GERALD CHATHAM: Profile of an Unsung Hero
Written by Kevin L. Howard   
The man
  • Born: February 17, 1906 in Hernando, Mississippi (DeSoto County).
  • Died: October 9, 1956 of a massive heart attack.
  • Education: Undergraduate and law degree from the University of Mississippi.
  • Notoriety: Lead prosecutor as district attorney, 1941-1955, in Emmett Till case (State of Mississippi vs. J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant).
  • Faith: A dedicated Christian who sought to live out his faith in fairness and integrity.


Trial details

  • Background of crime: Money, Mississippi (Leflore County) where 14-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago supposedly whistled at a white woman at Bryant Grocery on August 27, 1955.  Till was abducted during the morning of August 28. 
  • Place of trial: Sumner, Mississippi (Tallahatchie County).
  • Date of trial: September 19-23, 1955.
  • Trial verdict: Milam and Bryant were acquitted by an all-white male jury after 65 minutes of deliberation.  (Later the two admitted their guilt to Look magazine.)
  • Presiding judge: Curtis M. Swango.
  • Prosecution team: Gerald Weissinger Chatham, Robert B. Smith, III and James Hamilton Caldwell, Jr.
  • Defense team: Jesse J. Breland, C. Sidney Carlton, Robert H. Henderson, Joseph W. Kellum, John W. Whitten.



  • During the unfolding trial events, NBC reporter John Chancellor visited Chatham farm in DeSoto County.
  • Chatham's son, Gerald Wilborn (who was only 11 at time of trial), became lawyer and served as district attorney from 1972 to 1984.
  • While Chatham's son also bears the name Gerald, he has a different middle name (Wilborn) than his father (Weissinger), so Gerald the younger isn't technically "Junior." Since Gerald Wilborn Chatham has a son named Gerald Wilborn, Jr., it makes "Gerald W. Chatham, Sr." a reference to Gerald Wilborn, the son of Gerald Weissinger Chatham.


The sad reality

  • Although Chatham stood for justice and truth during an era when it was dangerous for a white man to attempt to convict other whites of racial crimes, too often his name is left out or else given little attention when telling the Emmett Till story.  Many people know the story of the crimes some angry whites committed against Till, but few know the story of the brave white man who sought justice on behalf of the murdered black boy.



  • "Emmett Till: More Than a Murder," August 25, 1985, Tom Brennan,, retrieved 7/13/2005
  • "Revisiting the Memory and the Murder of Emmett Till," June 16, 2005, Dahleen Glanton,, retrieved 7/14/2005
  • "The Trial of the Killers and Its Aftermath," [no date or author given],, retrieved 7/13/2007
  • "Till Trial DA's Son Recalls Spotlight," May 30, 2005, Robert Lee Long,, retrieved 7/14/2005
  • Personal correspondence with relatives of Chatham, including his son.  Received on July 16, 2007, August 20, 2007, and August 27, 2007.