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Two Case Studies: Emmett Till and the "Kissing Case"

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Author: Richard Pierce

"Have you ever sent a loved son on vacation and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son -- lynched?"  -- Mamie Bradley, mother of Emmett Till

Emmett Till

In August 1955, a fourteen year old boy went to visit relatives near Money, Mississippi.  Intelligent and bold, with a slight mischievous streak, Emmett Till had experienced segregation in his hometown of Chicago, but he was unaccustomed to the severe segregation he encountered in Mississippi.  When he showed some local boys a picture of a white girl who was one of his friends back home and bragged that she was his girlfriend, one of them said, "Hey, there's a [white] girl in that store there. I bet you won't go in there and talk to her."  Emmett went in and bought some candy.  As he left, he said "Bye, baby" to Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the store owner.

Although they were worried at first about the incident, the boys soon forgot about it.  A few days later, two men came to the cabin of Mose Wright, Emmett's uncle, in the middle of the night.  Roy Bryant, the owner of the store, and J. W. Milam, his brother-in-law, drove off with Emmett.  Three days later, Emmett Till's body was found in the Tallahatchie River.  One eye was gouged out, and his crushed-in head had a bullet in it.  The corpse was nearly unrecognizable; Mose Wright could only positively identify the body as Emmett's because it was wearing an initialed ring.

At first, local whites as well as blacks were horrified by the crime.  Bryant and Milam were arrested for kidnapping even before Emmett's body was found, and no local white lawyers would take their case.  Newspapers and white officials reported that all "decent" people were disgusted with the murder and proclaimed that "justice would be done."

The Emmett Till case quickly attracted national attention.  Mamie Bradley, Emmett's mother, asked that the body be shipped back to Chicago.  When it arrived, she inspected it carefully to ensure that it really was her son.  Then, she insisted on an open-casket funeral, so that "all the world [could] see what they did to my son."  Over the course of four days, thousands of people saw Emmett's body.  Many more blacks across the country who might not have otherwise heard of the case were shocked by pictures of the that appeared in Jet magazine.  These pictures moved blacks in a way that nothing else had.  When the Cleveland Call and Post polled major black radio preachers around the country, it found that five of every six were preaching about Emmett Till, and half of them were demanding that "something be done in Mississippi now."

Whites in Mississippi resented the northern criticism of the "barbarity of segregation" and the NAACP's labeling of the murder as a lynching.  Five prominent lawyers stepped forward to defend Milam and Bryant, and officials who had at first denounced the murder began supporting the accused murderers.  The two men went on trial in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, on September 19, 1955.

The prosecution had trouble finding witnesses willing to testify against the two men.  At that time in Mississippi, it was unheard of for a black to publicly accuse a white of committing a crime.  Finally, Emmett's sixty-four year old uncle Mose Wright stepped forward.  When asked if he could point out the men who had taken his nephew that dark summer night, he stood, pointed to Milam and Bryant, and said "Dar he" -- "There he is."  Wright's bravery encouraged other blacks to testify against the two defendants.  All had to be hurried out of the state immediately after giving their testimony.

In the end, however, even the incredible courage of these blacks did not make a difference.  Defense attorney John C. Whitten told the jurors in his closing statement, "Your fathers will turn over in their graves if [Milam and Bryant are found guilty] and I'm sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that [outside] pressure."  The jurors listened to him.  They deliberated for just over an hour, then returned a "not guilty" verdict on September 23rd, the 166th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights.  The jury foreman later explained, "I feel the state failed to prove the identity of the body."

The impact of the Emmett Till case on black America was even greater than that of the Brown decision.  For the first time, northern blacks saw that violence against blacks in the South could affect them in the North.  In Mamie Bradley's words, "Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago.  I had a good job.  I had a son.  When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, 'That's their business, not mine.'  Now I know how wrong I was.  The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all."  Blacks, in the North as well as in the South, would not easily forget the murder of Emmett Till.

The "Kissing Case"

Have you ever heard of Monroe, North Carolina?

It’s not all that unusual.  Monroe is not a big town although it is the county seat of Union County.  It sits just southeast of Charlotte almost in South Carolina.

