Willie Edwards was 25. His wife Sarah was pregnant with their third child. Winn-Dixie had hired him as a driver just two months earlier, a job he needed not just to support his growing family, but two sisters as well.
His boss asked him if he could substitute on a route. He quickly accepted the offer, happy for the extra income.
On his way back from his evening run to Sylacauga, AL he stopped for a soda. He turned on the truck’s dome light to read his log.
KKK Murders Willie Edwards Jr
It was around 11:30 PM. Henry Alexander, Raymond Britt, Sonny Kyle Livingston Jr, and James York sat nearby about to execute their latest terrorist act: kidnap a black man who they’d heard had said “something” to a white woman.
They walked up to Edwards’s truck, pointed a gun at him, and ordered him into their vehicle.
The men shoved and slapped him as they drove. One man pointed his gun at Mr. Edwards and threatened to castrate him. Sobbing and begging the men not to harm him, Edwards repeatedly denied having said anything to any white woman.
When the men reached the Tyler-Goodwyn Bridge, they ordered Edwards out of the car and gave a choice to him: jump or they’d shoot him. Edwards climbed the railing of the bridge and fell 125 feet to his death.
The next morning, Edwards’s truck was found in the store parking lot, the dome light still on. Others assumed him simply missing. Perhaps he’d gone to California, a place he’d always wanted to go.
Fishermen found Edwards’s decomposed body in April and Sarah officially became a widow. The police closed their missing persons case.
Sarah left Montgomery in 1961 and never returned.
KKK Murders Willie Edwards Jr
Attorney General Bill Baxley
Bill Baxley had become Alabama’s Attorney General in 1971. He considered it part of his job to try to uncover evidence of Alabama’s murderous racist past.
In 1976 Edward R. Fields— founder of the “National States’ Rights Party” and “Grand Dragon” of the New Order Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — sent Baxley a threatening letter regarding Baxley’s policy. Baxley famously wrote back, telling Fields, “Kiss my ass.”
KKK Murders Willie Edwards Jr
In a conversation with Raymond Britt, Britt told Baxley that he, Britt, had left the Klan after he and the others had killed Edwards.
On February 20, 1976 Baxley gave Britt immunity for his testimony and filed first-degree murder charges against Livingston, Alexander, and York.
Because the cause of Edwards’s death was difficult to determine, the court twice denied the indictments.
“Merely forcing a person to jump from a bridge does not naturally and probably lead to the death of such a person,” Judge Frank Embry ruled.
KKK Murders Willie Edwards Jr
The intervention that ended the investigation came from the FBI. It informed Baxley that Henry Alexander was their primary Klan informant in the area and asked Baxley to give him “some consideration.”
“Consideration” was something Alexander had enjoyed many times. Alabama had previously indicted Alexander for four church bombings, the bombings of two homes, and the assault of a black woman riding on a bus, He was never prosecuted.
At that point, unable to proceed with any confidence in a conviction, Baxley abandoned the case against the men and dropped all charges.
KKK Murders Willie Edwards Jr
Henry Alexander’s conscience
Jimmy York died in 1979.
Henry Alexander died in 1993, but before he did he confessed and told the whole story to his wife Diane. One of the things he said was, “That man never hurt anybody. I was just running my mouth. I caused it.”
She was sickened by the story. Ashamed. “Henry lived a lie all his life, and he made me live it, too,” she said. Alexander’s family refused to believe the confession and wanted nothing to do with the revelation Diane wanted.
After Henry’s death, Diane wrote to Sarah Jean Salter who lived in Buffalo, NY. “I hope maybe one day I can meet you to tell you face to face how sorry I am,” the letter said. “May God bless you and your family and I pray that this letter helps you somehow.”
Later she met in person with Melinda O’Neill, Edwards’s daughter, who was three at the time of her father’s murder.
