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“His Name Was Emmett Till”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 26, 2021

This piece by Wright Thompson on how the murder of Emmett Till has been remembered and forgotten is a difficult, compelling, and important read. The story centers around the still-little-known barn where Till was tortured and murdered by a group of several white men in 1955.

But the way Till’s name exists in the firmament of American history stands in opposition to the gaps in what we know about his killing. No one knows, for instance, how many people were involved. Most historians think at least seven were present. Only two were tried: half brothers J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant. Another half brother, Leslie Milam, was there that night too. He lived in an old white farmhouse a few dozen steps from the barn, next to where Jeff Andrews’s house now stands.

In 1955 an all-white, all-male jury, encouraged by the defense to do their duty as “Anglo-Saxons,” acquitted J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant. Because the defendants couldn’t be tried again, they got paid to make a confession to a national magazine — a heavily fictionalized account stage-managed by their lawyers — and Leslie Milam and his barn were written out of the story. Ask most people where Till died and they’ll say Money, Mississippi, the town where Till whistled at Bryant’s wife outside the family’s store. An Equal Justice Initiative monument in Montgomery says Money. Wikipedia does too. The Library of Congress website skips over the barn, which is just outside the town of Drew, about 45 minutes from the store.

I learned about the barn last year and have since made repeated visits, alone and with groups, once with members of Till’s family. Over and over, I drove from my home in the Mississippi hill country back into the gothic flatland where I was born. The barn’s existence conjures a complex set of reactions: It is a mourning bench for Black Americans, an unwelcome mirror for white Americans. It both repels and demands attention.