We still can’t look away from Emmett Till. Why?
So many of my friends in the fandom also love the book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), such that when Harper Lee’s sequel, To Set A Watchman, appeared a few years ago under dubious circumstances, several of us blogged about it. Lots of us would love Richard Armitage for Atticus Finch in any remake of the 1962 film. It’s not just an American favorite; the book is such a painful record of injustice and the failed attempt to set it straight that it has burned itself into the global imagination. Something not widely known about the work is that one of several possible sources for the plot may have been the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955 — a defining moment of twentieth-century history. It’s a near constant cultural reference makes it a good topic for a further Black History Month post — or maybe I’ve just been noticing it a lot lately. It’s like we still — after more than fifty years — can’t look away.
For instance, in the novel I finished today, the loosely autobiographical Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I found this quotation (I forgot to write the page number down):
Her very loosely autobiographical novel is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year or so — I would strongly recommend it — but it’s written from the viewpoint of a non-American Black and it takes every foible of American racism of the last decade or so under its loop. It’s often funny, but for that reason it sometimes stings to read. As does the quotation above. Because we know it’s true — Till’s mother telling him to beg on his knees to a white person to save his life if necessary, advice she gave him that he may or may not have used, is part of the historical narrative.
Is it shameful — to behave as you always would have but die for it? Why do the words “he got himself killed” still come up so often from the mouths of so many, black and white, when talking about Till?
A quick survey of the background, first — as Adichie’s novel notes, Emmett Till “whistled at a white woman” and paid the price. The story is quickly told: a fourteen-year-old raised in Chicago, Till took a trip in 1955 to visit cousins in the Mississippi Delta. Till’s mother warned her insouciant son to watch out. The more relaxed hierarchy accepted between whites and blacks in Chicago was not prevalent in southern Mississippi. On August 24, Till went into a grocery store run by the Bryant family, which catered to black sharecroppers, where he had an encounter with twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant. After outrage in the town spread, four days later, her husband and a group of friends kidnapped Till, beat him brutally, shot him, and weighed his body down with a cotton gin fan that they attached to his neck with barbed wire. They sunk it in the local river. Till’s relatives searched for him; eventually the river gave up his near unrecognizable body, which was identified via a ring of his late father’s that he wore.
It might have been just another line in the long litany of U.S. blacks lynched at the hands of U.S. whites, except that Till’s mother, Mamie, insisted that his body be returned to Chicago for burial, held an open casket funeral, and allowed a photograph of her son’s mutilated body to be published in the black press, whence it circulated throughout the country. The photograph shook the conscience of much of the nation (I won’t put it in the post, but you can see it here).
In an age when the Civil Rights Movement was finally gaining traction, the murder also engendered an unparalleled travesty of justice, exposing the extent and character of segregation in rural Mississippi. Local law enforcement resisted indictment; the jury was solely white because blacks could not be jurors in a county where not one among 13,000 eligible black adults was registered to vote; the sheriff rejected the identification of the body; witnesses were threatened; Carolyn Bryant’s excluded testimony was leaked to the jury. The defense was a scattershot mess — first it denied that Till was dead, then it denied that the defendants had done it, then it presented a justification (Bryant’s testimony) for the crime. The defendants acted casually during the trial, which had the atmosphere of county fair, and jury members deliberated little more than an hour before returning a verdict of not guilty. An attempt to charge the defendants with kidnapping after their acquittal foundered when the press exposed military court records that revealed that Till’s father had been executed for alleged rape. In a particularly vicious twist, the murderers, protected by the Fifth Amendment from retrial, sold a story to a magazine in which they admitted the murder and explained how they did it. They had not testified in their own defense and their own attorneys had not heard their story until then (in the U.S., an attorney is legally prohibited from allowing his client to lie on the stand). Indeed, the horrible handling the case received spawned a law that inter alia allowed federal authorities to investigate local mismanagement of cases involving civil rights.
