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Brutal, honest, and thorough account of the facts behind the torture and lynching of a 13-year-old boy
on January 3, 2015
An excellent retelling of an event that changed the course of American history.
There have been thousands of people lynched in the United States over the past centuries. Not all of them are remembered. Not all the victims have names. We have let them slide into obscurity, even though at the time there were photographs, newspaper articles, journals, and even post cards celebrating these deaths.
Emmet Till was a young boy, barely a teenager, who was living in Mississippi in the early 50s, sent there from Chicago to be "safe." While there he made the mistake of breaking one of the many rules that Negroes (the term used in the 50s for African Americans) had to follow in order to be slightly more safe from violence done by whites.
He was tortured and lynched by a gang of white men (yes, grown adults attacking a young boy); his body was then chained to an industrial fan and thrown into the river. He was found and his family held a funeral for this boy who had done nothing more serious than be full of life.
What made the difference was a combination of things. His funeral was open casket. The photographs of his tortured body were printed in many newspapers and magazines. And finally America had enough of open season on African Americans. This was, I think, a seminal moment in the civil rights movement: the awareness that there were these people among us, Americans living in America, who were cruelly treated, marginalized, and silenced; this book recounts the moment when the story broke free to the larger public mind.
There was a trial (an all-white jury, defense team, and judge), and the accused were found NOT guilty; later, these same men confessed they had done it to a magazine, afforded protection from prosecution by the constitutional guarantees of no double jeopardy.
But in the larger trial by the American public, the men were guilty, and there was a a sea change. Lynching was brought to light in the minds of the American public. Lynching was no longer something that could be done with public approval. Its victims were no longer nameless and faceless.
The story is told by means of newspaper and magazine clippings. There is a narrative stringing it together, but it is mostly direct quotes from the contemporary accounts.
It is very well told.