Sometime during the summer of 1955, Emmett Till left the bustling metropolis of Chicago for the quiet pastoral of the Mississippi Delta. Till’s mother had arranged for her son to spend time with his uncle, Moses Wright, who lived in a small town named Money, not far from the sleepy oak-lined streets of Greenwood. Only fourteen, Till knew little of Mississippi’s past or of its strict code of racial conduct, a code that was enforced both legally, through an elaborate system of statutory prohibitions on interracial contact, and extralegally, through vigilante action. Till’s unfamiliarity with local norms made him bold enough to do the unthinkable: to try to impress a cadre of local youths by approaching a white woman and as that woman later testified in court propositioning her. Retribution proved swift. Not long after Till approached Carolyn Bryant, her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam knocked on the door of Moses Wright’s house and asked for the boy. Brandishing arms, Milam and Bryant seized Till, drove him to a remote location near the Tallahatchie River, and tortured him. As far as authorities could tell from Till’s body, later found floating in the river, the torture session lasted for hours as Milam and Bryant alternately punched, pistol-whipped, shot, and eventually drowned the boy, tying him with barbed wire to a two-hundred-pound cotton gin fan. Though the torture and murder took place outside of the public eye, the savagery of the crime attracted national attention when Till’s mother Mamie Bradley ordered the body brought back to Chicago. Once there, Bradley left her son’s casket open in a public wake, attracting thousands of viewers. Charles Diggs, a black congressman from Detroit, later explained how a picture of Till’s partly decomposed, mangled corpse reprinted in Jet magazine turned the incident into a national scandal. “I think that was probably one of the greatest media products in the last forty or fifty years,” recounted Diggs, “because that picture stimulated a lot of interest and a lot of anger on the part of blacks all over the country.” Although the anger generated by Till’s murder is often cited as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, it sparked something else as well. Precisely because it came on the heels of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Till’s death convinced then-Mississippi Governor James P. (J.P.) Coleman that certain aspects of the state’s handling of racial matters had to change. Afraid that popular outrage over racial violence might encourage federal intervention in the region, Coleman removed power from local sheriffs, expanded state police, and modernized the state’s criminal justice apparatus to reduce the chance of further racial violence in the state. Though his results proved mixed, many of Coleman’s reforms lived on, contributing to the end of public torture and lynching as accepted modes of punishment in the state. This Article discusses those changes, repositioning Till’s murder, and Brown, in the historical narrative of the time, suggesting that they not only contributed to the fight for civil rights but also to the modernization of criminal justice in the South. Although legal historians have shown that civil rights triggered an explosion of extremism in the South, Coleman’s response to Till suggests that the struggle for racial equality also prompted a change in how Southern officials responded to racial violence. It pushed the South to centralize authority, rein in local officials, improve the administration of justice, and adopt a less violent stance towards blacks at least publicly. Long decried for its toleration of the public torture and lynching of African-Americans, Mississippi began to discourage any form of public racial violence in the aftermath of Till’s murder. Though the torture of African-Americans and of civil rights activists did not stop, it assumed a more surreptitious role in political life. To show how this happened, this Article will proceed in seven parts. Part I will provide some background on race relations in Mississippi, using Coleman’s political career as a lens through which to view the state’s struggle to deal with racial violence in the aftermath of World War II. Part II will discuss the rise of extremism in the state immediately following Brown and how Coleman resisted it. Part III will discuss Coleman’s efforts to counterbalance the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) attempts to use the murder of Emmett Till, along with crimes against other African-Americans, as a device for rallying popular support in favor of federal intervention in Mississippi as early as the 1950s. Part IV will re-cover Coleman’s efforts at modernization, showing how he centralized state law enforcement power in an attempt to rein in local sheriffs and to thwart extremists. Part V will discuss Coleman’s use of black informants to reduce the chance of racial violence in the state. Part VI will discuss Coleman’s response to the lynching of Mack Charles Parker, an African-American accused of raping a twenty-three-year-old white woman in 1959. Part VII will show that, even though Coleman was replaced by extremist Ross Barnett in 1960, Coleman returned to the task of imposing a strict vision of anti-extremist yet tough law enforcement in 1965 as a President Lyndon Johnson appointee to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Why re-cover the story of Mississippi’s response to Emmett Till now? There are at least three reasons. First, recent Supreme Court rulings have convinced many that Brown’s legacy amounts to little more than a call for ending overtly discriminatory laws. Re-covering Mississippi’s response to Till suggests that Brown also contributed to a dramatic transformation in Southern criminal justice, a transformation that reduced local autonomy, increased centralized control, and modernized Southern approaches to maintaining social order. Understanding the process of modernization that occurred in Mississippi in the 1950s helps explain how states known for using the “spectacle” of violence to maintain social peace moved towards a more “gentle way in punishment,” namely mass incarceration. As of 2005, Mississippi was fourth in the nation for the percentage of its population in prison, with all of the highest percentages being in the South. Although a disproportionate number of these prisoners are African-Americans, Coleman’s reforms also facilitated control of whites. This means that the push for freedom in the Deep South contributed not just to desegregation but also to the rise of a more centralized, intrusive police state. Mississippi’s turn away from localism towards a more intrusive state helps explain the final reason for re-covering its response to Till. From the beginning of the Civil War until the 1950s, Mississippi relied on not only legal regulations or law enforcement to preserve its racial hierarchy but also on the private torture and murder of African-Americans, a process known as lynching. Though never formally sanctioned by law, lynching was rarely interfered with by law enforcement. Precisely because lynching occurred in plain view, it acted as a type of public ritual, a “spectacle” aimed at disciplining the African-American population while galvanizing the white. Critical to this spectacle was not simply the execution of black victims but also the torture of them, including the “marking of victims” and punishing them in “spectacular” ways, through, for example, dismemberment, burning, or hanging. Although Governor Coleman did not bring an absolute end to the spectacle of lynching, he did facilitate a larger transformation in punishment, shifting it from public spectacle to juridical obscurity. No longer of use to public governance, torture became a more sporadic, surreptitious practice. Precisely because of the public outrage at the manner in which Till had been mangled, future tortures had to be carried out in a way that left no trace. For those alarmed at the apparent resurgence of torture in the twenty-first-century United States, re-covering Coleman’s story helps to cast new torture tactics like waterboarding and the horrors of Abu Ghraib in a new light—products not simply of an increased ferocity but an increased attention, ironically, to civil rights.
The Violent Bear It Away: Emmett Till and the Modernization of Law Enforcement in Mississippi,
San Diego L. Rev.
Available at: https://digital.sandiego.edu/sdlr/vol46/iss2/6