White Media Coverage of Emmett Till

An Analysis of The Chicago Tribunes Coverage of the Emmett Till Murder— By Sydney Ellis

On September 1st, 1955 a mutilated body of an African American male was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in Sumner, Mississippi.  The mutilation of the body made it nearly unrecognizable, except for a ring bearing the initials “L.T.”, which was all the confirmation that Mamie Bradley needed to know that her only child was never coming home.[1]  The death of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, sparked a national media frenzy, and the coverage of his lynching was reported with a level of intensity that was unprecedented for black representation in the media at this time.  Till’s murder was the turning point for black Americans all over the United States, and his death became an inspiration for active change that spurred African American’s into eventually sparking the civil rights movement.  The murder of Emmett Till came at a time when there were big changes brewing in America, which would be implemented on a nation wide scale.  These changes were leading to desegregation and racial equality—which threatened the traditional, Southern way of life.  The exposure by the Chicago Tribune as Emmett Till’s story was on the cusp of national and international fame, became less impartial as the story began to unfold.  The guilt felt by the white community and their desire to differentiate their racial association with Till’s murderers, the widespread vocal response of the black community, and the city of Chicago’s personal investment as Till’s home town, all led the Chicago Tribune’s reporting of Emmett Tills death to become less objective over the course of their initial coverage.

Mississippi in the 1950s was a hotbed for racial disparity and intolerance dating back to the time of slavery.  The beginning of Reconstruction in 1865 forced the integration of Southern governments; this coupled with the already anti-union consensus and subsequent reporting by Southern Democratic newspapers increased anti-black and anti-union sentiments throughout the south.  The anger about their current way of life and views about African American’s positions of authority spawned white southerner’s to form the Ku Klux Klan; a white supremacy group that took racial matters into their own hands with anti-black vigilante activity.[2]  Reconstruction’s end in 1877 allowed Southern states to take-up their anti-black ideas once again, by establishing the Jim Crow Laws which would stay in effect until the 1960s.   The Jim Crow Laws established a racially segregated way of life, enforced by Southern governments and later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896.[3]  The main objective of Jim Crow was to avert any interaction between the races as equals; deeming the widely known term “separate but equal” attributed to this time period.[4]  The segregation of blacks and whites happened all over America, but nowhere as intensely as south of the Mason-Dixon line.  The Southern government-mandated segregation and value of white supremacy enabled the region to become a society dominated by fear and subordination, where blacks knew their place and whites made sure of it.

During the 1950s, segregation was considered normal in the United States; it was widely accepted and enforced to varying degrees depending on location, and penetrated aspects of everyday life.  The media was no exception, since newspapers, magazines, and media varied in length, circulation, frequency of printing, and race of their target audience.[5]  Although not forced to consume separate media, there was an increased desire for publications tailored toward African Americans because the mainstream media vastly underrepresented blacks—it did not have stories of value that pertained to them, media was not targeted at their areas of interest, and the media reinforced the racial stereotypes that whites had of them, if they were represented at all.[6]  The “American” vs. “African American” news publications focused on different aspects of life that pertained to their readership, which created further separation between the black and white American populations.

Emmett Louis Till was a spunky, 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago who, while having experienced segregation his whole life up North, was unprepared for segregation’s level of extremity in the South.  When Till arrived in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, racial tensions were higher in the state than ever before.  The public display of two lynched black men after their attempt to register black voters, combined with the widespread outrage of Brown vs. Board of Education which ruled the desegregation of schools, had whites livid and the black community on high alert.[7]  Money, a small town of the Mississippi Delta, was ruled by white supremacy and their own kind of back-woods justice—giving it the reputation as “the most southern place on earth.”[8]

