Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was brutally beaten, murdered, and dumped in a river for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955 Mississippi. After his mother insisted on a public, open-casket funeral—and horrifying images of his bloated face made national news—his death became a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement over the next decade.
Rosa Parks initiated the Montgomery bus boycott 100 days after Emmett Till’s murder. African-American college students who launched the sit-in movement at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina described themselves as “the Emmett Till generation.” In the midst of the Albany, Georgia Desegregation movement of 1961-62, Rev. Samuel Wells declaimed, “I can hear the blood of Emmett Till as it calls from the ground!” In the Freedom Summer of 1964, as black Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders trained northern white undergrads for the harrowing rigors of black voter registration in Mississippi, a young white woman asked for SNCC’s policy on interracial dating. “Policy?” a SNCC organizer replied. “You’re going to Mississippi. Have you heard of Emmett Till?”
Sixty years after his death, Emmett Till’s name still haunts this country. We see it in chilling images of the Emmett Till memorial sign in Mississippi riddled with bullets. It surfaces in op-eds on young black shooting victims like Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. His name was invoked by Yusef Salaam, one of the exonerated Central Park Five, with regard to his fate had he been delivered to vigilante justice at the urging of the current President-elect of the United States. It appeared in the deck of a Slate column published on the morning after Election Day 2016: “We are still the country that killed Emmett Till.”
The last two years have yielded noteworthy histories of the Emmett Till case: Devery Anderson’s Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (2015) and Timothy B. Tyson’s forthcoming The Blood of Emmett Till. Sandwiched between these two historical studies is a more introspective book, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, by two-time PEN/Faulkner award-winning novelist and memoirist John Edgar Wideman. Writing to Save a Life navigates a looping course between investigation, imagination, confession, and memoir.
Louis Till, Emmett Till’s father, appears only briefly in the Emmett Till story. He separated from Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, after assaulting her shortly after Emmett was born. To avoid criminal charges in Chicago, he joined the segregated U.S. Army to fight in World War II. Twenty-three-year-old Louis Till was executed in Italy in 1945, convicted by court-martial of raping two Italian women and murdering a third.
Unknown throughout the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers (both acquitted), Louis Till’s military record was later declassified during the push to try the murderers on kidnapping charges. Its ugly revelations dampened the public outcry for justice, and the second trial never happened.
In Writing to Save a Life, Wideman secures access to the Louis Till file, beginning an investigation that takes him not only into the unequal justice of the Jim Crow army, but to Louis Till’s grave in France and deep into imagined scenes of the Till family—and meditations on Wideman’s own family. The Louis Till file drives Wideman’s personal struggle to understand why he’s so intent on redeeming a violent young man who might have been wrongly convicted…or might have been the rapist and murderer his accusers claimed he was.
Paste chatted with Wideman about Writing to Save a Life, the experiences of African-American men during WWII, and why understanding Louis Till’s story is crucial today.
Paste: When I first read about Louis Till, I didn’t think I wanted to know more about him. He’s barely a footnote to the story of Emmett Till. In terms of your own efforts to get at this story, why focus on him?
John Edgar Wideman: I didn’t know anything about Louis Till either. I had a horrendous encounter with the photographs of Emmett in 1955, and I never gave a thought to his father at that point. Nor did I give much of a thought to his father for decades after that.
Then one day it hit me: Why in the hell didn’t I? Why was he out of the picture? Why was I treating [Emmett] like an orphan? I knew he had a mother, and his mother almost became a civil rights icon in her own right. I’d seen pictures and videos of her.
But where was his father? The fact that it took me so long to ask that question made me feel guilty, number one, because I had forgotten the man. Number two, because it was such an obvious question. Number three, I was committing the very same kind of offense that I think we as a culture or society in general commit. We know that this black person got killed. We know his name or her name, but they at that point become a kind of iconic victim. They start to lose the purchase in our imaginations as a human being.
When we think about Michael Brown, we lose sight of the family. Now maybe the newscast brings the crying mother on. Maybe we hear the voice of somebody sitting in the car whisper to another person, “Why’d you shoot my son?” The context of family gets very easily lost and becomes dramatized in a way that permits us to forget.
Emmett Till was like me. He was my age. He was born with a father. He dealt with a father. Then he dealt with the fact that he didn’t have one. That reminded me of myself. Fathers are very problematic for many, many African-American people. In fact, we’re encouraged to forget them. The fact that I didn’t ask about Emmett Till’s father was not simply a personal choice or a quirk about me. I was conditioned to think of African-American young men as orphans. The sociological literature says that so many young African-American children don’t have fathers in the house, come from broken households, etc., etc.
