African American Studies The Lynching of Emmett Till
by
Christopher Metress
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0028

Introduction

In August 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till left his home in Chicago to visit his extended southern family in Money, Mississippi. The beginning of his stay went well, but on 24 August, barely a week into his visit, Till and group of friends visited Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. The exact details of what happened remain cloudy, but at some point Till entered the store and interacted with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman and the wife of the store’s owner. It quickly became apparent that something had gone dreadfully wrong, and Till’s friends rushed him from the store as Bryant went to her car to get a gun. For three days, nothing more happened, but then Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and Roy’s stepbrother, J. W. Milam, struck out in the dead of night for the home of Till’s great-uncle, Moses Wright. The two white men forced Till from the house, and he was never seen alive again. Three days later, Till’s bloated and disfigured corpse surfaced downstream in the Tallahatchie River, and Bryant and Milam were arrested for murder. When Till’s body was returned to Chicago in a sealed casket, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, demanded that it be opened, insisting as well on an open casket funeral. That viewing, lasting several days and drawing tens of thousands of mourners, shocked the nation, and when Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender published photographs of Till’s maimed face, the upcoming trial of young Till’s murderers became an international media event, with more than seventy newspapers and magazines sending reporters to Mississippi. Against all reasonable evidence, but not unexpectedly, the all-white, all-male jury acquitted Bryant and Milam, after deliberating for barely an hour. African American newspapers and magazines, joined by a chorus of support from the mainstream press and liberal political organizations, called for national protests and boycotts throughout the South, while an apologist southern press grew increasingly defensive. Tensions grew worse when, a few months later, Bryant and Milam, safe from further prosecution, sold their confession to a Look magazine reporter. For many historians of the civil rights movement, the lynching of Emmett Till and the brazen acquittal of his murderers, predating the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by just a few months, helped to ignite the black freedom struggle on the 1950s and 1960s.

General Overviews

Although Till’s lynching was a major news event in its day, scholars were slow to assess its impact. Few of the central works on African American history in the 1960s and 1970s mention the case, and it is all but ignored in early assessments of the civil rights movement. In fact, the only substantial history of the lynching produced during this period was Whitaker 1963, a master’s thesis that remains a valuable and oft-cited resource. It was not until the mid-1980s that the lynching reemerged as a seminal moment in civil rights history. Although Simpson 1981 appeared early in the decade and called for a reassessment of a “forgotten” civil rights case, the turn begins not with a scholarly book or popular history, but with a brief fifteen-minute segment in the opening episode of the influential documentary Eyes on the Prize(Hampton 1987). Aired in January 1987, the episode situates the African American response to Till’s lynching as the heroic “first step” needed in response to the Brown v. Board of Education case, highlighting the courage of Till’s mother and his great-uncle Moses Wright. Perhaps more important, however, was the documentary’s decision to show the famous casket photos published in Jet and the Chicago Defender, giving white America is first access to those influential images. Within a year, Whitfield 1988, the first full-length study of the events, was published, providing the most thorough retelling of Till’s murder and trial in twenty-five years. Whitfield also established an important scholarly precedent, insisting that any understanding of the lynching must address its literary legacy in poetry, song, fiction, and drama. Hudson-Weems 1994 builds on the author’s 1988 dissertation, and unlike Whitfield, much of her work is based on extensive interviews, making it a different kind of resource. Hudson-Weems is most notable for being the first to interpret Till’s lynching as the spark to the modern civil rights movement, an influential idea. Metress 2002 appeared a time of renewed interest in Till, providing an anthology of primary documents that not only recovered the extensive and combative press coverage, but also reintroduced some of the unresolved controversies about the lynching—controversies that had largely been forgotten but would soon reemerge. Renewed scholarly interest was matched by renewed public interest, leading to new documentaries and the development of important websites, such as PBS’s American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till and Devery Anderson’s Emmett Till Murder. Scholarship on the case culminated with Anderson 2015, which is certain to remain the definitive history of the case for decades to come.

  • American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till.

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    Companion website to the documentary film directed by Stanley Nelson (see Nelson 2004, cited under Documentaries). With solid background material on race relations, lynching, sharecropping, and segregation, the site is an excellent introduction for undergraduates, preparing them to understand the context for Till’s lynching. Also provides a valuable timeline and links to primary sources, including a transcript of the film.

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  • Anderson, Devery. Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2015.

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    The definitive work about the lynching. A magisterial history that combs every known resource to determine not only the facts of the case, but also its enduring legacy. Valuable in countless ways, but none more so than in its judicious weighing of evidence to sift through the distortions and mistruths that have long plagued historical understanding.

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  • Emmett Till Murder.

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    A website built around Anderson 2015. Valuable for providing a comprehensive “who’s who” of those involved in the case, as well as transcriptions of some of the most important primary sources, including early investigative works by Huie, Adams, Dixon, and Hicks. A helpful next step for those just learning about the story.

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  • Hampton, Henry, prod. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. PBS Video, 1987.

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    There is an influential fifteen-minute segment on Till in the opening episode (“Awakenings: 1954–1955”) of this landmark documentary series, which first aired on 21 January 1987. By contextualizing Till’s murder as the “first step” in the civil rights movement, and signaling out Moses Wright and Mamie Till-Mobley as heroic figures paving the way for Rosa Parks, the episode did more than any other source to reignite interest in this case.

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  • Hudson-Weems, Clenora. Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement. Troy, NY: Bedford, 1994.

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    Based on a 1988 dissertation, makes the then-not-yet-widely embraced claim that Till’s lynching sparked the civil rights movement. Along with Whitfield, one of the first to draw attention to the case’s literary legacy, and valuable as well for extensive author interviews with Till’s mother and cousins.

