pick a jury which might, by some thin chance, believe Moses Wright.
On Wednesday morning, Moses Wright was called to the stand. He sat in that squeaking old chair and told the prosecutor, who kept calling him "Uncle Mose," what had happened on that Saturday night hardly three weeks before.
The moment came when he was asked to point out J. W. Milam as the man who came to get Emmett Till. Moses Wright stood up; he raised himself on his tip-toes, thrust out a skinny finger, and looked full into the heavy, violent face before him and said, "There he is." And, for good measure, as if to compound his crime, he turned a little and threw out the finger again and said, "There's Mr. Bryant." He seemed almost jaunty about it, but he sat down and thrust his body against the chair back, as though his conditioned flesh was rebelling against his new brave spirit; and then it was possible to understand that he was defying not just Milam but his own oldest habits.
Then he was offered up to Sidney Carlton for bulldozing, and the voice of the defense attorney was the voice of every white overseer that Moses Wright has heard since boyhood. Carlton roared and Moses Wright's rebellious flesh shrank back from habit, but his tongue forced him to the wildest piece of defiance a Delta Negro can accomplish; he stopped saying "Sir," and began answering Carlton's every lash with a "That's right" which was naked at the end. He ran the hardest half hour of the hardest life possible for an American, and in the end he clung to his story. Carlton let him up, and he went back to the witness room where at least there was a seat for him.
For the next two days, the state of Mississippi labored to convict two white men on the testimony of Negroes like Moses Wright. Emmett Till's mother came to the stand carrying a fan; it seemed almost an affront to the spectators that she could thus imply that a Negro felt the heat as much as a white. She was very calm and quiet, holding herself in check, as though from some desperate sense that, if she remained contained, the jury might see her as a mother and not as a Negro. The defense began a chain of questions designed to prove that she was from Chicago and a race inciter; very coldly Judge Curtis Swango ruled it out. In this courtroom, she would be called "Mamie," but just this once, in Mississippi, the judge and not Chicago would try a murder case.
She was excused, and the trial went on; the state put on another Negro witness, a stammering 18-year-old fieldhand named Willie Reed who "I said, The Progressive is the perfect Christmas gift— it fits practically anyone." (see page 31) November, 1955 swore that he had seen J. W. Milam and Emmett Till together the morning after the boy disappeared. While Willie Reed fought to sustain his story, Mrs. Bradley and Moses Wright sat in the courtyard outside—she by herself and he with the other field Negroes in their appointed place around Sumner's Confederate monument. O
ut there she talked about the books she reads and the job she holds and it was plain that white Sumner should fear her more than it did Emmett's whistle. For this is a county of courthouse loafers living off another people, of storekeepers with an allNegro custom, of plantation owners with air-conditioned homes and swimming pools who pay their hands $3.50 a day, of county payroll riders and tax collectors. Mrs. Bradley is a civil servant paid more than a Tallahatchie sheriff's deputy; the notion of a Negro competing for a public job is as outrageous as miscegenation.
In the courtyard Moses Wright was saying that he'd try to hang on in Mississippi: "I'm so scrounged down in this country that I hate to leave it." Upstairs the defense was putting on three white witnesses, including the sheriff who had turned the body over to Moses Wright, all loudly swearing that it couldn't have been Emmett Till's body.
On Friday morning, Chatham and Smith fought without hope to persuade the jury that Bryant and Milam deserved to die for the murder of Emmett Till. The defense was more restrained; it had, after all, very little to worry about. There was only the detail of the ring on the body, and this was explained, very sedately, to the jury by J. W. Whitten, of defense counsel, a thin young man of infinite delicacy, who under ordinary circumstances wouldn't spit on the peckerwoods before him.
Whitten said his theory was that Bryant and Milam had sent the Till boy home just as they said they had. Moses Wright had driven down the road and met Emmett coming back. He had picked him up and gone in search of one of those enemies of good race relations who abound in Mississippi as they do in Chicago. And these people had planted an old corpse in the river with Emmett's ring on its finger.
The Delta Negro must have a kind of chemical sense of danger; there could be no other reason why, while the genteel young Mr. Whitten was thus putting the finger on him, Moses Wright went into the sheriff's office, collected his witness fee, and walked down the road, across the bridge that leads out of town.
The jury was out an hour and eight minutes and came back with the appointed not guilty verdict. Bryant and Milam heard it with cigars in their mouths, and thereafter luxuriated 20 minutes in the courtroom for the news cameras. There was no demonstration, partly because Judge Swango forbade it and partly perhaps because everyone except J. W. Milam was a little ashamed of himself.
Willie Reed and Mrs. Bradley went North the next day. Both were emptyhanded; Willie Reed is without property by definition, and Emmett Till is so entirely obliterated by act of the jury that his mother cannot even collect his $400 insurance policy.
Moses Wright went back to his cabin; he still hoped to gather his crop. A few days after the trial, when all the reporters had gone and the television cameramen with them, five carloads of white men drove down the road from Money and stopped at his cabin and raised the old cry of "Preacher, Preacher." Moses Wright hid in the fields; the next day he went to Chicago for whatever the city holds for a man whose hands know nothing but cotton. His crop appears to be a dead loss.
Sumner has shuddered and recovered; it has lost no one but Emmett Till, who was a stranger; Mamie Bradley, who was an expatriate; Willie Reed, who can hardly be listed in the census, and Moses Wright. And yet whatever history Tallahatchie County can have for this decade is the history of these rejected people. Who would have thought that four poor Negroes had so much blood in them? Who, most of all, would have thought that Moses Wright could be trained so long to bend his knee and then, worn down at 64, raise his head and leave white Mississippi with the uneasy sense that it had impoverished him and cast him forth, but that it has lost more than he has, because he carried with him the only intact piece of pride in all their state?
Murray Kempton, columnist for the New York Post, covered the trial and its aftermath for that paper. He is the author of the recently published book, "Part of Our Time: Some Monuments and Ruins of the Thirties."