In the 21st century, when young black men see footage of other black men getting shot by cops, the thinking is: ‘that could easily be me.’
In 1955, the image of Emmett Till’s battered body in an open casket sent the same message to young black men across the country. It’s an image that made a deep impression on writer John Edgar Wideman, who was thinking about writing a novel based on the Till case. That changed when he came across the story of Louis Till, Emmett's father, who shared the same fate as his son: being betrayed by the justice system.
It’s the subject of Wideman's new book: "Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File." Wideman joined Boston Public Radio to discuss the book and Till's legacy.
On the case of Emmett Till and his father, Louis
WIDEMAN: Emmett Till was a young man, 14 years old, who had relatives in Mississippi, his mother was from Mississippi. It was summertime. He went down to visit his uncle. Allegedly he ‘bothered'—I think that’s the safest word—a white woman who was a clerk in a store. Her husband and his brother in law went to Louis till’s uncle’s home, kidnapped Till in the middle of the night, at gunpoint, flashlight, took him out. The next time Till’s family found him, [Till's uncle] Mose Wright, saw him in the bottom of a boat, crushed, and beaten, bullet hole in his head, dead two or three days.
Everybody knew who did it, the men who did it bragged at the time. There was later a magazine article in which they confessed for a couple thousand dollars because the trial was over and the thought they were safe. But Emmett till’s mother Mamie decided she wasn’t going to let it happen, wasn’t going to let it pass. She demanded a glass coffin, an open coffin, and thousands of thousands of people in Chicago saw the body. It became a cause celebre. She took to the road as a civil rights advocate. Many people say it’s the beginning of the contemporary civil rights movement.
As a sidebar, everybody knew who did the killing, and our government—the U.S. government—was embarrassed by the killing. It got international publicity. We’re trying to show democracy and superiority to the world to communism. Then a story like this comes out: about race, about segregation, about violence. All the wrong messages to the third world (we didn’t even know it would be called the third world then, but it was.) Anyway, pressure on state of Mississippi [led them to say] 'yes, we’ll have another trial, we’ll indict these tow murderers for kidnapping.' Everybody knew the kidnapping had happened and the evidence was on the minutes of the original trial, but the government leaked Louis Till, the father of Emmett Till’s, private service file, his Army service file. It turns out Louis Till was convicted of rape and murder in Italy in 1945. Once that news hit the circuit, there was no chance the killers would be indicted on kidnapping charges and went scot-free.
On experience seeing the photograph of Till's body for the first time in 1955
WIDEMAN: My aunt Geraldine gave me a Jet magazine in which that picture was displayed. I say I saw it, but to tell the truth I didn’t really see it. I was only 14 years old, a naïve kid, and I could not bear to behold a body, the face of somebody, my color my age, so dead. So battered. I knew it was there, but it was there like something on the periphery, and I swear to goodness it was not until the 1960s that I got that film, that picture, that photo on my TV because I was watching “Eyes on the Prize”…so I was able to freeze frame that old Jet photo and that was the first time I truly looked at it.
On Louis Till's innocence...or guilt
WIDEMAN: I’m not convinced of [Louis Till's] guilt or of his innocence. I know he was a bad dude. I didn’t pick him because he was some sort of wonderful man we ought to all be ashamed of bringing to trial. He was not a martyr. He was just an ordinary human being. He was an American soldier. He was young. He was foolish. He liked to drink, he was a rebel. And he was in the middle of war, and one of the pastimes of war, one of the licenses of war, is rape of women and ultraviolence. You do what the hell you want to do. He was a member of the most powerful army in the world, they’re in Italy, everybody was doing dirt and he did his share too. But it has not been shown to me and this I looked at very closely, I looked at the original trial transcript from 1945, I read everything I could about it. It's still at best circumstantial evidence. But not even that. Clearly, he was the wrong color, wrong place, wrong time.
On how Louis Till's fate impacted his son
WIDEMAN: A jury foreman came back a little more than an hour, I think—64 minutes. He said, 'We would have come sooner, but we stopped for a pop, it was real warm.' You knew what the verdict was going to be. It’s nothing humorous, but it is a kind of black humor…It was a perfect storm, the murder itself and the publicity that it garnered and the history still. Then you had a storm which for me was just as powerful, but it was kind of a burp and nobody heard it. What bothered me when I started to think about Louis Till, the father, was that I had never even considered that Emmett Till had a father, which made me guilty because it meant, when I looked at myself, that I had internalized the very American notion that black kids don’t have fathers—that somehow we are archetypically orphaned... That’s when I began to think of Lois Till’s relationship to Emmett and my relationship to my father. My book 'Writing to Save a Life' is really about fathers and sons.
On his experience writing the book as man whose own brother and son are in prison
WIDEMAN: I address them directly, or as directly as I allowed myself in the book…I’m writing this book as much for myself and my son and my brother and incarcerated people and people incarcerated today as I am for Louis Till. That became clearer and clearer to me. Because what the hell am I going to do about Louis Till? I’m not going to unearth him. His body has been dug up and placed in France...I’m not going to disinter him. We can’t disinter him. We can’t save him. It’s all over. So why am I going back and sort of trying to make sense of all these gruesome details and these horrible situations? Don’t we have enough going on around us today? Well, there’s no disconnect. I think there’s momentum—just the opposite. Faulkner said the past isn’t even gone yet—or something like that.
To hear more from John Edgar Wideman, tune in to Boston Public Radio above. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.