By: Davis Houck
Hugh Stephen (“Steve”) Whitaker was just two years older than Emmett Till when the latter was kidnapped and murdered on August 28, 1955.
As a white child growing up in Jim Crow Charleston, Mississippi, Whitaker became interested in the case since his step-father, N. Z. Trout, was a police officer in Charleston. Moreover, at this location, and during the September murder trial, young Whitaker was awakened late one night when a bag of dynamite was tossed under his bedroom window. While no one was ever arrested for the act, Whitaker never forgot the palpable threat of being involved in the case—even as a white teenager.
Several years later, and as a Master’s student in political science at Florida State University, Whitaker was encouraged by his thesis committee to conduct a study of the jurors involved with the Till murder trial. The ensuing project, a 206-page Master’s thesis titled “A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case,” has become one of the foundation stones in scholarship about the case. As part of his research methods, and to induce cooperation by the former jurors, Whitaker was known to show up for interviews with a bottle of Jack Daniels. By the close of an interview session, that bottle was often empty and details had been spilled; it also didn’t hurt that as a local white youth, Whitaker had the racial bona fides to get such intimate access. To a man, each of the 12 jurors admitted to Whitaker that they of course knew that Milam and Bryant had kidnapped and murdered Emmett Till. But they couldn’t convict the men—not with the national news media watching and not when a northern black boy had insulted southern white womanhood. Whitaker’s research also turned up a critical detail: two of the black men allegedly involved in Till’s kidnap and murder, Henry Lee Loggins and Levy “Too Tight” Collins, had been held in the Charleston Jail under aliases in order to elude prosecutors. As part of his research, Whitaker also was given a complete trial transcript and a trove of hate mail sent to Sheriff H. C. Strider. Unfortunately, all of his primary source material was later destroyed in a flood. A digital version of this critical text is available through Florida State University.
Whitaker waited until his parents had passed away to publish contents of the thesis; he feared retribution given the explosive details of the interviews. Moreover, as a “race traitor” who’d cut his teeth in Tallahatchie County, Whitaker was a susceptible target. Today, he and his wife live in Tallahassee, FL, where Steve is a retired employee of the state of Florida. He speaks frequently to Florida State University students about his pioneering work on the Till case.