Academic journal article African American Review

Langston Hughes's "Mississippi-1955": A Note on Revisions and an Appeal for Reconsideration

Academic journal article African American Review

Langston Hughes's "Mississippi-1955": A Note on Revisions and an Appeal for Reconsideration

Article excerpt

I want the whole world to see what they did to my boy. -- Mrs. Mamie Till Bradley

On September 24, 1955, an all-white Mississippi jury, after a mere sixty-seven minutes of deliberation, acquitted J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant of the murder of Emmett Till. Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago, had been visiting for the first time his extended family in the Mississippi Delta. One afternoon, barely a week into his visit, he and several other youths were standing outside a white-owned grocery store in the small hamlet of Money. Apparently, Till had been boasting of his friendships with white people up North--in particular his friendships with white girls--and the local kids, looking to call his bluff, dared him to enter the store and flirt with Carolyn Bryant, the white woman and former beauty queen who was working the cash register. Till entered the store, and what he did next is unclear. Some say he "wolf whistled" at Bryant; others say he grabbed her hand and asked her for a date; still others claim he did nothing more than simply say, "Bye, baby," to her as he left the store. What ever Till did, it was apparent to all involved that he had done something that Carolyn Bryant found inappropriate. Till's friends rushed him away from the store as Bryant went to her car to get a gun.

For three days, nothing more happened, and then Roy Bryant--Carolyn's husband--and J. W. Milam--Roy Bryant's stepbrother--struck out in the dead of night in search of young Till. They found him where they thought he'd be at two in the morning: asleep in the modest cabin of Mose Wright, his uncle. The two men, demanding to see the boy "who'd done the talking," took Till forcibly from the house, and his family never saw him alive again. The next morning, at the family's request, the local sheriff searched the county, and when he could not find any trace of Till, he questioned and eventually arrested Milam and Bryant on kidnapping charges. When Till's bloated and disfigured corpse surfaced three days later downstream in the Tallahatchie River, Milam and Bryant were quickly re-arrested, this time for murder.

In the weeks leading up to the trial, media coverage was enormous. Influential African-American weeklies like the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Baltimore Afro-American all published loud denunciations of Southern injustice and threatened to exert political and economic pressure should Mississippi fail to give Till's case a fair hearing. In response, white Southern papers, led by the conservative Jackson Daily News and the more moderate Memphis Commercial Appeal, insisted that justice would be done and that continued threats from the "liberal press" would threaten rather than secure justice in the case. Eventually, more than seventy newspapers and magazines sent reporters to the trial, and when, against all reasonable evidence, the jury failed to convict Milam and Bryant, the denunciations were swift and strong. While apologist papers in the South argued that justice had had its day in court, African-American newspapers and magazines, joined by a chorus of suppo rt from the Northern white press and liberal political organizations, called for national protests and boycotts. The NAACP formed an alliance with Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett's mother, and her speaking tour helped to generate one of the most successful fund raising and membership campaigns in NAACP history. According to many scholars of the Civil Rights Movement, the murder of Emmett Till and the brazen acquittal of his murderers were the sparks that ignited the black freedom struggle in the 1950s and '60s (Huie, Whitfield).

The following poem by the distinguished poet and novelist, Langston Hughes, is dedicated to the memory of Emmett Louis Till, 14-year-old victim of a brutal murder in Mississippi. Mr. Hughes sent it to the NAACP with permission for release for publication in any newspaper wishing to use it. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.