Interview with Hugh Stephen Whitaker
June 22, 2005
Conducted by Devery S. Anderson
Hugh Stephen Whitaker was born in 1939 in
(near Sumner, the site of the Emmett Till murder trial). His stepfather, N.Z.
Troutt, was chief of police in
in 1955, and he was appointed as deputy sheriff for the duration of the
trial. For his Master’s thesis, submitted to
State University in 1963, he wrote “A Case Study in Southern Justice: The
Emmett Till Case,” the first book length study of the Emmett Till murder,
and the only such source for another twenty-seven years. Whitaker’s thesis
is the only one to reference the original trial transcript, in addition to
first-hand interviews with many of the trial participants (the sheriff,
prosecutors, defense attorneys, and all of the jurors).
Two years after receiving his Master's degree, he wrote his doctoral
dissertation, “A New Day: The Effects of Negro Enfranchisement in Selected
Mississippi Counties” (all of which were in the Mississippi Delta), also
State University. He taught at Temple University, the University of Southern
State University. Currently, he is a researcher with the Florida Department
of Health. Formerly married to Aide Steele of Tutwiler, he has two
daughters, Linda and Heather, and two grandchildren. He is engaged to be
married to Penny Young in the fall of 2005.
DSA: How old were you,
and where were you living at the time of the Emmett Till murder case?
HSW: I was fifteen years old. I was living
in Charleston, one of the two (the larger) county seats in Tallahatchie
County. Maps in my thesis show it. My stepfather, N. Z. Troutt, was Chief of
Police in Charleston. He considered
running for sheriff in 1955 and decided that he did not have the money
necessary to run a campaign. He was deputized by Strider to assist with the
trial. A bomb was stuck under my bedroom window (on the front porch) about
six feet from my head, during the trial. I jumped out of bed and the culprit
removed the bomb and ran to a car and sped off.
DSA: Did you know any of the players
in the trial?
HSW: I knew everyone who was involved in the
trial -- sheriff, prosecutor, judge, defense attorneys, and all the jurors,
I believe, at least casually. Most had children in school with me. I did not
know the defendants except by reputation, or any of the African American
people from Money, Mississippi.
Money was not really incorporated. Most of
the “town,” which was really small, was located on or near the west bank of
the Tallahatchie River (again see the maps in the
theses online). The river, at that point, separates Tallahatchie
County from Leflore
The kidnapping occurred in
Leflore County, near the west
bank of the river. The murder occurred near a bridge, but on the east bank
of the river, making Tallahatchie
County the actual murder site. Money would have been about 15-20 miles from
Charleston. Again see the maps in the
thesis. The prosecutors decided to select jurors primarily from the
northeast section of the county -- the hill county, rather than the Delta.
The Delta had very rich soil, was totally flat, and had large plantations or
farms. Sheriff Strider lived on the west bank of the river, and had a farm
of several thousand acres, planted almost totally in cotton, and employed
hundreds of African American farm hands. He had a road from Highway 32 to
his home, and there were seven white concrete block, well manicured homes,
occupied by seven African American families -- employees. On the top of each
roof, facing west, was one ten-foot high word -- S-T-R-I-D-E-R (a little
The prosecutorial strategy was to get jurors
from as far away from Money as possible, thinking this was the best
strategy. However, this led to the selection of mostly farmers who farmed
mainly small farms with poor soil, in the hill area, and who viewed African
Americans as competitors -- much the same as many in the same situation
today view Hispanics. Also, most of the people who knew J. W. Milam, and to
a lesser degree, his half brother Roy Bryant, disliked and/or feared them.
So the jury selection strategy backfired and played into the defense's
hands. Clearly it would have been possible to find jurors who would have
voted for conviction based on the evidence. In fact one of the jurors told
his son, who was about my age, that the original vote was 9-3 for acquittal.
Unanimity came on the second ballot. In 1962-63, when I interviewed them, no
one mentioned two ballots.
DSA: How did you come to
choose the Emmett Till murder as the topic of your Master’s Thesis?
