Monday, November 12, 2018

Elliott J. Gorn's "Let the People See"

Elliott J. Gorn is Joseph A. Gagliano Chair in American Urban History at Loyola University Chicago. He is author of several books, including Dillinger's Wild Ride: The Year that Made America's Public Enemy Number One.

Gorn applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till, defense attorney Sidney Carlton questions Moses Wright, trying to shake his testimony.

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till came down to the Mississippi Delta from Chicago to spend time with his extended family in August, 1955. At a crossroads store in the town of Money, he whistled at the young woman behind the counter. A few days later, her husband and his brother—Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—kidnapped Till, beat him until his skull cracked and his eye popped out of its socket, shot him in the head, weighted his body down, and threw it in the Tallahatchie River.

Less than a month later, to everyone’s surprise, including their own, the brothers were tried for murder. Called to the witness stand and asked to identify the men who forced their way into his home and kidnapped Emmett Till at gunpoint, Moses Wright, a sharecropper and preacher, respected throughout his community, rose, pointed to each of his nephew’s abductors, and said twice in a loud clear voice, “there he is.” The all white jury sat dead silent.

No one could remember when if ever in Mississippi, white men stood trial for murdering an African American. And certainly a black man rising from the witness stand and identifying white criminals was unheard of. Renowned New York City journalist Murray Kempton covered the Mississippi trial, and he concluded that Moses Wright, unbowed, had just endured, “the hardest half hour in the hardest life possible for a human being in these United States.”

Wright’s testimony did not matter. The all-white, all-male jury took an hour to find the brothers innocent (for a few thousand dollars, they confessed to Look magazine four months later). But news of the verdict spread, made headlines across America and around the world. The “Emmett Till generation” of black activists carried his memory into the coming Civil Rights struggles. And in our own day, the story of Emmett Till is better known than at any time since 1955, an exemplum of white supremacist brutality, of the failures of the criminal justice system, but also of the hope that racism is exposed, named, called-out and resisted.
Learn more about Let the People See at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue