Southern Cultures 4.4 (2003) 99-103
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The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative Edited by Christopher Metress University of Virginia Press, 2002 360 pp. Cloth $59.50, paper $18.95
Born near Chicago in 1941, Emmett Till was murdered in the Mississippi Delta on August 28, 1955, and became the best-known victim of racial violence in American history. Visiting relatives shortly before he would have become an eighth grader, Till entered a store in Leflore County and as a prank behaved suggestively toward Carolyn Bryant, the 21-year-old wife of the absent owner. Because of the breach of racial etiquette, Carolyn's husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, abducted Till from the home of his great-uncle, Moses Wright, pistol-whipped "the Chicago boy," murdered him, and then dumped the corpse into the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and Milam were prosecuted about a month later; but, despite forthright testimony by the victim's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, a jury of twelve white men acquitted them in late September, 1955. Protected by the Bill of Rights, which prohibits double jeopardy, the half-brothers soon recounted their crime to an Alabama journalist, William Bradford Huie, whose articles in Look Magazine in 1956 and 1957 were expanded into a pulp paperback, Wolf Whistle (1959), which kept the shocks reverberating.
Huie's journalism is thrice denounced as "infamous" by Christopher Metress, who nevertheless performs a very useful service in reprinting the Look pieces in his anthology The Lynching of Emmett Till. The fate of Wolf Whistle exemplifies the common paradox that historian Daniel Boorstin has noticed: the past ubiquity of a book is often directly proportional to its inaccessibility in the present. In 1959 Huie's cheap paperback could be picked up on virtually any drugstore rack in America. But try finding Wolf Whistle now in a public or academic library, or even on the web. The rescue of Huie's reportage accordingly is one of Metress's [End Page 99] achievements; and this documentary collection offers a very rich sample of newspaper accounts, memoirs, poems and song lyrics that a hideous crime inspired. If nothing else, The Lynching of Emmett Till reveals how intense and massive was the reaction to this case, unmatched by any of the other five thousand lynchings that have disgraced the nation's—and especially the region's—past. Nor has interest in Till's murder diminished since 1955. Two documentary films were released earlier this year, and a posthumous memoir by Till's mother is being published as well.
A professor of English at Samford University in Birmingham, Metress merits praise for an editorial enterprise designed to ensure that this crime will continue to sear the conscience. Especially useful is the reprinting of articles from the Jackson Daily News and other Mississippi newspapers, which quoted extensively from the court testimony of Carolyn Bryant. Because the verdict was not appealed, no transcript of the trial needed to be preserved, and none has ever surfaced. Metress has also discovered an impassioned 1955 lyric by Langston Hughes that is published here for the first time. An anthology like this one nevertheless makes irresistible the temptation to scold the editor for omissions. To be sure, no excerpt from Dreaming Emmett (1986) could be reprinted, because Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is reported to have destroyed all the copies of her only play. But why ignore historian Ruth Feldstein's shrewd analysis of Mamie Till [End Page 100] [Begin Page 103] Bradley's relationship to the ideal of maternity in the 1950s? Why neglect the feminist revisionism of Susan Brownmiller, who condemned the sexual threat of a wolf-whistle and seemed to hint that it was an offense to die for? Why include a brief recollection by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but omit the most decisive impact that the murder had upon Muhammad Ali?
This volume is also bloated, and is repetitive enough to reveal one reporter—Roi Ottley of the Chicago Defender—plagiarizing from another—Murray Kempton of the New York Post. Alongside authentic testimony are...