- Reviewed by
The brutal lynching of Emmett Till in August 1955 is a signpost for civil rights participants and scholars. His murder, and especially the brave decision by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to keep Till’s casket open during the funeral (and to allow for the subsequent publication of images of Till’s mutilated body in the casket) resonated with activists young and old and motivated many to dedicate their lives to social justice work.
Darryl Mace’s In Remembrance of Emmett Till is not interested in Till the person but instead investigates the way Till’s murder and the subsequent coverage of the lynching, funeral, and trial played out in regional media. Mace argues that “the regional press strategically highlighted aspects of the Till saga that best helped frame their regional perspective on American race relations” (p. 2). Mace grounds his argument in what he calls situational regionalism or “a response to people’s views of the place in which they lived and how their locale compared to the rest of the nation” (p. 2). Using mainstream newspapers with the highest circulations, Mace traces the media coverage from the discovery of Till’s body in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, to his Chicago home going, through the Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam trial, and ending with Till as memory and memorial. The newspapers provide the source base and Mace analyzes the stories and coverage for “regionally engendered racial messages” (p. 6). However, the choice of newspapers consulted is problematic, as Mace mixes daily and weekly publications and local and national newspapers to tell his story. While he claims that the large white and black papers took on distinct regional identities throughout the “Till saga,” as he calls it, he does not do enough work to prove such a supposition.
Throughout the book, Mace remains stoically removed from the drama unfolding in his evidence. Mace’s best chapters are the last two, [End Page 280] which analyze the effects of Till’s murder on his own generation. Still, Mace does little to contextualize those responses outside the print media he interrogates. Moreover, Mace admits in the introduction that not “all Americans who lived in the 1950s based their interpretations of Emmett Till on the coverage in their local papers” (p. 4), while also compelling the reader to buy into his notion that to understand the “Till saga,” one must do so through the print media because the 1950s were the highpoint for per capita circulation (pp. 6–7). The book would have done well to consult some of those Americans living in 1955 and discuss the role of media in their lives. It would have also been helped by a deeper interrogation of the secondary literature on Till, the civil rights and Black Power movements, and Cold War America.
In Remembrance of Emmett Till is most frustrating because it does not seem to view Till as a real person, who lived and breathed and died, horrifically, at the hands of white men. Till, the person, becomes background noise in his own story. Emmett Till’s life and death are too important to the development of modern American race relations and, this reviewer would argue, American society to be subsumed into a discussion of situational regionalism and newspaper circulation.
AMANDA L. HIGGINS is the associate editor of the Register and coordinator of the Kentucky Historical Society’s scholarly research fellowship program. Her dissertation explored the intersections of the antiwar and Black Power movements.