In 1997, as a result of requests by Willie Edwards’ daughter Malinda Edwards, the Alabama Department of Vital Statistics changed her father’s cause of death from “unknown” to “homicide.” (Northeastern University School of Law entry)
A 1999 Montgomery County grand jury declined to indict any of the surviving suspects for the murder of Willie Edwards Jr. (see Feb 14)
Raymond C. Britt died in December 2004
KKK Murders Willie Edwards Jr
In September 1993, the FBI began an investigation into its own possible part in preventing a prosecution of the murder. (NYT article)
On July 9, 2013, the US Justice Department officially closed its investigation with the following statement. It is assumed that the redacted name is that of Sonny Livingston.
The State of Alabama has declined to authorize a third prosecution of XXXX, the only living subject, under Alabama law. It should be noted that additional witnesses and subjects have died since the second grand jury declined to indict based upon insufficient evidence, and all individuals other than XXXXXX alleged to have had direct knowledge of this incident are now deceased. Accordingly, this matter should be closed. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Alabama concurs in this recommendation. (justice.gov site)
In the mid-20th century, most Americans worried about atomic weapons.
Today the fear of terrorism has replaced our fear of an atomic apocalypse…mostly.
We consider terrorists foreigners. Of course there have been example of domestic terrorism and throughout American history a whole class of Americans were under the constant fear of domestic terrorists, vigilante injustice, lynching.
Emmett Louis Till
The story of Emmett Till is one of the better known examples of the thousands of black Americans who were mistreated, tortured, and killed by domestic terrorists.
There are many articles and books about Emmett Till and the horrors that surround his final moments. This piece is simply a chronological listing of his final days and the decades of injustice that followed.
Reverend George Lee
On May 7, 1955 the Reverend George Lee, a grocery owner and NAACP field worker in Belzoni, Mississippi, was shot and killed at point blank range while driving in his car after trying to vote. At his funeral, Lee’s widow ordered his casket be opened to show the effects of shotgun pellets to the face—a rebuttal to the official version that Lee died in a car accident. Shortly before his death Lee had preached, “Pray not for your mom and pop—they’ve gone to heaven. Pray you can make it through this hell.” (see May 31)
In early August 1955 Emmett Till’s great uncle Moses Wright had traveled from Mississippi to Chicago to visit family. At the end of his stay, Wright planned to take Till’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, back to Mississippi with him to visit relatives. Emmett learned of these plans he begged his mother to let him go along. Initially, Mamie Till said no. She wanted to take a road trip to Omaha, Nebraska and attempted to lure Till to join her with the promise of open-road driving lessons. But Till desperately wanted to spend time with his cousins in Mississippi. She gave permission.
August 19, 1955: Till’s mother gave Emmett his late father’s signet ring, engraved with the initials L.T. Louis Till had died in 1945 while a private in Europe during World War II.
August 20, 1955: Mamie Till drove her son to the 63rd Street station in Chicago. They kissed goodbye and Till boarded a southbound train headed for Mississippi.
August 21, 1955: Till arrived in Money, Mississippi to stay at the home of his great uncle Moses Wright.
August 24, 1955: Emmett Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi to buy refreshments after a long day picking cotton in the hot afternoon sun. Till purchased bubble gum, and some of the kids with him would later report that he either whistled at, flirted with, or touched the hand of the store’s white female clerk—and wife of the owner—Carolyn Bryant.
Emmitt Till murdered
August 28, 1955: at approximately 2:30 AM Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Emmett Till from Moses Wright’s home. They then brutally beat, dragged him to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan, and shoved his mutilated body into the water.
Moses Wright reported Till’s disappearance to the local authorities.
August 29, 1955: authorities arrested J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant on kidnapping charges. They are jailed in Greenwood, Mississippi and held without bond.
August 31, 1955: Emmett Till’s decomposed corpse was pulled from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Moses Wright identifies the body from a ring with the initials L.T.
September 1, 1955: Mississippi Governor Hugh White ordered local officials to “fully prosecute” Milam and Bryant.
Emmett Till’s return to Chicago
September 2, 1955: in Chicago, Mamie Till arrived at the Illinois Central Terminal to receive Emmett’s casket. Family and media surround her. She collapsed when she saw the casket.
