By Chris Crowe (New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2003. 128 pp.)
This book tells the story of Emmett Till but gears it towards a young adult audience, ages 12 and up. For that reason alone, Chris Crowe should be commended for the undertaking, apparently the first of its kind. Crowe, a professor of English at Brigham Young University, happened upon the Till case quite by accident. While researching another book, he, like many of us, became captivated by the story and it wouldn’t let him go. The results are actually two books. Besides the one under review, he also authored a novel based on the case,Mississippi Trial, 1955 (2002). Both books are intended for young people and are from the same publisher. Getting Away With Murder was named to the School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2003, and the 2004 American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults. Likewise, Mississippi Trial won the Jefferson Cup award, given annually to the most outstanding historical book written for teenagers, the Children’s Book Award in the Young Adult Novel by the International Reading Association, and the Association for Mormon Arts and Letters annual award for best novel.
Crowe understands that the Till case has been too often overlooked in history books and as a result, too few know about it at all. With this book in school libraries, hopefully that ignorance will decrease. Crowe provides a good overview of the case and writes in an enjoyable style. He familiarizes readers with civil rights struggles and the U. S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 1954, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. He also includes the best reproductions of photographs yet to appear in books about the Emmett Till case, some of which were rare. For students, they will have an impact. On page 33, a smiling high school student proudly holds a sign declaring, “WE WONT GO TO SCHOOL WITH NEGROES.” The words of the sign together with the smile on the face of the student are disturbing by today’s standards, and young people who view it will recognize that. It will give them important insight into the norms of an earlier era, one we never want to repeat. Of course, there is also the photo of the mutilated remains of young Emmett lying in his casket (page 67). The influence of that photo alone has had an unforgettable effect upon people for decades. A new generation reminded of the ugliness of racism can only be a good thing.
The inclusion of that photo in a children’s book might disturb a few, but this is not a book bent on sensationalism. Crowe tells the story well, and his motive is clear. The story has needed a young adult audience, and many of the factsare uncomfortable. But we learn best when forced outside of our comfort zone now and then.
Crowe did research for this book, but it is mainly a synthesis of previously published material. He did spend a week in Mississippi, but this may have been more for his own benefit in shaping the story for his novel. There are errors. He says that the cousin who accompanied Emmett to Chicago was Curtis Jones, but Jones took a train to the South a few days later. Emmett actually traveled with a different cousin, Wheeler Parker. He also quotes Jones’s claimed eyewitness account of the incident between Emmett and Carolyn Bryant at the store in Money, Mississippi. Jones says he was playing checkers with an old man on the porch, who warned the youths present that Bryant would “blow your brains out” for Till's indiscretion. In actuality, Jones had not arrived in Mississippi berfore Emmett whistled at Bryant. Jones’s testimony comes from the PBS documentary, Eyes on the Prize, and Crowe is not the first to quote it uncritically. Although this may seem understandable, it is an error easily avoided with just a little more research, for others who were there make it clear that Jones was not (Jones himself admitted that in both 1955 and 1985). Crowe also misidentifies people in the photograph on page 119. He confuses Willie Reed and Walter Billingsley, two witnesses for the prosecution, and refers to the older black man to the far right as Moses Wright, Emmett Till’s uncle. Wright, as the star witness for the prosecution, was well known and is easily identifiable. The man in the picture is actually Add Reed, another prosecution witness. Crow also repeatedly misspells the last name of funeral director A. A. Rayner as “Rainer.” Although a minor error, Rayner figures prominently in the story, as it was he who allowed Mamie Bradley to view the remains of her son at his mortuary. It was he who helped her place her son’s remains on display for the world to see.
Despite these errors, however, Crowe tells the story well, and if it opens the eyes of a few younger readers, then his mission is more than accomplished. Perhaps they will pass the story on to their parents.