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It is September 20, 1955, inside of the Emmett Till murder trial that took place in the Mississippi delta town of Sumner. It is segregated, of course, with an all-white male jury. White press and Negro press were there, along with the secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Medgar Evers.
Emmett's murder was brutal, and all the more threatening as the word spread throughout the Negro community: keep your mouth shut. But three witnesses did not let threats and intimidation prevent them from standing up and telling the truth.
The murder trial is getting ready, in its fifth and final day. The small courtroom is a suffocating 99N F., and only the white people are sipping on ice water. Others fan themselves with paper fans, trying to cool off from the hot, humid air that feels like a sweat box inside the courtroom. The atmosphere was just like a circus, the two defendants are sitting up, eating ice cream cones and playing with their children, just like they were at a picnic. It was crammed inside with 400 people—no air-conditioning—in this chamber designed only for 220. An overflow mixed crowd of nearly a thousand is waiting outside on the courthouse lawn to receive regular updates on the trial. Most Negroes are wondering if justice could ever be done in one of the most notoriously racist states in America.
The bailiff walks up in front of the jam-packed courtroom. He is a tall, white man with a receding hair line and missing four of his front teeth. The twelve all-white male jurors are wearing white, baggy, short-sleeved shirts, tan slacks, black shoes, and white straw-brimmed hats. It is 1:15 P.M.
"Allrise!" the bailiff yells across the courtroom. Everyone immediately stands straight up. "Court is now in session. Your Honorable Judge Curtis M. Swango presiding."
The Judge walks over to his desk. He is a silver-haired middle-aged white man wearing a tan brown suit and tie. He sits down at his chair in front of his desk, and everyone sits down right after him. The bailiff clears his throat before he speaks again.
"This is the murder trial of Emmett Louis Till. The two defendants, Mr. Roy Bryant and Mr. J. W. Milam, is accused of first degree murder!"
"Is the district attorney ready to cross-examine his first witness?" the Judge asks.
Mr. Chatham, from Chicago, a tall, dark-haired man wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, gray slacks, and a gray tie, stands up from the prosecutor's table. He approaches the bench like he is on a very important mission. He stands in front of the courtroom. "Yes your Honor," the slender attorney responds. "The State calls on Curtis Jones!"
A dark-skinned Negro boy who looks like he is in his late teens stands up. He is as nervous as a cat trapped inside of a dog pound. He quickly walks up to the witness stand.
"Place your right hand up," the toothless bailiff shouts.
The terrified young boy places his left hand on the Bible, then raises his right hand that is shaking out of control.
"Do you swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?"
"Yes, sir, I do," Curtis says in a low-pitched tone.
"Speak up, boy!" the bailiff roars at him.
"Yes, sir, I do," he repeats in a much clearer voice.
"Then take a seat!"
Curtis sits down in the witness chair. The district attorney walks up to the youth.
"Could you state your full name for the court?"
"C-Curtis Lee J-Jones," he stutters.
"Could you tell the court who Emmett Till was to you?"
"He was my cousin. We both came down here together from Chicago. Most of the kids back home used to call him Bobo. That was his nickname."
"What kind of kid was Bobo?"
"Well, he love pulling pranks. He was always messing around like that."
"So he just loved to kid around like most kids his age do, and he pulled one of his pranks Wednesday evening on August at the grocery and meat market store, is that correct?"
"Yes, sir," Curtis answers quickly.
"Tell the court exactly what happened that Wednesday at 7:30 P.M. on August the twenty-fourth."
"Well, I snuck my grandfather's '41 Ford while he was giving a sermon at church. Then Bobo and my other cousin, Maurice, went to Bryant Grocery Store. There we met up with one other kid, then I began a game of checkers with an old man sitting by the side of the store."
"And what was young Emmett doing?"
All of a sudden Curtis is sweating, like he had just run up a steep hill, ignoring the lawyer's question with his silence.
The attorney gently rubs his chin and looks the witness directly in the eyes. In a very forceful voice, he asks, "Mr. Jones, what was Emmett doing while you were playing checkers with this old man?"
The Negro boy takes a couple of swallows and waits a while before answering. "Bobo was showing off some pictures of a white girl who he knew back in Chicago. He bragged to the other kids that this w-white g-girl was his g-g-girlfriend."
Curtis's head is hanging down the entire time he is speaking. All of the whites murmur out loud of their disapproval, but Curtis continues. "Maurice told Bobo that there is a white girl inside the store and dared Bobo to go in there to talk to her."
"And what did young Emmett do when his cousin dared him to do this?"
Curtis starts trembling even more when he begins to answer the attorney's next question. "He went inside the store to buy some candy. When he was leaving out of the store, he said to the white woman, 'Bye-bye, baby!'"
