I am standing by the side of the road in front of a falling-down building that was once a grocery store in an all-but-deserted Mississippi place called Money, and I am trying hard -- in this midday winter cold and gloom -- to conjure the ghost of a little fat black kid from Chicago called "Bobo" Till. He is known to history as Emmett Till. He was 14 and never had a chance. They didn't just murder the cocky and supposedly fresh-mouthed Emmett Louis Bobo Till that Sunday morning in August 1955. They made him undress and caved in his face and shot him in the head with a .45 and barb-wired his neck to a 75-pound cotton-gin fan. Then they dumped him into the Tallahatchie River.
His crime? He had reputedly wolf-whistled at a 21-year-old married white woman named Carolyn Bryant who was tending the counter of the grocery alone. He had supposedly called her "baby" and maybe popped his just-purchased two cents' worth of bubble gum in her direction and perhaps squeezed her hand and even asked her for a date. Maybe all of it was true, and maybe just shards of it were true. But something forbidden -- or perceived to be forbidden -- between a white woman and a black teenager in the rural Deep South of the 1950s seems clearly to have happened, and yet precisely what it was remains clouded in the historical mist. Still there is no arguing the historical consequences for the course of civil rights in America.
I have been traveling in Mississippi for not quite three years, and although I am in pursuit of a different story about race, what I have discovered is that nearly every Mississippi story sooner or later touches this one. Ends up -- in some spiritual, homing way -- right here, in absurdly misnamed and depopulated Money, along this ribbon of Illinois Central Railroad track, on this back-country asphalt, before this tottering and yet somehow entirely beautiful and abandoned building that once sold fatback and bamboo rakes and Lucky Strikes and lye soap and BC headache powder and so many other simple, needed goods and wares and staples to the locals. Sold them to black field hands of the Delta, primarily, who were living, as their forebears had lived, in tar-paper shacks stuck up on cinder block.
Which is why I've come, why I'm standing now on this spot. I am trying to dream my way into the brutal murder of Emmett Till. I am trying to imagine what some of it was like -- the "it" being many things, but primarily the unpunished lynching of someone callow and roly-poly from the North who was visiting relatives in Mississippi and who didn't understand, not nearly enough, about the pridefulness and bigotries and paranoias and taboos and potentially lethal rages of the Jim Crow South.
There is no plaque from a state historical commission. The building is just here, a shrine in ruin, forgotten, recalcitrant, collapsing in on itself, set against memory and the wind and these five decades of change -- and non-change -- in American race relations.
Jet magazine, in showing the photographs of the battered corpse a little while after the killing, reported to its readers that when Till was pulled from the sludge-green river, a piece of skull three inches square fell loose from his head. Those pictures in Jet helped awaken a generation of future young black activists to what would soon, in the next decade, be called the Movement. That's the true legacy of the lynching of Emmett Till -- it put so many eyes on the eventual prize. (Three months later, on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., a 42-year-old ascetic-looking seamstress named Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat on a homebound supper-time city bus, and this, too, became one of the anchoring posts of 20th-century American history. Her refusal to move, she later said, had a direct link to what was done, one state over, to Emmett Till.)
I just described this old unmarked building facing the road in so-called downtown Money as beautiful, and part of the beauty, to me anyway, has to do with its look of extreme fragility. A good cough would knock it over. Every five minutes or so, a car or pickup truck blows past on the two-lane, and then the structure seems to tremble and shudder a little more on its foundation. It's made of wood and brick and cinder block, although from across the road it seems like something almost papery, as if from a dream. I want to go over and touch the wood, see if it's gone thin as balsa, but I'm afraid it'll all fall down.
I go over anyway. The double front door is padlocked. There's a peeling decal for Raleigh cigarettes by the doorknob. I step on a crushed Sprite bottle on the landing. Weeds spike the concrete steps. Something small scurries off. I peer through the blades of broken plate glass in the door and see beams and rafters and other parts of ceiling and walls that have fallen to the foundation. You couldn't walk around in there. Just the randomness of the way things have crashed and settled themselves in against the flooring seems strangely purposeful. It's quiet as a church.
But I don't want a church, particularly. I am dying to talk to someone. There's no one in sight. Next door is an old wooden filling station with an overhanging slatboard roof. I think someone lives in the back, but nobody's answering my knock. A dog in the yard rolls over and stretches itself awake. There are four signs in the two front windows: Out of Business; Sorry Closed; Closed; Sorry Closed. The windows are covered over with nailed-up blankets.
