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Cashing in on Emmett Till

1,751 words

Emmett Till was killed more than sixty years ago, but he’s a hotter property than ever. Scarcely a year goes by without yet another book or documentary recounting the tale of the hefty black youth from Chicago who got beaten and shot in Mississippi in 1955, for the mild transgression of “whistling at”—and physically molesting—a young white woman in a country store. According to Variety [1] and the New York Times [2], there are now two feature films in the works, one of them produced by Whoopi Goldberg. We can also look forward to a six-part HBO series on the Till story, brought to us by the eminent Jay-Z and Will Smith.

And books, always more books. Black writer John Edgar Wideman recently published [3] a long meditation about Emmett’s father Louis Till, a soldier who was hanged by the U.S. Army in Italy in 1945 for raping two women and murdering a third (Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File). Louis Till is more than an historical footnote. When his execution was first revealed in 1955, just before the trial of his son’s killers, it provided a useful backstop to the press hysteria over Emmett’s lynching, and may have helped their acquittal. And Louis Till’s prison neighbor, incarcerated like him in the outdoor cages of Pisa, was none other than American Fascist poet Ezra Pound, who memorialized Louis in his Pisan Cantos.

Also new is The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson, a book the New York Times [4] describes as “an account of absorbing and sometimes horrific detail.” This has received a lot of ink [5]in recent weeks, partly because it’s supposed to bring astonishing revelations about the Till story. To wit, the woman in the case, Carolyn Bryant Dunham (now 82), says that Emmett Till did not in fact grab her around the waist when he took her arm and made a sexual advance at her in that country store, as she originally claimed to the defense lawyers for her husband and brother-in-law. Nor did Emmett Till use a dirty word when he told her he’d had sexual experience with white girls. But whether or not these retractions are true, they are immaterial. Young Carolyn never gave testimony in court, so the jury never heard her story before acquitting the defendants of Till’s murder in September 1955.

But Tyson’s book tries to be something more than a new recounting of an old tale. It goes for topical relevance, comparing the Till murder to the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and the Black Lives Matter “protests,” and warns that a new age of racial oppression is lurking on our doorstep. A new review in the Atlantic [6] spells out this histrionic message:

[I]t could happen here again. After all, it wasn’t too long ago in American history that millions of Americans were trampled under the heel of a repressive, anti-democratic kleptocracy and faced economic reprisals, violence, or death for any dissent . . . In firmly tying Till’s legacy to protests over black bodies, re-segregation, voting-rights struggles, hate crimes, and the creeping reemergence of bigotry today, Tyson implores readers to learn that American tyranny already has a face, has already left millions of victims in its wake, and doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to fathom.

Tyson is over-reaching, of course, but that is understandable. There’s very little new to say about the Till case. For all the books and documentaries, the tale of Emmett Till remains today pretty much where it was sixty-plus years ago, when it was first covered by reporters, including such up-and-comers as David Halberstam and Hodding Carter. The most thorough investigation of the case was a January 1956 Look magazine cover story [7] by former American Mercury editor William Bradford Huie, who paid Till’s killers $3000 to admit their crime and recount it in detail.

So here are the basic outlines of the story, then and now. Fourteen-year-old Emmett “Bobo” Till was a large, beefy negro youth (5’6″, perhaps 180 lbs.) from Chicago, sent to Mississippi to spend the summer with his relatives in the Delta region in 1955. Worried about the safety of this rambunctious youngster, his mother warned him to behave himself in front of white people down there, as they weren’t quite as tolerant as the white folks in Chicago. Boastful Bobo lorded it over his overall-clad country cousins, and bragged of his sexual exploits. He even claimed to have a white girlfriend back home. On a dare, he went up to the young proprietress of a country store, Carolyn Bryant, and asked her for “a date”— more or less.

Bobo’s relatives knew there would trouble, and trouble soon came, in the form of the woman’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam, who turned up a few nights later in a pickup truck with some negro hands riding in back. They dragged Bobo out of bed, drove him away, and then pistol-whipped him with an army .45. In the end they shot him in the head and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River after tying the old fan of a cotton gin around his neck. The body was found a few days later by a boy fishing. Bryant and Milam were soon arrested, and details of the kidnapping-murder began to emerge.


