How One Left-Led Union Fought the Barbaric Lynching of Emmett Till
The United Packinghouse Workers of America was a beacon of “civil rights unionism.” And in the aftermath of Emmett Till’s grotesque lynching in 1955, the union spearheaded a mass campaign on Till’s behalf in the North and South.
As Grace Falgoust approached the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi on the morning of September 20, 1955, she felt the weight of hostile stares. On the surface, little distinguished the plainly dressed Falgoust from the hundreds of other white people who had come to observe the trial of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the men accused of brutally lynching Emmett Till.
However, since her arrival in Sumner the previous day, Falgoust had been passing out leaflets that described the defendants as “depraved.” To make matters worse, some locals spotted Falgoust and her interracial delegation from the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) sharing a picnic lunch together. Word quickly spread that the union activists were “race-mixers.” “Evidently our ‘sin’ of integration was far greater in the minds of these people than the gruesome murder of a Negro child,” Falgoust remarked.
The haunting image of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s mangled face is seared into our collective memory, a tragic epitome of the brutal violence that helped maintain white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. But Emmett’s murder on August 28, 1955 in rural Mississippi was more than just a tragedy: it also inspired a wave of determined protest across the United States, which galvanized many labor activists. In fact, the largest rallies condemning the murder and sham trial were sponsored by labor unions. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Bradley, thought “the unions were just fantastic.”
The UPWA was a left-led, multiracial labor union that survived the anti-communist backlash of the late 1940s and early 1950s. A beacon of “civil rights unionism,” the UPWA launched an energetic campaign on behalf of Emmett Till in both the North and South.
“Mrs. Bradley, Your Fight is Our Fight”
The Illinois Central train carrying Emmett Till’s mutilated body announced its arrival back in Chicago on September 2, 1955 with a piercing air horn blast. The following day, UPWA District 1, representing packinghouse union locals in the Windy City, issued its first press release, pointing out that racist violence was not confined to the South:
Our union heartily endorses and welcomes the statement by Mayor Richard J. Daley . . . urging that President Eisenhower act in securing justice in the Mississippi murder of young Till. We wish to point out to Mayor Daley, however . . . that right in his own backyard in Trumbull Park [housing project], Negro men, women, and children have been besieged, stoned, and threatened by the same kind of white supremacists as those who lynched Emmett Till in Mississippi.”
A day later, the UPWA District 1 Women’s Activities Committee held its annual Labor-Community Tea, attended by 150 packinghouse workers and representatives of various community groups. The committee pledged to donate $300 to Emmett’s mother, Mamie Bradley, to defray funeral costs and grocery bills. That same afternoon, UPWA organizer Frank Brown addressed a rally at Greater Bethesda Baptist Church sponsored by the Chicago branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Brown complained that the National Guard had been dispatched to protect Emmett’s murderers as they awaited trial in Mississippi, but not to restrain the white mobs that routinely terrorized black residents of the Trumbull Park housing project in Chicago.
On September 8, two days after her son was laid to rest, Mamie Bradley spoke at a rally for the first time. Sponsored by UPWA District 1, the event was held at the union’s South Side meeting hall, where a thousand packinghouse workers jammed the auditorium. “Mrs. Bradley, we assembled here are members of a labor union, and your fight is our fight,” proclaimed district director Charles Hayes. A collection was taken up, and Bradley gratefully accepted a gift of $358.33. “If you will stand by me, I will stand by you,” she promised, “because I am not afraid.”
Two weeks later, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant were acquitted of Emmett Till’s murder by an all-white jury in Mississippi. “Not since Pearl Harbor has the country been so outraged,” exclaimed the Crisis magazine. On September 25, the Sunday following the acquittal, throngs of African Americans attended protest meetings in cities across the United States. The Chicago NAACP staged a massive rally at the Metropolitan Community Church. The UPWA organized a “protest march and parade” from its union hall to the church. Ten thousand people showed up to the event, the majority of whom could not fit inside the building. Chicago NAACP president Cora Patton and the UPWA’s Frank Brown addressed the overflow crowd outside.
During the month of September, UPWA District 1 collected fifty thousand signatures on a petition initiated by its Women’s Activities Committee, demanding that President Eisenhower call a special session of Congress to pass civil rights legislation. And in early October, when Mississippi senator James Eastland and his Senate Internal Security Subcommittee came to Chicago to investigate the use of the postal system to spread “Communist propaganda,” UPWA members picketed the meeting. They distributed a leaflet that declared, “Eastland’s Witchhunts in Chicago Won’t Stop Child Lynchings in Mississippi.”