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  • Metress, Christopher, ed. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002.

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    Anthology of more than one hundred documents. Starting with the press coverage of the kidnapping and trial, and providing generous selections from the most important investigative journalists, concludes with excerpts from memoirists and poets who have helped to position the lynching in our historical and literary memory.

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  • Simpson, William M. “Reflections on a Murder: The Emmett Till Case.” In Southern Miscellany: Essays in Honor of Glover Moore. Edited by Frank Allen Dennis, 177–200. University Press of Mississippi, 1981.

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    Early scholarly assessment of the case. Noting that “most have forgotten the trial held in Sumner during a muggy week in September 1955” (p. 199), Simpson calls for historians to reexamine how the “activist energies” triggered by the case may have inspired the civil right movement.

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  • Whitaker, Hugh Stephen. “A Case Study of Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case.” MA diss., Florida State University, 1963.

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    Crucial first scholarly attempt to assess the case. Author interviewed many key white Mississippi participants in the case, and had access to the trial transcript, making this thesis the sole source for all trial quotations until the transcript was rediscovered in 2004. Essential reading for understanding how later scholars will grapple with the case.

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  • Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free Press, 1988.

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    The first book-length study, this influential work set the direction for much to follow, situating the lynching within the context of the early civil rights movement and probing the enduring effects of the murder in our racial and literary imagination. Best place to get an initial overview.

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Documentaries

Although Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize segment (Hampton 1987) aired in 1987 and is largely responsible for reigniting interest in the case, Samuels 1985 is the first important documentary. Produced by a local NBC affiliate to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the lynching, its influence has been limited, but it is a remarkable and groundbreaking resource, notable for its wide-ranging interviews (among those interviewed—many for the first time in thirty years—are Wheeler Parker, Simeon Wright, John Whitten, and William Bradford Huie). It also contains footage of a failed attempt to interview Roy Bryant. Moreover, Samuels remains important as a reminder of how the lynching slipped from public memory for many years, providing footage of Chicagoans who do not recognize Till’s name. Hampton 1987 offers a tighter account, has equally compelling interviews, and helped to return the case to its rightful place in civil rights history. One notable error in the documentary is the interview with Till cousin Curtis Jones. Jones was in Mississippi in 1955; however, he was not yet in Mississippi when Till entered the Bryant Grocery, and thus his “eyewitness” account of those events should be discarded. More than fifteen years lapse until the next significant documentary, Nelson 2004. This is the finest and most historically accurate documentary on the lynching, and is an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with the story. Nelson avoids some of the unresolved questions about the case and does not touch upon the controversies raised by Bryant and Milam’s post-trial confession, and this may disappoint those with a deeper understanding of the facts. On the other hand, Beauchamp 2005 seeks to tackle those unresolved questions and controversies. The “untold” aspects of this film focus on the existence of living persons who participated in or abetted the lynching but were never prosecuted. This makes for a passionate film, seeking to inspire a reopening of the case. This passion, however, does raise some issues about the historical claims made in the film, in particular the exact nature of the evidence for setting the number of people allegedly involved in the lynching at more than a dozen. Still, the film, with its intimate portrait of Mamie Till-Mobley, and its interviews with Simeon Wright and Henry Lee Loggins, remains a seminal resource.

  • Beauchamp, Keith, dir. The Untold Story of Emmett Till. DVD. New York: Thinkfilm, 2005.

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    Important documentary that helped to reignite interest in reopening the case. Although the film makes several controversial claims, it contains some seminal material, including an interview with Henry Lee Loggins, one of the black men forced to ride in the truck with Till on the night of the murder, as well as extensive commentary from Simeon Wright.

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  • Hampton, Henry, prod. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. PBS Video, 1987.

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    In particular, see episode one, “Awakenings: 1954–1955.” Few resources have done more to shape public understanding of the civil rights movement, and the same is true for this series’s influence on the Till lynching. Positioning the case as preparing the way for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the series brought the lynching firmly into civil rights history.

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  • Nelson, Stanley, prod. and dir. The Murder of Emmett Till. PBS Video, 2004.

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    First aired on the PBS show Frontline on 18 January 2003. Artful documentary, even-handed in its exploration of the case and judicious in its depiction of disputed events. Contains valuable interviews, including one of the last with Mamie Till-Mobley. Emotionally compelling and historically accurate, it can serve as a reliable and engaging introduction to the case for undergraduates.

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  • Samuels, Rich, prod. “The Murder and the Movement: The Emmett Till Story.” WMAQ-TV, July 1985.

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    Aired on local NBC affiliate. Anticipating the thirtieth anniversary of the case, Samuels interviewed many of the principle players, including Till-Mobley, several journalists, a juror, and others, as well the first interviews with Wheeler Parker and Simeon Wright since the murder. Shocking for a segment on how little Till was remembered in Chicago.