On the other side of the grocery, across a small side street, there's a mobile home. It's the town post office. But the clerk has left for the day.
When Emmett Till rode the IC Railroad south from Chicago in the late summer of 1955, Money was a more going idea. It was said to have a population of about 200, but that must have included all those who lived in the shotgun cabins out in the cotton fields. You can still find Money on the list of towns on the official highway map of Mississippi -- but there's no population provided. I'd guess maybe 100 live hereabout now, counting cats.
I go around and look through a window, only it's not a window any longer, it's a hole in the brick wall. On what was once the second floor, a toilet is hanging on the far wall, and there is nothing below it. The toilet is bolted against the bare wall, with only air beneath, a ludicrous sight.
I have been told the place functioned as a country store until sometime late in the 1980s. It changed names several times after 1955 -- which is one reason why the green lettering on the white tin sign over the front door makes no sense. What you see is the "You" of what once was Young's, partially obscuring the "olfe's" of what once must have been Wolfe's. When Bobo Till walked up onto this porch and through these doors on August 24, 1955, it was Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market. There were four Coca-Cola signs on the front then. There were wooden benches outside, for checkers games and idling.
A chubby visitor, who knew how to dress smartly, entered about 7:30 that evening. It was a Wednesday. The first silkiness of fall may have gotten into the air. He'd been in Mississippi about three days. The store was owned by a 24-year-old former soldier named Roy Bryant and his pretty wife, Carolyn. They lived in the back and upstairs with their small children. She had coils of dark hair and had won beauty contests in high school. Till and his cousins and several friends -- about eight young people in all -- had come into town from the country in a 1946 Ford. The citified Northerner had a slight speech impediment caused by a childhood attack of polio. Perhaps this is where some of his known cockiness originated: in the need to overcompensate.
There were no real witnesses to what transpired. That's because the others who were with him stayed outside and tried to watch through the plate-glass windows. The most commonly accepted version of what happened -- although it has been subject to divergent accounts -- is that Till, who'd been bragging to his country relations about his white Chicago girlfriend, maybe even showing off a photograph of her, was suddenly double-dared, egged on, to go in there and ask Carolyn Bryant for a date. She would later testify under oath that a Negro with a "Northern brogue" had come in and made lewd advances -- grabbed her, she said, jumped between her and the counter -- and that he was still wolf-whistling as he sauntered out.
Roy Bryant was off trucking shrimp to Texas. He had a powerful and balding half-brother named J.W. Milam. Big Milam, as he was known locally, was 36 and had a ninth-grade education and weighed 235 pounds. He had distinguished himself as a soldier in World War II -- this was known about him. What was also known is that you didn't want to make lengthy speeches when he was riled. Two days after whatever happened inside the store, an unaware husband came home to Money to his wife and two baby sons. Not immediately, but soon, he heard the story, although not from his wife. (There's always been some dispute, too, as to how exactly Bryant found out. He may have been told -- deliberately or inadvertently -- by one of Emmett Till's cousins, and this possibility only adds to the imponderables and seeming contradictions.)
Two nights after, in the early hours of Sunday, August 28, two half-brothers, bent on teaching a lesson about the customs of the Southern way of life, came for Emmett Till. They took him from his great-uncle's unpainted cabin, which was three miles from Money, off a gravel road, behind a cotton field. The great uncle's name was Moses Wright. He was a sharecropper and preacher. There were cedar and persimmon trees in his yard. Big Milam had a five-cell flashlight and a .45 Colt automatic. Roy Bryant also had a .45. Several others may have joined them in the kidnapping. One witness later reported seeing Till with the two accused, along with several other locals, both black and white. How and why would blacks have been along? That question has never quite been answered.
There seems to have been a lot of driving around in the Delta night. There are stories of pistol whippings. There are stories about overheard screams coming from a toolhouse behind Big Milam's residence: "Mama, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy." But there are also opposing stories -- coming from Bryant and Milam themselves -- about a victim's failure to whimper enough, to grovel satisfactorily for their mercy. Did he even boast to his abductors about the white girls he'd had in his life? After they'd been indicted for murder, the half-brothers would claim they wished only to scare the boy. They'd claim they had set him loose. But later, after the trial, first in the pages of Look magazine and then in a 1959 book called Wolf Whistle, they'd tell it all. Why not? According to their own self-justifying accounts -- published three months afterward in Look, for which they were remunerated roughly $4,000 of journalistic blood money by a reporter named William Bradford Huie -- the accused men, though especially J.W. Milam, taunted Till at the last with lines such as, "You still good as I am?" and "You've still `had' white women?" Out of the courtroom, protected by the provisions of double jeopardy, Milam could remember he'd said, "Chicago boy, I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddamn you -- I'm gonna make an example of you -- just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand." Once he was free, Milam could explain to Huie, a Southerner himself: "Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers in their place. I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice." So yes, it was acknowledged to the world, later, for the old lure of silver. They hadn't intended to kill him. He'd given them no choice. He'd refused to repent.
