By: Dave Tell
In December of 1954, just nine months before Till was killed, Medgar Evers joined the NAACP as Mississippi’s first full-time field secretary.
At the time, he was living in Mound Bayou, MS, working for Dr. T. R. M. Howard’s Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. Howard had a deep impact on Evers’s development, providing his first introduction to the civil rights movement.
The morning of Tuesday, September 20, 1955, found Medgar Evers in Sumner, MS, attending the second day of the Emmett Till trial. Just a day earlier, Evers, Howard, and the black press had learned the true story of what happened to Till after he was kidnapped. Through Frank Young’s revelations to Howard and Hick’s simultaneous discovery of Henry Lee Loggins and Levi “Too Tight” Collins, the black press now knew that Till was beaten in Sunflower County—on the Sturdivant Plantation outside the town of Drew. They couldn’t be certain whether or not he died on that plantation, but they had five new eye-witnesses that corroborated the fact that his body left the plantation in the back of a truck, limp and lifeless, bleeding, and covered with a tarpaulin. Frank Young saw it happen; as did Willie Reed, Ad Reed, Walter Billingsley, and Mandy Bradley. With these five witnesses, the chances that he died in that Drew barn seemed high.
Through the confessions of Frank Young and the King’s Place investigation of James Hicks, the black press knew these witnesses were out there, but the trial was already in its second day and there was no time to find them. For this reason, at 1:30pm on Tuesday the 20th, Prosecutor Gerald Chatham asked Judge Curtis Swango for an extended recess. It was granted.
At this point, Medgar Evers jumped into action. With Ruby Hurley, Moses Newson, and Amzie Moore with him in his 1955 Oldsmobile, Evers left Sumner and headed to Cleveland. In Cleveland the foursome donned cotton-picking clothes, switched to an older, less-conspicuous car, and headed for the Sturdivant plantation. Once there, they went undercover as sharecroppers, walked the cotton fields, and found the witnesses.
The plan was to assemble the witnesses, reporters, and activists in Mound Bayou at 8pm on the 20th. Apparently spooked, the five witnesses never showed. Desperate to find the witnesses who could change the course of the trial, a massive, unorganized hunt ensued. An interracial group of journalists, activists, and law officers searched the highways and byways of the Delta into the wee hours of the morning. By 3am they had found their witnesses and obtained assurances that each would testify in trial the following day.
The next day, some of the witnesses showed up at the trial, and some did not. Frank Young never came. But Willie Reed, Ad Reed, and Mandy Bradley did. Although the jury disbelieved their story, their testimony, on the afternoon of Thursday the 22nd, was the only time to the true story of Emmett Till was told in the Sumner courtroom. Were it not for Medgar Evers’s willingness to go under cover in the cotton fields, even this tiny glimmer of truth may have been lost.