Different Assignments, Different Perspectives: How Reporters Reconstruct the Emmett till Civil Rights Murder Trial

By Tisdale, John R. | The Oral History Review, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Different Assignments, Different Perspectives: How Reporters Reconstruct the Emmett till Civil Rights Murder Trial


Tisdale, John R., The Oral History Review


When 14-year-old Chicago native Emmett Till walked into a grocery store in the Delta town of Money, Mississippi on an August evening in 1955 and "wolf whistled" at the store owner's wife working behind the counter, he set off a chain of events that resulted in his decomposed body being dragged from the Tallahatchie River less than three days later. Roy Bryant, the storeowner, and J.W. Milam, his half-brother, were charged with the kidnapping and murder of Till. The murder trial, in which the jury acquitted the brothers, was a "critical increment" in civil rights history because it drew the attention of national and international media to Mississippi on a scale unmatched in the middle of the century. (1) Sandwiched between the Brown decision in May 1954 and the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott in December 1955, it was also one of the first civil rights events covered by the emerging medium of television.

This paper analyzes how three journalists who covered the weeklong trial remembered what they witnessed and wrote. John Herbers, who served as United Press bureau chief in Jackson, Mississippi; Harry Marsh of The Delta Democrat-Times of Greenville, Mississippi; and Wilson F. "Bill" Minor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune all covered the 1955 trial. The author interviewed the journalists, asking each to recount how their organizations covered the trial and what they most remembered about the trial. All three wrote for different audiences, a factor that is largely ignored in oral history studies of media events. Herbers wrote for United Press, the strongest wire service presence in Mississippi. Marsh worked for what historians cite as the most progressive newspaper in Mississippi, Hodding Carter's The Delta Democrat-Times. Minor continues to write a syndicated column on Mississippi politics; journalists recognize Minor as the "eyes and ears of the daily occurrences" in Mississippi. (2) His newspaper circulated primarily south of Interstate 20 in Mississippi and he reported for the Times-Picayune from 1947 until the newspaper closed the bureau in the mid-1970s. (3)

Oral historians have tried to understand and explain why people attending the same event can have completely different interpretations. Civil rights activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, one of the three students attacked at a lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, said, "different accounts are because of the different personalities, not because of contradiction. I think there is truth in what all of us are saying." (4) Differing personalities can contribute to different accounts, but oral historians studying media coverage have rarely studied the variables of differing assignments and audiences. Oral historians have acknowledged and debated the validity of whether separate eyewitness accounts of a single event produce congruent stories. Interviewees can interpret factual events differently, but this, too, provides a window into how memory is retrieved and thus adds another layer of complexity and interpretation for oral historians. Psychologist Marigold Linton cites research showing that positive memories are better recalled than negative ones, but that dramatic negative events (the Till trial) can result in "superior recallability" because the event is exceptionally emotional and tied to personal recollection. (5) Linton also believes media coverage contributes to recall.

But oral history often reveals less about the event and more about what that event meant to the participant. To these three journalists, their different assignments and their different audiences created divergent memories of the same event. "Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did." (6) Social scientists who study journalists believe events do not enter the public record until reporters assign them a contextual "home" and give them meaning. …

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