The murder of young Emmett Till in 1955 stands today as a byword for racist injustice. How it became so is the subject of this well-conceived work of social history.
Gorn (Chair, American Urban History/Loyola Univ. Chicago; Dillinger’s Wild Ride: The Year That Made America’s Public Enemy Number One, 2009, etc.) begins his account with the end of Till’s life—that is, with the gruesome murder in which the young black man was mutilated and tossed into a Mississippi river, his body weighted down with a part from a cotton gin. “We could tell by looking at it that it was a colored person,” said a white farmer who recovered the body. Infamously, Till, visiting from Chicago, was killed for supposedly flirting with a white woman. It was one of countless lynchings, made public in good measure because Till’s mother demanded an open casket, saying, “let the people see what they did to my boy.” The woman’s husband was implicated in a tale of justice and injustice that Gorn examines from many angles: the conduct of the investigation; the reverberations of the Till case in the civil rights movement that was then gathering force, especially as reported by the black press; and, today, how the memory of the Till case is presented in history books, museum exhibits, and the like. As the author documents, the proceedings made a textbook example of Southern apartheid, with a sheriff on the stand lying (he maintained that the body was black because it was sunburned, for instance) and with white supremacists defiantly proclaiming that Till was to be just the first of countless victims. Combing archives and libraries, Gorn assembles a solid case study in how an isolated legal case spread nationally and internationally—and in how, today, the once-exultant supremacist claim that no white would ever go to jail for killing a black person in Mississippi has since been disproven, though racism is far from disappearing.
A timely contribution to the literature of civil rights.