Emmett Till’s trial and other civil rights milestones still vivid for reporter


John Herbers covered the civil rights struggles of the 1960s for UPI and the New York Times. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
August 27, 2013

Editors running John Herbers’ latest courtroom updates seized on “Wolf Whistle” as their new adjective. Headlines boomed about the “Wolf Whistle Murder.” There was the “Wolf Whistle Jury,” and the accused killers, two white half brothers from the Mississippi Delta, were the “Wolf Whistle Pair.”

Herbers, a 31-year-old white reporter for the United Press, was scrambling to cover the slaying of a 14-year-old black boy, Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago. Till was kidnapped from his great-uncle’s home near Money, Miss., Herbers wrote, after being accused of approaching a married white woman in a “fresh manner and of whistling at her suggestively.”

Wednesday is not only the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. It is also the anniversary of the day eight years earlier — Aug. 28, 1955 — that Till was beaten, shot through the head and thrown in a river with a cotton gin’s fan tied to his neck.

With each development at the trial in Tallahatchie County, Herbers would jump up from his seat near the front of the scorching second-floor courtroom, rush past the table where the sheriff segregated the black reporters, and dash downstairs to phone in updates so his ever-hungry wire service could beat its rivals. Then he’d run back upstairs and ask a colleague to catch him up.

Herbers walks slowly now. He’s 89, and some details from the hundreds of thousands of words he wrote have faded. This month, after nearly half a century living in a modest brick home in Bethesda, Herbers and his wife, Betty, moved to an assisted-living facility in the District.


John Herbers works with United Press International equipment in February of 1962. (Courtesy of John Herbers/Courtesy of John Herbers)

But his memories of the trial remain vivid. In the clipped, economic cadence of an old-school wire reporter, he recounts the story of the naive northerner’s brutal end, still pausing, 58 years later, to make sure there’s no ambiguity on the spelling: “There was a black boy, Emmett Till, T . . . I . . . Double L . . .

“He came down, and he wasn’t aware of all the Mississippi prejudices,” Herbers said. “This was the worst thing you could do.”

As many pause to remember key moments in the nation’s pained racial history, Herbers finds himself checking with his wife to confirm that the unbelievable, horrendous and sometimes inspiring things that he witnessed in Mississippi and throughout the South during the 1950s and 1960s really happened.

Tucked unobtrusively in the middle of a story on the lynching of a truck driver accused of raping a white woman, Herbers wrote a sentence in 1959 that today seems both casual and crazy.

“One candidate for sheriff said that by being a suspect, he could pick up votes,” Herbers reported.

Sitting with Betty in the lobby of their new building near Rock Creek Park, Herbers interrupts a quick reading from his old clip.

“Pick up what?”

Votes.

“Oh, God,” he said, falling into a deep, unbelieving, joyless laughter. “It still kind of shocks you when you see something like that,” he said finally. “It’s just really awful.”

For Herbers and his colleagues in the United Press’s Jackson bureau, which he headed for much of the 1950s, a parade of awfulness became a routine part of their articles — and their lives. Their first paragraph often followed a pattern.

“The subject was always, ‘an all-white jury,’ and the predicate was always ‘acquitted,’ and the direct object was ‘the guys who did these heinous things,’” said Lewis Lord, 76, a writer now living in Falls Church who joined the Jackson bureau right out of high school.

In “The Race Beat,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the press and the civil rights movement, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff say that “merely covering Negro leaders and their activities — as Herbers had done as far back as 1952 — constituted groundbreaking reporting in those years.”

Lord recalls watching Herbers punching out his weekly columns on Teletype paper. The analytical pieces elevated coverage and were a rarity for wire reporters, he said, and for many newspapers at the time.

“He’d write a paragraph or two, take a look at it, not like it, rip it away and start again. That’s where I learned to spend time, if you have some time, to get something done well,” Lord said.