August 24th, 1955 Emmett Till, accompanied by a group of friends, went to buy candy and pop at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market located in Money, Mississippi.  Emmett went into the store alone and spoke to the white female clerk about his relations with white women back in Chicago and made physical contact with her, not understanding that wasn’t accepted in the south.  Emmett left the store with the clerk, and storeowner’s wife, Carolyn Bryant, coming out soon after.  Emmett “wolf whistled” at Carolyn, when his friends intervened and forced him back into their truck, fleeing the scene.[9]  On August 28th, Moses “Preacher” Wright, Emmett’s uncle with whom he was staying, was awoken in the middle of the night by banging on his front door.  Two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, started searching the house for the “N***** from Chicago.”[10]  After taking the boy with them in their truck, there was no sign of Emmett Till until days later, when he was pulled from the Tallahatchie River.  Till was beaten, tortured, shot through the head, and finally tied to a 75lb cotton gin fan by the neck with barbed wire before being thrown unceremoniously into the water.[11]  Mamie Bradley, Emmett’s mother, insisted that his body be brought back to Chicago; once she had seen what had happened to her son, she decided to have an open casket funeral so everyone would see the what racial hatred had culminated to.[12]  Till’s story was widely published nationally and internationally, bringing attention to the ongoing race problems in America.  It was not long after Till’s murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, went on trial that they were acquitted by an all white male jury, on the grounds that the prosecution had failed to prove the body pulled from the river was actually that of Emmett Till, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, beyond a reasonable doubt.[13]

The first articles published about Emmett Till were seemingly objective because they were simply investigating the events that led to the kidnapping; during these accounts the Chicago Tribune upheld a high level of objectivity.  The Tribune was the first paper to break the story of Emmett Till’s kidnapping because Mamie Bradley immediately “alerted local Chicago newspapers of [his] disappearance” as soon as she heard on August 29th, 1955.[14]  The first story of Till’s disappearance made the front page of the Chicago Tribune as the issue’s second dominating headline “Fear Chicago Boy Kidnapped.”[15]  The initial story was typical breaking news— it presented the known facts of what allegedly happened, ending with an assurance from law enforcement that officials were “‘determined to get to the bottom of this.’”[16]  The next day, the Chicago Tribune published another article on the second page of the issue, which detailed a first hand account of the acts that transpired.  Wheeler Parker, who was also staying with the Wrights, explained how “Emmett whistled at [the lady in the store].  Then one of the other boys said you’d better get out of here.”[17]  Parker’s account clarifies Till’s provocation and then goes on to assert that there was a woman present at the abduction, while also affirming that the kidnappers were capable to commit violent acts because one of the abductors told Till he’d “blow [his] head off.” [18]  The article also establishes probable cause for the suspects already in custody because the sheriff’s investigation “disclosed that a group of Negro youths who entered Bryant’s store had made ‘ugly remarks’ to Bryant’s wife.”[19]  The following issue had the Till disappearance pushed back, with a nine-sentence paragraph about Till’s disappearance appearing on the 20th page, moving back from the 2nd page the day before.  Till’s disappearance was shunted 18 pages from its previous placement, as there were no new developments to report except that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was still uninvolved in the case.[20] The Tribune reported the events that transpired objectively because they accounted plainly from an outside perspective and interviewed those who were willing to give details about the case in an attempt to uncover the absolute truth.

The Chicago Tribune reports after Emmett Till’s body was found shows less objective reporting, and was a reflection of popular public opinion.  On September 1st, 1955, Emmett Till’s body was recovered, and the story moved back to the front page.  Tallahatchie County Sheriff H.C. Strider recounted finding “‘the body hung in a drift’” when they discovered that “Till had been shot in the head and severely beaten… weighted down with a gin pulley… [it] weighed 150 to 200 pounds… [and] was attached to the boy’s body with barbed wire.”[21]  The article presents details of Till’s condition, provides back-story to refresh the reader’s memory, and provides credible sources throughout their retelling.  Although, when a reporter asked for routine facts on the case and the Tribune included the sheriff’s remark “‘I think you’re making a big-to-do about this,’” combined with an N.A.A.C.P. executive’s statement “‘Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children’” illustrates that the paper was not totally objective—they clearly wanted something done, and the Mississippi officer’s lax attitude about the murder of a young Chicago native did not sit well.[22]  The September 2nd issue reported that Illinois Governor Stratton and Chicago Mayor Daley, like the Tribune, also wanted justice.  Daley made a statement to the president that “‘the people of Chicago have been gravely shocked at the brutal murder in Mississippi of Emmett Louis Till’,” accompanied by a member of the N.A.A.C.P. declaring that the African American community and its allies expect “a full and thorough investigation” of Till’s death.[23]  Slipped into the final paragraphs of the article there is a report of “a hasty burial of Emmett’s body in a [Mississippi] cemetery, [which] was barely averted by a Chicago undertaker engaged by Mrs. Bradley to bring back the body for burial in Chicago.”[24] The way this event is recounted casts suspicion on why Mississippi officials were rushing to dispose of the body.  The Chicago Tribune continues to become less objective as the Till story began to unfold.  The reflection of public opinion and the questions raised about the suspicious circumstances by Mississippi officials during Till’s burial show the Tribune’s dedication for answers and justice, which detracts from the objectivity of their reporting because of the vested interest that Chicago had in this case as Till’s home and home to a massive population of blacks.