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Memoirs

Of the principal figures in the case, only two have written substantial memoirs: Mamie Till-Mobley and Simeon Wright. Other principal figures, as well as Till-Mobley and Wright and Wheeler Parker, have been interviewed throughout years (see Interviews and Oral Histories), but with the exception of a few journalists, very few have written about their experiences during the summer of 1955. While Till-Mobley’s long-awaited memoir did not appear until 2003, a generous understanding of “memoir” would place her first written recollection of the case in the fall of 1955, when she toured the country delivering speeches sponsored by the NAACP. One of those speeches (Bradley 1955) appeared in the November 12 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American and represents the earliest developed account we have of her experience. Bradley and Payne 1956, an eight-part series that ran from April to June in her hometown Chicago Defender, develops that experience further, placing it in the larger context of her life in Chicago before and after the events in Mississippi. This memoir is notable for its conclusion, in which she finds peace by accepting her responsibility to tell her son’s story as a means of helping all those who suffer from hate and violence. Till-Mobley and Benson 2003 proves that she devoted her life to that cause. This moving reflection is an inspirational portrait of both her son’s and her legacy. It is essential reading. And so too is Wright and Boyd 2010. For many years, Wright remained silent, interviewed only by Samuels in 1985 (see Samuels 1985, cited under Documentaries) and Hudson-Weems in 1986 (see Hudson-Weems 1994, cited under Interviews and Oral Histories) before playing a substantial role in Beauchamp’s Untold Story of Emmett Till (Beauchamp 2005, cited under Documentaries), and his memoir is a welcomed addition to the literature. It is Invaluable for its first-person accounts of what happened at the store and on the night of the kidnapping, and passionate in its desire to correct many of the false stories still circulating.

  • Bradley, Mamie. “I Want You to Know What They Did to My Boy.” Baltimore Afro-American, 12 November 1955: 6–7.

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    A representative example of the account Till-Mobley gave of the case while on her post-trial speaking tour for the NAACP. Focuses on the arrival of her son’s closed casket, the open casket funeral, and her experience testifying at the trial. Reprinted in Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon, eds, Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006), 132–145.

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  • Bradley, Mamie, as told to Ethel Payne. “Mamie Bradley’s Untold Story.” 8 parts. Chicago Defender, 21 April–9 June 1956.

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    The first extended memoir, situating the lynching in the context of Till-Mobley’s life story and insisting her son did not die in vain. Notable for her decision to not discuss the killing or the funeral, and her insistence that Milam and Bryant’s Look confession was a self-interested lie.

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  • Till-Mobley, Mamie, and Christopher Benson. The Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed American. New York: Random House, 2003.

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    In this long-awaited memoir, Till-Mobley recalls her son’s early years, recounting her role in the events leading up to and following the trial. Also tells about how she recovered from those events, inspiring others to find meaning in her son’s life. Essential reading for understanding how this murder changed the nation.

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  • Wright, Simeon, with Herb Boyd. Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2010.

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    Powerful memoir from the most important living eyewitness. Present at the store and at the kidnapping, Wright provides indispensable insights into what happened to Till, as well as what his murder meant to an entire generation. Concludes with a must-read section on “Lies, Myths, and Distortions,” where Wright offers his corrections to the record.

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Interviews and Oral Histories

Although memoirs have been sparse, interviews have been plenty. The early newspaper coverage relied heavily on interviewing witnesses and participants, and all four documentaries on the case employ generous footage from interviews (see Documentaries). The works cited in this section point to additional resources and highlight those interviews that reflect on the lynching from the vantage of time. Shostak 1974–1975 contains a brief but unjustly neglected interview with Crosby Smith, Mamie Till-Mobley’s uncle who traveled by train with Till’s casket to Chicago. Raines 1977 includes recollections from William Bradford Huie and Amzie Moore about the case, as well as rare comments from Ruby Hurley, who helped the NAACP to investigate the lynching. Hampton and Fayer 1990 is an excellent supplement to the interviews used in the Eyes on the Prize documentary (Hampton 1987, cited under Documentaries), as is the Henry Hampton Collection, which provides full transcripts of all the Eyes interviews, allowing access to comments not used in the film. That collection is most notable for the J. W. Kellum–Amzie Moore joint interview, no part of which appeared in the documentary. Hudson-Weems 1994 contains three lengthy interviews from the mid-1980s, the most valuable of which is the 1986 joint interview with Rayfield Mooty, Wheeler Parker, and Simeon Wright. Mosnier 2011 interviews Parker and Wright again, revealing how both men have long committed themselves to preserving their cousin’s memory and fighting for an accurate understanding of what happened in 1955. Terkel 1992 is brief and focuses solely on Till-Mobley, but it stands out as significant because it positions that interview at the beginning of the collection, highlighting the growing significance of the Till case in our national conversations about race. Finally, Robinson 1996 records the only interview with Roy Bryant, whom Robinson surprised at home one day. Once Bryant understands the purpose of the interview, he grows irritated, showing no regret for having killed Till forty years earlier.

The Press Coverage

In his magisterial history The Fifties, David Halberstam identified the Till case as “the first great media event of the civil rights movement.” Not surprisingly, much of the scholarly work about the case has focused on analyzing that media coverage. Scholars would soon follow suit, using the press coverage not as means to retell the story, but to mine it for deeper significance. Feldstein 1994 offered the first such analysis, examining how the new stories about and photo images of Mamie Till-Mobley and Carolyn Bryant reveal how contested conceptions of motherhood and respectability drove much of the news coverage that summer. Flournoy 2003 compares how the mainstream and black presses covered the story, noting that the black press provided a more complex understanding of the case, while Houck 2005 looks solely at the Mississippi press and how it shaped local opinion in favor of Bryant and Milam by exploiting common fears about race, sex, gender, and class. Grindy 2008 takes a different tack, examining how the left-wing Daily Worker reported the case within a Cold War context that furthered its political agenda. Houck and Grindy 2008 stands as the most accomplished scholarly work on the press coverage. With its tight focus on the Mississippi press, it is not a comprehensive study, but it is exhaustively researched and makes the strongest case yet for news coverage of the case as a rich resource for cultural analysis. Mace 2014 is the most comprehensive study to date, analyzing news coverage throughout the nation, highlighting regional differences in that coverage, and drawing on neglected news sources.

