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A Family Memoir: The Trial of Emmett Till’s Killers

A Family Memoir: The Trial of Emmett Till’s Killers January 17, 2024
A 1955 Associated Press photo of the jury at the trial of Emmett Till’s killers. Rob F. Hall (with pipe) can be seen taking notes in the press gallery.
A 1955 Associated Press photo of the jury at the trial of Emmett Till’s killers. Rob F. Hall (with pipe) can be seen taking notes in the press gallery.

In 1955, my father travelled from New York City to Mississippi, where he was born and where his own father had been a newspaper publisher, to cover the trial of the two white men who had been indicted for the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago.

Last summer, on July 25, the White House announced that the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse, where the trial was held, will be set aside as a National Park, “to ensure that the historical value of this site will remain for the benefit of all Americans, providing opportunities to learn about Emmett Till’s life and death and the historical and cultural context interwoven with his story.”

As the White House noted in its press release, “Between 50 and 70 reporters attended the trial, representing southern newspapers such as the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times and the Charleston Mississippi Sun, as well as national media including the New York TimesNewsweek, and the Nation.”

My father (with pipe, who can be seen taking notes in the photograph above) was among those representing the national media, but not the New York TimesNewsweek, or the Nation.

Here’s a quote from “The Race Beat,” a well-regarded 2006 study by two journalists of the national media’s reporting on the civil rights movement:

“Every glimpse of the reporter Rob Hall was accompanied by whispers and expressions of disbelief: the 49-year-old newsman, who spoke and drew on his pipe slowly, had all the attributes of a true-blue southerner. The silver haired father of three was a native Mississippian. His mother had been one of Theodore Bilbo’s teachers. (Bilbo was a notoriously racist Mississippi Governor and Senator.) His grandfather had been a prominent Baptist preacher, and his father was a banker and weekly newspaper owner. But Rob Hall was covering the trial for the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the Communist Party in America. Feature articles about Hall noted that the stories he was sending to New York were pretty straight and showed no obvious bias. How did the other reporters have any ideas about the tone of Hall’s stories? Curiosity about the Communist reporter was so great that Western Union employees were peeking at the stories he was filing and telling reporters how un-communist they were.”

Yes, my father was that rare thing, a white southerner who was also a communist.

The Daily Worker assigned him to the story not only because of his antebellum origins but because he had spent much of the 1930s organizing sharecroppers and factory workers in the south, in Birmingham Alabama, where he ran for the Alabama State Senate on the Communist Party ticket and was arrested at least once by Bull Connor, who famously said, “There’s not enough room in town for Bull and the Commies.” Connor, of course, became even more notorious in the 1960s for his use of dogs and firehoses on civil rights marchers.

And the Daily Worker wanted a reporter on the scene because the Communist Party, for all its faults, was one of the few political parties fighting for civil rights for African-Americans before the civil rights movement achieved momentum in the 50s and 60s.

I tend to emphasize the Emmett Till trial when asked about my father’s career because it hastened his decision to leave the Communist Party, in part because, he saw signs of progress – however incremental or modest – in American politics and society during this return trip to the south.

Although the killers were acquitted, my father noted that this was the first time in living memory that the state of Mississippi put two white men on trial for a lynching.

He was also impressed with the serious and conscientious effort by the prosecutor to convict them. And they did, as you may know, confess to the murder to a magazine after the trial.  Moreover, he said, the Judge presided over the court with “dignity and decorum.”

Years later he wrote, “Having lived and worked in Mississippi only 20 years previously, and remembering how authorities had invariably closed their eyes to lynchings, I filed stories that reflected some credit on the prosecution. My editors were not happy with my stories. They compared them with those of Murray Kempton, who covered the trial for the New York Post and who saw the prosecutor’s fumbling as simply another example of Southern white lynch-law at work.”

My father had joined the Communist Party as a student at Columbia University where he had gone to study agricultural economics, but his reasons for joining were shaped by his experience growing up in the south. The racism and economic oppression which he observed in his native state seemed immutable to all change but the most radical.

He had other reasons for leaving the party. Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s crimes, which the west learned of in 1956, devastated the American communist movement.  By the end of 1957, that movement “had for all practical purposes ceased to exist,” according to one historian. On January 13, 1958, the Daily Worker printed its last issue as a daily newspaper. By then, my father, was the new editor and publisher of The Warrensburgh News and soon to be the next owner of the Lake George Mirror.

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