On Oct. 9, 1956, Gerald Chatham died of a massive heart attack. He was 50 years old. Who is Gerald Chatham? He was the District Attorney of Tallahatchie County, Miss. Maybe if I mentioned he was the district attorney that attempted to convict Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam in the brutal murder of Emmitt Till, it would ring a bell.
The acquittal of Bryant and Milam of the murder of Emmitt Till still ranks as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the history of the American judicial system. The verdict was decided during the jury selection and had nothing to do with the effort of the prosecutor. In 1955, the commitment of Gerald Chatham to convict Bryant and Milam of murder was nothing less than courageous.
James Hicks of the National Negro Press Association and the Afro-American News service had this to say about Chatham: “By every courtroom standard, the Mississippi-born district attorney made a great plea for the dead colored youth,” Hicks wrote. “For his numerous moments of brilliant oratory, he brought tears to the eyes not only of those seated at the colored press tables but to some of the white listeners as well.”
Upon completion of Chatham’s opening statement, Hicks overheard Mamie Till comment, “He could not have done any better.” After the trial, Hicks observed, “No prosecutors in the United States could have worked harder or longer for a conviction than did District Attorney Gerald Chatham and Special Prosecutor Robert B. Smith.”
To use an athletic metaphor, Gerald Chatham “left it all on the field.” The verdict was read on Sept. 23, 1955; 382 days later Chatham passed away. The stress and threats from the trial had taken its final toll. I will never understand why so little has been mentioned in the history books regarding Mr. Chatham. If I Google search for photos of Gerald Chatham, I am lucky to find a few. On the other hand, if I search Roy Bryant or J.W. Milam, I find more than I care to see.
The passion to hate Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam is stronger and more powerful than any reason to remember the effort of Gerald Chatham. Unfortunately, he is little more than a footnote in history. It is beyond time that his effort be included in the discussion of the murder of Emmitt Till.
The scripture John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Gerald Chatham possessed and demonstrated very strong Christian values. His effort to represent the underserved was not in vain.
In many cases, the best society had to offer sits in silence, and the walls of darkness cover their legacy. Chatham did not travel to a different county to take on a difficult case. It was handed to him as district attorney. Gerald Chatham, a son of Mississippi, is an American hero.