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Book review: 'Emmett Till' shares story of 60-year-old case that helped galvanize the civil rights m


September 28, 2015

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EMMETT TILL: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” by Devery S. Anderson,University Press of Mississippi, $40, 552 pages (nf)

When 14-year-old Emmett Till left his Chicago home in 1955 for a summer visit to his Mississippi cousins, he was ill-equipped for the white Southern world into which he stepped. A boyish flirtation with a pretty white woman ended in his brutal slaying that became one of America’s most notorious “cold cases.”

Devery S. Anderson culminates his 20-year fascination with Emmett's death in “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement.” The 552-page book joins the shelf of books on the event with a breadth of research and detail that will likely make it one of the most definitive works on the subject.

Those accused of killing him were acquitted, but Anderson leaves no doubt that Emmett was savagely beaten and shot through the head by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, half-brothers who were enraged by Emmett’s flirtation with Bryant’s wife. It began with a dare from Emmett’s buddies one hot August night in Money, Mississippi, and ended when his body was dumped over a bridge into the Tallahatchie River.

Bryant and Milam confessed to kidnapping Emmett but said they only roughed him up. Their defense was that the body found in the river was not Emmett and the whole thing was cooked up as a hoax by the NAACP. An all-white Mississippi jury bought their story, shocking the nation and sparking protests around the world. White Mississippians seemed puzzled by the fuss over a black boy and recoiled at the spotlight thrown on them. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, was radicalized by her son's death and became a rallying point in the civil rights struggle. In Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks heard about the beating and shooting death at a speech in November. In December 1955, she refused to give up her seat on a bus, which launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first grass-roots effort in the struggle for equality.

The cast of characters in "Emmett Till" is dazzling and sometimes confusing. As can be the case with books of record, this one is weighed down by detail, backed by 146 pages of footnotes and bibliography. Anderson’s fire-hose approach betrays a researcher who can’t hold back any tidbit he discovered. That sometimes breaks the flow of the story.

But within the details is a compelling and disturbing look at a dark time in American history. Even amid all the outrage, there was little real compassion for Emmett in Mississippi, no moving trial summation, ala Atticus Finch, no teary Hollywood justice in the end, just a series of failed attempts in the intervening 60 years to make it right.

This book contains mild sexual references, detailed descriptions and photos of violence and frequent racist language.

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