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A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till.

A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till.

Stephen J. Whitfield. Free Press, $19.95. Though the circumstances and the victims were worlds apart, the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, like the death of John F. Kennedy eight years later, shocked a generation out of its innocence. Yet for more than 30 years, Till has been relegated to the status of a footnote. Whitfield's book places Till's murder as a crucial, if hidden, event in the history of civil rights.

In August 1955, the 14-year-old Till traveled from Chicago to visit relatives in the Mississippi Delta. Once there, he whistled at, and perhaps propositioned, a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, wife of a local grocery store owner in a town called Money. Shortly after the encounter, Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, apparently dragged Till out of bed, beat him, shot him, and tossed his body into the Tallahatchie River. When the badly mutilated corpse turned up several days later, Till's family identified Bryant and Milam as the men who had kidnapped the boy. They were arrested, brought to trial on kidnapping and murder charges, and speedily acquitted by an all-white jury. Soon after, they sold their story to a Look magazine writer in lurid, lucrative detail, all but confessing to the crime.

Countless blacks have been the victims of vigilante violence in the South; but Till's murder, coming as it did only months after Brown v. Board of Education put Jim Crow under a death sentence, hit blacks especially hard. As white politicians played to southern white hysteria, the Till case suggested how difficult and dangerous it would be to dismantle segregation. This wasn't Klan-style, organized violence but the act of ordinary white folk. And, unlike the 1964 killings in Philadelphia, Mississippi, it wasn't aimed at an agitator or political activist but a teenage boy. The graphic depictions of the crime published in Look and Life and Jet and the daily press reminded blacks just how vicious the reaction to the new climate of Brown could be.

Many who were children or teenagers at the time describe Till's death as the point when they became painfully aware of what it meant to be black, and many went on as a result to swell the civil rights movement. "Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil," recalls one of those activists, Anne Moody. "But now there was a new fear known to me--the fear of being killed just because I was black." Other prominent blacks, from Eldridge Cleaver to Toni Morrison, speak of the influence the case had on them and their work. Muhammed Ali, almost exactly Till's age, recalls the "deep kinship" he felt with the victim. Emmett Till quickly became a watchword of the civil rights movement, a rallying cry. Whitfield's book indicates that, in killing Till, two white southerners only put another nail in the coffin of the very thing they were trying to keep alive.
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Author:Howard, Jennifer
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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