The body was found three days after the abduction. A young fisherman inspecting his trotlines in the river came on a partially submerged and nude thing hung in a drift with something heavy and very muddy tied to it. This was at Pecan Point, 12 to 15 miles upriver from Money, in the neighboring county. It was August 31, 1955. The Greenwood Commonwealth, the only newspaper of size in that part of the Delta, ran a headline on page one, opposite another story about comely Lucille Pillow getting crowned "Miss Teen Age Greenwood." Eighteen beauties had vied for the title. At 3 o'clock on the day Emmett Till was found, Chi Omega Alumnae honored the upcoming year's rushees with a swimming party at the home of Mrs. Charles S. Whittington of Greenwood, and on that day, too, the Board of Control of Leflore County met in the Confederate Memorial Building. And then the gay Ladies Day luncheon at the Greenwood Country Club.
But I keep waiting, trying to conjure, hoping for a passerby who'll turn out to be local and tell me some secret or other in the legend of Emmett Till.
Driving here a little while ago, coming up from Greenwood, I saw a dog with mottled fur slink up out of a culvert that was full of water. I had to brake suddenly, and the braking put me on edge. I still feel on edge. I kept seeing by the side of the road, and out in the stubbled fields, what appeared to be small piles of snow. I knew it wasn't snow but it was disconcerting. The piles were cotton leavings from the season's harvest. It wasn't a good year for cotton in Mississippi. The crop had started out with such promise. One good rain in the middle of last summer would have made so much difference in everyone's cash returns -- this is what I've heard for months from poor black farmers and rich white Delta cotton men alike. This state seems always haunted by one regret or another, near or far, temporal or spiritual.
A green van pulls up and makes a left turn. A man in a great hurry bounds out. He is delivering flowers. It turns out there's going to be a wedding tomorrow at the Baptist church in Money. This church, which serves a white congregation, is down a side street from the store about 100 yards. I come up behind the man as he's opening the back of the van. "Hello," I say loudly, so as not to startle a Mississippian with his back turned. I tell him I've been standing out front of the grocery store for nearly an hour, and that he's the first person I've seen. He is now pausing, smiling agreeably, which is what nearly everyone always does in Mississippi.
"Emmett Till, huh?"
"You sure you got the right building? I think it may have been one over there that got torn down. Folks like you want to make history sometimes when you ain't got no history to make."
I tell him I'm certain this is the right building. I walk back to my car and dig out photographs, some of which were taken decades ago, and bring them over to him. "Look here. It's the same place. Gotta be."
He shrugs. This middle-aged white man is going up the steps of the church with two large vases, and I am falling in behind him. "Let me tell you something else," he says over his shoulder. "I was a year out of high school. I was walking past my grandmama's bridge game. I just overheard one of the women say to the others that when Emmett Till's mama -- I think her name was Mamie -- went into the mortuary for the first time to look at the body, she started screaming before she even got inside the door, `That's my baby! That's my baby!' Now I know that's true. The undertaker himself told that story. You see, the body was so decomposed, you couldn't tell it was him or not. But that didn't stop her." He says this with utter friendliness.
When the body reached the IC railway terminal in Chicago, 33-year-old Mamie Bradley was awaiting it. Friends and family held her up. The casket was sitting on a Railway Express wagon. She studied the hairline and teeth and said she wanted an open-casket funeral. She said she wanted the world to "see what they did to my boy." Maybe 10,000 people clogged the streets outside the Rainer Funeral Home on Saturday, September 3, 1955, which was the first day the pine casket and its shockingly un-made-up contents were open for viewing.
"But what about the ring he was wearing?" I ask. "They found it on the body and that helped identify him."
"It had the initials L.T. It had a date on it: May 25, 1943. It belonged to Emmett Till's father, Louis Till. It had a flat crown. Emmett had been wearing it when he left Chicago. There were pictures of the ring in the Memphis papers. It had been taken right off the body when it came from the river. An undertaker took it off. Here, I'll show you."
"Don't know about a ring. Never heard about a ring. You sure that came out at the time?"
