The resurrection of Emmett Till
HALF A CENTURY ago the race question that could neither be suppressed nor left unresolved was confronted when Brown v. Board of Education invalidated the Southern system of segregated public schools. This month, which marks the 50th anniversary of that Supreme Court decision, the Department of Justice has acknowledged that one especially notorious racial crime was not solved.
Committed for the sake of preserving white supremacy, the murder of Emmett Till occurred only 15 months after Jim Crow education was ruled unconstitutional. Last week the assistant attorney general for civil rights, R. Alexander Acosta, claimed to have found sufficient evidence to envision indicting others besides the two white Mississippians whom a jury of their peers declared to be not guilty.
Shortly before he was to have entered the eighth grade, Emmett Till walked into a store in Money, a hamlet in the Mississippi Delta, and contrived a prank designed to impress his local cousins and their pals. He behaved suggestively toward Carolyn Bryant and may have wolf-whistled at the 21-year-old wife of the absent owner. Because of the breach of racial etiquette, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, both armed, soon thereafter abducted Till from the home of his relatives, pistol-whipped him, murdered him, and then dumped the corpse into the Tallahatchie River.
Mamie Till (later Mobley) insisted upon an open casket for her son in Chicago, and the sight -- and later photo -- of the grotesquely distorted face of the dead 14-year-old sent shock waves reverberating through black America. About a month later, Bryant and Milam were prosecuted. Despite forthright testimony by Till's mother, the all-white, all-male jury experienced no crisis of conscience in acquitting the two grinning, vengeful champions of racial supremacy and white womanhood.
Early the following year, Bryant and Milam even profited from their crime when Look magazine paid them to tell its readers how and why the pair abducted and murdered the guileless young stranger (whose name they had never bothered to ask). But did they act alone? Their confession in Look implicated no one else, but other reports plus local lore hinted that others were involved, either as culprits or as witnesses.
Two recent documentaries -- Stanley Nelson's "The Murder of Emmett Till" and Keith A. Beauchamp's "The Untold Story of Emmett Till" -- have not only revived interest in the fate of the best-known young victim of racial violence in Southern history; both film-makers have also suggested that the number of killers was larger than two. Both Bryant and Milam have died. But the possibility that accomplices remain alive has now stimulated the Bush administration to weigh evidence that might lead to further prosecution under Mississippi law.
To anticipate how solid the evidence is against others is premature. In the 49 years that have elapsed since Till's death, much -- perhaps nearly all -- of the trail has gotten cold, and even slovenly defense attorneys would not be in over their heads in raising reasonable doubts. How hard could it be to perforate the recollections of putative witnesses dating to 1955? Even if the reopening of the case leads to prosecution, conviction would be far from certain despite the dramatic improvement of race relations in the Delta.
However elusive justice might prove to be, a reinvestigation into the death of Emmett Till will nevertheless serve as an invaluable reawakening of collective memory, a reminder of how perilous were the conditions under which black Southerners were so recently obliged to live. The history lesson that Till's death offers may finally be more significant that the judicial resolution to be achieved.
His brief life and appalling death disclosed like no other incident how despised and degraded were the lives spent in the segregationist South, where, as Bob Dylan wrote in 1962, "black is the color and none is the number." He had earlier composed a ballad about Till, whose murder also provoked novelists like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison to write plays about him. Historians have concluded that the intolerable anachronism of such violence helped to inspire the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
The way that Emmett Louis Till (1941-55) still haunts the imagination may also stem from a yearning to fathom an era when race relations were far less complicated, when inhumanity was shameless and recognizable, when brutality was palpable and unsubtle, and when the right even to grow into maturity could be threatened immediately after buying two cents' worth of bubble gum.
Stephen Whitfield teaches at Brandeis University and is the author of "A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.