On September 4th, the Tribune released a piece that took up the largest space yet devoted to Till’s story.  The article detailed the services that were held for Emmett Till, and illustrates the overwhelming support by the Chicago community.  The article laments Till’s impact and report’s “more than 40,000 people viewed the body.” [25]  The story is accompanied by two images: the first of the hoards of people waiting to pay their respects to Till.  The second image is a solo portrait of Mamie Bradley during her son’s funeral; the complete and utter heartbreak evident on her face captures her unimaginable pain and suffering that only the loss of a child can bring.[26]  The Chicago Tribune honors Till’s memory, while simultaneously showing overwhelming demand for justice by the public.  The inclusion of the sobbing Mamie Bradley photo evokes sympathy and compassion from readers, which is why a quote from Sheriff H.C. Strider stating he believes “‘the whole [murder] looks like a deal made up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’” coming right after is strategic.[27]  The emotions felt by the Tribune’s reader from seeing a human in indescribable pain, followed by a statement that those emotions are not real and even considered fake, sparked feelings of outrage towards the people who murdered Emmett Till and the injustice of the Southern white’s unnecessary hatred of African American.

The continuation of less objective reporting by the Chicago Tribune throughout Emmett Till’s death was indicative of the response of Chicago’s white community, and reflects the majority response of white people across America.  The unprecedented widespread media coverage of Till’s lynching, and the brutality by which it was carried out, shocked whites across the United States.  Whites had known that the South was a different animal, but did not know the extent or how deep racial disparity lied.  White Americans in 1955 thought that these types of inhumane hate crimes were not of their generation and ceased with the abolition of slavery; Emmett Till’s murder showed them that it was, and still is, happening right here and right now.[28]  The newly discovered severe treatment of blacks in the South combined with a shared race of Till’s murderers made white American’s feel guilty and urged a desire to differentiate themselves from Southern whites.  White Americans needed to reassure themselves that even though they shared Till’s murderers race, they were not like them.  The Tribune attempted to combat their guilt and enable whites to differentiate themselves from Southerners by reporting less objectively.  By reporting less objectively, the Tribune allowed for more emotional, Till-sided content that enabled their white readers to identify with him, become outraged at the injustices done to him, and show themselves that not all whites are like the ones who commit such atrocities.

 

Bibliography

American Experience. “The Murder of Emmett Till: The Brutal Killing That Mobilized The Civil Rights Movement.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/index.html.

Baughman, James. Lecture, Journalism 560, Madison, WI, October 19, 2015.

———. Lecture, Journalism 560, Madison, WI, November 2, 2015.

Chicago Tribune (1923-1963). “Ask Ike to Act in Dixie Death of Chicago Boy.” September 2, 1955. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179604198?accountid=465.

Chicago Tribune (1923-1963). “Fear Chicago Boy Kidnapped.” August 29, 1955. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179559048?accountid=465.

Chicago Tribune (1923-1963). “Find Kidnaped Chicago Boy’s Body in River.” September 1, 1955. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179566068?accountid=465.

Chicago Tribune (1923-1963). “Kidnapped Boy Whistled at Woman: Friend.” August 30, 1955. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179538571?accountid=465.

Chicago Tribune (1923-1963). “Seeks FBI Aid in Search for Chicago Boy, 14.” August 31, 1955. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179537226?accountid=465.

Chicago Tribune (1923-1963). “2,500 At Rites Here For Boy, 14, Slain In South.” September 4, 1955, 2. Accessed November 20, 2015. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179586656?accountid=465.

 Chicago Tribune (1923-1963).

            “Kin Tell How Boy Was Abducted,” September 3, 1955.

“Tomorrow Set For Burial of Till Youth, 14,” September 4, 1955.

“Husband Accused: Grand Juror Begins Probe of Till’s Slaying,” September 6, 1955.

“Urban League Asks Action In Till Case,” September 6, 1955.

“Southern Jury Indicts Two In Till Slaying,” September 7, 1955.

“Plan To Invite Slain Negros Mom To Trial,” September 8, 1955.

“Till’s Mother To Take Stand, Attorney Says,” September 11, 1955.

