The Lynching of Emmett Till brings together primary and secondary sources regarding the discovery of evidence, the trail, the immediate post trial reactions, and also the memoirs and literature written about the torture and killing of a fourteen year old boy named Emmett Till in 1955. The book also raises important questions for historians regarding the use of sources and historical interpretation.
Metress makes an interesting point at the start of the book that affects the way the reader reads the rest of the book. He tells the story about how he read an account that Till was not shot and did not believe it because there was no corroborating evidence. However, then later on he heard somebody else say the same thing. He uses this to say that we cannot disconnect memory from history. He uses this to show that historical interpretation is inherently flawed because both the sources and the historians are flawed based on their imperfect memory and agenda.
I agree that life is very complicated, people have their own agenda, memory is flawed, and it is good to include more people to do history not just professionals. However, Metress goes too far by implying that there should be no history interpretations just primary sources. Historians should feel safe to make value judgments to the best of their ability knowing that it will never be 100% accurate and the interpretation can change. However, they should not just give up and just use primary sources because then other people are just going to be doing the interpreting not the historians or there will not be any interpretation at all. Historians can offer valuable insights into the historical context of individual events. I thought the American Experience documentary on Till did a very good job of this by showing that the Governor of Mississippi named Eastland was arguing against desegregating schools at this time. He said if blacks can be in schools they will eventually take over the Southern way of life. This gives some reasoning behind the extreme overreaction of Milam and Bryant in their punishment of Till for wolf whistling at Bryant’s wife, which is not seen in the mainly newspaper accounts included in Metress’s book.
Beauchamp’s The Untold Story of Emmett Till was about the same events and included most of the same people but told in a different manner. It was much longer and, as the title suggests, it had more of an agenda to uncover this and other civil rights cold cases. This is seen by the ending seen showing politicians in New York applauding the family of Till and saying more should be done to bring these guilty people in the past to justice. It was also interesting that the American Experience was shorter to accommodate a regular hour long TV slot. It seemed like more of a summary of the events.
Metress’s exploration of the newspaper accounts is striking because after a while the accounts become so predictable. It’s like the reader knows the interpretation of the Southern Whites is going to be racist like the account of a southern news reporter who said the trial was using Congo tribal tactics.[Metress 41] This should make historians reflect on their own biases and try to avoid them. It also shows that historians should try to come up with new interpretations of the past so they are not just falling into the old traditional formulas that maybe totally wrong.
It is also surprising how contradictory newspaper accounts can be like one account had Moses Wright saying that he could only see a bald head when the white men took Till. However, another account said he recognized Milam by his bald head. This shows that historians need to inspect sources carefully before relying on them to base their interpretations on. [Metress 70-74]
Metress makes a better point in his concluding chapter by showing how these newspaper and literature accounts of the Till murder were affected by the racial attitudes of the time but they also shape our current racial attitudes in the present. This was almost the exact same point Wexler made in her book, Fire in A Canebrake. The author makes a good point by saying a hanging in 2000 reminded Jesse Jackson of the Till case. A Northern journalist in Cleveland also made a similar point to Wexler that racism in the south was a blind spot that inhibited white southerners from facing the truth.[Metress 112]
The Lynching of Emmett Till also has some interesting connections with James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro, a book about the trial nine African-American boys accused of raping a white girl on a train. Both books exemplify how the south idealized women and their racial attitudes made them think that black men were constantly trying to have sex with white women. The book shows how the defense attorney tried to get the jurors on his side by having Mrs. Bryant testify to the sexual advances that Till made towards her in her convenience store. The judge realized he was just trying to incite the juror’s racial passions so dismissed the jury for this part of the testimony. The fact that the jurors did not convict Milam and Bryant when there was pretty clear evidence against them shows how Southerners felt like they needed to protect their woman against blacks. This is just like the white people’s believing Victoria Price’s story even though it was full of holes in the Scottsboro case against nineblack boys.
A stark difference between these two books was the attitudes towards communism before and after World War II. In the Scottsboro case the Communist party helped defend the black boys and was a major influence in making this case so popular. Many people joined them to defend the boys even if they did not believe in the Communist ideology. However in the Till case there are many accounts of Southern reporters of accusing local blacks and the NAACP of planting a body in the Tallahatchie river with Tills ring on it to advance their aims at dividing the North and South. The news reports said that this was advancing the Communist propaganda against the USA. Unlike before, there were few positive news accounts in the North about Communism except from the Communist newspapers themselves.
The media coverage off the Till case was also a stark contrast to the Moore’s Ford Lynching. It showed the value of Tills mother in letting her son’s corpse be shown to the world because that garnered a lot of attention. However, people had different reactions to this attention. Northern newspapers tended to focus on the racism in the south while southern newspapers tended to see northerners as outsiders and hypocrites that were not paying attention to the troubles in their own northern cities.
Warning: Graphic Photograph below