The 1955 murder of the African-American teen Emmett Till by white supremacists in Mississippi remains one of the most evocative symbols of white racist violence in recent US history. The subsequent trials are part of this symbology. The response by the Black community and its allies to the murder and the verdict is often considered to be the beginning of the mid-twentieth century civil rights movement that eventually made de jure segregation illegal in the United States. Even if this is not the case, these events caused millions of white skinned US residents to reconsider the nature of the country they lived in.
In the past three or four years, at least three books have been published exploring the murder of Emmett Till. The most recent of these is titled Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till by Loyola history professor and author Elliott J. Gorn. Gorn, who is a Chicago native (as was Till), provides a precise, well-researched and comprehensive look at the case. In doing so, he evokes the nature of Mississippi’s white supremacist society and its acceptance by the rest of the country. His portraits of the murderers is equal to the depictions he provides of Till and his family. Gorn’s details of the sequence of events leading to the murder, the murder itself and the subsequent trials are layered with historical and social context. The reader not only gets to know the biographies of Till, his mother and other African-Americans who played a role in the story, they also hear the life histories of the murderers and the men who defended and prosecuted them.
It wasn’t but a couple decades ago that I might have written that the reader would find it hard to imagine the depth of the hatred many white Americans had towards their Black neighbors. Furthermore, it would require considerably more effort for me to convince many US residents that the system of justice in the United States was racist and that white murderers of unarmed residents (usually African-American) would never be convicted for a murder they admitted committing. It is quite telling and all too tragic that this is no longer the case. The vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his murderer is but one example of the recent murders of young Black men by white men, many who were police officers. In almost every one of these recent killings, the perpetrator faced little or no punishment. Indeed, it is the rare instance that one of these killers is even charged, much less convicted.
This reality is not just a national disgrace. It is evidence of a resurgence of the mainstreaming of white supremacist thought. Led by the current president and numerous other rightwing politicians, this resurgence has not only made it okay to be outwardly racist in the USA, it has allowed the intrinsically racist nature of the justice system to undergo a retrenchment. This retrenchment means that judicial decisions where racism is involved are often left unexamined by the very agencies the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s created to monitor such decisions. At least when Till was murdered in the 1950s, white supremacy had no such mechanisms, thereby allowing itself an excuse for it’s failures. Of course, that excuse existed because of white supremacy and its complete domination of the US political system.
Let the People See begins with a history of Emmett Till’s family up to the point of Emmett’s departure from Chicago in 1955 to spend the summer with his relatives in Mississippi. The text continues, discussing Till’s time in Mississippi before the murder, the murder, the arrests and trial of the perpetrators and the aftermath. One is presented with details of the movement seeking justice for Till’s survivors and the attacks on that movement by southern newspapers and politicians. In a chapter discussing how the murder of Emmett Till was remembered after the events faded into history, Gorn writes: “The logic of white supremacy meant that even against their better judgement, the good people (of white society) must close ranks with the peckerwoods.” (251) In other words, just like today’s police unions come up with dozens of reasons unarmed Black men deserve to be shot and killed by cops, the citizens councils came up with reasons Till deserved to die. Just like the mainstream media spreads lies about almost every black youth killed by police, the news media spread lies about Emmett Till. Gorn argues, correctly I might add, that both sets of lies play on the white supremacist fear of Black sexual prowess and a white racist obsession with some perceived racial purity they feel is their duty to maintain.
The story of Emmett Till is a reminder of how bad things used to be for African-Americans. It is also a reminder of how bad they still are. Elliott Gorn’s text provides Till and his family with considerably more justice than the courts in Mississippi did in the mid-1950s. Given the nature of the topic, Let the People See cannot help but be evocative and emotional, despite the author’s even-handed and judicious presentation. It is clear that Gorn’s sympathies lie with Till and his family and supporters. However, this text is not an exercise in partisanship or finger-pointing. It is, however, part of a seemingly neverending search for justice.