Why was justice denied in the case of Emmett Till? Explain the political, social and economic factors that played a role in the outcome of the case?
When a 14-year-old child is dragged from his uncle’s home, beaten, shot, and his body thrown into a river, one can presume that those responsible for such an outrage—and, lest we forget, the stated cause of Emmett Till’s murder was the fact that he dared to speak to a white woman in the American South in the 1950s—would held accountable and, at a minimum, spend a long period of time in prison. Such, however, was not the case. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the latter the husband of the woman the African American teenager addressed (some witnesses claim Emmett whistled at Bryant’s wife), were acquitted of the murder by an all-white jury in a small town in Mississippi. Under the Constitution of the United States, specifically, the Fifth Amendment (“. . .nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”), the two men could not be tried a second time for the murder, and the U.S. Department of Justice was not yet inclined to pursue individuals for violating the civil rights of others, especially in the time and place of the murder of Emmett Till. Consequently, Milam and Bryant lived out their miserable lives as free men. Justice was denied to the memory of Emmett Till, and to his family.
Socioeconomic conditions in Mississippi, and in much of the American South, during the 1950s were very conducive to a crime like that involving Emmett Till. A region in which racism was endemic, Mississippi was the kind of place where the lynching of a black for any reason, or for no reason, would be, at best, ignored and, at worst, celebrated. That Milam and Bryant were guilty may have been denied on the grounds of reasonable doubt, but their guilt is undeniable nonetheless, if for no other reason than that they admitted their crime in an interview with Look magazine. Journalist William Bradford Huie quoted Milam as stating the following:
“I didn’t intend to kill the nigger when we went and got him–just whip him and chase him back up yonder. But what the hell! He showed me the white gal’s picture! Bragged o' what he’d done to her! I counted pictures o’ three white gals in his pocketbook before I burned it. What else could I do? No use lettin’ him get no bigger!”
So, there was no question of guilt. The trail of Milam and Bryant was a sham, the all-white jury hardly impartial within the culture of small-town Mississippi during the period in question. As future-Mississippi state senator David Jordan, who attended the trial as a young college student, observed with respect to the trial and the jury, "Just going through a mockery — it was no justice or no seriousness as I could see on their [the defendants] faces . . . because they all were laughing — even the jury were laughing."
Much of the American South, and Mississippi in particular, was virulently opposed to the civil rights movement, and remained staunchly segregationist. What the local populations in this region viewed as agitation from outsiders, for example, white anti-segregationists and reporters from the North traveling to the South ‘to stir up trouble,’ hardened their resolve to resist desegregation. As Till’s trial gained wider national exposure, attitudes among southern whites grew increasingly resistant to change. A sort of “circle-the-wagons” mentality took hold, and the prospects for justice for Till or for any of the other victims of racially-motivated killings and beatings were nonexistent.
The social, political and economic conditions prevalent throughout the South allowed for the miscarriage of justice in the case of Emmett Till. A region still resentful over its loss and the physical destruction and economic destitution it endured during the Civil War, anger exacerbated by the experience of earlier generations under Reconstruction, was a region in which justice for blacks was simply not possible. White communities were desperately poor in these small towns in the Deep South, and uneducated whites were resentful of any category of human being other than themselves. Milam and Bryant would die of natural causes, the former in 1980, the latter in 1990. They lived out their lives free of punishment for the murder of a teen-aged boy whose only real crime was the color of his skin.