September 3, 1955: as mentioned above, in May the widow of Reverend George Lee had decided to have an open casket for her husband.
Mamie Till decided to do the same. “Let the people see what they did to my boy!”
Thousands waited in line to see Emmett’s brutally beaten body.
September 6, 1955: Emmett Till was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery.
Indictment for murder and trial
September 7, 1955: A Tallahatchie County grand jury indicted Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam for the murder and kidnapping of Emmett Till. Conviction on either charge could carry the death penalty. They both plead innocent and remain in jail until the start of the trial.
September 19, 1955: the murder trial (only) began in Sumner, Mississippi, the county seat of Tallahatchie County. Jury selection began. Law banned any blacks and all women from serving. The 12-man jury consisted of nine farmers, two carpenters and one insurance agent.
Mamie Till departed from Chicago’s Midway Airport to attend the trial.
September 20, 1955: Judge Curtis Swango recessed the court to allow more witnesses to be found. It was the first time in Mississippi history that local law enforcement, local NAACP leaders, and black and white reporters had teamed up. They try to locate sharecroppers who saw Milam’s truck and overheard Emmett being beaten.
September 21, 1955: Moses Wright accused the two white men in open court, an unthinkable thing to do in that place at that time. While on the witness stand, he stood up and pointed his finger at Milam and Bryant, and accused them of coming to his house and kidnapping Emmett.
September 22, 1955: the defense began presenting its witnesses. Carolyn Bryant testified outside the presence of the jury. Sheriff Strider testified that he thought the body pulled out of the river had been there “from ten to fifteen days,” far too long to be that of Till. An embalmer testified that the body was “bloated beyond recognition.”
September 23, 1955: after a 67-minute deliberation, the jury acquitted Milam and Bryant. One juror told a reporter that they wouldn’t have taken so long if they hadn’t stopped to drink pop. Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam stood before photographers, lighted up cigars, and kissed their wives in celebration.
Kidnapping charges dropped
Moses Wright and Willie Reed, another poor black Mississippian who testified, left Mississippi. Once there, Reed collapsed and suffered a nervous breakdown. (Reed, see July 18, 2013 below)
September 30, 1955: Milam and Bryant were released on bond. for the pending kidnapping charges.
November 9, 1955: returning to Mississippi one last time, Moses Wright and Willie Reed testified before a LeFlore County grand jury in Greenwood, Mississippi. The grand jury refused to indict Milam or Bryant for kidnapping. The two men go free.
“The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi”
January 24, 1956: an article by William Bradford Huie in Lookmagazine appears. It is titled, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.” Protected by double-jeopardy, Milam and Bryant admit to the murder.
They detailed how they beat Till with a gun, shot him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River with a heavy cotton-gin fan attached with barbed wire to his neck to weigh him down. The two killers were paid a reported $4,000 for their participation in the article.
January 22, 1957: Huie wrote another article for Look magazine, “What’s Happened to the Emmett Till Killers?” Huie wrote that “Milam does not regret the killing, though it has brought him nothing but trouble.” Blacks have stopped frequenting stores owned by the Milam and Bryant families and put them out of business. Bryant takes up welding for income, and the community ostracized both men.
E. Frederic Morrow
E. Frederic Morrow moved to the White House on July 10, 1955. He was an aide to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and as such he became the first African-American to serve in that capacity. His autobiography vividly describes his difficulties in trying to persuade the administration to take a strong stand on civil rights. Morrow, for example, tried unsuccessfully to get President Eisenhower to issue a statement regarding Emmett Till’s murder.
Morrow did, however, finally convince Eisenhower to meet with civil rights leaders in the White House, a meeting that occurred on June 23, 1958.
December 31, 1980: J. W. Milam died in Mississippi of cancer.
September 1, 1994: Roy Bryant Sr., 63, died at the Baptist Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi of cancer.