HSW: I mentioned to my advisor, Dr. Marion
Irish, who was a national vice president of the American Political Science
Association, and co-author of the best-selling text on American government
-- that the Till case happened in my home county, and that I knew most of
those involved. One of my committee members was from Memphis, TN, which is nearby. He also
insisted that I choose this topic. Then the whole committee insisted. They
provided some small amount of travel funds to cover my research -- perhaps a
couple of hundred dollars.
You and other historians of the case have referred to the changing tide, or
attitude, in Mississippi in the days following the discovery of the body.
Mississippians, who at first were outraged over the murder, soon became
defensive about attacks upon their state by “outside agitators.” Did you see
this change at the time, or mainly later through your research in newspapers
and other documents?
HSW: I think I covered this in the thesis.
There was an initial cry for justice and for the prosecution of the two
half-brothers, by both the power structure and by the residents in general.
For many residents, this attitude never changed. However, as the thesis
says, the attitudes of many -- Strider, the defense attorneys, who initially
refused to represent Milam and Bryant, and many others, was turned around by
the comments in the national press. The statement by Till's mother "I want a
special prosecutor appointed, and I want the state of Mississippi to pay for
it" was reported rather irresponsibly by the press as "The whole state of
Mississippi will have to pay for this." "THIS" was interpreted as the
murder, of course. Within days, this became an "us" versus "them" conflict,
and resistance to the prosecution began to develop. Soon after the trial,
Bryant's store was boycotted by its almost 100% African American clientele,
and it rapidly bankrupted and closed. Also, no one in the county would rent
them land for farming, in 1956. This forced the brothers into bootlegging
in this "dry" state. When Milam drove a pickup pulling a flatbed trailer
carrying a whisky still that he had stolen, through Charleston, from the
eastern border to the western one, down Main Street, Highway 32, around the
courthouse square, people were incensed. As many told me in 1962, "after all
we did for those boys, for them to do that . . . ". Milam and Bryant were
then essentially forced to move from the area to
This trial probably somewhat speeded voter
registration of African Americans in the area. NONE were registered to vote
in 1955. Currently, a majority of the elected officials in
Tallahatchie County are African
Americans. Effective July 1, 2005 the main north-south highway (US 49)
through the Delta and Tallahatchie
County was named the Emmett Till Memorial Highway by
the Mississippi legislature. This bill was proposed and endorsed by the
county commissioners (called in Mississippi "the county board of
supervisors") of both Leflore and Tallahatchie counties.
DSA: Did you attend the
trial or spend time in Sumner during the trial? If so, what do you recall
about the experience?
HSW: My stepfather was deputized and "put in
charge" of the trial. I believe I attended one of the days of the trial, but
did not get inside the courtroom, which was packed with press. Perhaps I was
there for only part of the day. No one was willing to discuss much with a
fifteen-year-old kid. Seeing the enormity of the press coverage in a town of
700 residents (Sumner, the other of the two county seats), and especially
meeting David Halberstam, were the most memorable parts then.
DSA: When you did your
research and talked to the sheriff, attorneys, and jurors, did you sense
that you were the first to talk to them since the case dropped out of the
newspapers in early 1956, or had they been badgered for interviews in the
HSW: Interest in the case died down quickly
after 1955 in Mississippi. The locals were not proud of what had occurred,
and were angered by the brothers selling their story to Huie and Look
magazine. The moonshine still incident further angered the locals. After the
trial and immediate attention, no one seemed to have interviewed them.
Certainly no one who was perceived as seeking the truth, as opposed to
someone with an agenda, talked with them. My research was perceived by most
people as an academic exercise. Most people did not think the research would
see the light of day beyond the academic world. And the half-brothers had
left the area for Texas. And I was a "local boy", so people were very honest
and straightforward with me.
DSA: Did Sheriff Strider talk to you
about his theory at the time of the trial that the body recovered from the
Tallahatchie River was not that of Emmett
Till? Especially in light of the confession article that was published in
HSW: Sheriff Strider talked with me quite
freely on this. He gave me his (I think) entire collection of hate mail, as
well as many from people who supported his actions. He and County Attorney
Hamilton Caldwell both confirmed that neither of them, nor really anyone
involved with the case, had ANY doubts that the body was that of Emmett
Till. It was unclear whether Strider or the defense attorneys came up with
the idea to create a "smoke screen" which would give the jurors an "out".
