Emmett Till murder case still raises questions

By Dr. Roger C. Barnes

Special to the LOGOS

Emmett Till, the young 14-year-old black youngster from Chicago who was lynched in the Mississippi Delta in late August 1955, has provided inspiration for photographers, scholars, poets, artists and others for 62 years.

But the case has also raised many questions. For example, exactly who and how many killed Emmett? And, where precisely did the murder take place?

Now, many of the questions we have about the Till case can be reasonably answered, thanks to Devery Anderson, author of “Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” published in 2015. This book is the definitive account of the Till case, a landmark accomplishment.

We can all learn more about Emmett Till, as Devery Anderson will be speaking at UIW, in the Concert Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13. The lecture is for the UIW community and is free and open to the public. A book-signing and reception will follow.

I have always been intrigued by photos about Emmett. Pictures of Emmett range from the innocent (Emmett with his mother) to the horrific (Emmett in his casket).

But, the photos do tell a story. There is the photo of the laughing white, murder defendants. There are the smug lawyers for the defense. There is the grieving mother. There is the cocky racist sheriff. Two photographs, however, leap out at me. One of them was taken during the trial. The other was taken two years ago. What they tell us should make us proud on the one hand and quite distressed on the other.

One photo is the Rev. Mose Wright, Emmett’s great-uncle, standing (standing!) in the witness stand during the trial, pointing his finger at Emmett’s murderers seated about 10 feet away, marking them as the ones who kidnapped Emmett from the Wright house in the middle of the night. Can you imagine what bravery it took a black man in Mississippi in 1955 to do that? Can you imagine yourself in Mose Wright’s situation, knowing you have to do the right thing, but fearing it could easily lead to you being killed?

The other photo is one I took two years ago when former UIW administrator Robert Sosa and I were on one of our many trips into the Mississippi Delta to talk with people about the Till case. This photo shows the sign that marks the spot where Emmett’s naked body, tied to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire, hung up on the banks of the Tallahatchie River. Look closely at the picture and you can see it has been shot by some 50 bullets.

Who shot the sign? One possibility is a bunch of kids who were just out to shoot their guns at anything, and a big, purple sign would do just fine. Who cared what it said? As for me, I don’t buy this interpretation. The other possibility is that it was an intentional act meant to send a message that white violence is still a weapon to further white supremacy. This interpretation I buy.

These two photos, separated by six decades, serve as powerful reminders that an act of public bravery in the face of social hostility is to be honored and remembered, while an act of cowardly violence, cloaked in racism, is still a part of who we are today.

Devery Anderson will no doubt tell us what the Emmett Till story means then and now.

E-mail Barnes, a professor and chair of UIW’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, at barnes@uiwtx.edu

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