Oral History Interview of Malcolm Yawn OH #290
June 9, 2005
Interviewed by Dr. Henry Outlaw
Transcribed by W. Ray June 12, 2006
HO: Today is June 9, 2005. We are here in the home of Malcolm Yawn in Fulton, Mississippi. We are getting ready to do an interview on the Emmett Till case. I tell you, I’ll just sit over here and it picks up very well.
HO: So if you would, tell me what we’ve been talking about before. Give me a little bit about your background. You grew up in Fulton and you went off to school.
MY: Yeah, I grew up in Fulton. We moved here in 1935, having been born in Lumberton, MS. I grew up in Fulton and went to grammar school here in Fulton; went to high school up in Tennessee up at Columbia Military Academy. Then went to Ole Miss in ’48; graduated in 1952. Got a commission as Second Lieutenant through ROTC. Went on active duty for about two years. Got out, had the GI bill and I went to law school in ’54; graduated in ’56. During all of this time since I got out of service I was active in the Mississippi National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve. In 1964 I went back on active duty in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps and retired in 1991 in Colorado. I lived in Colorado for awhile, we owned a house there. We moved back to Fulton about four years as I understand. I’m retired, completely retired now.
HO: If you would, tell me just a little Mr. Yawn, about your trip over there. How did you and your friends make the decision to cut law school and go to this case? What was the motivation?
MY: I think there were three of us. We lived at Ole Miss at Oxford and trial was close by and one student there named Whitten was from that county and he was kin to the Whitten’s there in Tallahatchie County?
HO: It was Jamie Whitten, is that correct?
MY: He was kin to Jamie Whitten. I don’t exactly what. Maybe his nephew or something. But he had connections in that county and he was from that county. And he said let’s go, he knew everybody there and we went. Cut school that day. Because of Whitten’s connections there we had a good seat. We were sitting inside the rail. You know, most courtrooms, at least in Itawamba County and other counties in Mississippi, have a rail there that congregation or visitors sit on one side of the rail inside the rail. Inside the rail the prosecutor, jury, witnesses and so forth. And we had separate seats over there so we were right up close.
HO: Was there a balcony in that courtroom that you recall?
MY: I do not recall. There may have been but I don’t think so. I don’t recall one being there.
HO: And do you recall which day of the trial it was?
MY: I think it was the second day.
HO: Second day. Okay.
MY: We got over there and the trial had not started that day. There was a bunch of people standing outside the courthouse in the courtyard there. A bunch of white folks and a bunch of black folks. They were segregated.. There were black folks on one side; not near as many white folks. The white folks were laughing and playing and shaking hands. The black folks over there were quiet. And we walked through and Whitten knew a lot of folks there and he introduced us and everybody was in a good mood. Went on to the courtroom and sat down there and the trial proceeded. It was the second day of the trial, I think, I know, the trial had gone through the jury selection process and the opening statements and so forth. I don’t believe that any witnesses had been called or not. But we saw the prosecution case call the witnesses and so forth. The third day of the trial, we weren’t there and the findings and sentence and so forth (inaudible).
HO: Do you recall some of the testimony that was given?
MY: The most impressive testimony to me was a black man, I don’t know him, he was kin to Till, his uncle or his grandfather or something.
HO: That would have Mose Wright.
MY: Yeah, Mose Wright. He testified and his – he was there when Till was picked up. His testimony was very good. I remember there was the question, “Do you recognize anybody in the courtroom here that picked him up?” And he stood up in his seat and said, “There they sit right there.”
HO: I”ll be dog.
MY: And the mother was there and she testified and several other witnesses identified the two men there, the brothers, I forget their names.
HO: J.W. Milan and Roy Bryant.
MY: Yeah, identifying them as the people that picked Emmett Till up. They saw Till with them. The mother testified and it seemed to me that the defense was: Was that really Emmett Till that was killed? It was somebody else and not Till? And so each witness of the defense was cross examined by the Prosecutor – Defense Attorney. How do you know that was Emmett Till – his body was all beat up so badly? They were all sure. The mother said he was my son, I know that was him. It seemed to me that the defense was that it was not Emmett Till, and how are you going to prove it was?
