Women of the Movement: The Law and Emmett Till

Cast members of Women of the Movement. © 2021 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.

On January 13 and 20, ABC aired the last four parts of the scripted historical drama Women of the Movement, centered on Mamie Till-Mobley and the pursuit of justice for her son Emmett Till. The dramatization of the murder trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, as well as surrounding events, naturally commanded screen time across both nights.

As with our our first Women of the Movement post, read on to see how the dramatized proceedings compare with the historical record available in the Emmett Till Archives at FSU Libraries.

The Trial

Moses Wright, portrayed by Glynn Turman, accuses Milam and Bryant of kidnapping Emmett Till.
© 2021 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.

Moses Wright was called to the witness stand early in the murder trial. His actual testimony, which the program’s dialogue matches pretty closely, is available in the transcript of the trial, and can be read on pages 7 through 65 of the FSU Digital Library copy. As reported there, and in popular magazines of the time, he did in fact rise to point an accusing finger at Milam and Bryant (transcript page 12), just as Women of the Movement portrayed it.

Other key testimony recorded in the transcript includes that of Mamie Till-Mobley (then known as Mamie Bradley) (pages 183-212) and Carolyn Bryant (pages 261-280).

A significant moment in the narrative is the announcement of the murder verdict, which Mamie Till-Mobley and her allies hear over a car radio while traveling from the Sumner courthouse to Mound Bayou. A 1996 interview with Till-Mobley clarifies why they were not present at the courthouse for the verdict:

I was gauging the outcome by the actions of the outside crowd. And I knew when that jury retired, it was time for us to get out of there … [When the jury retired to discuss the verdict] I spoke to my party, and I told them ‘I would like for us to leave now.’ And Congressman Diggs said, ‘What, and miss the verdict?’ I said ‘This is one you will want to miss. The verdict is not guilty.’ And they looked at me like I was nuts … Two carloads of us started back to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and about 45 minutes out of Sumner, the verdict came: not guilty … you could hear the cheering and the uproar in the little town [Sumner]. And we knew that had we been there, we could have been lynched.

The Last Word

Classified ad, Greenwood Morning Star, October 19, 1955, page 6. From the Devery Anderson Papers.

Women of the Movement also portrays some of the after-effects of the trial and surrounding events on key players.

The Bryants did indeed close their market in late 1955, as indicated by an October 19 classified ad in the Greenwood Morning Star.

J.W. Milam and the Bryants sold their confession to journalist William Bradford Huie soon after the trial, with the results being a series of sensational articles for Look magazine, the novella Wolf Whistle, and a never-produced screenplay by the same name. The fact that the Wolf Whistle motion picture was never produced may be in no small part due to legal action threatened by Till-Mobley’s lawyer Joseph Tobias in 1960.

Till-Mobley’s laundry room moment with her mother Alma was based on a real incident related by Till-Mobley to author Devery Anderson, about moving forward after the death of her son:

…it was after the house had quieted down … I think about November … I went down for the first time [after the lynching] to operate the washing machine, I called my mother crying, telling her that Emmett had broken the machine and he hadn’t told me … my mother asked “Did you engage the wringer?” … I ran all the way from the second floor down to basement. I had to go outside and down, tighten the wringer, ran back upstairs, and I really cried. I said, “Mama, it’s not broken, it’s ok.”

As we have noted elsewhere, Till-Mobley found herself an activist the rest of her life, including a NAACP speaking tour in 1955 and 1956 (as depicted in Women of the Movement), interviewing for countless publications and productions on the African American Civil Rights Movement, and finally publishing her own memoir in 2003.

For those who want to learn more about the Till family’s story, relevant sources from FSU Libraries are listed below, and many more are listed and shared on our Emmett Till research guide. For more information about researcher or instructor access to the Till Archives, please contact Special Collections & Archives staff at (850) 644-3271 or lib-specialcollections@fsu.edu.

Sources and Further Reading

FSU Libraries. “Emmett Till Archives.” https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/Till

Mamie Till-Mobley interview, December 3, 1996, Box: 4, Folder: 19. Devery Anderson Papers, MSS 2015-009. FSU Special Collections & Archives. https://archives.lib.fsu.edu/repositories/10/archival_objects/193653

State of Mississippi vs. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant [trial transcript], 1955, Box: 6, Folders: 6 & 7. Davis Houck Papers, MSS 2015-007. FSU Special Collections & Archives. http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/FSU_MSS_2015-007_S03_SS04_I003

William Bradford Huie. The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi. Look, January 24, 1956, pages 46-50. https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/ld.php?content_id=64530844

William Bradford Huie. What’s Happened To the Emmett Till Killers? Look, January 22, 1957, pages 63-68. https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/ld.php?content_id=64530844

Wolf Whistle screenplay, June 29, 1960, Box: 3, Folder: 3. Devery Anderson Papers, MSS 2015-009. FSU Special Collections & Archives. https://archives.lib.fsu.edu/repositories/10/archival_objects/194000

Wolf Whistle Motion Picture Correspondence, Box: 1, Folder: 14. Joseph Tobias Papers, MSS 2017-002. FSU Special Collections & Archives. http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/FSU_MSS2017_002_B01_F14

Mamie Till-Mobley and Chris Benson. (2003). Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. New York: Random House. https://fsu-flvc.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01FALSC_FSU/pag4dr/alma990203394830306576

Published by Rory Grennan

Rory Grennan is Director of Manuscripts Collections at Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.

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