Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Lynching of Emmett Till

In August 1955, Emmett Louis Till was murdered. He was a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago, visiting relatives in Mississippi.

What triggered the murder was not known for certain - maybe he whistled at Carolyn Bryant, maybe he flirted with her, maybe he touched her. Bryant's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were tried for the murder, and subsequently acquitted.

Christopher Metress edited the book, The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative, in 2002. The book describes the incident through newspaper stories before, during, and after the trial. He includes letters written to different papers, and stories researched afterwards. There are excerpts from memoirs, and literary retellings of the murder.

I was struck by the horror of the killing; by the brutality and bullying of the murderers; by the lack of concern or guilt on the part of Southerners (at least some of them); and by the vocal reactions of Northerners.

Metress includes writings from Mrs Medgar Evers' autobiography, For Us, the Living (1967):
The Till case, in a way, was the story in microcosm of every Negro in Mississippi. For it was the proof that even youth was no defense against the ultimate terror, that lynching was still the final means by which white supremacy would be upheld, that whites could still murder Negroes with impunity, and that the upper- and middle-class white people of the state would uphold such killings through their police and newspapers and courts of law. It was the proof that Mississippi had no intention of changing its ways, that no Negro's life was really safe, and that the federal government was either powerless, as it claimed, or simply unwilling to step in to erase this blot on the nation's reputation for decency and justice. It was the proof, if proof were needed, that there would be no real change in Mississippi until the rest of the country decided that change there must be and then forced it (p 250).
The courtroom drama was more than the trial of two men accused of murder. Mississippi, and the South, were on trial. As Mrs Evers suggested, the rest of the country needed to promote change; this event provided the momentum for that change, and was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Another telling selection was from the memoir of Anna Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968):
Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me - the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. I knew once I got food, the fear of starving to death would leave. I also was told that if I were a good girl, I wouldn't have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn't know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough, I thought (pp 254-255).
At the same time, there were those who continued to defend Mississippi and the South, as in these letters to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
... there is a certain element that will stop at nothing to humiliate and discredit the South and any other section (and there are other sections) who are trying to preserve the integrity of the white race (p 146).
However much we deplore such a crime as that alleged which caused young Till to disappear, let it be known that it will be a long time before Southern people will be silent and submissive in the face of agents who insult and try to hurt womanhood.

Any society for the advancement of Negroes can profitably exercise itself with the inculcation of morals and the strengthening of their social customs (p 148).
As I read Metress's book, I often wondered what my parents made of all this. They were a young family, with a nearly four-year-old boy, and a baby with some health issues. They lived in a trailer park in Minnesota, where my father managed the equipment on a construction site. They visited doctors, and made a trip to the Mayo Clinic with their baby, and worked, and cared for each other. Did they even follow the story of the trial? How did they react? What did they think?

The anthology includes a poem by Richard Davidson, A Cause for Justice. Its verses go back and forth, between the description of Mr. and Mrs XX, spectators at the trial, and the memories that linger near the grave of Emmett Till. Here are excerpts from the poem (pp 299-300).
Mr. and Mrs. XX settle down in their easy chairs
And guests pop in for a few good drinks and talk
About the trial and notice how the weather is and the
Fact that the defense attorney was quite interesting
And didn't Mrs. XX look fine in that autumn hat and was there
Really a reporter from Time there?
And what was all the shouting about and if there was a crime
Certainly it would have come out in the proceedings.
Mr. and Mrs. XX nod happily and yawn and it's been a long, long day
And they wonder secretly if pictures were taken and were
They seated in the right place?
They would purchase the morning papers and see.
Mr. XX goes to the front door, says goodnight, locks it, smokes a final cigarette,
     and walks casually to bed.
To his wife's arms and to sleep and to forget.
. . .
We will not forget Emmett Louis Till
In tomorrow's problems or last week's good news.
We will not forget him in breakfast food
Or in the rush of winter bells.
We promise the voice that commands our attention
The earth that was his earth
Will not wilt and die in a quick hour's decision.
The benefit of books such as this is that they don't let us forget.


  1. I can still remember discussing Emmett Till in school growing up.
    It is humbling as an American to be reminded that we are still so close to such monstrous behavior.

  2. Jon, I don't remember discussing it at all - maybe it was too recent, maybe it was our school, maybe it is my memory. (Probably my memory...!)

  3. I remember watching a documentary with Emily when she was a young girl. She was furious, horrified, disbelieving, hurt. I was consumed with an overwhelming sense of sadness.

    I remember discussing the civil rights movement with Robin's and my father, who believed in states' rights and was concerned about Federal action in matters that should be locally managed. It was clear to me at the time (I was a teenager, completely convinced that whatever I thought was completely correct) that states rights were an excuse for not dealing with something very wrong. My father was more articulate and well-reasoned than I. I could not understand why he would not show the slightest indication that he understood my point of view--these conversations often ended with me in tears.