On a warm autumn day in 1958, the little town of Monroe was shaken because of a serendipitous event that took place along a deserted ditch in an area that children had long claimed as a playground.  A group of children, none more than 10, none younger than 6, were playing as young children do without much pattern or apparent direction.  There were two groups, one a group of boys and the other girls.  Most were white.

Now it’s nearly impossible to unravel precisely what took place among children playing together on a warm autumn day, but this is what we have.  It wasn’t unusual for whites and blacks to play together.  Most of the black women in Monroe worked as domestics and often took their children with them to work where their children and their employer’s children often played together.  Two young black boys, David Ezell “Fuzzy” Simpson, 8, and James Hanover Grissom Thomspon, 10, saw the young white boys and began playing with them.  The group of boys and girls slowly worked their way towards each other and began playing together.  One of the children suggested that they play a "kissing" game, something akin to spinning the bottle.  A couple of the younger children found the whole idea of kissing distasteful and left.  Hanover said that he thought the game a little odd, but he had been taught that if "white kids did something, you think it’s right."  The remaining children sat in a circle and began their game.  The girls went around the circle, sat on the lap of one of the boys and kissed them on the cheek.  In turn, the game broke up and the kids played a little more before moving on to other challenges and victories.

Just for context, let me remind you that that fall afternoon was three years after the Emmett Till murder and the Montgomery bus boycott.  Both events, understandably, had rocked American society, but after each the political and cultural scene had largely gone back to usual patterns.

One of the girls, Sissy Sutton, went home and was idly relaying events to her sister when her mother overheard the story of the kissing game.  She wasn’t that disturbed until she heard that Hanover Thompson was among the group.  She knew Hanover because his grandmother had worked for her family.  When she heard that her daughter had kissed a black boy she became furious.  She called the parents of the other girls, confirmed the story, armed herself, gathered some friends, and went out looking for the boys.  She intended to kill them.  Hanover was 10, Fuzzy was 8.

One of the other parents called the police and a virtual race was one to determine who would find the boys first, the mob or the police.  Neither seemed much better than the other.  Mrs. Sutton went to Hanover’s home with her posse, not only to kill the boys but to lynch the mothers.  They arrived almost at the same time as six carloads of police -- nearly the entire police force of Monroe.  Fortunately, no one was at home.  Late that afternoon, a squad car spotted the two boys pulling a little red wagon filled with pop bottles.  They were blithely unaware of the furor going on around them.  Their innocence was quickly shattered.

The police jumped out of the car with their guns drawn.  They snatched the boys, handcuffed them, and threw them into the car.  One of the police officers slapped Hanover, the first of many beatings he would endure.  One of the officers said they would teach the boys not to "kiss little white girls."  (I have cleaned up the language.)  When they got to the jail, they drug the boys out of the car, threw them down, and started beating them in the chest and calling them names.  They put the boys in a holding cell.

Evelyn Thompson heard of her son’s arrest from a neighbor’s child.  The little girl told her to hurry to the jail because the boys were being beaten unmercifully.  The local juvenile court judge, J. Hampton Price, reported that the police had detained the boys for their own good due to the public outcry.  Price was wrong about a lot of things, but he was right that a furor was underway outside.  For several nights the mothers were so frightened that they didn’t sleep in their own house.  Gunmen in passing cars fired dozens of shots into the Thompson home.  They killed Hanover’s dog.  Both women were fired from their jobs as housekeepers.  Mrs. Thompson was evicted from her home.  The Klan held daily demonstrations outside of the jail.

The mothers called Robert Williams, the local NAACP leader to help them.  He was not your usual NAACP leader.  He immediately stationed armed guards around the women’s homes.  He tried to get help from the national office and just about anywhere that he could.

Many people thought that it was extreme to deal so harshly with children so young.  One women wrote a letter to the editor saying that "if the boys were over twelve it would be a different story."   It was only the boys ages that made the issue so noteworthy.  Southerners, and northerners too, lived in fear of miscegenation.  Emmett Till had been murdered, ostensibly, because he had flirted with a white woman.  One white man from western Carolina wrote, "We can talk about it all we want to—justice, equality, all that sort of thing, but when we come right down to it, that’s what it is all about:  a nigger a-marrying your sister or your daughter."  James Baldwin, brilliant essayist and shrewdly analytical, said in response, "You’re not worred about me marrying your daughter.  You’re worried about me marrying your wife’s daughter.  I’ve been marrying your daughter since the days of slavery"; a not so subtle reference to the rampant miscegenation that occurred during and after slavery.

