History is written by the victors—but also by committees and grant agencies, the subject of this excursus into the “ecology of memory.”
Emmett Till, 14 years old, was murdered in August 1955, his body weighted down and sunk in the Tallahatchie River of Mississippi. His crime: allegedly whistling at a white woman. The killing has been presented as ground zero of the civil rights movement ever since, though, as Tell (Communications/Univ. of Kansas) points out, the real work in Mississippi was done through “door-to-door canvassing and the development of local leadership.” Till’s death, with no punishment of the killers, remains a matter contested in memory: How should he be commemorated? Should the store where his transgression occurred be preserved? Tell, the principal investigator of the Emmett Till Memory Project, takes readers through thickets of politics and commemoration, of fact and fiction, and of local communities trying to leverage civil rights histories to which they may not have strong connections. This is an academic book, and the author commits some labored prose to the page, as when he strains to link the Tallahatchie to the Greek river Lethe in “an intimate series of connection among rivers, oblivion, and forgetfulness.” Still, this is also a book likely to displease local chambers of commerce, memorial designers, and others who would weave together stories that were once considered separate and even today are not fully answered. As he writes, for instance, "while the inclusion of Bryant’s Grocery in Till’s story is no longer controversial, questions about what precisely happened in the store remain as all-consuming as they were in 1955.” Controversially, Tell suggests that the paternalism that led to Till’s death is also fully in command of his commemoration nearly 65 years later.
A book with broad application to the study of the civil rights movement but particularly useful for students and practitioners of local history and civic tourism.