- Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement by Devery S. Anderson
Emmett Till scholar Christopher Metress declared, “No one knows more about this brutal murder and its contested legacy than Devery Anderson” (back-cover blurb). I agree. Anderson spent “over a decade of research” writing what is inarguably the definitive history of this fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago who was kidnapped, tortured, and then murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 because he flirted with a white woman, twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant, in her husband’s grocery store. As a result, her enraged husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W Milam, pistol-whipped Till’s face, shot him in the head, tied his body to a seventy-five-pound cotton-gin fan, and threw it in the Tallahatchie River where it was found three days later. Equally shocking, the killers confessed their crimes to local authorities and were acquitted in two trials (for murder and a few weeks later for kidnapping) and bragged about their crimes in an article in Look magazine, further fueling the firestorm against civil rights atrocities in Mississippi.
Released on the sixtieth anniversary of Till’s death, Anderson’s magisterial history is rooted in his exhaustive archival research through newspapers, letters, minutes of meetings, FBI records, and the hard-to-locate 354-page murder trial transcript. Traveling frequently to the Delta and Chicago from his home in Salt Lake City, Anderson also interviewed Till’s mother Mamie numerous times between 1994 and 2003; Till’s great uncle, “Preacher” Moses Wright; cousins Wheeler Parker and Simeon Wright (the latter shared a bed with Till the night he was abducted); the district and defense attorneys; reporters covering the trials; townspeople; a host [End Page 171] of NAACP leaders, especially Roy Wilkins; and prominent Mississippi civil-rights activists, including Dr. T. R. M. Howard. Anderson’s impressive research is documented in 102 pages of endnotes, totaling more than 1,600 citations. Also included are fifty striking photographs of people and places from the 1950s through the 2000s that figure prominently in Till’s tragedy.
Anderson deserves high marks for historical objectivity. He identifies, confronts, and impartially resolves many of the controversies swirling around Till’s murder. Such discrepancies, Anderson admits, are inevitable because individuals change their original testimony over time, contradict themselves, or forget events. There is always the possibility of “multiple accounts of an incident by the same individual, or equally valid accounts by multiple people who experienced the same thing” (Preface xviii). Inescapably, too, individuals have fabricated evidence, e.g., the bigoted Tallahatchie County Sheriff H. C. Strider. Summing up the principle guiding his rigorous research, Anderson states: “If I dispute something said by someone decades after the fact, I am usually agreeing with something that same person said in 1955” (xviii). The controversies in the Till case are glaring and persistent—about what he said to Carolyn Bryant inside the store and why; how Roy Bryant found out about it; what exactly happened the night Till was kidnapped; how many individuals were involved in the “kidnapping party”; what transpired between the time Till was kidnapped and later seen the next morning; why Till was taken across county lines to be tortured; and where he was killed. Not only does Anderson investigate all sides of these and other controversies, but he helpfully recaps the evidence that brought him to these conclusions in a concise Appendix.
Unquestionably, Emmett Till continues to be at the center of racial trauma in America. The legacy of his terror is indelible. Haunted by what happened decades ago, Wheeler Parker said of his cousin’s death that “[i]t’s always on your mind. . . . It’s something that just won’t go away” (263). Ironically, Anderson initially entitled his history The Boy Who Never Died. In his Foreword, Julian Bond, echoing Parker, writes that Till’s fate was “the touchstone narrative of my generation.” Little wonder that Anderson writes...