Both the sheriff and the lawyers implied to me that the “smoke screen” was
their idea. The jurors selected were going to acquit. This "smoke screen"
gave the jurors an "out", and kept them from receiving as much scorn as
everyone involved felt would be coming at them. Not one juror stated to me
that he had any doubt about the body's identity, or that the accused had
actually murdered Till. Strider, the jurors, and everyone involved really
resented the Look article. It clearly made them all look like fools
for having supported the brothers.
I interviewed Huie at his home in Alabama
for an entire day. Huie gave me complete information on all that had
transpired, and copies of all his books. Huie also gave me many ideas about
writing style, and about being courageous in seeking to be fair, accurate,
and honest. He was very strong in his attitudes about civil rights, and was
a great influence on my research and upon the rest of my life. It was not
easy for him to be a white supporter of equality and justice in Alabama in
the early 1960's.
I should finally say that neither Strider
nor anyone involved with the case ever doubted the identity of the body or
who the killers were. And no one expressed anything but extreme dislike and
disapproval for Milam and Bryant. All hoped they would never return to
Mississippi, even for a visit. I should say that the defense attorneys confirmed the
accuracy of the Look article. They also confirmed that the brothers
acted alone. My suspicions about this last theory are shown on page 150 of
the thesis. It was unclear to me why Sheriff Strider had locked up two of
the three African American men -- under false identities -- thought to be
"involved" with the murder, before and for the duration of the trial, unless
they were involved or had direct knowledge of the murder. Huie never
expressed to me any doubts that the two brothers acted alone. He was pretty
adamant about this. And I felt the brothers -- especially Milam -- had such
enormous egos that it would not have occurred to them that it was necessary
to involve anyone else.
DSA: Moses Wright said that there was a third person on the doorstep when
Milam and Bryant came to his home. Do you, or did Huie consider the accuracy
of this testimony, if the men did act alone? Do you think the third man was
simply there to show them the way to Wright’s cabin and then had no further
HSW: Huie and his lawyers both believed
Milam and Bryant when they said in the interview for Look Magazine
that no one else was along. While it is possible someone showed them the
house, I tend to doubt it.
DSA: When you did your research, did you consider the conflicting
conclusions between Huie’s article and other investigative articles of the
time, such as the booklet Time
Bomb, and the articles by “Amos
Dixon” in the Black newspaper, the
California Eagle, that say there were
HSW: I used every press article and magazine article available to me at the
time of the writing. I never saw either of those, that I can remember. Huie
was the only journalist to have access to the defendants. There was never
any doubt as to guilt or who had killed Till, in the area -- not among
anyone connected to the case. I searched my old copy of the Mississippi
Code, which was applicable then, and most crimes had a two-year statute of
limitations, excluding murder. It seems that an article in the past month in
Mississippi newspapers seems to indicate that a truck the same color as
Milam's was at the Drew location on the date it was seen. The occupants were
said to be going fishing. This refers to the Willie Reed story, and the
recent press reports seem to refute this. I did research on the 1955 press
coverage at Florida A & M
University library, and also through interlibrary loan. Hard as it is for today’s
young people to believe, there was no Internet then. I was the first white
student allowed to use the library. I had to sneak in a back door and work
in a carrel in the stacks. One day I tired of this, and just exited through
the main lobby and front door. You could have heard a pin drop. From then
State University had to open its
doors to Florida A & M students.
DSA: In the Huie papers, there is
a letter of Huie's, written to Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the
NAACP, on October 12, 1955, before the
Look article came out, stating that the
"torture and murder party" included two other men, but that he needed their
releases in order to publish their names "or no publisher will touch it." He
went on to say that "I know who these men are: they are important to the
story, but I have to pay them because of their 'risks'." He considered four
releases (including Milam and Bryant's) as "too heavy a handicap," and said
"we can if necessary, omit the names of the other two. We can even avoid all
reference to them." Huie does appear to change his mind about accomplices
after meeting with Milam and Bryant on October 23.
HSW: Huie never mentioned any involvement of
any other persons in his day-long visit with me. He shared his notes, but of
course did not give them to me. He never mentioned any other parties being
involved. He did tell me he paid $7000 to the brothers for their stories.