What actually occurred between Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant is lost to history. Till was killed; Bryant testified that he grabbed her arm, asked her for a date, grabbed her waist, and propositioned her again, lewdly, before one of his cousins came in the store and removed him, whereupon she ran to retrieve a pistol. Till’s cousin’s testimony refuted Bryant’s account. What we read in history books is that he left the store as he wolf-whistled at her and that she lied about the rest of it. This has long been the historical consensus. But in fact, while witnesses denied any “lecherous conversation” and agree that he whistled, it’s not even clear that he whistled at her. At least two definitive histories of the Emmett Till incident plumb detail after detail; I recommend Devery Anderson’s Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (2015). Since 1955 almost everyone who has studied the incident has concluded that Carolyn Bryant perjured herself and embroidered the story, perhaps because the rumors spread so quickly after Till’s departure that they overtook her, or because she couldn’t back out of it once her husband, an abusive man, had heard. Periodically, the federal government has tried to re-open aspects of the case, but the statute of limitations on the federal crimes involved has run out. A grand jury called in LeFlore County, Mississippi, failed to return a true bill against Carolyn Bryant for manslaughter in 2007 and with that decision, the possibility of justice for Till was finally foreclosed.
Even so, we keep looking — or do we want not to look? A weird shudder went through my circles a few weeks ago when a new revelation emerged about this defining moment of twentieth-century history: Bryant (since remarried several times) had approached a historian in 2007, when she wrote her memoirs and told her story. (The manuscript is sealed in the UNC-Chapel Hill University Archives until 2036.) Although when questioned by the FBI in 2004, she had stood by her 1955 testimony, in 2007 she told Timothy Tyson that everything she had said that pointed in the direction of an assault was a lie, she didn’t remember what had happened originally, and in any case whatever Till did he didn’t deserve what had been done to him in retribution. The reaction to this revelation has been emotional and visceral and still hard to explain, because, of course, it was something we all knew. A lot of us are hesitating right now — maybe afraid of our own anger. In the words of a historian friend of mine, “I too want to know more about Emmett Till, but I think I’m going to need to wait a bit until I can read that woman’s name without wanting to puke.” Timothy Tyson suggests that she felt regret about her lies and sorrow for Emmett’s mother, even if she never participated any further in reconciliation efforts than that.
It’s astounding that history is like this. We like to think of important people doing things with agency, but so often it’s not like that. A teenager buying two cents’ worth of bubblegum, murdered over an unspecific moment of discomfort for a poorly educated, rural white woman with an abusive husband who decided to prove his masculinity in a virulently racist setting. A fourteen-year-old joshing or flirting with a twenty-one-year-old, really both of them still almost children. The woman acts, she speaks, and she disappears, all this time. But she couldn’t stop looking at that coffin, either.
Till is sometimes called “the sacrificial lamb of the civil rights movement.” Probably because of that photo and the ensuing speaking tour that Mamie Till-Bradley undertook to publicize the injustice. She forced us to look. Many of the movement’s paradigmatic figures, including Myrlie Evers, Rosa Parks, and Muhammad Ali, cited its influence on them. Almost every filmmaker or historian who’s written a book on the topic cites an inability to forget the photo. I know what they mean. I’ve seen it many times myself, and I had to restrain myself from adding it to this post — I was thinking of the domestic violence survivors who read this blog, mainly. It’s like, even now, we can’t stop looking at that picture of Till in his coffin. My next read is a book by John Edgar Wiseman, who’s written a book about Till’s father, Louis, and the impact of his execution for assault on the state of Mississippi’s decision failure to obtain an indictment of his murderers for his kidnapping.
Of course, some people don’t want to look. Some people in Sumner, Mississippi, where the trial took place, like the son of the murderers’ defense lawyer, don’t like the association of their courthouse with the trial, since the crime occurred elsewhere. About ten years ago, two teachers at a charter school were fired for supporting their students’ plans to read a poem about Emmett Till during a Black History Month commemoration — the material was too graphic and the celebration was supposed to be about pride and achievement and Till didn’t fit. And the Emmett Till Interpretive Center continues to struggle with the regular vandalization of its landmark signs — fundraising is ongoing. LeFlore County, where the murders themselves occurred, now has the highest rate of child poverty of any county in the entire United States. Poetic justice? Or just mechanization of agriculture?
And I still wonder why I keep looking.
I remember asking my mom once about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas (something I found fascinating) and what would have happened if that had been attempted in her high school. She was a junior in high school that year (1957). “We all would have walked out,” she said. “People wouldn’t have put up with that. But there weren’t any black people in [our town].” That answer still twists unhappily in my mind.
I look at the body of Emmett Till in that casket. If he were alive today, he’d be a month older than my father.