Demand for juicy stories

Fierce competition with the Associated Press — including frequent logs comparing when each wire service broke stories — helped keep the atmosphere highly charged.

“There was a demand for good, juicy Southern stories,” Herbers said, and a lot of them out of Mississippi “were so raunchy, they’d put them on the wire as a bulletin . . .

In one, Herbers traveled to the community of Rosedale, along the Mississippi River, to try to untangle the story of a black tenant and his wife who were accused of killing their landlord in 1959.

The tenants had been trying to move from the landlord’s property for days, but the man blocked them in a dispute over a debt. Herbers discovered that the landlord had been convicted two decades earlier of peonage — holding someone in slavery, essentially — after keeping a woman chained by her neck to a bedpost over a $137 debt. “It was a very strange case,” he remembered.

His body of work brought him a Nieman Fellowship and, soon after, a job at the New York Times covering civil rights throughout the South.

During the first three months working for the Times in 1963, he traveled a circuit that included trips to Jackson; Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Selma in Alabama; Orangeburg, Clemson and Columbia in South Carolina; Plaquemine, La.; and Greensboro, N.C.

On Nov. 19, he was back in Tuscaloosa for a short article on a dynamite explosion a few blocks from the dorm that housed Vivian Malone, one of two black students admitted to the University of Alabama that year over the resistance of Gov. George C. Wallace.

In the second paragraph from the bottom, he included a bit of regional context.

“Tuscaloosa has had no previous racial bombings. The city is 58 miles west of Birmingham, which has had more than 50 bombings, all unsolved, since World War II.”

They called it Bombingham, he says now. Today, a terrorist bombing seizes the nation’s attention. Then, “it really had gotten to be routine,” Herbers said.

State-sponsored terror had a different definition. “The officials, in some cases, were the ones doing the bombings,” Herbers said.

Herbers would try to slough off the violence he saw. “He didn’t really bring the story home,” Betty Herbers said. “He would come in, and the whole world was the family, the kids, you know? He said very little about what he experienced before walking in the front door.”

He did, however, sometimes take the family to the front, which left lasting marks. When civil rights campaigners led by King were coming under attack in St. Augustine, Fla., a long-planned family vacation was scuttled, recalls one of the Herbers’ four daughters, Anne Farris Rosen, who worked as a special correspondent for the New York Times and The Washington Post. Instead, the family joined Herbers in St. Augustine.

Although they had lodging away from the rioting and tried to remain out of the action, thugs repeatedly filed past their hotel one night, firing guns. The next day, Herbers picked up his family and left. On a return trip, he was threatened on the town square and run out of town.

Herbers’ father ran small country stores in Tennessee, where Herbers was born. His parents were raised in segregation, and supported it, knowing nothing different, he said. But they also did not condone any disrespect toward their black customers.

Rejecting the heritage

It took World War II, and facing the absurdity of segregated Army units when he was stationed in the Philippines, to fully reject that part of his Southern background.

The Till trial, as well, forced him “to walk that balance between his heritage as a Southerner and his rejection of that heritage,” Farris Rosen said.

It was at a country store that Till encountered the young brunette who was married to Roy Bryant. He and his half brother J.W. Milam admitted kidnapping Till but claimed that they let him go after discovering “we had the wrong Negro.”

But a witness saw Till dragged into a barn and heard his screams. The sheriff argued that there was no way to prove it was even Till’s body that had washed up. Herbers wrote that the “jury of 12 sun-tanned white men, mostly farmers” reached their verdict after deliberating for an hour and seven minutes.

They found them not guilty.

As Herbers headed home to Jackson, he thought about the weeks spent as an objective observer and his shock at the verdict.

“With emotions pent up no longer, I felt a horrible lump in the pit of my stomach,” he wrote in a memoir he’s working on with Farris Rosen. “How would I explain to my daughters that something like this happened in America, much less in a region of the country we called home?”

“I hunched over the steering wheel and cried,” he wrote. “I wanted to cry Mississippi out of my very core.”

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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