  • Feldstein, Ruth. “‘I Wanted the Whole World to See’: Race, Gender, and Constructions of Motherhood in the Death of Emmett Till.” In Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960. Edited by Joanne Meyerowitz, 263–303. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

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    Impressive study of how changing conceptions of motherhood and respectability drove much of the press coverage. In this context, Till-Mobley constructed a self-definition that combined racial liberalism and sexual conservatism, enabling her to create a cross-racial definition of motherhood that won her sympathy and radicalized traditional gender roles.

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  • Flournoy, John Craig. “Reporting the Movement in Black and White: The Emmett Till Lynching and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” PhD diss., Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

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    Comparative analysis of how select papers from the mainstream and black presses covered events, concluding that the black press provided a broader and more accomplished coverage, but noting that the mainstream press began to adopt new frames of reference about black agency that would improve its future coverage of the movement.

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  • Grindy, Matthew A. “Mississippi Terror, Red Pressure: The Daily Worker’s Coverage of the Emmett Till Murder.” Controversia: An International Journal of Debate and Democratic Renewal 6.1 (2008): 39–66.

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    An original analysis of a neglected aspect of the press coverage. Explores how this liberal newspaper depicted segregation and racial violence as forms of terrorism, noting how the paper situated the Till case in a Cold War context that furthered its political agenda, which included a stronger black-white labor alliance.

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  • Houck, Davis W. “Killing Emmett.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 8.2 (Summer 2005): 225–262.

    DOI: 10.1353/rap.2005.0078Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study of how the Mississippi press shaped public opinion in favor of Till’s killers by exploiting racial, sexual, gender, and class anxieties. Builds this argument through a close reading of a rich selection of new stories, photographs, editorials, and letters to the editor.

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  • Houck, Davis W., and Matthew A. Grindy. Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781934110157.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The definitive study of how small-circulation weeklies and large-circulation dailies throughout Mississippi moved from an initial sympathy to Till to a concerted defense of his killers. Impressively researched and not likely to be surpassed.

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  • Mace, Darryl. In Remembrance of Emmett Till: Regional Stories and Media Responses to the Black Freedom Struggle. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813145365.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes the national news coverage through the lens of situational regionalism, focusing on high-circulation publications in both the mainstream and black press. Shows that while most of the press coverage of the case converged around a general consensus on race relations and Cold War geopolitics, unique regional biases emerged.

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  • Thornton, Brian. “The Murder of Emmett Till: Myth, Memory, and the National Magazine Response.” Journalism History 36.2 (Sumer 2010): 96–104.

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    Original analysis of ten national magazines that questions the conventional wisdom that the case received extensive national coverage in 1955, and that the acquittal of Till’s murderers sparked wide and universal outrage.

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The Power of Images

Within the larger press coverage of the case, one moment stands out as remarkable: the decision by Jet magazine on 15 September 1955 to publish two photos of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse. Jackson 1955 galvanized the black community and has resonated down the years as one of the landmark moments in 20th-century journalism. Two days later, the Chicago Defender chose to publish its own photographs of Till’s corpse, and while not having the national impact of the Jet photos, the Defender’s decision also helped to firmly position these images within African American collective memory (see Adams 2004 for a quick and accessible starting point for learning about this impact). Withers 1955, a twenty-page self-published booklet by a leading civil rights photographer who covered the trial, included a corpse image as well, and it remains significant today for its assertion that the Till case could be understood as a visual event. Goldsby 1996 represents an early scholarly attempt to interpret the case as such, and by focusing on a full-range of images, and not just the corpse photos, concludes that our knowledge about the case has been heavily influenced by the representational claims of photography and television within 1950s mass visual culture. Baker 2006 approaches the case as a series of image-centered events that rely heavily on Till’s body, while Harold and DeLuca 2005 and Berger 2010 both make a strong case for how these image-centered events helped to mobilize the African American community. For Harold and DeLuca, the weight of that mobilization is borne by the corpse photos, and Moten 2003 makes a similar case. While Moten’s argument is often difficult to follow, few have made a more passionate case for the truly radical nature of these photos. For other sources in this bibliography that also explore this impact, see Ali and Durham 1975 and Wideman 1997 (both cited under Emmett Till Generation), as well as Lorde 1981 (under Literary Memory).

The Trial

If the Till case was indeed “the first great media event of the civil rights movement,” as David Halberstam put it in his book The Fifties (p. 437), at the heart of that media event was the trial ofTill’s killers, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam. For one week in late September, the tiny town of Sumner, Mississippi, became the focus of national and international attention. More than seventy reporters and thirty photographers descended upon Sumner as mainstream dailies, African American weeklies, regional newspapers, and national television networks covered the trial from nearly every angle. That trial produced plenty of drama, the highlights of which included a second-day recess to allow prosecutors to find missing witnesses; seminal testimonies from Carolyn Bryant, Mamie Till-Mobley, Sheriff Clarence Strider, and Moses Wright; and, of course, the jury’s shockingly swift acquittal. Metress 2002 provides the most accessible resource for appreciating the scope and flavor of the local and national coverage, retelling the progress of the trial through more than two-dozen news stories from a variety of sources. In addition to their daily coverage, several reporters wrote summary assessments of the trial immediately after the verdict, with Wakefield 1955 serving as a representative example. For many decades, Whitaker 1963 remained a unique trial resource because it contained direct quotes from the official trial transcript, which would be lost for more than forty years. In addition, Whitaker’s brief retelling of the trial includes information culled from personal interviews with the lawyers and the jurors. When the FBI reopened the case in 2004, the official transcript was rediscovered, finally providing fully reliable access to the proceedings and testimony.

