Emmett Till was a 14 year old African American from Chicago who in August, 1955, was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta. Till and some companions visited a small grocery story where Till flirted with and whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who was working behind the candy counter and who owned the store with her husband. Three days after the incident Till was kidnapped, tortured brutally, and killed. His mutilated body surfaced in the Tallahatchie Rive tied to a heavy cotton gin. Two men were tried for the murder, Roy Bryant, Carolyn's husband, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam. Following a five day trial which received broad national and international press coverage, a jury consisting of 12 white men acquitted Bryant and Milam after deliberating for slightly more than one hour. The murder and the acquittal provoked widespread condemnation. Over the years, the Till murder and trial have continued to receive attention, particularly since the 30th anniversary of the events in 1985. There have been books, documentary films, a follow-up FBI investigation in 2004-2005, and many commemorative activities.
Devery Anderson's book "Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement" (2015) is a detailed, carefully documented, and thorough study of the Till murder and its subsequent history. The book shows a command of the extensive source material together with thought and judgment. With its scholarship and objectivity, the book is also highly personal and moving. Anderson became fascinated with the Till murder as a result of taking a college course on the Civil Rights Movement. He devoted over a decade to researching this book, and interviewed many people, including Till's mother, in Chicago, Mississippi, and elsewhere. The book takes account of the information currently available about Till, including the recent confession by Carolyn Bryant Donham that her story of her interaction with Till was in large part fabricated. Anderson's book will likely be the standard work on Till for years to come.
The book is in two large, interrelated parts. The first and longer part, "In Black and White" consists of ten chapters beginning with Till's early life in Chicago and his relationship to his mother. The book covers Till's brief stay in the Delta and his murder. It includes three extensive, carefully documented chapters about the trial, acquittal, and subsequent grand jury proceeding. Anderson covers the protests and political activity that resulted in the wake of the trial In 1956, the two accused men, Bryant and Milam gave an interview to Look magazine which makes abundantly clear that they had killed Till and which shows no remorse for their actions. Anderson studies this interview at length. In the final chapter of part 1, Anderson examines the subsequent lives of many participants in the Till trial, including Till's mother, his family, the jurors and attorneys, the killers, and their accomplices.
Anderson discusses how the Till murder received reduced attention from the late 1950s through about 1985. During these years the Civil Rights Movement, which received impetus from Till's murder, was a central part of American life while Till was largely forgotten. Anderson documents the revival of interest in Till, first through popular songs, poems and novels and then in more extensive books and documentaries. Thus his book combines a study of Till's murder with a study of the historiography that developed around it. As a result of extended effort, the FBI reopened an investigation into the 50 year old case in 2004. This investigation produced important results. The transcript of the Till trial was discovered after it had been presumed lost, Till's body was exhumed and positively identified using modern forensic techniques, and witnesses were interviewed. The information was turned over to the State of Mississippi and the local district attorney sought an indictment for manslaughter against Carol Bryant Donham. The grand jury, this time consisting of a pool of both black and white and men and women unanimously declined to indict her. Other possible defendants and accomplices had died. In the final chapter of the book, Anderson discusses the many commemorations of the life of Emmitt Till that have occurred in recent years in the Delta, Chicago, and elsewhere.
The two broad sections of the book are interrelated in that Anderson uses the findings the FBI made available in 2004-05, particularly the transcript of the original 1955 trial in telling the story in the first section of his book. The discussion of the murder and the trial thus uses contemporary sources as well as recent findings. The book is a thoroughly researched and valuable work of scholarship. In the final section of the book Anderson gives his own view of the murder and the participants (Bryant and Milam had several helpers both white and black). It is a short summary of the historical information presented throughout the book and of Anderson's assessments and conclusions.
This book is moving and sad. It combines scholarship with feeling, both the author's own commitment to a study that has been a large part of his life and the tragedy of Till's murder. In addition to learning a great deal, I found the book deeply moving. Anderson has written an outstanding book about Till and about American civil rights. This book is long and detailed and convincing It will teach and move its readers.
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