Despite the outside efforts, the boys remained in jail.  The worst night was October 31, Halloween.  A few white men, dressed in sheets, came down to the boys’ cell screaming and threatening to kill them.  The boys understandably panicked.  They knew that sheets meant the Klan and that the Klan killed people.  While they were screaming in terror, the men took off the sheets and revealed their police uniforms.  They had just been getting some Halloween fun.  Hanover was 10 and Fuzzy was 8.

On November 4, 1958, six days after taking the boys into custody, local authorities finally held a hearing.  Mind you, the boys had still not seen their parents, friends, or legal counsel.  Long before the hearing, Judge Price had made his mind.  He had already spoken to the commissioner of the State Board of Corrections and Training, to ask whether the Morrison Training School could admit the boys.  Morrison was an adult facility for black prisoners.  Price was assured that the boys could be taken on an emergency case.  At the hearing, Judge Price found the boys guilty of three charges of assault (kissing) and molestation.  He told the boys that if they behaved well, they might be released before they were 21.

Who came to the boys’ aid?  Well, I’ve told you of the local NAACP.  The case became national and international news.  Governor Luther Hodges, a moderate Democrat being courted both by John Kennedy and Richard Nixon as a potential vice-president candidate, tried to keep things in perspective.  He was in a tough spot.  On one hand, people outside of North Carolina, mostly in northern states, were horrified that children this young were being incarcerated.  President Eisenhower thought that the case threatened national security because communist Russia made great news of the way white folks treated black folk in America.  Remember, this was at the height of the Cold War.  Russia had just launched Sputnik, the lunar ship, a year earlier.  More importantly, Russia and America were competing to see who would have dominant influence in places like Latin America and Africa, places where people of color resided.

Hodges wasn’t vicious like some southern governors.  Instead, he thought that blacks should bide their time and things would get better eventually. Once blacks had proven themselves, whites would tell them when they were deserving of their rights.  The last thing he needed was the Kissing Case.  Yet, like most politicians, Hodges paid attention to the people who elected him and not to the national or international calls for the boys freedom.  There would be no help from the governor.

The state NAACP director, a funeral director from Charlotte named Kelly Alexander, didn’t want anything to do with the 'sex case' as he called the affair.  Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, also declined to get involved.  When the state NAACP did get involved they suggested that the boys be released secretly and the families move to another area.  They thought that way the southerners could save face.  Nationally, NAACP officials found they had to create separate organizations to move beyond the organization’s cautious approach.  Remember the Montgomery Improvement Association.

Eventually, it was the communists, precisely, the Socialist Workers’ Party, that came to the rescue.  Their efforts were mixed.

Joyce Egginton, a reporter for the London News-Chronicle, which had a circulation of 1.5 million European households, traveled to Monroe.  Afterwards she sneaked into the prison where the boys were held, under the pretense of being a social worker.  She also sneaked in a camera under some fruit in a bowl.  On December 15, 1958, a front page picture of Hanover and Fuzzy in the reformatory, along with an article, appeared all over Europe.  News organizations in Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Spain--you name it--all carried the story.

Domestic and international pressure seems to have finally paid off.  On February 13, 1958, Evelyn Thompson opened her front door to see her son with a representative from the reformatory.  The representative told her that news had reached them that the moral quality of her home had improved so they were releasing her son into her custody.

We all know too many stories of atrocities perpetrated on blacks.  I don’t tell this story to add to the list.  Instead, to ask why we don’t know this story? Why has it been lost?  Issues to think about include:

    • The construction of history.
    • The relevance and place of the occurrence.
    • The usefulness of the story.
    • How we argue about history -- not to take a side but to explain away your opponent's argument through logic, force, and faith.
    • Textbooks -- the challenges inherent in writing a history that is complete while being selective.  Can it even be done?  What should historians do in deciding what should be included or excluded from textbooks?
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