Milam and Bryant said they got $3500. Either EACH of them got $3500, and
this was what the brothers meant, or the lawyers took half for arranging the
meeting. He never mentioned either of the sources you list.
DSA: What do you think, then, about the testimony of Willie Reed, who
said he saw the truck and the men, in addition to hearing sounds of a
beating on the plantation near Drew, Sunflower County, the morning after the
HSW: I have reread my thesis, and I see the testimony of Willie Reed. First,
the route of the truck that night, as showed to Huie (he actually drove the
entire route of the supposed kidnapping) did not pass near the spot
identified. This is the story referred to above, concerning a pickup truck
of similar color to the one owned by Milam. As you can see from the thesis,
I had doubts in 1962 about whether the brothers acted alone. I could never
get any definitive statement from anyone, not even my stepfather, as to why,
if the three persons I mentioned were not "involved" or witnesses, they were
locked in jail under false identities before and during the trial, on
Sheriff Strider’s orders. I assumed that one of them had washed the blood
from the truck Sunday morning, though Milam had assured Huie and the lawyers
that he alone washed out the truck. Milam was not one to do manual labor if
he could pass the chore along, especially to African Americans.
DSA: Do you recall hearing about any reaction of Bryant and Milam's
family (mother, siblings, others) to the Look article? Do you believe they
knew the men were guilty of the crime from the beginning?
HSW: No, I didn’t hear of their reaction.
I'm sure they did know that they were guilty all along, or at least felt
they were capable of it. That's why Carolyn Bryant and Milam's wife,
Juanita, tried to keep the incident at the store from the brothers in the
first place. Whether the family felt killing an African American (at that
time) was a crime is another question. I don't know.
DSA: Did you try to track down Bryant and Milam, to interview them for
Yes, but they had moved to
Texas, living in relative
anonymity. On a student budget of $133 a month, I hardly had the assets to
look for them. [I had to pay tuition out of that $133, too.]
DSA: There was an article in the
Chicago Defender at the time of the
murder, which attributes a quote to
Leflore County Sheriff George Smith, to Alma
Spearman, Emmett Till’s grandmother, where he calls Bryant “a mean, cruel
man,” who was implicated in the beating death of a black man the previous
year. Later, Till’s uncle, Crosby Smith, said in an interview that when he
reported the kidnapping to Sheriff Smith the morning after, Smith said that
Bryant and Milam had done something similar to that in Glendora,
Mississippi. Had you ever heard any stories about their involvement in other
violence toward an African American prior to the Till murder?
HSW: I never heard of Smith saying that. He
never said it to me in my interviews with him. Milam also denied any such
thing about himself. I'd be pretty sure Bryant never killed anyone before
this. He was pretty mild-mannered when by himself.
This may have been a reference to the murder
on December 3, 1955 of Clinton Melton at a service station in Glendora, Mississippi by Elmer Kimbell,
who reportedly was driving J.W. Milam’s pickup truck at the time of the
DSA: How long did it take for your thesis to be known and quoted?
HSW: Scribner's, Random House and, I
believe, Columbia University Press all expressed a lot of interest in
publishing the thesis in the fall of 1963. Then Bear Bryant, football coach
at the University of Alabama, successfully sued Look magazine for libel for something like
$5.5 million, an enormous sum then. That caused the publishers to have
reservations. Also, I knew that if I published it, probably both my parents
would be fired from their jobs, and perhaps worse. My stepfather worked for
the state police -- the Highway patrol -- as a special investigator. My
mother was the head librarian for the
County system. They would have suffered severe repercussions. As I said
earlier, there had been a bomb placed under our window about four feet from
my head as I slept, during the trial.
After the initial requests (at least three
publishers read it and expressed interest) I refused to let anyone publish
it. Probably that was a mistake, as I look back.
DSA: Did you receive immediate feedback and interest in it?
HSW: I "printed" 25 copies on the
department’s mimeograph machine, and bound them in paper covers. When I went
to the Justice department, I saw one of those copies on Ramsey Clark's desk.