The murmur of the whites grows even louder this time inside of the hot, stuffy courtroom.
"Who was this white woman to whom he said 'Bye-bye, baby!'?"
"That would be the wife of the defendant, Roy Bryant, is that correct?"
"Go on. What happened next after that remark was made?" "The old man that I was playing checkers with starting telling us that she would go to her car and get a pistol and blow Bobo's brains out. After he said that to us, we all jumped inside the car. When Mrs. Bryant came out of the swinging screen door, we sped out of that town as fast as we could."
"And by the next day the incident had become a good story for you, Maurice, and young Emmett maybe to laugh about years later, but the talk went beyond just you three boys. A girl who had heard it through the grapevine said when that lady's husband came back, there was going to be big trouble. Roy Bryant was out of town at the time trucking shrimp from Louisiana to Texas. You or Emmett did not know of this at the time, did you?"
"I was told that Maurice resented Emmett's fancy Chicago ways and told Bryant all about the incident between his cousin and Bryant's wife."
"Yes, Maurice did that," Curtis says, with disappointment on his face.
"Did you also know Mrs. Bryant was not going to tell her husband about what Emmett did, fearing that he may overreact?"
"No, sir, I was not aware of that at all."
The slender district attorney reaches into his front pocket and pulls out a white handkerchief. "What about your grandfather? Did he know what Emmett did that day?" he asks, wiping the sweat that was pouring from the back of his neck.
"Now tell us exactly what happened that night when Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam arrived at your grandfather's cabin."
"Well, I could hear them talking to my grandfather at the front porch. Mr. Milam and Mr. Bryant was talking very loud that night."
Curtis starts at the very beginning telling his story about the kidnapping of his cousin, Emmett Till.
It was eleven o'clock. Milam and Bryant were talking to Mose Wright, an elderly bald dark Negro man wearing blue overalls. "Can I help you, gentlemen?" Mose asked politely.
Bryant, a white male with thick, dark hair and dark, bushy eyebrows, said sternly, "Look, preacher, I heard that you have a couple of Nigras from out of Chicago staying here with ya."
"Yes, suh, they staying here for a few weeks. Is there anything wrong, suh?"
"We want to see the Nigra who done all that talk."
"Suh, I don't know anything about that."
"Well I do!" Bryant yelled. "One of those Nigras in there sass at my wife!"
"The two boys that staying here with me would never do nothing that stupid!" he said.
"Oh yeah?" The six-foot-four-inch Milam interrupted, in his thick Mississippi accent. "I thought all you dirty niggers were stupid!" he said, holding a pistol in his right hand and a flashlight in his left.
"Not stupid enough to do something like that, suh."
"Then you better ask whatever God that you pray to that they didn't. 'Cause we about to ask them ourself!"
"Suh, can you please ask them tomorrow? They sleeping pretty hard tonight."
"You must of been drinking moonshine tonight, boy!"
"Preacher, do you know how far we come to get here? We seeing those Nigras tonight!" Bryant demanded.
Mose's voice started to shake. "Suh, I understand all these things that ya telling me, but my nephew and grandson would never sass any white women."
"Are you calling me a liar, Preacher?"
"Naw, suh, naw, suh!"
"What is these two niggers' names that is staying here with ya?" Milam growled.
"Emmett is my nephew and Curtis is my grandson." Milam shouted. "I didn't ask you who they were to you, I just ask you to tell us what their names were!"
"You better be."
"Well, one of your kinfolk is coming with us tonight, Preacher." Bryant warned him.
"Are you gonna hurt one of them, suh?"
"It all depends on how they answer our question," Milam said, with a devilish grin.
"They only just kids, suh."
"I don't give a shit what they are, one of those black bastards whistled at this man's wife." Milam pointed at Bryant. "And my sister-in-law!"
"Believe me, Preacher, one of those Nigras in there gonna get exactly what he deserve," Bryant snickered.
"You really believe one of the boys whistled at your wife, suh?"
"I am about to lose my patience with you, boy. My wife said some Nigra that she never seen before call her Baby and whistle at her in my store while she was working, and my wife ain't no liar, either!"
"But suh, how do you know that it was Emmett or Curtis? It could of been anybody."
"Because any Nigra from down here would know better to act that way towards a white woman. Now shut up with all your questions!"
Milam pushed Mose out of the way. "Now step aside, boy!"
"When you come in. Can you just talk to them please, suh?"
Milam laughed out loud. "This old coon really must of been drinking moonshine tonight."
"We ain't making no promises," Bryant said in a sharp tone.
Milam added, "Especially to the likes of you!"
"You know, I just remember the boys ain't here tonight," Mose said.
Milam burst out, "Who do you think we are, a couple of dumb rednecks? Well, do you, nigger!"
