For decades, if not centuries, Americans have persisted in the belief that the South is separate and distinct from the rest of the country. It’s commonly held that the politics that have governed the region, the atrocities that have happened there and the inadequate responses to those atrocities belong to the South and the South alone. But the widespread racism that allowed Emmett Till’s killers to escape accountability is one of many reasons we can dismiss such a belief as fantastical.
Americans have persisted in the belief that the South is separate and distinct from the rest of the country.
In the summer of 1955, Till, 14, a Black resident of Chicago, was visiting his mother’s people in the Mississippi Delta. He was kidnapped, tortured and killed by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two white men, who accused him of being sassy with Bryant’s wife in a country grocery store. The brothers threw his body into the Tallahatchie River, apparently in the hope that it would never surface.
But it did surface, and when it did, people across the country and around the world were forced to acknowledge the horrible fate that could befall a Black child in the U.S.
Yes, the whole U.S. The Mississippi justice system failed when it acquitted the men who would later boast about killing him. But the U.S. — specifically the military — played its part when it created the awful impression that Till was genetically predisposed to hurt women.
The Justice Department on Monday closed a recent investigation into Till’s lynching without charging anyone. Because it was even harder in the 1950s and the 1960s to convict white people who murder Black people, the Justice Department has a cold case division that has occasionally brought some measure of justice to killers who faced juries fundamentally opposed to conviction. But in the case of Till’s murderers, someone with access to military files made it even less likely that his killers would be punished. While they were on trial on kidnapping and murder charges, someone leaked a confidential military file to the press indicating that Till’s father, Louis Till, a U.S. soldier in Italy during World War II, was hanged by the Army in 1945 for rape and murder.
Which isn’t necessarily proof that Private Louis Till was guilty.
The Army hanged a disproportionately high number of Black servicemen on accusations of sexual misconduct, so disproportionately high that we have every reason to suspect that racist stereotypes about Black men were driving the numbers the same way those stereotypes resulted in so many Black bodies swinging from tree limbs. John Edgar Wideman, who reveals exculpatory evidence that casts serious doubt on Louis Till’s guilt in his 2016 book, “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” visited a section of a French cemetery reserved for executed U.S. servicemen as he researched that book. He found that 83 of the 96 who had been executed were Black.
It was even harder in the 1950s and the 1960s to convict white people who murder Black people.
The U.S. Army War College had previously published a report finding that Negro soldiers were “unmoral and untruthful” in addition to being “careless, shiftless, irresponsible and secretive." We can connect that racist belief with the result: Black soldiers, who were no more than 10 percent of soldiers during World War II, accounted for 86 percent of those the Army deemed deserving of execution.
We should view the War College’s report and the execution of the elder Till as proof that the U.S. military believed as strongly as the state of Mississippi did that Black men were inherently criminal. But the release of the father’s file destroyed any chance that Emmett Till’s killers would be convicted of kidnapping. They lived out their days as unrepentant and unpunished murderers.
That’s why the Justice Department’s announcement in 2018 that it had reopened the Till case didn’t cause any excitement. What was the point of reopening the case in 2018 when Bryant and Milam were long dead? According to a memo the Justice Department sent to Congress, the “Till case has been re-opened by DOJ based upon the discovery of new information.” The only publicly known new information had come from historian Timothy Tyson, who, in his book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” quotes the star witness in the case as disavowing her testimony. Carolyn Bryant Donham had testified that Till grabbed her around her waist and rudely propositioned her, but according to Tyson, she told him in an interview: "That part's not true. You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true."
Upon publication of Tyson’s book, Donham denied having made such a confession. Tyson maintains that she did.
The Justice Department said in a memo Monday that it was impossible to prove that the woman at the center of the country’s most infamous lynching had ever lied to investigators. From that memo: “What is clear from all accounts is that [Donham] suffered no physical harm and that Till’s conduct was likely perceived by many in the white community to violate their unwritten code, prevalent in the Jim Crow South, that Black men were forbidden from initiating interactions with white women.”
The Justice Department memo’s attempt to explain that there were unwritten codes in the South complements a common explanation of Till’s interaction with Donham in that store. According to that explanation, because Till grew up in Chicago and not Mississippi, he didn’t know the rules dictated by segregation. And thus, such speculation goes, Till blithely interacted with a white woman without sufficient caution.
But Chicago was (and still is) segregated! And Tyson is spot-on when he writes in “The Blood of Emmett Till” that “it defies the imagination that a fourteen-year-old from 1950s Chicago could really be ignorant of the consequences of the color of his skin.” He knew segregation and the machinery dedicated to enforcing it because he was a Black person raised in the U.S.
Though the Justice Department blames the South for Till’s death, we shouldn’t accept its attempt to dismiss the South as some other country.
Though the Justice Department blames Donham and the South for Till’s death, we shouldn’t accept its attempt to dismiss the South as some other country. As was indicated by the Army report labeling Black men as inherently immoral and as was indicated by the outrageously disproportionate number of Black servicemen executed for rape, the stereotypes about Black men weren’t endemic to any particular region. The Army put the boy’s father to death despite exculpatory evidence. And that information was then put to nefarious use, making the acquittal of his son’s killers even more likely than it already was.
No, the Emmett Till lynching isn’t just a Southern story or a summer 1955 story. It’s a multigenerational and wholly American tragedy, for which no has ever been (or ever will be) made to account.