In Till's Shadow
In 2002, the University of Virginia Press published The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Editor Christopher Metress compiled documents relating to Till's murder, trial and legacy from newspapers, books, memoirs, and literary sources. In his Afterword, reprinted below with permission, Metress explains how Till's senseless death casts a long shadow even today.
At 9:30 P.M. on June 16, 2000, the body of Raynard Johnson, a seventeen-year-old black man, was found hanging from a tree in Kokomo, Mississippi. Although the coroner's report cited no evidence of foul play, and county officials later ruled the hanging a suicide, local blacks were convinced that Johnson had been lynched because of his open relationship with two white girls. According to Johnson's brother, relatives of the two girls were angry about the relationship, and during the two nights preceding Raynard's death the Johnsons had been awakened by the frantic barking of their usually quiet hunting dogs. Moreover, on the night of his death Raynard had been watching a basketball game with his brother and showed no signs of depression. During the game, he told his brother he was going outside to clean out his car. Less than a half hour later, Raynard's father found him hanging from a small pecan tree in the front yard, and looped around his neck was a braided leather belt that no one in the family recognized. According to witnesses, Raynard Johnson's feet were still on the ground, his legs bent slightly at the knees. For the family, these did not look like the signs of suicide.
Frustrated by a lack of official response to their concerns, Maria Johnson, the boy's mother, contacted Jesse Jackson, who promised to lead a "Mississippi March Against Racism and Bigotry" in order to secure national media attention for the case. While having many reasons for wanting to take up the cause, the civil rights leader was particularly struck by the death's historical resonance. According to Jackson, the alleged lynching "had the smell of Emmett Till all around it." And Jackson was not alone in believing this. At a press conference devoted to hate crimes legislation just a month after the killing, Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) observed, "In that part of Mississippi, that particular image of a young black man sends a specific message to a community. While the local coroner has ruled the death a suicide, events surrounding Johnson's death have raised the specter of a racial hate crime reminiscent of Emmett Till." When Jackson led his march from the Marion County courthouse to "the hanging tree" in the Johnsons' front yard, he walked much of the way side by side with Mamie Till Mobley. Standing before a crowd of microphones much as she had done nearly fifty years before, Mrs. Mobley told the more than one thousand marchers that "there has not been one week free of pain" since the death of her own son in the summer of 1955. Lending her support to those in search of justice, Mrs. Mobley proclaimed, "I am here because I need to be here."
In the summer of 2000, the citizens of Kokomo, Mississippi, were standing in the long shadow of Emmett Till. So too were Jesse Jackson and John Conyers. And so too, of course, was Mamie Till Mobley. In many ways, we are all standing there, and this is due in large part to the narratives we have encountered in this anthology. When Jesse Jackson senses the "smell of Emmett Till," when John Conyers feels the young boy's "specter" rising from the waters of remembrance, when the citizens of Kokomo hear the echoes of Till's abductors in the barking dogs outside Raynard Johnson's house, this is possible only because of the many stories that were told about the tragic lynching. It would not be possible to see in Raynard Johnson's hanged body the presence of Emmett Till unless there had been a long narrative tradition that kept alive that presence. Without that tradition, there would be no memory of Emmett Till; his story would have met the fate for which his corpse was intended: oblivion. When Till's body emerged from the depths of the Tallahatchie River after three days in its watery grave, officials in Sumner County, Mississippi, wanted to bury it right away. Mamie Till Bradley wouldn't let them. Instead, she wanted the whole world to see what they had done to her boy. By not allowing her son to be buried immediately beneath the Mississippi soil, and then requesting that his casket be opened for a three-day viewing in Chicago, she forced a nation to make sense of an apparently senseless crime, to pull meaning from the swollen and broken face of a fourteen-year-old boy. This was done primarily through narrative. Not all of these narratives look alike, and certainly not all of them agree on the meaning of Till's murder. But whether we read a news column by Murray Kempton, a magazine article by William Bradford Huie, a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, an essay by John Edgar Wideman, or a story by June Akers Seese, we are witnessing the power of narrative at work, a power that allows us to give shape to the unshapen and through this find the forms that give all stories their meaning. If an unnarrated event is one that can never be understood (or known, for that matter), then this anthology gives us a glimpse into that process of understanding. Emmett Till is known to us today because we have never stopped telling his story, and this is why so many people saw his "specter" hanging from a pecan tree in Kokomo nearly fifty years after Till himself had met his tragic end.
Which leads to one last point. When Emmett Till was lynched, we used all of our narrative abilities to make sense of it. We put our stories to work so as to give his death (and thus his life) some definable meaning. But if the case of Raynard Johnson teaches us one last thing, it is this: the narratives we have told about Emmett Till have begun to shape us as much as we have shaped them. The stories we have told about the lynching have become a lens through which we view race in America. Not every image of racial violence makes sense within the field of that lens. The Los Angeles riots of 1991, for instance, do not recall memories of Emmett Till. Nor do the "million men" who marched on Washington at the end of that decade. But the hanging body of a black boy in Mississippi who had been dating white girls? This does. So too does the violated corpse of an older black man who has been dragged through the streets of a small town in Texas while chained to a pickup truck. So too does the closing argument of an African American attorney who stands before a carefully selected jury in the most infamous race trial of his day and tells them, in words less racially coded but no less racially motivated than the ones used in Sumner, Mississippi, to think not in terms of justice but in terms of heritage and pass a verdict of not guilty in order to "send a message." In fact, what happened on August 28, 1955, in Money, Mississippi has become a template for injustice on an even larger scale. How else would it be possible to say, as one commentator did in the wake of the terrible events of October 1998, that Matthew Shepard had become "the Emmett Till of the hate-crimes movement"?
Because so much narrative energy has gone into understanding Till's death, that narrative has become part of our collective memory. In turn, we have begun to use that narrative to read the present. The event that made so little sense in 1955 has now become a means by which, where possible, we seek to make sense of the present; we can see then how the narratives we form come full circle and begin to form us. The work of memory not only becomes part of our history but it also influences the way we try to understand our history yet to come. In the end, then, Emmett Till is not "there" in the past. He is here in the present. Here because we both need him to be and cannot prevent him from being. When J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant went looking for the "boy who had done the talking," they were hoping to shut him up. Whether they intended to kill him that night is not clear, but if we are to believe Milam's "confession" to William Bradford Huie, young Till wouldn't shut up, and thus he had to be silenced in the most extreme way. But Milam and Bryant couldn't silence James L. Hicks, Langston Hughes, Richard Davidson, James Baldwin, Anne Moody, Julius Thompson, Sam Cornish, Lewis Nordan, John Edgar Wideman, and Bryan Johnson. In their stories, Emmett Till will not be silent, and because of this we now can say for certain that he did not die in vain. How so? Because the boy who had once "done the talking" now shapes the way we talk about ourselves. It may not be the justice that many people wanted in 1955, but it is justice nonetheless.