In a deeper metaphysical sense, we African-American males are orphaned and we learn that we are orphans because our fathers were not white men. In a funny way the only man who counts as a father is a guy who is a descendant of another guy who has a white beard and pale skin and looks a lot like a biblical figure. If we don’t have one of those, if we can’t connect to that sort of archetype of white father, then we truly are orphaned.
That was part of the realization for me of why I didn’t try to make sense of a Till father, why a Till father had disappeared. I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to repudiate that. I wanted to investigate that very issue of how we are so profoundly separated from our roots, from our past, from our history. I, for the longest time, I resisted any identification growing up with Africa, with that father, with that past, with that history.
Why? Because it was not European. The European past was the one I was learning in school and everywhere else, like most people that counted. If I didn’t have that past, then what did I have? We had a jungle. We had nothing, emptiness, savagery. I had been living and trying to recover a legitimate sense of the past. Where does that work start? In my own writing, it’s partly been trying to recover my father’s voice and learning about his father and learning about South Carolina, learning about slavery.
Paste: One of the things that we do know about Louis Till story is that the military reported his execution to Mamie Till in about five words, when she got this cryptic note about Louis’ being executed for “willful misconduct.” It just seems like the Army’s disregard for black families was writ large in those few words.
Wideman: Mamie Till was nobody’s fool; she was a sophisticated, smart lady. She got a lawyer. A lawyer couldn’t get anything out of the defense department as a matter of fact. I didn’t write about that, but it’s true.
Paste: This is an issue that does seem to come up in the Emmett Till story: What did Mamie know about the circumstances of Louis Till’s execution, and when did she know it? It’s clear that she knew very little, and they weren’t in a hurry to tell her anything until all of a sudden it was convenient to declassify the file.
Wideman: In World War II, you had all these African-American soldiers who were in the U.S. Army, and they weren’t treated as fully certified human beings. They were disposable. They were a work crew. They were like robots. They were like virtual people both in terms of the law and in terms of the day-by-day treatment by their peers and by their officers and by their “superiors.” That’s not anything surprising. My father told me stories. That’s a key bridge, because the more I thought about Till’s father, the more I thought about my own. Then I became conscious of creating parallels and constructing parallels and using both situations as insights on the other.
My father was in World War II. He was about Louis Till’s age. He liked to box. He went into a segregated army and had to make do with what he could, the best he could. My father was extraordinarily patriotic. I remember as a kid, when a ballgame came on the radio before we had a TV, he used to make all the kids stand up in the room because the National Anthem was on. To him, it was disrespectful to sit. My father was a very patriotic guy, but he also knew that he had been dealt and continued to be dealt a crooked hand, a destructive hand.
Paste: In an article about Louis Till by Alice Kaplan, who wrote The Interpreter about the Jim Crow Army in World War II, says, “We also need to remember Louis Till’s trial, not because he was innocent, but because we as a nation were guilty.” Would you agree with that?
Wideman: There are crimes, and there are crimes. One doesn’t just fry the other. I had second thoughts about a book that concentrated heavily on Louis Till, because he’s not exactly a poster guy for male virtues and certainly not African-American male virtues.
I gradually began to become closer to him, because I believed I rediscovered that it wasn’t so much a question of finding an instant hero who had been torn up or destroyed by the system as it was a question of looking at the system. Till provided a window on that system. He did a lot of bad things—things that Mamie Till attested to, [things in] his actual service record, and a few comments you have about him from other people. He wasn’t necessarily a wholesome individual, but he was a human being. He had the same qualities that I had, that my father had, that you had or your father had.
There was good and evil in him. The tragedy of Louis Till is that we support and acquiesce to a system that allows us to take some small fact about or one fact about him and forget the rest. At one point, the fact of color was enough to make him eligible for slavery. At another point, it was enough to make him eligible for certain kinds of duties and lack of opportunity in the U.S. Army. Then it became that color meant that he couldn’t live in certain parts of the United States, certain parts of big cities after World War II. It meant that he wasn’t eligible for certain jobs, etc., etc. It goes on and on. That systemic injustice is what Alice Kaplan is talking about.
Paste: Some of the most intense parts of Writing To Save A Life for me were the imagined scenes of the Tills. Mamie and Louis Till in Chicago; Mamie and Emmett at the train station. Most of all, Louis Till as a South Carolina slave in 1861, rowing Confederate delegates across Charleston Harbor. One of the things you mention early in the book is that you had set out, originally, to write an Emmett Till novel. Were any of these imagined scenes part of the novel that you didn’t write?
Wideman: I think I wrote the Emmett Till novel, but I wrote it in The Cattle Killing or other books that I was writing at that time. The things that were bothering me about Emmett Till were things about myself. I took up those matters in other narratives. I didn’t take up Louis Till, because I didn’t know that much about him. I held myself guilty for that.