HO: In those days they didn’t have a lot of physical evidence did they?
MY: I think, at least I read somewhere, I don’t recall the testimony, but probably was. He was wearing a ring that belonged to his daddy; his mother said that. One thing that I remember specifically; not about the testimony but the trial. In the trial the blacks of course – the place was segregated. The blacks were seats in the rear of the courtroom. As I recall, a separate table or something, I don’t know. You know court had recesses and the judge comes back and the sheriff announces, everybody rise, the judge is returning, and everybody quiets down. But there was one time that they came back in, and apparently the blacks in the back were mumbling or something. And the sheriff turned around and said, “Alright you niggers back there sitting in the courtroom, settle down.” Those were his words. And one of the men there as I recall was a congressman from up there in Chicago somewhere.
HO: That was Congressman Biggs.
MY: Yeah. And of course he was sitting there with the rest of them.
HO: You know I had – someone told me that the sheriff didn’t want to let Congressman Biggs into the courtroom. And the previous sheriff told him that he had better let him in, that there would be real bad publicity in if he didn’t. And so, he did let him in. What was interesting was that the sheriff testified for the defense. Is that usually what happens?
MY: I don’t recall in cases I know that the sheriff ever tried to help the defense in any way. I don’t recall the sheriff testifying that day that we were there. Could have. Like I say, that was what fifty years ago?
MY: You know the general conversation during the recess and you know, milling around talking to the people there was, the general concensus there was: there is not way that they are going to convict these men for that. It’s no way are they going to do it. That’s what they thought. A black and white thing and it was alright back then to, as they said, kill a nigger if he got out of place some way or another. Especially if he had some movement towards a white woman. You hear on the news all the time that he was killed for whistling at a white woman? The story that I got that it was more than whistle. It was he and several more black boys his age that went to this store, country store, you know to buy a coca cola or whatever. And it was run by the wife of one of the accused murders. And she waited on them. They went back to the front and Till got to mentioning about what a good looking woman that was in there. Boys said well she’s white and your black and you better not fool around. And he got to talking about well, in Chicago there’s no difference. We do it with white women and nobody says anything about it, pays any attention to it. And Till said well, back in Chicago we do that. And so he went back in there and I think made some comment to her, I don’t what it was. And then whistled and she ran him out. So he did whistle and that was part of it but he didn’t touch her or anything like that. Some comment about you’re sure a good looking woman or something like that. She commented back to him. Maybe he whistled again. Now that’s the story I get. There was no testimony to that but you know you hear talk about it. That was the talk.
HO: I thought it was interesting is that Carolyn Bryant did testify, but not in front of the jury. I don’t know what day of the trial that was when she testified, but the judge would not let her testify to the jury. I have always wondered about, I wondered why? Do you have any light on that?
MY: I do not know. I don’t. I do not know. Maybe it was decided the day before we got there. I don’t remember. Usually things like that said outside the court are handled on the first day or something like that.
HO: What would you perceive was the mood in the courtroom?
MY: The mood was that there was no way these fellows were going to get convicted. It was sort of already decided and all the white folks in that county just seeing a show.
HO: What about the blacks in there, what was their mood?
MY: Well they were quiet back there. Course I didn’t mix with them, nobody did. They were quiet. Wasn’t saying much as far as I knew. They were away from where I was sitting. During the break they were away from everybody. I expect they didn’t appreciate what was going on. But back then, they couldn’t say anything about it. My recollection of Mississippi back then, it was completely segregated. Over there close to the Delta where Tallahatchie County is there is a whole lot more blacks than other counties. I was raised in Itawamba County and back then the black population was about five or six percent of the county. So there really wasn’t no problems. Over there in the Delta counties as many blacks as there was, the white people had to get the Ku Klux Klan to keep the blacks in their place I suppose. Some counties there had a heap of blacks. I think Tunica County back then had maybe eighty percent blacks.