The face of Emmett Till

Within a few days, the Emmett Till murder became national and international news, denounced by The New York Times, the Daily Worker, the leftist German press, and even the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano. The grotesquely mangled face of Bobo’s corpse was featured on the cover of Jet, the pocket-sized negro magazine. The Communist Party in Illinois made a crusade of the Till case, insisting on Federal prosecution of the killers (on kidnapping charges, as there was no Federal anti-lynching law) and then demanding that President Eisenhower fire the Attorney General for not following through. Even Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley was brought into the mix, denouncing the Mississippi murder with such vehemence that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover felt obliged to point out that while Daley was responding to Communist pressure, the mayor was not a Communist himself. [1]

In most press accounts, the Till story was reduced to the simplistic version we still get today: a young 14-year-old negro boy in Mississippi was tortured and murdered because he went into a store to buy bubblegum, and whistled at a white woman. Sometimes even that “wolf-whistle” is excused, with his mother’s bizarre explanation that Bobo stuttered, and would occasionally whistle if he couldn’t get a word out.

The crime was so lurid, the press stampede so intense, that conviction of the murderers looked likely. But now the case took an unexpected turn. Acting on a request from the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News, Senators John Stennis and James Eastland of Mississippi investigated the death of Bobo’s father, whom Life magazine had just described as a war hero who had died while serving in Europe. Service records told a different tale. Louis Till had died with a rope around his neck, hanged by the Army for two rapes and a murder.

Sen. Eastland gave this information to the press, where it was promptly denounced in some quarters as both improperly obtained and irrelevant to Bobo’s murder. But the implication was clear: Emmett Till’s father had been hanged for murder and rape, and the son had likely been following in his footsteps. Additional investigation showed that before joining the army Louis had been a wife-beater, and the couple were separated at the time of his death. These revelations not only dampened press enthusiasm for the Till murder case, they seemed to justify Eastland’s insistence that segregation in the South was both proper and necessary.

Media interest in the Till case has never faded, for obvious reasons. It’s a thrilling, gory story. For many people, it’s an object lesson in the backwardness and cruelty of the Jim Crow South. Bobo’s death helped fuel the anti-Southern, anti-segregationist frenzy that was then just gathering steam. Like the fictional rape case depicted in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird [9] a few years later, it was taken to be emblematic of the whole Deep South way of life, with the added benefit that the grisly Till murder actually happened. Other race-related killings in the South have been the subject of multiple books and movies (e.g. that of Medgar Evers, the subject of Mississippi Burning), but they are mainly from the 1960s and are in the nature of guerrilla reprisals against civil-rights activists. With Emmett Till, we get something different, an apparently innocent victim. In the popular telling, Bobo was no more than a brash black boy from up north who wasn’t used to playing the docile darky, and paid the ultimate price.

Almost innocent, but not quite, of course. Bobo Till had one admirable quality, an unrelenting physical courage that he took to his death. While pistol-whipping him, his killers tried to get him to recant his claims that he’d “been with white girls” and was “good as a white man”—but Bobo held tough till the end. Otherwise, the closer you study him, the more repellent he gets. He was an overgrown braggart and sexual predator. With his broad build and height, he loomed over the tiny, bird-like Carolyn Bryant. When he spoke to her in the store and grabbed her hand, she was terrified. As soon as she was free, she ran out to her car to get a gun. It was at this point that Bobo gave a lewd “wolf-whistle” after her (the famous whistle that in popular accounts was his only offense).[2]

Most treatments of the case overlook those menacing aspects and implied rape threat, and prefer instead to talk about Bobo’s age, his race, the whistle, and the hideous condition of his corpse. Here one might detect a parallel between press coverage of Till case and that of today’s immigration crisis in America and Europe. In both situations there is a real, demonstrable threat of rape and violence by nonwhite outsiders, a threat that is mocked and denied by the rape-apologists of the leftist press. If we point out that modern-day Emmett Tills, or Muslims, or Mexicans, are potential rapists, we get called racists. If we bring up the crimes these people have committed, and are liable to commit again, we are dismissed as liars and fantasists who get excited over nothing more dangerous than a wolf-whistle.


1. Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till [10] (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

2. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/PROJECTS/FTRIALS/till/tillaccount.html [11]