Law Office of J. W. Kellum

By: Dave Tell

Here stood the legal practice of Joseph Wilson (J. W.) Kellum. In 1939, Kellum was grocery store clerk with no college experience. He took the bar exam, passed it, and began a law practice across the street from the Sumner courthouse.
By the time the Till trial arrived in 1955, Kellum was 44 years old and a sixteen-year veteran of the Mississippi bar.

W. Kellum had two notable roles in the trial. First, he cross-examined Willie Reed. Reed was the star witness for the prosecution. It was in order to find Willie Reed and convince him to testify that the trial had been called to halt halfway through its second day. The prosecution believed that Reed was a witness to the murder. Reed lived on the Clint Shurden plantation, just west of Drew, Mississippi. Early in the morning on August 28, Reed was walking across the neighboring Sturdivant plantation on the way to a small store when he was witness to a sequence of revolting events that should have, but didn’t, change the course of the trial.

Reed claimed that he saw a truck drive onto the Sturdivant plantation. Till was in the back with two other black men; four whites were in the cab. Till was then taken inside a barn and Reed testified that he heard desperate screams emanating from the barn. “I heard somebody hollering, and I heard licks like somebody was whipping somebody.” Reed then saw J. W. Milam emerge from the barn to fetch a drink of water, he heard the screams gradually fade to nothing, and he saw a body taken from the barn covered with a tarpaulin and placed in the back of the truck. His story was corroborated by witnesses Add Reed and Amanda Bradley, and it matched perfectly the story Frank Young told Dr. T. R. M. Howard at his home in Mound Bayou. It was also true.

Reed’s story contradicted the story the defense was pedaling on two fundamental levels. First, the defense claimed that the body could not be identified as Emmett Till. Reed claimed he saw Till clearly in the truck. Second, although the defense admitted a kidnapping, they argued that Milam and Bryant never took Till outside of Leflore County. Reed claimed to see them together on the Sturdivant plantation in Sunflower County.

The job of refuting Reed’s story fell to J. W. Kellum. In a brutal cross-examination, he befuddled Reed by asking about the precise yardage between his vantage point and the barn and the precise speed of the pickup truck. A lifelong worker in the fields, Reed had little capacity to estimate distances or speeds and he quickly became confused. Further, Kellum forced Reed to admit that he didn’t actually see Till being beaten, he only heard screams from a barn.

Kellum’s second role in the trial was to give the third closing argument for the defense. The first two speeches were given by Harvey Henderson and Sidney Carlton. These speeches focused on legal arguments. Kellum’s speech, by contrast, was laced with racial invectives. He reminded the all-white jury that they were the “custodians of American civilization.” He then admonished them: “I’ll be waiting for you when you come out. If your verdict is guilty, I want you to tell me where is the land of the free and the home of the brave. I say to you, gentlemen, your forefathers will absolutely roll over in their graves.”

Lest his meaning was unclear, Kellum explained what he meant in a 2005 interview with the New York Times. “Their forefathers,” he explained, “would not have ever convicted any white man for killing a black man.” He reported no misgivings about so blatantly appealing to the racism of the jury.