Those who've studied racism, civil rights and the Deep South have likely heard of Emmett Till. In 1955, the African-American teenager was abducted and killed while visiting a small town in Mississippi. A new book, called Remembering Emmett Till, explores the way in which the tragic story is commemorated. Commentator Rex Buchanan has this review.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.
Learn more about Dave Tell's new book, Remembering Emmett Till (University of Chicago Press, 2019).
A few months ago, my wife and I were driving through the Mississippi Delta, on the way to New Orleans, when we made a stop at one of south’s historic intersections. It was in the tiny town of Money, Mississippi, only a crossroads, really. The site of Bryant’s Grocery.
This is where, in 1955, a fourteen-year-old African-American named Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago, spoke to, or maybe whistled at, a female clerk. Their encounter was perceived by locals as disrespectful. Till was abducted, then killed, his body found three days later in the nearby Tallahatchie River. An open-casket funeral back in Chicago sparked a nationwide reaction to lynching and racism, fueling the civil rights movement.
Two men were tried for Till’s murder. They were acquitted by an all-white jury in 67 minutes. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” one juror said afterward, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.” A year later, the two men admitted to the murder. And the woman who accused Till of bothering her said that at least parts of her trial testimony were false.
This new book doesn’t retell that story. Instead, it focuses on the way that we remember it. Tell describes sites related to the murder that have been preserved and the places that haven’t, the way the Till story has been changed over time, the uncertainty about where things happened, including exactly where Till was murdered, and how those uncertainties played into the subsequent trial and the museums, signage, and other remembrances of his death.
Tell sets all this in the landscape of the Delta, where, he says, “. . . the rivers, soils, hills, judicial districts, sidewalks, playground, county lines, courthouses, and service stations . . . have become agents of racism and memory at the same time.”
We saw Bryant’s grocery store on a warm, humid spring morning. Nobody else was around, except for a few state workers patching the nearby blacktop. The store was a ruin, tumbling down, covered with vegetation, surrounded by yellow police tape. It felt almost haunted, perhaps more moving because it was falling apart. In front was a commemorative sign, one that had been vandalized at least twice over the years.
Just a few weeks ago, another sign, one that marks the sport where Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie, made headlines. A photo showed up on social media showing three men holding guns, standing in front of the bullet-ridden sign. The same sign had been shot up, and replaced, before. Perhaps, writes Tell, “the very defacement of the sign enlarges its commemorative power.”
As we headed south that morning, I thought of a quote from another Southerner. William Faulkner. He once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”