The Hunt for Missing Witnesses

On the second day of the trial, District Attorney Gerald Chatman requested a recess, having just learned about the existence of missing witnesses to the kidnapping and murder. The judge granted the request, and while several of these witnesses refused to testify, three did. One witness, Willie Reed, offered an account of events that would provide investigative journalists with further evidence that the full story of Till’s murder remained hidden, obscured by the trial and the self-serving confession that Bryant and Milam offered in the wake of their acquittal. Witnesses who did not testify, including “Too Tight” Collins and Henry Lee Loggins, also emerged as important figures, their exact role in the lynching unknown but central to those who contested the version of events put forward by the defense and the killers’ later confession. Hicks 2002 is the best place to start for understanding how the hunt for witnesses was organized and executed. As one of the leading African American reporters of his day, Hicks played an important role in the search (as did others, including local activists Medgar Evers and Amzie Moore), and Hicks later did a bit of investigating on his own, becoming one of the loudest voices demanding a further FBI investigation. His dramatic account of the manhunt was serialized in African American weeklies across the country, with different papers offering differently edited versions of the story. The version referenced in this section is a distillation of those different versions into the most complete account. Booker 1956 represents a briefer version of Hicks’s story, told by Jet magazine’s trial reporter and emphasizing the interracial cooperation of the journalists participating in the hunt. Wilson 1955a relates the details of a different search for witnesses, this one well after the trial. L. Alex Wilson, who covered the trial for the Chicago Defender, followed leads suggesting that two black witnesses to the murder had been jailed in another county during the trial. Wilson found one of those witnesses, “Too Tight” Collins, and spirited him away to Chicago for an interview. Wilson 1955b provides a transcription of that interview, which ultimately proved disappointing. Beito and Beito 2009 is an excellent account of how the hunt for witnesses was directed by Dr. T. R. M. Howard, an activist and trusted leader from nearby Mound Bayou.

The Look Confession

One of the most dramatic turns in the case occurred months after the trial ended. Best-selling novelist and investigative reporter William Bradford Huie, a seventh-generation southerner who prided himself on being a “truth-seeker,” did not attend the trial, but he followed the case closely in the press. Confident that the press had failed to uncover the truth, and equally confident in his ability to find it, Huie approached the defense attorneys with a proposal: if they would arrange a meeting with Bryant and Milam, Huie would pay them for their confession, and publish that confession in a manner that would leave each man able to deny they had ever confessed anything to Huie. In what some historians have called the first case of “checkbook journalism,” Huie secured that paid-for confession, which has emerged as both the most influential and most contested version of what happened to Emmett Till on the night he was murdered. When Huie 1956 appeared in Look magazine, it generated a firestorm of controversy. Read into the Congressional Record by African American congressman Charles Diggs as evidence of southern injustice, and cited by many others as a damning exposé of the region’s propensity for community-sanctioned racial violence, it was simultaneously and roundly condemned as a self-interested fabrication on the part of two killers wanting to justify Till’s murder by depicting him as physically imposing and sexually aggressive. In order to refute Huie’s account, several journalists and activists stepped forward with their own version of events based on what the black community knew about that night. Adams 1956 and Dixon 1956 represent two such accounts, challenging Huie’s depiction of Till’s aggressiveness, as well as asserting that Bryant and Milam were not the only men involved in the murder. Huie 1957 is a follow-up to the 1956 confession, emphasizing how the local community had turned on the killers after their confession, and Huie 1959 provides a defense of the original story, detailing how the journalist verified the truth of the confessions. Montieth 2008 and Tell 2008 provide insights into why Huie’s version was so influential despite its obvious inaccuracies, while Beito and Beito 2009 offers a detailed analysis of how T. R. M. Howard shaped the accounts published by Adams and Dixon.

  • Adams, Olive Arnold. Time Bomb: Mississippi Exposed, and the Full Story of Emmett Till. Mound Bayou, MS: Regional Council of Negro Leadership, 1956.

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    This account of “the story told in whispers” (p. 17) within Mississippi’s black community is based on alleged witnesses and is strongly positioned against Huie. Places people other than Milam and Bryant at the scene of the crime, locates two black men in Milam’s pickup, and rejects Huie’s depiction of a defiant and sexualized Till.

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  • Beito, David T., and Linda Royster Beito. “‘Time Bomb’: Howard, J. Edgar Hoover and the Emmett Till Mystery.” In Black Maverick: T. R. M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power. By David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, 148–169. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

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    Detailed account of Howard’s role as the key source for both Adams’s Time Bomb and Dixon’s California Eagle articles, as well as Howard’s failed attempts to shame Hoover into opening an FBI investigation into the lynching.

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  • Dixon, Amos. “Investigative articles in California Eagle, January–February 1956.” Emmett Till Murder, 1956.

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    Published swiftly on the heels of the Look confession, this version of events echoes Adams 1956. Claims that other white men helped the killers, and that several black men were forced to assist as well. The identity of Amos Dixon remains unknown.

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  • Huie, William Bradford. “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.” Look, 24 January 1956: 46–48.

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    Seminal account. Controversial and often inaccurate, its depiction of the kidnapping and murder is based on the self-interested confessions of the killers. Although widely contested in its day, many of its conclusions continue to circulate as the truth, including the image of a sexualized Till taunting his killers before his death.

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  • Huie, William Bradford. “What’s Happened to the Emmett Till Killers?” Look, 22 January 1957: 63–68.

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    Follow-up to the 1956 confessions, focusing on how Milam and Bryant had fallen on hard times and lost the support of their community.

