Florida State University professor Davis Houck, co-author of Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press, said that African-American press coverage recorded in books has historically included the Chicago Defender, Jet, Ebony and a few others.
But in 2006, he learned of the existence of other reporters at the trial with the publication of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.
That Pulitzer Prize winning work by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff mentioned that another African-American newspaper, The St. Louis Argus, had covered the trial.
He ordered a copy of the Argus microfilm from 1955 — only to find a curious gap where the trial took place. ”Every time I interlibrary loaned the Argus, same gap,” he said. “Every time.”
Finally, an undergraduate student at Florida State, Jessica Primiani, found the missing issues at the State Historical Society of Missouri.
And what a find it was — the Argus’ publisher attended the trial along with a reporter and photographer.
“The Argus was the best represented among a very small contingent of the Black press,” Houck said. ”It’s clear in examining the documents that the Black community of St. Louis had a special investment in the murder of Emmett Till and the search for justice in the case.”
There are never-before-seen photographs, including a few of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, who investigated Till’s killing.
Members of the Black press covering the trial
Devery Anderson, who is working on a book titled, The Boy Who Never Died: The Saga of the Emmett Till Murder, said the trial coverage helped to answer questions, such as what the African-American business district in this area looked like.
It was there that Till’s mother and African-American reporters “received a glimpse of Jim Crow,” he said.
One photograph shows Evers and his NAACP boss, Ruby Hurley, in Sumner during the trial.
They and Amzie Moore, president of the nearby NAACP, dressed in sharecropper clothes in order to help find witnesses, including Willie Reed, who saw Till and heard him being beaten, Anderson said. ”Although their work did not change the outcome of the trial, it greatly bolstered the state’s case.”
Simeon Booker’s new memoir, Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement, details his days in the Delta and his coverage of the trial.
“Mississippi in 1955 was like nothing I had ever seen,” he wrote. “I quickly learned that you could be whipped or even lynched for failing to get off the sidewalk when approaching a White person, for failing to say “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to Whites no matter how young they were, or for the unpardonable crime of attempting to register to vote.”
Each morning of the trial, Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider greeted the African-American reporters with “Good morning, n—gge–s.”
Booker described the sheriff’s insults as “humiliating, and his way of reminding us that although we might be able to cover the trial over his objections, he was still the boss.”
J.W. Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, admitted to authorities they had abducted Till, but denied killing him. After deliberating a little more than an hour, the all-White jury acquitted them of Till’s murder.
“We wouldn’t have taken so long,” a juror told the press, “if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.”
Months later, the half brothers confessed to Look magazine they had indeed murdered Emmett Till, weighed down his body and tossed it into the Tallahatchie River.
Booker recalled Evers — who would be assassinated eight years later — telling him that African Americans needed to stay in Mississippi and fight racism.
Dr. T.R.M. Howard and two other speakers took the stage in Mound Bayou in 1955, echoing Evers’ sentiments, Booker wrote. “One of them was (Congressman Charles) Diggs, who would prove to be a staunch Congressional advocate for the disenfranchised Blacks in Mississippi. Another would be forced to give up everything and flee North rather than risk his life any longer. The third would be shot dead before a new moon had risen over the Delta.”