Academic journal article Journalism History

The Murder of Emmett Till

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Murder of Emmett Till

Article excerpt

Myth, Memory, and National Magazine Response

The 1955 killing of fourteen-year-old African-American Emmett Till in Mississippi continues to haunt historians, academicians, and students of pop culture with at least four books recently retelling the story of his murder. Much of today's retrospective discussion of the case is based on two underlying assumptions: his murder received extensive national coverage in 1955, and most Americans were disgusted by the murder and the acquittal of the two confessed killers. This article questions both assumptions by examining the response to the Till murder in ten national magazines and concludes that their coverage was more like a firefly illuminating a small patch of ground brilliantly but only for a second. In the brief afterglow, one could wonder if there was any light at all or just a trick of the mind.

The 1955 murder of fourteen-year-old African-American Emmett "Bobo" Till in Mississippi has been haunting historians, academicians, and students of pop culture in recent years. At least fout books published since 2002 have retold the story.1 In addition, there have been a number of academic journal articles,2 including an entire journal issue in 2008 devoted to commemorating his death.1 And at least two documentary films have explored the crime, demanding justice for the teen from the North.' Outside academia, his plight has riveted writers and poets, starting with a Langston Hughes' 1955 poem, "I Feel Mississippi's Fist in My Own Face."1 Since then he has been "fictionalized, rhapsodized, mythologized, and sanctified" in poems, plays, screenplays, TV shows, and songs, said historian Philip Kolin in 2008.'' His tragedy also has been recounted in a folk song by Bob Dylan,7 ballads by Phil Ochs,8 and Bruce Springsteen,' and tap by Ice Cube and Kanye West.10

Till was killed by two white half-brothers for allegedly whistling at the wife of one of the men as she tended store in Money (population 100), Mississippi. The two men were subsequently paid $4,000 by Look magazine to confess how they kidnapped him at gunpoint, beat him, shot him, and then dumped his body in the Tallahatchie Rivet.11

Many scholats, historians and journalists have asserted that few crimes in America have generated the kind of national shock and anger like Tills murder and the subsequent exoneration of his killers.12 Some maintain that in 1955 many in the national press, as well as the entire nation, attacked the acquittal of the killers as an insult to democracy and proof of incurable racism in the deep South.13 It has been argued further that news coverage of his lynching and of the court case, along with editorials and letters to the editor, sparked the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that began in Decembet of that yeat with Rosa Parks' contribution, in turn, viewed as launching the modern civil rights movement.14

Much of today's retrospective discussion of the Till case is based on two underlying assumptions. The first is that his murder received such extensive national coverage in 1955 that most people in America had access to information about it. At first glance, that assumption seems reasonable, especially if it is true, as has been claimed in newspaper accounts, that more than 100 news media representatives covered the Till murder trial. Reporters from Time, the New York Times, CBS and NBC TV news, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Detroit Daily News, and lhe Nation were reportedly packed into the courtroom.15 The second assumption is that most Americans reacted in disgust to the murder and acquittal of the two confessed killers.16

This study questions both assumptions by systematically examining magazine responses to the Till murder over one year. The goal was to discover what news articles, editorials, and letters to the editor were published about his murder and the trial and the acquittal of his confessed killers in ten national magazines from August 28, 1955, the day that he was abducted at gunpoint, through August 28, 1956, a year after his murder. …

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