"No Justice, No Peace": The Figure of Emmett till in African American Literature

Article excerpt

I take the first part of my title from the now-familiar cry of those who perceive the American judicial system to be hostile to their rights and concerns. In mm, the second part of my title alludes to one of the great injustices perpetrated by that judicial system. When, in September 1955, after sixty-seven minutes of deliberation, a Mississippi jury let Emmett Till's murderers, against all reasonable evidence, walk free, African Americans did not have in their arsenal of protest the slogan "No Justice, No Peace." But what they lacked in words they did not lack in sentiment, and African American newspapers throughout the country shouted out in protest against the infamous decision. In a memoir published in the Pittsburgh Courier a week after he returned from Mississippi, Michigan Congressman Charles Diggs proclaimed, "The Emmett Till trial is over, but we, as Negroes, should never forget its meaning. The fact that [J.W.] Milam and [Roy] Bryant were acquitted shows us how tremendous a job we face to bring complete democracy to our entire nation. Negroes and other clear-thinking Americans must combine their efforts to press for freedom and equality through both political and legal channels" (4). A similar call to arms was expressed by a concerned reader of the Courier: "Poor little Emmett Till was just another Negro--but above all he was a human being. We cannot return Emmett Till to the arms of his mother, but we can surely see that there will never be a repetition of this unforgiveable [sic] crime. Don't let that fourteen-year-old boy's life be lost for nothing. Demand and get a retrial for the two who are responsible for his death" (Routledge 9).

And demand they did. For several months, African American political and religious leaders sponsored Emmett Till protest rallies throughout the country. Gatherings in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, and Los Angeles attracted thousands of outraged protesters, and the mother of the slain boy, Mamie Till Bradley, joined forces with the NAACP and toured the nation, telling her story to packed auditoriums and churches and helping to generate one of the most successful fundraising and membership campaigns in NAACP history.

As we all know, however, this community's search for justice in the courts failed. Not surprisingly, Milam and Bryant were never retried for murder in Mississippi, and Attorney General Herbert Brownell refused to bring the federal government into the case because the crime did not involve interstate activities. When, a month and half after their acquittal on murder charges, Milam and Bryant were found not guilty of kidnapping, a crime to which both had previously confessed, it soon became apparent that justice would never be secured in the case. As if to add final insult to final injury, in December of that year both men met with journalist William Bradford Huie from Look magazine, who paid them $4000 to tell their "shocking story." Protected by laws against double jeopardy and the absence of far-reaching federal civil rights legislation, the two men told how they kidnapped Till from his uncle's house in the dead of night, beat and taunted him for several hours for daring to speak to a white woman, carried him to a local barn where they forced him to pick up a seventy-pound gin fan that they intended to tie around his neck after they killed him, how they then drove him to the Tallahatchie River where Milam shot him in the head with a single bullet, after which the two men tied the gin fan around Till's neck and, as a new day dawned in the east, dropped him from a bridge into the muddy waters below. (1)

But the story of Emmett Till does not end here in the pages of Look magazine, and, as I want to argue in this essay, neither has the long search for justice in his case. Certainly, within a year of the murder most calls for legal justice had ceased, and, unlike that other high-profile Mississippi murder from the civil rights era, Byron de la Beckwith's early morning execution of Medgar Evers, there has never been a serious attempt to reopen the Till case. …