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  • Huie, William Bradford. “Wolf Whistle.” In Wolf Whistle and Other Stories. By William Bradford Huie, 7–51. New York: Signet, 1959.

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    A compilation of the two Look articles with an extended representation of how Huie obtained and verified the confessions. Huie casts himself in the role of a lone “truth seeker” who does not let his personal prejudices or political opinions lead him to predetermined answers.

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  • Montieth, Sharon. “The Murder of Emmett Till in the Melodramatic Imagination: Williams Bradford Huie and Vin Packer in the 1950s.” In Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination. Edited by Harriet Pollack and Christopher Metress, 31–52. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

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    A literary analysis of how “Wolf Whistle” (Huie 1959) employs the typology of southern melodrama, oversimplifying and intensifying racial and sexual stereotypes in an attempt to meet audience expectations. Criticizes Huie for sacrificing truth to sensationalism and creating sympathy for the murderers.

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  • Tell, Dave. “The ‘Shocking Story’ of Emmett Till and the Politics of Confession.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 94.2 (May 2008): 156–178.

    DOI: 10.1080/00335630801975426Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Superb analysis of how Huie’s original Look magazine piece has come to dominate our memory of the case by operating as an “expressive confession,” a rhetorical form that naturalizes historical events and gives them an air of inevitability that resists further questioning.

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Reopening the Case

On 10 May 2004, at the request of the District Attorney, 4th Judicial District, Greenwood, Mississippi, the FBI reopened the Emmett Till case in an effort to determine if state indictments could be brought against individuals not originally prosecuted for the crime in 1955. That investigation produced a report on 6 February 2006. Although heavily redacted, the report details interviews with a rich variety of witnesses who provide differing and often contradictory accounts of what happened and who was involved in 1955. For those intimately familiar with the case, this report is a seminal document that engages with some of the most contested facts about the lynching. All said, however, the FBI closed its investigations without recommending prosecution. A year later, Mississippi authorities, based on that investigation, sought a manslaughter charge against Carolyn Bryant Donham, but a grand jury issued a “no bill,” finding insufficient evidence to prosecute. Calls to reopen the case go back to the immediate aftermath of trial, the most persuasive being Hicks 1955, while Beito and Beito 2009 summarizes the attempts of Dr. T. R. M. Howard to do the same. Such calls soon faded, and did not resurface until the early 2000s. That charge was led, in large part, by the appearance of Beauchamp 2005, a film that had its first public airing in January 2003 and revisited some of the unresolved questions raised by early investigative journalists (see Hunt for Missing Witnesses). Beauchamp’s efforts were featured in a special segment on 60 Minutes in Bradley 2005 that named Beauchamp as the program’s “Person of the Week”; for a critique of that segment, see Beito and Beito 2004. Finally, for an extensive law review article about the importance of reopening the case, even if a successful prosecution remained elusive, see Russell 2005.

The Emmett Till Generation

The lynching of Emmett Till mobilized a generation of African American civil rights activists. According to the sociologist Joyce Ladner, who was eleven at the time of the lynching, Till’s murder helped her and her sister to understand for the first time the dangers they faced as young black girls in the segregated South. In response, both girls committed themselves to fighting for justice and change, with Ladner choosing to become a social worker and her sister a lawyer. Their experience mirrors many of those in the “Emmett Till Generation,” a term Ladner coined for young African American men and women who were coming of age in the mid-1950s and had their lives transformed by the lynching. That transformation took many forms. Moody 1968 and Cleaver 1968 provide examples, with Moody’s fear planting the seeds for civil rights activism, and Cleaver’s anger sparking a violent response that took him years to repudiate. Ali and Durham 1975 serves as a well-known example of how the Till lynching appears as a motif of transformation in countless African American autobiographies, with Hudson-Weems 1994 providing excerpts from dozens of interviews repeating that same motif. Wideman 1997 is a different kind of resource, showing how the effect of the lynching lingers years later, still making demands upon memory. Additionally, Wideman’s essay stands as one of the most powerful reflections on the case, a masterful work that transforms our understanding of the lynching’s impact upon African American masculinity. While the “Till Generation” is typically defined as African American, Nordan 1993 reminds us that young whites were also affected by the lynching, many of whom, like Nordan, were haunted by their complicity as southerners at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Finally, Green 2007 and Young 2008 provide scholarly analyses of the generation, with Green focused on the impact of the lynching in the Chicago community and Young teasing out its influence on the founders of the Black Panther movement.

  • Ali, Muhammad, with Richard Durham. The Greatest: My Own Story. New York: Random House, 1975.

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    Contains a brief but often-cited reference to how a young Ali, upon seeing pictures of Till’s mutilated face in black newspapers and magazines, vandalized some local train tracks to release his anger. His reflections also suggest that the lynching set him on a confrontational course that would culminate in his antiwar protests.

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  • Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: Dell, 1968.

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    Written during his stay in Folsom State Prison, recounts how Cleaver learned about the lynching as a twenty-year old serving a previous prison sentence. Seeing a picture of Carolyn Bryant sickened him, and he vowed to become a rapist of white women. It took him years to repudiate this violence.

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  • Green, Adam. “A Moment of Simultaneity.” In Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940–1955. By Adam Green, 178–210. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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    A persuasive and impressively detailed account of how Till’s lynching emerged as an “iconic episode” in the collective memory of African Americans in both Chicago and across the nation, serving as a call to activism that would transform black life and suggest new conditions for imagination and resistance.

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  • Hudson-Weems, Clenora. Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement. Troy, NY: Bedford, 1994.