"Positive, sir," I say. But I am talking to a man unconvinced. Who's got flowers to arrange inside. Who's got to get on to his other deliveries and then back into Greenwood. Whose turned back seems suddenly stiffer now, or is it my imagination? Who may believe deep in his native Southern glands that the past is nothing but the past and why stir it up and get folks thinking again about things that can't be undone.
So I stand around in silence for a couple minutes more and then go back to my car and turn on the engine and head about 20 miles north, toward the other unmarked shrine in the Emmett Till story. Leaving Money, there are the railroad tracks on a high roadbed on my right, there is the river moving imperceptibly on my left. Out in the stubble I keep seeing the little snowy pieces of the cotton leavings. Those empty fields, impossibly fertile, are black and wet, waiting for spring and the first plowing. Spring in Mississippi is when the fields get "rowed up." That's how cotton men of the Delta say it, with such mellifluence: rowed up.
I am headed to the town in the adjoining county where the five-day trial was held, with its verdict by an all-white jury of neighbors rendered in one hour and eight minutes. It's called Sumner. If the name "Money" has powerful resonance to anyone who's ever attempted to understand the sins and racial sorrows of Mississippi, then "Sumner" will gong equally large. It's the place where, if you squint, you can see straw-bottom chairs in a second-floor courtroom, the lone overhead fan, the widening moons of sweat beneath the rows of armpits. Sumner is one of two county seats of Tallahatchie County. Emmett Till was kidnapped in Leflore County, but killed in Tallahatchie County, so that's where the murder indictments were handed down and justice was to be meted out by the state, inside the old shuttered, gray-brick courthouse in the middle of the square, a courthouse that, because of its large belfry and twin cupolas on the back side, oddly resembled a church. The courthouse still looks more like a church than a house of justice, sitting in the center of a dying square.
During jury selection, Judge Curtis Swango (the name alone!), who was generally commended by observers for his sense of fairness in the trial, uncapped a Coca-Cola from the bench and sipped on it. Bailiffs passed pitchers of ice water. The small, restless children of the accused were allowed to sit now and then with their daddies at the defendants' table. One of these quite handsome children pointed a water pistol at people on the other side of the spindled railing and kept shouting, "Boom, boom, boom." At one point a child of Big Milam slipped a play noose around his brother's neck and pulled disconcertingly at it. Every morning the local head lawman -- a fearsome 300-pounder in khakis and white short sleeves named Clarence Strider -- came into court and acknowledged the Negro press table with a "Good morning, niggers." Sheriff Strider is famous for pushing the theory that the body wasn't Till's, and indeed he claimed to have some examining evidence that "the killing might have been planned and plotted by the NAACP."
Mid-afternoon Friday, end of the work week. Coming in, trying to imagine, I circle the square twice and see Robin's Cleaners ("In Business Since 1932"), see Mid-Delta Home Health, see a sad-sack video store, see a barber in his single barber chair with his face hidden behind a magazine. He's holding up the magazine in both hands, his legs crossed, a shank of glossy shin showing. I go around again and take a diagonal parking space in front of the Confederate monument. Cut into the stone on one side: "Our Heroes." Cut into the stone on the other side: "To the Tallahatchie Rifles and All Who Served From This County."
Something like 70 reporters descended on this town in September 1955. Preachers in Harlem and on the South Side of Chicago and probably in Europe, too, by then had made Bobo Till the subject of their ringing sermons. The Daily Worker sent a representative. The New York Times and radio reporters and three TV networks were here. Columnists I.F. Stone and Murray Kempton were in the wooden pews. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi's largest daily, had a contingent. The Clarion-Ledger, a few weeks before, had run a huge photograph of a somber Carolyn Bryant on page one, with this caption: "Victim of Alleged Wolf-Whistle." The caption noted that "A body believed to be Till's was found in Tallahatchie river on Aug. 31."
I get out of the car and go in and find the circuit clerk's office. I have asked the question before, on the phone, but I ask it again now: What has happened to the Till court records? The clerk, utterly friendly, too, says: "Let me call over to Charleston, our other county seat, and just make sure for you." A minute later: "Well, just like I thought. We just don't know. Either stolen or misplaced or done away with. People keep asking and we just can't find it."
But adding: "You could look the case up in the docket book for
1955 if you care to." The 1955 book is under the counter with all
the other books from other years: a big, red, leatherbound volume titled "General Docket and Fees and Subpoenas No. 4, State Cases, 2nd District, Tallahatchie County, Circuit Court." On page 45,
handwritten in blue ink, in a large, loopy scrawl: State of Mississippi vs. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. There is a long list of scheduled witnesses. Somehow, just seeing it written down makes it more believable.