HO: Well they had those big farms so they worked on the farms, sharecropped.
MY: Sure. So in Itawamba County there were no big racial problems. The blacks, as we said back then, they stayed in their place and they didn’t bother anybody, and very few people bothered them. What happened over in the Delta was a little bit strange, but I knew what it was like. I had no doubt that they were going to be found innocent.
HO: Yeah. What is your feeling about the fact that the trial has been reopened – case has been reopened?
MY: I’m going to guess that they probably have enough evidence to reopen it They got the body out – got Till’s body out to run DNA I suppose and would stop the defense that that wasn’t really Emmett Till. I don’t know what the evidence they got, or I presume they have sufficient evidence. You know they just opened up that trial – they are trying somebody in the killing down there in Philadelphia.
HO: That’s right, yeah.
MY: I saw in the paper today that the trial is about to start.
HO: Yeah, I just saw the headlines, I didn’t get to read it. I’ve been keeping up with that.
MY: Several – Some time ago he was going to be tried and he fell and broke his leg or something.
HO: That’s right. Yeah.
MY: And they delayed it.
HO: He tried to get it continued didn’t they?
MY: Um hmm. I think they got it continued until today.
HO: So it starts today is that it?
MY: Well right away, I don’t know if it is today.
HO: I’ll have to read about that.
MY: That was a big trial in Mississippi. That happened after – I think it was before the Till trial, but it was after I left to go back into the Army. And the big thing about that – it had nothing to do with the Till case but, when I was in the Army I was in Fort Bliss Texas and there’s a place where there was a missile base that had plenty of room to fire missiles as part of training, and there was no such place in Germany to do that. So the German Army came to Fort Bliss to train. And one time I was talking to this German officer at happy hour at the club. And talking he asked me where I was from. I said Mississippi. He said I have read a lot of news lately about Mississippi over there about the trial in Philadelphia about this black fellow. I said yeah. He said yeah, he said, “In Germany we had a problem like that in Germany. Had it lasted a little longer, had World War II lasted a little longer we would have completely solved it.” I thought then, good Lord, I don’t think even Ross Barnett wanted to take all the blacks and gas them and burn them in a oven.
HO: That’s right.
MY: That’s what his thought was.
HO: Yeah right.
MY: So, a lot of black and white situations in other countries are in some process of discriminating against certain people.
HO: Yeah. Right. Well, I think it is always going to be with us. It’s is just hard to (inaudible).
MY: Well I think it is a whole lot less than it used to be. My observation is race relations in the south now are a whole lot better than they are ….
HO: Oh yeah. Oh, I think so too.
MY: a lot better than they are in northern states. Like I said I spent a lot of time in the Army. By then the Army was integrated and I saw a lot of Army officers and soldiers and they were just like white folks. No difference in them. One of the first things I knew at Fort Bliss – we moved to Fort Bliss right after we went in to the Army. Lived on the post in the quarters there was this officer and his family was black that lived right down the street. He was black, had a black wife, and two or three black kids. He was just as good a daddy as any white person then, playing with his kids and looking after then. To me that impressed me back then, because I had just left Mississippi, didn’t know much about that. But, things got okay and back when we lived in Denver, before, well when I retired, and after I retired. Belonged to Parkview Methodist Church which was integrated. We had black members and white members and it was just no problem.
HO: Well, let me see if I can think of something else. I think that’s pretty much it. Let me ask you something you may or may not remember. A friend of mine told me that the 1955 or maybe it was ’56 Ole Miss annual had a picture of Emmett Till in the annual. Do you remember anything about that?
MY: I don’t recall, I don’t remember seeing one. But I think I’ve got a 1956 annual over here.
Yeah, that’s the year I graduated from high school. Here is a 1956 annual. You can thumb through here.
(Tape cuts off)
Side B Blank.
END OF DOCUMENT