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    The second half of the book contains more than forty pages of excerpts from dozens of interviews with everyday African Americans, many of whom testify to the impact the lynching had upon them as young boys and girls.

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  • Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Dell, 1968.

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    There are repeated references to Till in this widely acclaimed autobiography by a future activist. It Relates how the lynching made the then fifteen-year-old Moody experience real fear for the first time, and similarly affected others her age.

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  • Nordan, Lewis. Growing Up White in the South: An Essay. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1993.

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    Brief essay relating how Nordan, a white Mississippian, came to write the novel Wolf Whistle. Nordan was Till’s age in 1955, and the murder haunted him for many years, demanding to be retold.

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  • Wideman, John Edgar. “The Killing of Black Boys.” Essence 28.7 (November 1997): 122–126, 184–189.

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    Haunted by the moment when he first saw the Jet photo as a teenager, Wideman draws parallels between his life and Till’s, and then Till’s life and the thousands of black men who continue to die violently. Confessing that he “cannot wish away Emmett Till’s face” (p. 189) he holds everyone accountable for a racial wound that has not healed.

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  • Young, Harvey. “‘A New Fear Known to Me’: Emmett Till’s Influence and the Black Panther Party.” Southern Quarterly 45.4 (Summer 2008): 22–47.

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    Arguing for a more broadly conceived Till Generation, Young claims the lynching motivated those who eventually founded groups like the Panthers. Their recollections show they were moved by the hyper-visibility of Till’s suffering and learned how to use of images of injustice to raise racial awareness.

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Literary Memory

While it is difficult to imagine now, for many years the Emmett Till case was all but ignored by civil rights historians. For more than twenty-five years, the lynching was rarely mentioned in accounts of the movement, and it was not until the 1980s that the first significant histories of the case were written. Till’s murder, however, was not forgotten in literary memory. Beginning with poems that appeared in newspapers just weeks after the kidnapping, writers have produced more than 170 literary works about the case. In poetry, song, novels, plays, short fiction, and television dramas, these artists have helped to place Till’s lynching firmly within America’s collective memory, making it central to our ongoing national dialog on race and reconciliation. The works cited in this section are selected for several reasons, among them accessibility, wide readership, literary accomplishment, genre variety, and historical importance. Among the many plays about the case, Baldwin 1964 and Barr and Till-Mobley 2005 stand out. As one of the leading literary figures of his generation, James Baldwin attracted great attention with his controversial play, which according to many critics marks a turning point in his engagement with the civil rights movement, offering a heavy critique of that movement’s faith in the transformative power of nonviolence. Barr collaborated with Mamie Till-Mobley on his play, making it a valuable resource for understanding her view of events. Brooks 1960, Lorde 1981, and Nelson 2005 represent the most outstanding poetry about the case. Brooks’s two poems are often anthologized, and they analyze better than any other literary resources the powerful myths of superiority that drive wedges between races and make racial violence inevitable. Lorde and Nelson, in turn, capture the haunting resonance of Till’s lynching and suggest that we have yet to comes to terms with its impact. Campbell 1992, Nordan 1993, and Crowe 2002 take different novelistic approaches to the lynching. Like Baldwin, these authors play freely with facts in order to explore complex legacies of racism. All three works drive, in some way, toward insight and reconciliation, an impulse found often in the literary record. Finally, Dylan 1973 and Harris 2011 stand in for all the songs across the years that have alluded to the case, representing two widely circulated examples.

  • Baldwin, James. Blues for Mister Charlie. New York: Dial, 1964.

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    Controversial play that reimagines Till as Richard Henry, a preacher’s son who returns home from New York City refusing to acknowledge Jim Crow and boasting of his sexual relationships with white women. His murder by a local white man sparks a confrontation that has everyone questioning the best way forward.

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  • Barr, David, and Mamie Till-Mobley. The Face of Emmett Till. In New Plays from Chicago. Edited by Russ Tutterow and Ann Filmer, 309–365. Chicago: Chicago Dramatists, 2005.

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    Originally produced in 1999. Important for the collaboration between Barr and Till-Mobley, suggesting that the dramatization of controversial incidents (what happened in the store, who betrayed Emmett to his killers, what happened to Emmett on the night of the lynching) coincide with Till-Mobley’s understanding of those events.

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  • Brooks, Gwendolyn. “‘A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,’ and ‘The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.’” In The Bean Eaters. By Gwendolyn Brooks, 333–339, 340. New York: Harper, 1960.

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    The two most discussed poems about the lynching. In “Bronzeville,” Brooks imagines the lynching from the perspective of Carolyn Bryant, who contends with the complicity of her whiteness as she struggles with her vulnerability as woman. In “Last Quatrain,” Brooks captures Till-Mobley’s pain and courage in a series of contrasting images.

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  • Campbell, Bebe Moore. Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine. New York: Putnam, 1992.

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    Follows the lives of two women who stand in for Bryant and Till-Mobley. Across generations, they try to rebuild their lives and hold their families together, riven by fear and guilt. Despite their failures, the novel ends hopefully, with signs of racial reconciliation on the horizon.

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  • Crowe, Chris. Mississippi Trial, 1955. New York: Dial, 2002.

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    Young adult novel that reimagines events through the eyes of Hiram Hillburn, a white teenager visiting his Mississippi grandfather in the summer of 1955. Hiram encounters Till, only to later learn of his lynching at the hands of a local white boy, and Hiram must determine whether to testify at trial against that boy and his grandfather’s legacy of racism.

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  • Dylan, Bob. “The Death of Emmett Till.” In Writings and Drawings. By Bob Dylan. New York: Knopf, 1973.