And then some unexpected luck. Not 20 yards from the circuit clerk's office, in a little red brick building, facing the western side of the square, is the law office of John W. Whitten, and sitting inside, as if waiting just for me, is John W. Whitten himself. I see the sign from the clerk's window: Breland & Whitten, Lawyers.
He's almost 80 years old. He was one of the five lawyers in Sumner (there were only five practicing) who defended the accused. He is the first cousin of the late Mississippi congressman Jamie Whitten. He's the one who warned the jury in the summation of the defense team's case that "there are people in the United States who want to destroy the customs of Southern people . . . They would not be above putting a rotting, stinking body in the river in the hope he would be identified as Emmett Till." He told the jurors he was "sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that pressure."
He's in a little wood-paneled office with louvered shutters. An old black electric fan about the size of a skillet is above his head. A pressed white hanky, folded into a triangle, is sticking out of the vest pocket of his sport coat. His high-waisted pants are being held up by a pair of webbed suspenders and his tie is kept in place by a gold horizontal bar with a "W" on it. He still has his full head of wavy hair. A dapper and courtly man who's been a country lawyer since 1940 -- that's when John W. Whitten came out of Ole Miss Law, age 20. Back then, you graduated, you were automatically in the bar, you didn't have to take a test to prove you knew the law.
He talks triphammer fast. He says he's had Parkinson's for the last 12 years. He doesn't do much legal work anymore, though just yesterday he wrote a will. "Mr. Breland founded the firm," he says. "He was much older. When he took the case, that brought me right in, because I was his partner. Mr. Breland died in 1969. He asked me to keep his name on the firm, and that's what I did." Whitten's son is in business with him now and has most of the firm's work.
Propped on a leather chair is an old electric clock. It says: "J.W. Whitten. General Merchandise. St. Joseph Aspirin." The clock was from his daddy's store, in Cascilla, Miss.
I want to know, of course, how he feels. He knows I am thinking that. So I ease into it: "Did you ever regret it later, defending Milam and Bryant?"
"It didn't bother me at all," he answers. There is no hostility in it. Pause. "I felt like we didn't mistreat them in our own lives. Blacks, I mean."
Did he have any idea at the time what kind of altering event of history all this might be? "I guess I didn't." This comes out a little slowly. He reaches into a cup on the top of his desk. The cup is full of pecans. He takes two or three out and squeezes them in his palm. Still plays golf, he says. Shot 110 yesterday. He hands me one of his business cards. The cards are in a nifty little holder on his desk. John W. Whitten Jr., Attorney at Law, Sumner, Mississippi. So many of the history books have gotten his middle initial wrong. They keep putting it down as "C," because that's the way the reporters from out of town wrote it during the trial. "I'm John Wallace Whitten," he says. "Used to be John W. Whitten the third. When my father died I promoted myself to junior."
In 1985, on the 30th anniversary of the crime and the trial, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger looked up Whitten. He told the reporter he'd never confronted Milam or Bryant to try to learn whether they'd done it. "If I went to the moral heart of every case that came to me, I'd starve to death," he said.
He's remembering something. One day awhile back Roy Bryant came in the door. "I don't think I'd seen him since the trial. He had to identify himself. He looked terrible. `I'm old,' he said. `I'm sick. I can't work.' He said he was looking for some way to make some cash, and wondered if there was anything I could do for him. I told him, `I don't know, only thing I can tell you, do what you did before: Trade with some of those who might want to write a book about you.' He left and then about six months later he was dead."
After the trial, after the Look article was on newsstands in January 1956, the acquitted Big Milam and Roy Bryant, having earlier lit up cigars and embraced their children and kissed their wives and mugged for news photographers, found themselves inexplicably shunned in their native Mississippi. It's as if the two didn't quite get what they'd just done to themselves. All those who'd defended them -- an entire state, you could say -- were appalled, though perhaps not entirely for the right reasons. Anyway, the shunned left the state and went to the Southwest for a number of years. The Bryants divorced, eventually. So did the Milams. Big Milam died of cancer of the backbone on New Year's Eve 1981. Roy Bryant, who, after the trial, had taken work at 75 cents a day, lived for a long while in Orange, Tex. He got a job as a boilermaker. He lost a lot of his eyesight and complained he was legally blind. He came back to Mississippi and took over a store in Sunflower County that belonged to family members and catered mostly to blacks. He seemed to have folded into the small print of history. At the Delta store he was now running, he stood on stools and used a thick magnifying glass to read price tags. The Clarion-Ledger tracked him down there in the mid-'80s, and, while the acquitted tried to deny the deed, he also said: "You mean do I wish I might wouldn't have done it? I'm just sorry that it happened." He said he feared retaliation.