The packinghouse union’s multifaceted campaign on behalf of Emmett Till was coordinated by Richard Durham, who headed the union’s Program Department. Durham was one of postwar Chicago’s most prominent black activist-intellectuals. A former leader of the Radio Writers Guild, Durham had created the landmark WMAQ radio series “Destination Freedom” (1948–1950), which dramatized the historic struggles and achievements of African Americans. In his work for the UPWA, Durham supervised a team of regional program coordinators tasked with ensuring that the union’s anti-racist agenda was pursued vigorously throughout the organization.
Durham had little difficulty convincing UPWA regional bodies to pass resolutions condemning the Till murder. In Des Moines, a meeting of District 3 officers unanimously approved one calling for a special session of Congress to pass stronger civil rights legislation; UPWA members introduced similar resolutions at several state Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) conventions. In early October, the UPWA embarked on a national petition campaign to demand a federal investigation of the Till case and the passage of robust anti-lynching and anti–poll tax legislation.
The most unusual component of the union’s furious response to the Till murder was its decision to send eight union activists to Sumner, Mississippi to observe the trial of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam. The UPWA representatives traveled in three separate delegations. Two of the groups — one from Chicago, the other from Louisiana — produced detailed reports about their experiences.
“This Is Where I Belong”: Frank London Brown
Frank London Brown and his wife Evelyn were among the thousands of Chicagoans who waited in line at Roberts Temple Church of God to pay their last respects to Emmett Till. Horrified by the sight of the teenager’s swollen, battered face, the Browns identified with the courage of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Bradley. They too wanted the whole world to know the ugly reality of racist violence: ever since moving into the Trumbull Park housing project the previous year, the Browns and their young children faced an almost daily barrage of rocks, bricks, broken bottles, and explosives hurled at black tenants by mobs of angry whites. Frank’s stomach was cut open during one of these episodes, leaving him with a permanent scar; Evelyn’s nerves eventually got so frazzled that she broke out in hives.
For all that, the Browns chose to remain in Trumbull Park. As Frank told a reporter, “This is where I belong. . . . I feel that I have a duty to stay out here, a duty to every Negro in the world, a duty to every white person in the world that believes in democracy, not to let them down by showing that mobs can win. . . . They will have to carry me out of here.”
No one who knew Frank Brown was particularly surprised when he volunteered to attend the trial of Till’s killers. Hired as District 1 Program Coordinator by the UPWA six months earlier, Brown was responsible for implementing the union’s civil rights agenda in Chicago. Of the eight UPWA representatives who traveled to Mississippi in 1955, only Brown lived in the North.
Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Brown was exposed to both poverty and protest. He recalled how neighbors physically resisted the eviction of his family, moving furniture and clothing back in “as fast as the landlord moved [us] out for non-payment of rent.” At Roosevelt University, Brown met a dynamic group of black student activists, many of them World War II veterans intent on realizing at home the democratic ideals for which they had fought abroad. Handsome and eloquent, Brown was elected to the student council alongside future Chicago mayor Harold Washington.
Frank and Evelyn Brown moved into Trumbull Park in April 1954, hoping to escape the shabby, overpriced housing to which the city’s African Americans were largely confined. Frank soon emerged as the black residents’ most prominent spokesperson. He developed a close working relationship with UPWA activists, who had been organizing alongside the beleaguered tenants since mob violence first erupted at the housing project a year earlier. Throughout 1954, the UPWA sent delegations to meet with city officials, picketed the mayor’s office, and organized regular shopping trips, doctor’s visits, and holiday outings for the families facing racist attacks.
Brown flew from Chicago’s Midway airport into Memphis, then rode a “bumpety old bus” to Clarksdale, Mississippi, about twenty miles from Sumner. Although he had become skilled at evading the mobs in Trumbull Park, he realized that he was “singularly unfamiliar with the formula for staying alive in Emmett Till’s death place.” Driving by taxi through the cotton fields on the way to the courthouse, the winding dirt road looked to him like “a venomous tongue.”
Brown arrived on the second day of the proceedings, shortly after Judge Curtis Swango had called a recess to enable the prosecution to locate additional witnesses. He ran into Mamie Bradley as she stood outside the courthouse with her father John Carthan and cousin Rayfield Mooty, waiting for their ride. Brown had escorted Bradley to the UPWA District 1 protest meeting, so they were not complete strangers. But he noticed that Mamie and her companions “seemed apprehensive, and somewhat afraid” because they were “unguarded.” Brown felt the same way.
Brown could not get into the courthouse on Wednesday, due to the limited number of seats reserved for blacks. He spent most of the day standing on the courthouse lawn, talking to other African-American men denied entry. Above all, Brown was struck by their bravery: despite the presence of hostile whites, many of whom openly brandished guns, these black men stood their ground. “Used to be they would charge us with clubs and chase us off the grass,” one of the men explained, “but they know we ain’t running no damn where this time.” After court let out, Brown approached Emmett Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, and asked the aging sharecropper-preacher where he found the courage to testify against Milam and Bryant. “Some things are worse than death,” Wright replied. “If a man lives, he must still live with himself.”