The library copies were checked out by nearly every author who wrote a book
on it. The husband of the woman who typed part of it for me (I gave her a
copy) Sonny Simpson, wrote a book on the case. He quoted me heavily. James
Baldwin was one of the first ten or so persons checking out the library's
copy (the library tracks the persons checking it out by interlibrary loan).
He used it, of course, in writing the play Blues for Mister Charlie.
DSA: There was not another book length study of Emmett Till until
Stephen Whitfield's A Death in the Delta in 1988. It seems that
interest in the case was renewed in the mid-1980's. Are you able to gauge
the accuracy of that perceived new interest by how many, or few people,
sought you out to comment on the case, or quoted you, between 1963 and 1988?
HSW: I once ran my name through amazon.com
to see how many books STILL in print quoted me. It was a lot. Many things --
from Keith Beauchamp's documentary to the fact that this is the 50th
anniversary of the murder, to the reopening of the case, contributed to the
renewed interest in the thesis. The Internet, also, is a major cause.
DSA: What was your stepfather's reaction to the acquittal?
HSW: He was, like all the locals, glad to be
out of the spotlight and see the press crush leave. You realize that about
2000 press descended on a town of 700. And the threats that came against him
and our family lead to some apprehension. Like the bomb on our front porch
-- which I caught before it detonated. That said, after the immediacy of the
trial, he knew an enormous injustice had been done.
He once saved the life of an African
American friend of mine who Sheriff Strider was going to shoot in the back,
by slamming a car door on Strider's arm. He also discovered several bodies
of African American men who were lynched, in his capacity as special
investigator with the state police. One was burned to death, chained to a
tree. My stepfather was also at Oxford, MS on the campus, at the Lyceum
building, defending James Meredith, and was knocked out with a tear gas
canister. He was there the entire week of the riots, as was my stepbrother
Nat Troutt (his son), who commanded a National Guard unit there. Nat later
became commanding General of the entire Mississippi National Guard, as well
as a state senator and judge. My stepfather, N. Z. Troutt, also marched with
James Meredith as his protection on the March down U.S. Highway 51. When
Meredith was shot, he stepped in front of Meredith, and was struck by some
of the birdshot. He chased the perpetrator through the woods, caught and
All of these incidents sharply influenced his attitudes. He was always
considered "fair" by the African American population; he would have been
considered "progressive" by the standards of the time. Mr. Troutt never had
anything but contempt for Milam and Bryant. Both my parents knew a great
injustice had been done. But during the immediate time between the murder
and the trial, everyone’s concern in the county was for their safety. And he
was charged with protecting everyone connected with the case.
My mother went on to desegregate the county library system -- she was over
all four or five branches. She hired an African American as assistant
librarian when this was almost unheard of. The woman went on to become my
mother's closest friend.
To answer your question -- I guess that neither of them thought the trial
was fair. They really disliked -- hated would not be an understatement --
the brothers -- much more so, J. W. Milam. All the locals felt that Milam
was the person to blame; Bryant was really "dragged along" by his much older
half-brother. The whiskey still incident described in the thesis only added
to everyone's strong dislike for Milam.
My stepfather was the one who first told me about the two African American
men who were locked in the jail under assumed names. He never told me if he
knew about the fact before the trial. He certainly did after the conclusion
of the trial. Both he and I assumed that the men had knowledge of the
murders, but did not participate in them, except for washing out the pickup
the next day. Though Milam swore to Huie that he alone had washed out the
pickup, Milam, as I said earlier, would never do manual labor if he could
pass the job along to one of his "hands."
DSA: What was your reaction to the acquittal?
HSW: I was, of course, 15 at the time. I
guess you could say that all of us, black and white, knew that the verdict
would be "not guilty." Though it seemed incomprehensible to most of the kids
my age that any juror could reach that decision. I don't think the kids our
age who played football and baseball after school with kids of both races,
could comprehend that racism could be that deep among our elders. In a town
that small, one didn't divide people into groups -- rich (there weren't any)
and poor, smart or less smart, better car or "rattletrap", etc. Everyone was
your friend, because you needed them at some time in your life. The town had
the "domino" theory. If you knocked down any one of them, everyone would
suffer some consequences -- like dominos in a row falling down. So no one
"told" on another.