Six years later, in 1991, a civil rights investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger named Jerry Mitchell got him on the phone and asked what he thought about Chicago officials naming a street after Till. "They can name what they want to name it. I don't give a damn," he said. Roy Bryant died of cancer three years later, in September 1994. The obituary in his local paper called him a "retired merchant." The obituary said, "He was an Army veteran and a Baptist." To discern the afterlives of these two men, even epigrammatically, is to know what Faulkner meant about the killing of Joe Christmas in Light in August. That's the novel where they castrate Joe and then Percy Grimm flings the bloody butcher knife behind him as one of his accomplices falls against a wall and begins to vomit. "Now you'll let white women alone, even in hell," Grimm says. But you can't get rid of sins like that, is Faulkner's point -- even if you walk. Because the thing will just be there inside you, lodged between memory and forgetting, "musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading and not particularly threatful, but of itself alone serene, of itself alone triumphant." James Baldwin explained it lyrically, too, in Notes of a Native Son. He was talking about his father's tragic life, which had known so much bitterness of spirit against the white man, and how that bitterness seemed in such danger of passing to the son. At his father's funeral, Baldwin is moved to say: "All of my father's texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me. This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped."
I say goodbye to the ailing but still upright J.W. Whitten and go back over to the courthouse and up the double staircase to the courtroom. They've horribly modernized it. The shrine has been tampered with. Where are the green plastered walls and the shabby pull shades with their little string loops? It was in this room, close to half a century ago, that an epiphany occurred for black America. A 64-year-old unlettered Mississippian named Moses Wright, who was dressed up as though for church, rose from the witness stand and stuck out his trembling arm. Emmett Till's great-uncle pointed at J.W. Milam, and said: "Thar he." Murray Kempton described the moment the next morning for the readers of the New York Post. The witness "pointed his black, workworn finger straight at the huge and stormy head of J.W. Milam and swore that this was the man who dragged fourteen-year-old Emmett Louis Till out of his cottonfield cabin." When he was done, the old man, who'd soon get on a train and go up north and leave Mississippi forever, "sat down hard against the chair-back with a lurch which told better than anything else the cost in strength to him of the thing he had done. He was a field Negro who had dared try to send two white men to the gas chamber for murdering a Negro." Moses Wright, said Kempton, "had come to the end of the hardest half hour in the hardest life possible for a human being in these United States."
But the killers got off, of course. Except they didn't. Nothing is ever escaped.
I am trying to write a book about a photograph -- just one -- and about seven sheriffs in that photograph, who were sheriffs in the years of civil rights, and about the kinds of things they bequeathed to their children and to their children's children. Perhaps the most intriguing of the Mississippi sheriffs of the '60s I am tracking is a man who's now 85 and hard of hearing but quite sound of mind. One day several years ago, shortly after we'd met, he said, as if he'd just remembered, "Yeah. Poor little Emmett. I helped fish him out."
"Emmett Till?" I said.
"Yeah, from the Tallahatchie," he said, as if it would have been obvious. "I wasn't sheriff yet. That was '55. I was the deputy under George Smith. Me and Ed Weber, who was the other deputy, got Emmett's uncle in the car and carried him out to the scene and went down the bank and pulled in the body. The durn fan weighed about 140 pounds, it had so much silt and mud in it. When we got it cleaned up, I guess it weighed about half that. The next day, in the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, there was this big picture of me squattin' next to the gin fan. I caught hell for that from the sheriff, by the way. Said I had no business gettin' my picture took."
I was stunned. That night, in Memphis, I unspooled a roll of microfilm, and there was my man, so much younger looking, in his snap-brim fedora, in a white summer shirt with the sleeves rolled up his muscular upper arms, his Leflore County deputy's badge over his left breast. He was kneeling next to a gin fan still partially caked with mud. I have since talked to him a lot about Emmett Till, and just when I think I understand his life and Mississippi's conflicted soul, I don't. Because some other muddying, silting fact has suddenly come into play, pulling everything down, throwing everything open to question once more.
Paul Hendrickson, a Washington Post staff writer on leave, is a Guggenheim Foundation fellow. He is working on a book about Mississippi.