Back in Clarksdale, Brown heard rumors that several black witnesses to the Till murder had been killed. His notes on the last two days of the trial are uncharacteristically vague. However, a short story that Brown published in 1959 is suggestive. The narrator and protagonist, “Frank” (husband of “Evelyn”), is dispatched to the Till trial by an unnamed Chicago union that employs him as a “Program Coordinator.” Upon his arrival in Clarksdale, a hotel manager repeatedly warns him that the slightest breach of local custom could land him in a pine box. The manager also tells him that black stool pigeons will inform on him if they find out why he has come to Mississippi. “Frank” has nightmares, and even the faintest noise in the hotel startles him from his sleep.
On the fourth day of the trial, a taxi driver from the hotel comes to find “Frank” at the courthouse and insists that he get in the car. Back at the hotel, the manager informs him that “everybody in town” knows he is a Northern supporter of Mamie Bradley, and advises him to leave immediately. The following morning, “Frank” catches the first bus out of Mississippi.
The Louisiana Delegation
The UPWA sent five representatives from Louisiana to Mississippi. For the past five months, the entire delegation had been involved in a tumultuous strike by sugar refinery workers in the bayou towns of Reserve and Gramercy, about seventy-five miles north of New Orleans. Grace Falgoust was a worker at one of the struck refineries. Freida Vicknair, Lillian Pittman, and Marge Telfer were active in women’s committees launched by the union to support the strikers. Marge’s husband, Jack, was a Unitarian minister employed by the UPWA as a regional program coordinator. All were white except for Pittman, an African American.
The interracial delegation from Louisiana encountered “innumerable problems” during their 350-mile drive to Mississippi, as all of the public accommodations en route were strictly segregated. When they entered the Magnolia state, inconvenience and indignity were compounded by fear — and the eerie sensation of having traveled backward in time. “Throughout the delta we saw endless fields of cotton,” explained Falgoust. “Negro men, women, and children were picking this cotton under the broiling sun. A vivid picture of the Old South!”
On Monday, September 19 — the first day of the Till trial — Lillian Pittman eavesdropped on a conversation between two prospective jurors standing outside the courthouse. Both felt certain that Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were guilty. But rather than risk physical retaliation by voting to convict, during voir dire they deliberately answered questions in a manner that ensured their elimination from the jury.
Meanwhile, Jack Telfer managed to convince Sheriff H. C. Strider that he was a reporter for the Packinghouse Worker newspaper, and proceeded to occupy a seat in the white press section. However, on Tuesday the white press section filled to capacity, and several journalists complained that Telfer was sitting in a space reserved for someone else.
When Sheriff Strider ordered him to move, Telfer produced the press credential that Strider himself had signed the previous day. Strider was an imposing figure, “a short man weighing 270 pounds who carries no visible gun, but appears to depend upon the brutal armament of an oversized black jack, sticking prominently out of the right-hand pocket of his trouser.” Telfer may have been intimidated, but he was not cowed. He walked over to the black press section, which had been outfitted with a longer table for the second day of the trial, and sat down in an empty seat. He remained in the “black” section throughout Tuesday’s proceedings.
Mamie Bradley made her first appearance in court that day, flanked by her father, John Carthan, and cousin, Rayfield Mooty. Bradley was “modishly dressed” in a dark gray suit with a pleated skirt and a small black felt hat, exhibiting “absolute poise under the most difficult circumstances.” Jack Telfer presented her with a copy of a resolution, passed two weeks earlier at a UPWA District 8 Women’s Conference by female union activists from across the Southwest. Bradley “graciously accepted” the document despite the “swirl of confusion” caused by dozens of reporters and photographers angling to get near her.
The Till trial began in earnest on Wednesday, September 21. Only one of the women from the Louisiana UPWA delegation was able to get into the courtroom that day: Lillian Pittman sat among the two dozen African Americans permitted to view the proceedings. From the next-to-last row, Pittman took detailed notes to share with black journalists denied entry into the building.
Freida Vicknair, Grace Falgoust, and Marge Telfer decided to venture downtown to gauge the sentiment of the wider community. To their dismay, all the whites they encountered in Sumner were dyed-in-the-wool racists. Two “aristocratic” ladies averred that blacks positively enjoyed picking cotton in hot weather. A store clerk boasted that only whites voted in Tallahatchie and the adjoining counties. Though Vicknair got him to concede that this amounted to “taxation without representation,” he was otherwise unmoved by counterargument.