That said, this seemed to be an open and shut case, and no juror could
reasonably acquit. There were, in reality, a good 50% of the local white
males who would have voted to convict on the evidence. The defense just did
a good job of eliminating them from the jury, from helping to pick the jury
list, to challenging the folks who would have been fair. If women had been
able to serve on juries -- or African Americans, this decision (acquittal)
would not have been reached.
Some other researchers who talked at length with the jurors, years later,
swear that there were three ballots (that was told to me, too.) I was told
that all three ballots were unanimous, but in retrospect, if the ballots had
been unanimous, there should not have been three votes. As I said earlier, I
was told recently by one of the juror's sons, that three of the jurors voted
"guilty” on the first ballot. Two quickly changed their votes, but one held
out for a while, until the others wore him down. Of course, this all took
much less than an hour. I was told, in 1962, that they were finished in five
minutes, but Strider sent word for the jurors to "have a coke" from the coke
machine, and not to come back too soon, as it would look bad. So they did.
Writing the thesis was probably pivotal in my life, though my undergraduate
days were spent fighting segregation both at Ole Miss and within my national
fraternity -- Pi Kappa Alpha. In 1964-65 I wrote my dissertation on African
American attempts at voting in the Mississippi Delta, and the results of
their attempts, and successes. My nights with SNICK, and COFO and black churches and courtrooms and jails, really turned me into a
raging liberal, and an "activist."
DSA: How do you feel about the books and documentaries that have been
written or produced about the Emmett Till case since yours?
HSW: Nearly all have been pretty good, and
tried to look at the case objectively, though many looked at different
"parts" of the case. Most seemed to sincerely search for the truth. Most
really relied VERY heavily on my thesis. There are many books, plays, and
documentaries in the works now whose authors have sworn me to secrecy. Most
have attempted to find "new" sources for their research, but nearly everyone
relied on my thesis and Huie's books and articles as the basic starting
DSA: What was your reaction to the reopening of the case?
HSW: I was at first skeptical of reopening
the case after nearly fifty years, in an election year. Federal law may have
no statute of limitations, but Mississippi law at the time had a two-year
statute of limitations, but not for murder. After rereading my thesis, some
Florida State University graduate
students pointed out that on page 150, I had pointed out my feelings at the
time that three others were involved, and that two of the three had been
jailed by Sheriff Strider under false identities, before and for the
duration of the trial. I tend to think that their involvement consisted of
cleaning up the blood in Milam’s pickup and perhaps burning Till's clothes
and shoes. Their testimony would have made it very difficult for a juror to
rationalize a “not guilty” verdict.
DSA: If you were to rewrite your thesis, would you do anything
HSW: If I could go back to 1962-63, I would probably try to interview Milam
and Bryant and their families. I was really afraid of Milam, though I could
have had lots of "go-betweens" to vouch for me. I would also try to
interview more of the African Americans who were involved, though nearly all
had left Mississippi. I was constrained by time -- I was taking classes and
I had very little in the way of resources.
DSA: Is there anything you wish you
would have included that you did not?
HSW: I had accumulated a number of pictures
and photographs, including several of Till before and after his death, all
of which were censored out by my major professor. They would have added to
the work. In retrospect, I would have probably given in and published the
thesis as a book. I think it would have been good for whites to feel shame
in the 1960's, and for African Americans of the day, especially youth, to
see that some white southerners could be counted on to tell the truth.
I remember, in the summer of 1964, twelve of us -- eight whites and four
African Americans -- were spending the summer in Chapel Hill, paid for by
Nelson Rockefeller, studying and doing research on Negro enfranchisement in
the South. An African American kid, some two years younger than I, was
passing through on his way to Chicago, where he was to start graduate study
at Northwestern. He could not find any hotel in Chapel Hill which would let
him have a room. I asked the alumni house, where we were staying, to put a
rollaway bed in my room for him, and he stayed the night. He stayed up all
night reading my thesis, and he kept saying, again and again, "Ain't no way
a white man could have written this."
I am not sure I would have included the
fact, though it was fact and relevant to explaining the mind set of the
jurors, that young Till's father had been hanged by the army for raping
three Italian women, and murdering the last victim. He was being extolled by
some press as a war hero who died fighting for his country, when the true
facts were as stated. It was inflammatory then, but really impacted the
DSA: People in this case often come out as one-dimensional characters.