Why had I forgotten him? Why didn’t I make the connection? Why wasn’t I interested in researching and finding out who that father was? Alice Kaplan’s article saying that he had been hanged in Italy; that was a real-eye opener. It was a scary thing, because I had been missing a big, big part of the picture. As a country, why didn’t we talk about the two Tills? There’s very detailed and useful book [The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson] coming out. Louis Till figures in it almost not at all.
Tyson’s book reconstructs the atmosphere of Mississippi in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. You read it, and you realize that Emmett Till was entering a deeply dangerous place, just taking that trip down south.
I was afraid to take that trip; some part of me knew. Growing up in Pittsburgh and hearing the old people’s stories, I was enough afraid of that “heart of darkness” that I didn’t go. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to know anything about the South. I could have gone with my grandfather to the where he was born in South Carolina. I did not want to go. Some part of me as a young African-American man sensed what was waiting—the fairly horrendous picture that Tyson does such a good job of spinning out.
Paste: One of the interesting things Tyson questions is this familiar theory that because Emmett was from Chicago, he didn’t know any better. He didn’t know you don’t talk to white folks in Mississippi. It’s insulting to Mamie Till, and it just doesn’t seem like an accurate reflection of Emmett’s experience—as if he wouldn’t have experienced racism or segregation in Chicago at that time.
Wideman: That argument, I think, doesn’t hold much water. We don’t know a lot about Emmett Till, and none of us have the insight that Mamie did, of course. He might have been a very naïve kid. I was a very naïve kid at 14, 15. I thought I was going to live forever. I thought the world revolved around me, even though I was a young black man and knew that I had to walk softly around white folks. I certainly knew that I couldn’t go to certain places in Pittsburgh, like the swimming pool. I knew about the dangers. I knew about segregation, but I was also very, very naïve.
No young person understands death except at the level of fairy tale, the level of myth, and the level of nightmare. As a young adolescent in America, I still think maybe Till wasn’t prepared in a psychological way. It sounds as if he was a happy-go-lucky kid. It sounds as if he was a survivor. He had some childhood medical problems, and he was coddled in a certain way. What was done to him, the torture and horrendous brutality that was visited upon that young man, it’s unbelievable to a certain extent to me today.
I’ve lived through lots and lots of stories of brutality from the Holocaust, My Lai, and the Russian internment camps, but it still seems impossible. We don’t know the evil in our own hearts as kids. That’s just a waiver. He did live in a segregated world [in Chicago], and he obviously heard jokes and heard stories, but what did he really know? I don’t know. That’s why it’s necessary to use my imagination and put myself in Emmett’s shoes, in Louis Till’s shoes, or in Mamie’s shoes and try to come to a better understanding.
I don’t live in Emmett Till’s head very much, if at all in Writing To Save A Life. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because his story is another story. It has its own shape and maybe I still want to write about him, or maybe I’ve written about him enough already in other guises.
Paste: In 1997 you wrote an essay called “The Killing of Black Boys,” reflecting on the way that Emmett Till’s story and his “mangled face” continued to haunt you for decades after his death. One of the things you said in that essay was, “Now in our rituals, mourning for our lost children there seems to be no sense of a communal general loss. No comprehension of larger forces or if the relationship of our immediate trials. Drugs, gangs, violence, empty schools, empty minds, empty homes, empty values, to the ongoing struggle to liberate ourselves from the oppressive legacy of slavery and apartheid.” Nineteen years later, do you feel like we’ve come any closer to this sense of shared loss and struggle and common purpose?
Wideman: The book I hope I wrote is very intimate and personal and subjective. It’s an attempt to share with anybody who reads it my questions about fatherhood and being a father and a son. Focusing on that single person and my relationship to that kid who was murdered in 1955, by looking at that very specific situation, I wanted to try to answer some larger metaphysical questions about time, about how we relate to one another, about how memory is structured, about politics, about gender. All those things, but keep it close. Keep it as intimate and directed as possible, something between Till and myself or myself and the Tills.
If there is a message in the book, it’s to take care of your own business with all your power and focus on that. The outside world may change to some extent, but it may not. You have to look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day. That’s the kind of approach to these larger issues that means something to me today. Not to change the world, but to be conscious, to be able to explore, to be able to have the freedom to ramble in my imagination and make guesses and take chances.
I hope there have been people who have gone through this election craziness with a focus on the personal, not losing track of who they are and the ones who love them, not simply seeing themselves as a demographic on a poll that somebody else commits to the media or sells to the media. We are not demographics. We are not black or white; we are all just out here struggling.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.