“Till’s Mother Will Attend Murder Trial,” September 16, 1955.

“A Way of Life Goes on Trial in Till Case,” September 18, 1955.

“Till’s Mother Talks to 2,200 In Ohio Church,” September 19, 1955.

“2 Go On Trial In South For Till Murder,” September 20, 1955.

“Hunt Shadow Witnesses In Till Slaying,” September 21, 1955.

Cornell University Law School. “Plessy v. Ferguson.” Legal Information Institute. Accessed November 19, 2015. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/163/537.

Holmes, Paul. “Acquit Two in Till Slaying.” Chicago Tribune (1923-1963), September 24, 1955. Accessed November 18, 2015. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179555681?accountid=465.

Houck, Davis W., Matthew A. Grindy, and Keith A. Beauchamp. Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press. N.p.: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. Accessed November 21, 2015. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/wisconsin/detail.action?docID=10282562&token=1b343dd5-5343-413a-a85d-239dab7e56b4.

Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. N.p.: Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed November 18, 2015. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/wisconsin/detail.action?docID=10084789.

“THE LAW: Trial By Jury.” Time, October 3, 1955. Accessed November 20, 2015. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,807680,00.html.

National Public Radio. “This is NPR. And these are the standards of our journalism.” NPR Ethics Handbook. Accessed November 21, 2015. http://ethics.npr.org/.

Pollack, Harriet, and Christopher Metress. “The Emmett Till Case and Narrative[s].” In Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination, by Harriet Pollack and Christopher Pollack, 1-15. N.p.: Louisiana State University Press, 2008. Accessed November 21, 2015. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/wisconsin/detail.action?docID=10285379.

[1] Davis W. Houck, Matthew A. Grindy, and Keith A. Beauchamp, Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 16, accessed November 21, 2015, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/wisconsin/detail.action?docID=10282562&token=1b343dd5-5343-413a-a85d-239dab7e56b4.

[2] James Baughman (lecture, Journalism 560, Madison, WI, October 19, 2015).

[3] “Plessy v. Ferguson,” Legal Information Institute, accessed November 19, 2015, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/163/537.

[4] Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Oxford University Press, 2004), 8, accessed November 18, 2015, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/wisconsin/detail.action?docID=10084789.

[5] James Baughman (lecture, Journalism 560, Madison, WI, November 2, 2015).

[6] Baughman.

[7] American Experience, “The Murder of Emmett Till: The Brutal Killing That Mobilized The Civil Rights Movement,” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service, accessed November 15, 2015, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/index.html.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Harriet Pollack and Christopher Metress, “The Emmett Till Case and Narrative[s],” in Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination (Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 2, accessed November 21, 2015, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/wisconsin/detail.action?docID=10285379.

[10] Houck, Grindy, and Beauchamp, Emmett Till and the Mississippi, 14.

[11] Ibid., 16.

[12] “2,500 At Rites Here For Boy, 14, Slain In South,” Chicago Tribune (1923-1963), September 4, 1955, 2, accessed November 20, 2015, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179586656?accountid=465.

[13] Paul Holmes, “Acquit Two in Till Slaying,” Chicago Tribune (1923-1963), September 24, 1955, 1, accessed November 18, 2015, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179555681?accountid=465.

[14] American Experience, “The Murder of Emmett.”

[15] “Fear Chicago Boy Kidnapped,” Chicago Tribune (1923-1963), August 29, 1955, 1, accessed November 15, 2015, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179559048?accountid=465.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Kidnapped Boy Whistled at Woman: Friend,” Chicago Tribune (1923-1963), August 30, 1955, 2, accessed November 15, 2015, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179538571?accountid=465.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20]  “Seeks FBI Aid in Search for Chicago Boy, 14,” Chicago Tribune (1923-1963), August 31, 1955, 20, accessed November 15, 2015, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179537226?accountid=465.

[21] “Find Kidnaped Chicago Boy’s Body in River,” Chicago Tribune (1923-1963), September 1, 1955, 1, accessed November 15, 2015, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179566068?accountid=465.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Ask Ike to Act in Dixie Death of Chicago Boy,” Chicago Tribune (1923-1963), September 2, 1955, 2, accessed November 15, 2015, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/179604198?accountid=465.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “2,500 At Rites Here,” 2.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “2,500 At Rites Here,” 2.

[28] American Experience, “The Murder of Emmett.”