January 6, 2003: Mamie Till Mobley died of heart failure, at age 81. Her death came just two weeks before The Murder of Emmett Till was to premiere nationally on PBS.
Cold Case Closed
February 23, 2007: in 2006 after a “cold case” investigation, Federal authorities had decided not to prosecute anyone, saying the statute of limitations for federal charges had run out. The Department of Justice said that the Mississippi authorities represented the last, best hope of bringing someone to justice.
On this date, a grand jury refused to bring any new charges. District Attorney Joyce Chiles had sought a manslaughter charge against Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was suspected of pointing out Till to her husband to punish the him for his “disrespect.”
The grand jury issued a “no bill,” meaning it had found insufficient evidence.
Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007
October 7, 2008: introduced in 2007, President Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007. It tasked the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI with reviewing, investigating and assessing for prosecutive merit more than 100 unsolved civil rights era homicides.
February 13, 2013: Airickca Gordon-Taylor, director of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation (founded in 2009), requested that Lil Wayne remove Emmett Till’s name from his verse on Future’s “Karate Chop.” Gordon-Taylor calls Wayne’s use of Till’s name “disappointing, dishonorable, and outright disrespectful to our family.”
Guesting on “Karate Chop,” a single by Atlanta rapper Future, Lil Wayne contributed the third verse of the remix, which began:
Pop a lot of pain pills
‘Bout to put rims on my skateboard wheels
Beat that p—y up like Emmett Till
February 18, 2013: Epic Records Chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid apologized to the Till family and said that his label was working to remove from circulation a remix of the track “Karate Chop.”
Willie Reed dies
July 18, 2013: Willie Reed died. He had had changed his name to Willie Louis after the murder trial and moved to Chicago. Louis, one of the last living witnesses for the prosecution in the Till case, died in Oak Lawn, Ill., a Chicago suburb. He was 76.
Emmett Till Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016
December 16, 2016: President Obama signed the Emmett Till Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016. The Act allowed the Department of Justice and the FBI to reopen unsolved civil rights crimes.committed before 1980. The legislation is an expansion of a previous bill of a similar name signed into law in 2008.
Simeon Wright dies
September 4, 2017: Simeon Wright died, Emmett Till’s cousin and the boy who was with Emmett whenRoy Bryant and his half brother, J. W. Milam kidnapped Emmett.
It was Simeon Wright who donated a sample of his DNA to helping federal prosecutors prove that the disfigured body was actually that of his cousin. Bryand and Milam had claimed there was no proof that the body was Till’s.
Wright died in Countryside, Ill., a Chicago suburb. He was 74. His family said the cause was complications of bone cancer. [NYT article]
22,433 days days later
Carolyn Bryant Donham admits lying
January 27, 2017: in a Vanity Fair magazine article, Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson reported that Carolyn Bryant Donham (the woman who accused Till of inappropriate behavior) told Tyson that the story she and others told about Emmett Till was false.
Tyson wrote that Donham had said of her long-ago allegations—that Emmett grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her–“that part is not true.”
June 21, 2018: in 2007, eight Emmett Till historic signs were erected in northwest Mississippi, including at the spot on the river where fishermen in 1955 discovered Emmett’s mutilated corpse tethered to a cotton-gin fan.
A year later, vandals tore down the sign on the riverbed. It was replaced. But then bullets were fired into that marker — more than 100 rounds over several years.
On this date, a new sign was erected.
22,964 days later
July 11, 2018: the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had reopened its investigation into the Till murder.
A report, sent to Congress in March, said it had received “new information” on the slaying.
35 days later
July 26, 2018: 35 days after its replacement, vandals again shot at the historic sign indicating the place where Emmett Till’s body was found. [NYT article]
U Miss students pose
July 25, 2019: the University of Mississippi suspended three students from their fraternity house. They also faced a possible investigation by the Department of Justice after posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled sign honoring slain civil rights icon Emmett Till.
One of the students posted a photo to his private Instagram account in March (2019) showing the trio in front of a roadside plaque commemorating the site where Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River.