By: Davis Houck
The local news media in Mississippi was absolutely vital to shaping public opinion about the Emmett Till case.
For most Mississippians this meant the local newspaper since televised news was in its infancy and local televised news simply didn’t exist. Fortunately, many small-town Mississippi weeklies and dailies are preserved on microfilm at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson.
One critically important newspaper was the Greenwood Commonwealth. Founded by one of the state’s most notorious racists and future governor, James K. Vardaman, the Commonwealth, like many of its peers throughout the state, was initially sympathetic to Emmett Till—and hostile to the jailed half-brothers J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant. But the newspaper’s support of Till changed rather dramatically following statements made by Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Roy Wilkins. On September 1, newspapers around the state quoted in full Wilkins’ incendiary statement: “It would appear from this lynching that the State of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children. The killers of the boy felt free to lynch him because there is in the entire state no restraining influence of decency, not in the state capital, among the daily newspapers, the clergy nor any segment of the so-called better citizens.” Having spoken at Reverend George W. Lee’s funeral in Belzoni in May, having read about the murder on the courthouse lawn of Lamar Smith in Brookhaven just weeks earlier, Wilkins had lost his patience with Mississippi. That he called out the press, too, did not help his cause.
The Commonwealth was the very first newspaper in the country to report on the Till kidnapping. In a page-one, unattributed story, the Sunday August 28, headline read, “Chicago Negro Youth Abducted by Three White Men at Money.” Whether Sheriff George Smith had tipped off a local reporter, suffice it to say that the small local paper knew the story mattered—and just hours after Till had been “abducted.” Race and place—negro, white, Money and Chicago—were explosive terms that framed the earliest reporting on the case.
The small but prominently placed article stated that Till had “made some ‘ugly remarks’ to Bryant’s wife,” and that Moses Wright heard the kidnappers “ask a woman in the car if Till was the right boy.” The newspaper refused to identify the third white man and the woman in the car. Later, after the trial had been held and Milam and Bryant acquitted, the Commonwealth editorialized “that the trial was as fair as any ever held. . . . Mississippi can handle its affairs without any outside meddling and its long history of proper court procedure can never be questioned by any group.” Note that the editor did not weigh in on the guilt or innocence of the accused murderers; process and protocols were highlighted, not justice for Emmett Till.