Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book 156: Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement by Devery S. Anderson

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Until a few years ago, I had never heard of Emmett Louis Till, but social media is adept at reviving the past. For several years on or leading up to August 28, I've seen photos of Till circulated on Facebook and Twitter. My heart broke this year when a photo of his mutilated corpse on the medical examiner's slab surfaced in my Twitter feed, and I just had to know what happened to this 14-year-old boy 62 years ago. So I requested this book from the Delaware Library System to get the lowdown.

Emmett Till was a Chicago teenager who went to visit his mother's family in Money, Mississippi in 1955. He was kidnapped from his uncle's house in the middle of the night after an unsubstantiated exchange with a white storekeeper's wife, Carolyn Bryant, who said Till had sexually accosted her. When Till's badly mutilated corpse turned up in a nearby river a few days later, the kidnappers - Carolyn's husband Roy Bryant and her brother-in-law J.W. Milam - were arrested. Till had been beaten and tortured until he was barely recognizable. The ensuing trial was a farce. In 1955, Mississippi blacks still had no voting rights (which meant they could not serve on juries) so an all-white jury acquitted the two white murderers on charges of murder and later, kidnapping, despite eyewitness accounts from Till's family members. 

Mamie Till, Emmett's mother, refused to let her son's death be in vain and used the murder and the acquittal to show the injustice of the south. She insisted on an open casket to show the world what the murderers had done, and she and family members worked with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to push Emmett's story into the spotlight. Emmett Till's murder was the straw that broke the camel's back, and was one of the catalysts of the American Civil Rights Movement. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks were just two of the thousands who took action due in part to Till's murder. News of the killers' acquittal was broadcast internationally, and the cry for justice was heard round the world. Forty years later, legal advocates got the federal government to open a new investigation, Till's body was exhumed and autopsied, and the case was eventually reopened. Except for Carolyn Bryant, everyone implicated in the murder was dead. Despite investigators' best efforts, the grand jury could not indict her based on the available evidence.

In this book, Anderson dug up every single possible reference to Till and his family, and somehow documented all of it in this enormous book published in 2015. What I will remember most is the author's unique ability to connect the dots for his readers, piecing together testimony and evidence from many different people and sources to create a substantial narrative. I still can't figure out how he uncovered some of the most oblique pieces, like the poem written by an American civilian in an Italian prison describing the hanging death of Emmitt Till's father, Louis Till. And Anderson was thorough with his research - the last quarter of the book is nothing but references. This book was no small undertaking, and is not for those with short attention spans; I am still trying to digest all that was published in this exhaustive exposé. 

Earlier this year (two years after Anderson's book was published) Carolyn Bryant recanted her testimony. She was 82 years old. If that doesn't make you want to vomit, I don't know what will.

The story of Emmitt Till is one that all Americans should know. If you can't stomach Anderson's 400-page book, simply Google Emmett Till. You'll learn all you need to know, and more than you ever wanted to know.

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