"Naw, suh, it just occur to me that the boys ain't here, that's all."
Bryant stared at Mose for a few seconds. "Oh, it just occur to you, huh. Don't lie to us, because if you do, we may have to teach you a lesson, too."
"Now are they in there, yes or no?!" screamed Milam.
"Yas, suh, they here." Mose admitted, hanging his head down.
Milam pressed his pistol on the side of Mose's nose and cocked the trigger back. "If you every try to lie to us again, I will blow your goddamn nose off your face, do you understand me, boy?!"
"Now show us where they is," Milam ordered.
Mose walked inside his cabin. Bryant and Milam followed him into a tiny, dark bedroom. Milam walked up to three boys that were all lying in a small bed. He shined his flashlight in their faces.
"Who did that talking at a white woman in the grocery store four days ago?"
"I did," Emmett said, with no fear.
Curtis and Maurice, lying next to Emmett, raised their heads up, trying to take a peek at the imposing 270-pound white man, whose gut hung over his jeans.
Milam then shined his flashlight down only on Emmett's face. "Roy!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, while giving Emmett an evil glare. Bryant rushed up to his half-brother, wondering what he was so excited about.
Milam waved his flashlight towards Emmett. "This is the one who sass Carolyn, and get this! The damn fool admitted it."
"He what!" Bryant raged. He snatched the .45-caliber pistol out of Milam's hand and pressed it against Emmett's forehead.
Bryant looked him in the eyes. "I will blow your head clean off. Now get some clothes on!"
The young youth was wearing only his underwear. He put on a shirt and pants, then reached for some socks.
"What are you slowing around for, coon? Hurry it up!" Bryant yelled.
"I have to put my socks on, don't I?" Emmett snapped back.
Milam's whole face turned into a frown. "You can sho' tell that this nigger ain't from around here."
Bryant began to pull the trigger, the gun was still pressed up against Emmett's forehead. Bryant's eyes were dead, and the only thing on his mind that very moment was killing the smart-mouthed Negro boy. "Bye-bye, nigger!"
Mose's heart was beating like a bongo drum. "Mr. Bryant, please don't kill 'em. I beg of you. He ain't got good sense. He don't know any better. This is only his second time down here in Mississippi!"
"I don't care how many times he's been down here. Ain't no nigger gonna sass me like that!"
"He's from up North. He really don't know a thang about how to act around white folk down South. He's only just fourteen years old. Why not give the boy a good whumping and leave it at that!"
"How old are you?" Milam asked Mose in a vicious tone.
"I am sixty-four years old, suh," he stuttered.
"If you cause any trouble, you'll never live to see sixty-five!"
Just seconds later, Mose's wife walked into the bedroom with pink curlers in her hair, barefooted, wearing a long white cotton robe. Mrs. Wright was nice-looking for a woman of her age. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and couldn't believe what she was seeing. "I don't know what's going on, but whatever it is, me and my husband will pay you whatever you want just to leave us alone!"
Bryant stared at the woman and paused a few seconds. He was thinking about taking the money, depending on how much they were willing to pay them. But Milam picked up on that and made it very clear who was really in charge.
"We ain't taking no money!" Milam shouted. "Now you get back in your bedroom before I put a bullet in your black ass!"
Mrs. Wright had no choice but to listen to the evil intruders. She sadly walked out of the room.
Mose turned to the two angry men and pleaded with them. "Suh, he's just only fourteen years old! He just turn fourteen. Don't take 'em!"
"I don't care how old he is," Milam snarled. He shouldn't of done what he done."
Emmett turned to look over at his terrified uncle. "Don't worry, Uncle Mose. I'll be okay."
Milam grabbed Emmett roughly from the back of his neck and pushed him towards the living room. Mose walked behind them.
Milam smirked at Emmett, "We gonna teach you a lesson that you ain't never gonna forget, boy."
"Yeah, you should of stay up North," Bryant said, pointing the pistol in Emmett's back, nudging him up to the front door.
"Are you gonna bring the boy back?" Mose asked nervously.
Milam gave the old man a long, hateful glare. "Like I said before, if you want to live to be sixty-five, you keep your black lips shut about us ever being here."
Bryant, Milam, and Emmett all walked out. Milam shut the door behind them.
Just seconds later, Mrs. Wright walked into the living room. "I heard the door slam, so I figger they must be gone now."
"Yeah, they gone all right," Moses said.
"Where is Bobo?"
"They done took him away."
"They said he done whistle at a white woman. Bryant's wife."
"Lord have mercy, I just knew that boy's sharp tongue would get him in a whole mess of trouble. I just pray that they don't beat him too bad."
Excerpted from Standing Up For Justice by Walter Williams, Jr. Copyright © 2011 by Walter Williams, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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