By: Dave Tell
Every lawyer in Sumner defended murderers Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam. At 34 years old, and with a scant eight years of experience, Harvey Henderson was the youngest of the five-member legal defense team.
He was the only one of the five lawyers not involved in the interrogation of witnesses; his only recorded role in the trial was a brief closing speech in which he reminded the jury that the defense needed to prove nothing; the burden of proof rested on the prosecution.
Although he may have played a minor role, he was nonetheless part of the team. And, as a member of the team, he contributed to the defense’s argument that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River could not be positively identified. Before the trial began, Henderson participated in a closed-door meeting with Till’s uncle Moses Wright. During the trial, the defense argued that in this meeting Wright had admitted to Henderson and others that the only reasons he assumed that the body pulled from the river belonged to Till were the body’s smooth face and the fact that Till was missing. Wright denied this claim.
In truth, the argument that the body could not be identified was ridiculous. The Till-family ring was still clinging to the body, his mother and great uncle positively identified him, and, even Sheriff Strider, until he changed his tune on the fourth day of the trial, had no trouble identifying the body of Emmett Till. In 2005, the FBI exhumed the body and performed a forensic dental examination and proved decisively that which was already obvious: the body belonged to Emmett Till.
Despite the absurdity of the defense’s argument, the jury approved. Juror Jim Pennington, for example, acknowledged the unlikeness of a mother mistaking the body of her own son, but concluded nonetheless that the state couldn’t convince him that the body was Till’s. Likewise, juror Ray Tribble commented, “The body they pulled out of the river didn’t look like nobody.” The jury foreman James Shaw even repeated Whitten’s closing argument, that the body was planted in the river by those looking to stir up trouble.
Why did the jury approve an argument?
The final comment of Henderson’s colleague John Whitten provides some insight. Whitten addressed the jury and said, “Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you have the courage to free these men.” Although there had been no shortage of arguments about the identity of the body, at the end of the day (and at the end of the trial), Whitten made explicit that which has always been painfully obvious: the case was not about the identity of the body, it was about race.
Harvey Henderson never spoke openly about the case.