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    One of the singer’s earliest topical protest songs, first performed 26 January 1962. Contains more than a few historical inaccuracies, dulling its edge as social commentary, but makes a powerful plea for resistance to injustice at the height of the movement.

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  • Harris, Emmylou. “My Name is Emmetti Till.” Universal Music, 2011.

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    Emotional recounting of the case that hails the heroism of Moses Wright and Mamie Till-Mobley and mourns the loss of “one more black boy” who never had the chance to grow old.

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  • Lorde, Audre. “Afterimages.” Cream City Review 17.2 (Fall 1981): 119–123.

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    A multilayered poem that captures how the Till lynching served as a rite of passage for the poet, as well as a cultural trauma for a generation of African Americans. Along with Wideman 1997 (cited under Emmett Till Generation), one of the best descriptions of this lasting generational impact.

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  • Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Illustrated by Philippe Lardy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

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    A sequence of fifteen poems forming a heroic crown of sonnets that move powerfully between images of profound emotion and sophisticated allusion. Cast for young adults, these poems suggest that an unfiltered look at the horrors of racism is required before any hope for the future can begin.

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  • Nordan, Lewis. Wolf Whistle. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1993.

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    A masterpiece of magical realism that recasts Till’s lynching as a dark comedy of deep sadness. Nordan focuses on the effects of the lynching on the white community, exploring through shocking juxtapositions of laughter and violence the alienating and destructive nature of racism.

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Literary Scholarship

Because the Emmett Till case has circulated heavily in literary memory, some of the most important scholarship about the case has focused on how the lynching has been depicted in literature. Although much of that scholarship focuses on specific literary works, the items included in this section attempt to take a more comprehensive look at the lynching as it appears in multiple works. Whitfield 1988 and Hudson-Weems 1994 (a revision of a 1988 dissertation) represent the first attempts to take seriously the literary production surrounding the case. Rubin 1995 was the next to follow, combining an analysis of literary works with nonfiction to explore how the meaning of Till’s death differs according to time, context, and genre, emerging as a contested incident in private and public memory. This essay marks the first in-depth analysis of what Rubin calls “The Literary Till,” and it set the stage for much of the work to follow. Metress 2003 and Boudreau 2006 provide examples, with the first essay exploring how Till has emerged in African American literature as a figure who haunts those who have wronged him, while the latter essay focuses on how literary works about the case were instrumental in stirring up public sentiment against racial injustice. Kolin 2009 is the best analysis of the lynching’s legacy in music, surveying works across six decades, while Mark 2008 is a genre-bending essay that makes a moving case for storytelling as a powerful tool for teaching new generations about the trauma of Till’s lynching. Finally, Pollack and Metress 2008 collects eleven essays that attest to the special power and artistic resonance of the murder, exploring how an “Emmett Till narrative,” with recognizable but contested performances, has emerged in post-1955 literature.

  • Boudreau, Kristin. “No Other Remedy: Community Awakening and the Lynching of Emmett Till.” In The Spectacle of Death: Populist Literary Responses to American Capital Cases. By Kristin Boudreau, 129–162. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006.

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    Looks at how early artistic representations of the case operated as literary protests. Excellent focus on the poetry that appeared in newspapers while the case was still national news, as well as how works by Baldwin, Brooks, and Harper Lee fit into the protest tradition.

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  • Hudson-Weems, Clenora. “Artistic Responses.” In Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement. By Clenora Hudson-Weems, 109–130. Troy, NY: Bedford, 1994.

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    Devotes a full chapter to the literary legacy, the first time that legacy received a stand-alone analysis. Looks at works by, among others, Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin.

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  • Kolin, Philip. “Haunting America: Emmett Till in Music and Song.” Southern Cultures 15.3 (Fall 2009): 115–138.

    DOI: 10.1353/scu.0.0072Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The most thorough account of how music and song have shaped our cultural memory of the case, reflecting key shifts in our understanding of racial identity over the past six decades.

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  • Mark, Rebecca. “Mourning Emmett: ‘One Long Expansive Moment.’” Southern Literary Journal 40.2 (Spring 2008): 121–137.

    DOI: 10.1353/slj.0.0009Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Part memoir, part poetry, and part academic essay, a profound and moving reflection on the power of storytelling to recover the pain of the traumatic past, unsettling us in a way that we often resist when approaching traumatic events as objective historians.

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  • Metress, Christopher. “‘No Justice, No Peace’: The Figure of Emmett Till in African American Literature.” MELUS 28.1 (Spring 2003): 87–103.

    DOI: 10.2307/3595247Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines works by Baldwin, Brooks, Lorde, and Campbell to explore how these writers construct a “literary Till” that haunts and unsettles the white community. Suggests that these writers are using the court of literature to provide a justice that could not be found in a court of law.

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  • Pollack, Harriet, and Christopher Metress. Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

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    A collection of eleven essays examining many of the best-known literary works about the lynching, as well as some lesser-known works. Includes an annotated bibliography of more than 140 works that were published between 1994 and 2008.

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  • Rubin, Anne Sarah. “Reflections on the Death of Emmett Till.” Southern Cultures 2 (Fall 1995): 44–66.

    DOI: 10.1353/scu.1995.0000Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A sophisticated analysis of how the Till case circulates in a variety of literary genres, fictional and nonfictional. The first work to uncover how the case’s literary legacy is full of contested meanings, and an excellent starting point for scholars interested in that complex legacy.

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  • Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free Press, 1988.

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    Contains brief discussions of how works by James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison are important resources for understanding the case’s impact. Valuable for its analysis of Morrison’s Dreaming Emmett, a 1985 play that Morrison does not make available to scholars.

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