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  • From Money to Montgomery:Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, and the Freedom Movement, 1955-2005
  • Davis W. Houck (bio)

This is indeed a special issue of Rhetoric & Public Affairs. The year 2005 marks the 50-year anniversary of two epochal moments in America's long and painful civil rights history: the murder of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks's refusal to surrender her seat and move to the back of the bus. As many have noted, they are not unrelated events: 94 days after the 14-year-old Chicago boy was tortured and dumped into the Tallahatchie River, Rosa Parks claimed to be thinking of Emmett Till as she awaited her arrest on a Montgomery city bus. Only three months and 300 miles separated these two unwitting victims of Jim Crow's savage and demeaning ways. One became a martyr, the other a heroine. One transformed a working single mother into a civil rights advocate, the other created a leadership opportunity for a young black Baptist minister. Without Emmett Till or Rosa Parks, the moral warrants of the civil rights movement must perhaps have waited for Little Rock or Greensboro. Maybe longer. Something about Till and Parks enabled a nascent movement to move.

Each of the essays in this special issue addresses that "something." Each offers answers why, 50 years later, the events in Money, Mississippi, and Montgomery, Alabama, continue to move us.

Readers of Rhetoric & Public Affairs may not be familiar with at least two of the authors whose work is published in this issue. Steve Whitaker grew up in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. He was the same age as Emmett Till when the nation seemed to invade his hometown. His stepfather was a local sheriff. Whitaker and his family knew personally most of the principals involved in the case—jurors, lawyers, law enforcement officials, and even the murderers. Later, as a 21-year-old Master's student at Florida State, Whitaker learned firsthand that the magic elixir of Jack Daniels combined with a bit of "local boy makes good" could get reluctant local whites to talk about the case. Much of his intrepid detective work is printed here—42 years later. In its cultivation of primary sources, it stands without peer in an ever-growing literature. [End Page 175]

Paul Hendrickson might be a more familiar name. His most recent book, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy, has won several awards, most notably the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. His fascinating and moving narrative begins with a 1962 photograph of seven Mississippi sheriffs that appeared in Life magazine. But at every turn in his travels across the South, Hendrickson finds that a common racial thread bonds white Mississippians generally and the seven sheriffs specifically: Emmett Till. A journalist for the Washington Post for nearly 25 years, Hendrickson's features on race and our collective racial inheritance give voice to a past that continues to play out in the present. He is one of the most talented writers we've ever read.

The balance of our special issue features some of our best young critics. Christine Harold and Kevin DeLuca read the body of Emmett Till. The famous postmortem photograph that ran in black newspapers and magazines across the country catalyzed many for a career in civil rights. The imperiled and abject body would also serve as a harbinger of civil rights protest to come. The body of Emmett Till also figures prominently in my essay, "Killing Emmett," which maps the discursive terrain of many Mississippi newspapers in the aftermath of the Till murder. Perhaps not surprisingly, themes of race, gender, class, and sexuality achieved a fitting culmination in a not-guilty verdict. Moving south and east to Montgomery, Kirt H. Wilson reveals the fascinating dynamics behind Martin Luther King's December 5, 1955, Holt Street address. Given a stage by Parks's arrest, Wilson plots a complex discursive field that King reads and interprets in this most consequential "coming out" address. Jeff Kurtz concludes the issue with a review essay that highlights recent scholarship on King, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and Emmett Till.

In working to make this issue "special," each of us realizes that...


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pp. 175-176
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