Do you feel that the press characterized Sheriff Strider correctly?
HSW: You can see some of the impacts of
Strider in my thesis, or in the reprint of it, in the upcoming issue of
Rhetoric and Public Policy. Strider was complex. He gave me whatever I
wanted -- all his mail during that period, which he had saved. His was
probably the largest plantation in the county, some 6,000 acres of VERY
fertile Delta land. "His" African American farm hands had electricity and
running water, and new concrete block houses, when this was very rare in the
Delta. He was known for treating his employees better than most. Read the
stuff from the thesis about him. At the same time, he was at the time of the
Till murder, and in 1962, an ardent segregationist, determined to keep black
people "in their place." If he had to pay his hundreds of black employees a
living wage, it would really have cut into his income. And the story above
about trying to shoot an unarmed black man in the back (his hands were
raised in the "surrender" position) tells it all.
DSA: Were there sides to him that you knew already, or discovered in your
interviews with him that would paint a better or more accurate picture of
HSW: The sheriff in Mississippi at the time
could not succeed himself. Two families, the Rices and the Dogans, rotated
the job since around 1900. One family would run, and the other would be his
main deputy. Four years later the positions would be reversed. The sheriff’s
office was very lucrative, because of prohibition in the state. Bootleggers
could operate only if they paid off the sheriff weekly. They were open, even
to the point of having liquor stores one block from the courthouse. Strider
had a line outside his office every Monday morning.
Anyway, these two families –- the Rices and the Dogans -- were not farmers
-- they were really "town" people. They were known by most black persons as
reasonably fair. Strider, however, was elected sheriff for one term. And he
would enforce the "code". Black employees of a plantation would be offered
free housing, and tendered credit at the plantation or "company” store
(remember "Sixteen Tons?"). The employee would be paid so poorly (daily
wages for a “skilled” tractor driver in those days was $3.50 for a
dawn-to-dark work-day). Cotton pickers were paid by the hundred pounds
picked, usually a dollar. So they never "caught up" in their credit. So if
an employee tried to leave for a better job or working conditions, Strider
would "go get them" and bring them forcibly back to the original farm, where
they might be severely beaten for attempting to leave. While he was
extremely polite and helpful to me in my research, neither my stepfather nor
I had much respect for him. We disliked what he stood for.
DSA: Does anything stand out in the hate mail that Strider gave you?
HSW: I referred to the worst letters in the
thesis. See them there. The letter to all the P.O. Box holders in Money may
be the worst. The recurring theme was that they would threaten his life --
and usually with some explicit type of torture. Then when (see the thesis)
Strider was shot at, and barely missed -- it hit the car on the post between
the car windows as he sat in his car, he really was afraid. He did not run
for sheriff again because of reaction to his role in the Till case.
However, a fairly large number of the
letters Strider received were admonishing him not to give in -- to try to
save "our way of life."
DSA: Did the majority of the letters come from
Illinois like he stated?
HSW: A large number were from
Illinois. It was certainly not
50% of the ones he saved. And I had nearly one thousand of them. Some of the
most threatening ones were from the Chicago area. Few friendly ones were
DSA: Did any of the defense attorneys express any regret for having
taken the case, or securing the acquittal?
HSW: They did not say so in 1962-63. But I
am certain that Whitten, at least, had some regrets later. They all stated
that it brought them in a lot of business later. Not because they defended
"these peckerwoods," as the attorneys said, but that they were seen as able
lawyers during the trial. At least some of their clients told them so. They
all recounted the whisky still story described above and in the thesis, as
evidence of how disgusted everyone was with Milam and Bryant.
The attorneys arranged the Huie (Look)
interview, and drew up the releases and contract. The publication of the
Look article cast the attorneys in a bad light. The answer is no, they
never expressed regret, in 1962-63. I am sure they did so later. But not to
DSA: I have read where one of them later said that he was not proud of
HSW: This was Whitten. None of them were
proud of what they did. To a one, they said they never asked their clients,
"Did you do it?" At least not until the Huie interviews, which came after
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