“It is clear,” Jack Telfer wrote to Richard Durham, assessing the trial up to that point, “that a great whitewash is being prepared in this place. The thing stinks more every day as urgent and pertinent questions are not asked [by the prosecution]. Whole blocks of inconsistency are allowed to go unchallenged.” Telfer complained that even the Northern liberal journalists covering the trial were too soft on the judge and prosecutors. How could justice be served when “pressing hard on the back of every person’s neck is the knowledge that brutality and physical cruelty can fall swiftly” in response to even the slightest violation of Jim Crow etiquette?
The entire UPWA delegation from Louisiana was able to view the trial on both Thursday and Friday. Anticipating an acquittal, they initially planned to hold a press conference immediately following the announcement of the verdict. However, they abandoned this idea on Friday morning, judging that the scene at the courthouse would be far too chaotic. Instead, they chose to write a joint statement, which they circulated as a press release. Marge Telfer frantically typed twelve copies during the noon recess:
PRESS RELEASE, SEPTEMBER 23, 1955,
FROM DELEGATION OF WOMEN FROM UPWA-CIO, LOUISIANA
We four Southern women came to the Sumner trial of the kidnappers and killers of young Emmett Till as an inter-racial delegation of labor unionists and union housewives. . . .
In the struggles we have had to wage against the exploitation and oppression of the wealthy sugar barons of Louisiana, we have slowly and painfully learned a few lessons about race relations which have prepared us to understand [what] we have seen and heard this week.
The chief lesson . . . is the absolute necessity of both white and Negro workers standing together if the people of either race are to win decent wages, job security, and the full rights and privileges of American citizenship. . . .
Our employers tried to keep us workers divided along racial lines by discriminating against Negro people. . . . Therefore, for a number of years now we have held unsegregated union meetings, elected union officers of both races . . . and refused to sign any contract with the sugar companies that provided for differences in pay based on race. . . .
As we came to accept both Negroes and whites as having an equal right to respect and consideration, we have discovered new and precious meaning in the words of brotherhood taught us by religion. . . . We have spelled out our background to show why we are so shocked by what we have seen and heard in and around Sumner these last five days.
- In the courtroom we have seen the press representatives of Negro newspapers and radio stations placed against a far wall 50 feet from the jury seats, where many words of testimony were inaudible, while the non-Negro reporters were placed in a semi-circle around the jury seats, close at hand. . . .
- Throughout the trial the most deeply offensive epithet than can be substituted for the word ‘Negro’ has been used again and again. Such terms are not used among our union members. . . . We believe their use in this trial violates the right of all citizens to equal treatment, and prejudices a fair outcome.
- We observe that no Negro citizens were called as prospective jurors due to the fact that there is not a single registered [Negro] voter in this county. . . . In these circumstances we cannot agree that a fair trial leading to justice is assured.
- The widespread existence of prejudice [against Negroes] was indicated to us by the many people in Sumner and nearby towns who stated that even if the two defendants . . . had slain Emmett Till as charged, they should be acquitted because 14 year old Till had “wolf-whistled” at Mrs. Bryant. . . .
- We express our sympathy for Mrs. Mamie Bradley in her cruel bereavement and call upon all women, Negro and white, North and South, to join in condemning and working together to end the race discrimination out of which such crimes as this one are inspired.
With the exception of the Toronto Star, which briefly quoted Jack Telfer, none of the major newspapers mentioned the UPWA’s presence at the Till trial, nor the Louisiana delegation’s trenchant criticism of Mississippi justice. Grace Falgoust was nevertheless convinced that the trip was worthwhile: “I am sure that the people present will long remember the women who broke the racial barriers in this section.”
Civil Rights Unionism
Barely two months after the Till trial concluded, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white rider. The citywide bus boycott that began on December 5, 1955 marked the beginning of a new phase in the black freedom struggle.
The UPWA embraced the burgeoning protest movement and its leadership. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with UPWA officials for the first time during a visit to Chicago in mid-February 1956. The following month, on March 28, 1956, approximately seventeen thousand packinghouse workers in Chicago stopped work for five minutes in solidarity with the Montgomery bus boycott. The UPWA also raised several thousand dollars for the Montgomery Improvement Association, mainly through factory gate collections at slaughterhouses and sugar refineries.
In early 1957, UPWA leaders participated in the first meetings of what would eventually become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. An $11,000 donation from the union proved critical to SCLC’s survival during its first year, when income from all sources totaled just $13,000. “[Y]our generous gift was really the means by which our then infant organization was able to begin its work,” King acknowledged. The UPWA remained a staunch supporter of King and the civil rights movement throughout the 1960s.
A leaflet circulated by District 1 in 1955 asked, “Did Emmett Till Die in Vain?” The question remains salient, as racial violence, discrimination, and inequality continue to plague this country more than half a century later. Those who seek to revive the tradition of civil rights unionism would do well to remember the UPWA activists who answered resoundingly: “Organized Labor Says No!”