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The Administrative Ghost of Emmett Till

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dwight Vick
August 1, 2022

I spent much of my childhood in north Mississippi. I have a love-hate relationship with it.

I loved catching fireflies in a clear glass jar. Sealed with a metal screw cap, I watched them light up my room as I fell asleep. Manners like “please” and “thank you” were as thick as the air on a hot summer night. There was a ring to the elongated syllables that I long for still today. The food: hot biscuits, salmon croquettes, cornbread baked in your grandmother’s old cast iron skillet, pecan pie and big old goblets of cold, home-brewed iced tea…there is nothing like it. And the best story tellers in the world sat on front porches pontificating about the state of the world. Listening to those old men is where my interests in government and bureaucracy, social justice, accountability and transparency began. But there was a darkness in those stories, a bitterness in the food, double entrendres in the extra syllable of a kind word and shadows that danced along walls. It was in those shadows that my hate took form. In them I saw Emmett.

Emmett’s case was frequently discussed among these men. They chastised Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, for not teaching him Southern ways. She was like many African American parents who lived “up yonder” and sent their children down south for their grandparents, uncles and aunts to raise in the summer. Relatives believed these parents sent their children south just so more babies could be made so parents would receive a larger welfare check. In the same breath, these men described Emmett’s murderers—J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant— and their families as “white trash” and “peckerwoods.” Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused Emmett of sexually attacking her, was little more than a prostitute and unworthy of any defense. But “it was what it was” and the “Southern way of life” had to be defended. These men also said that we would not know everything that happened. But we are learning more.

Emmett’s case has been opened periodically since his murder in 1955. Federal and state officials stated that no additional charges would occur when the case closed in December 2021. On June 22, 2022, researchers found an unserved arrest warrant issued for Carolyn Bryant in 1955. It was in the basement of LeFlore County, Mississippi. Federal agents were never shown the basement for evidence. Mississippi law has no statute of limitations on kidnapping. Carolyn states that her husband and brother-in-law brought Emmett to her for identification and she stated Emmett was innocent. However, Emmett’s uncle, Mose Wright, stated on camera a few days after Emmett’s body was found that he heard a woman’s voice identify Emmett as he stood in front of the truck that took him away that Emmett was “the boy who did the talking.”

Today, 67 years later, Emmett’s ghost haunts the public administrator in me. Where is his justice? Mississippi’s attorney general, Lynn Finch, will not pursue the case, claiming there is not sufficient evidence for further investigation. No grand jury will be convened. Emmett’s murderers were set free. Carolyn was never arrested, even when she appeared in the courtroom to testify. If John Demjanjuk can be tried for Nazi war crimes 50 years or more after they occurred, shouldn’t an 87-year-old Carolyn Bryant be? These, and other social justice questions come to mind for me. If we do not “do right” for a 14-year-old black polio survivor, when can we expect racial minorities to trust our justice system? How can the State of Mississippi ban abortion for women but protect a woman who assisted in kidnapping and murdering a child? When is it appropriate to force a woman to carry a child to term who can be killed after birth in Mississippi?

What happens in the dark always comes into the light. We have administrative procedures to guarantee transparency in government. We have an administrative process for a reason. Democracy depends upon personal and governmental accountability. Why can’t Mississippi follow it? Even those old men who “cussed and dis-cussed” the problems of the world realized the truth in the old saying. The arrest warrant has surfaced.

For us, whether we are street-level bureaucrats or elected officials, we must adhere to those basic democratic principles of equality, social justice, accountability and transparency for our government to survive. We, both individually and professionally, have that responsibility to fulfill. Those tenets are the underpinnings of our democracy. Let us continue to support ourselves and communities despite this or any other situation we face that challenges our core beliefs.

Author: Dwight Vick, Ph.D. is a 28-year-long ASPA member. An adjunct professor, he owns D.A.V.E – Dwight A. Vick Enterprises, a consulting and grant writing business.

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