Sept. 21, 1955

Moses Wright points at J.W. Milam as one of the kidnappers of his great-nephew, Emmett Till. Ernest Withers defied a judge’s orders and took this photo. Credit: Wikipedia

Moses Wright took the witness stand and identified the men who kidnapped and killed his great-nephew, Emmett Till. 

“It was the first time in my life I had the courage to accuse a white man of a crime, let alone something terrible as killing a boy,” Wright said later. “I just wanted to see justice done.” 

He worked as a sharecropper and was also a minister, whom the locals called “Preacher.” The two white men who abducted Till — J.W. Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant — threatened to kill Wright if he said anything. 

“How old are you, Preacher?” Milam asked. Wright replied 64. “If you make any trouble, you’ll never live to be 65,” Milam said. When the teen’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River, Wright identified Till. Despite threats, Wright still took the witness stand. When the prosecutor asked him to point out Till’s abductors, he stood up, pointed his weathered finger at Milam and said, “There he is. That’s the man.” 

He testified that Bryant identified himself as “Mr. Bryant.” It may have been the first murder trial in Mississippi where a Black man testified against a white man. Even after the trial, the threats continued, and Wright left to join his family in Chicago, where he had already sent them.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.