Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till.

By Stephen J. Whitfield. (Baltimore: Free Press, 1988; paper pack, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. xiii, 193 pp.).

Stephen J. Whitfield, a Brandeis University professor, published the first book-length study of the Emmett Till case. As a scholarly work, it places the murder in context by providing a thorough chapter on the “Ideology of Lynching.” He makes use of numerous published and unpublished sources in putting together his study.

Whitfield offers valuable insight into southern thinking and fears along the lines of race and sex. As J. Boskin of Boston University points out in a review for Choice: “Paradoxically, the horror of Till’s murder made sense only in terms of a caste system that whites took for granted, yet the lynching occurred at a time when that system itself was deteriorating.” Indeed, lynchings had been on the decline, even in Mississippi—all the more reason that the Till murder incensed the citizenry in that state, if only for a moment. Yet Southern fears of the “black beast rapist” had increased after the 1954 U. S. Supreme Court decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional in Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka. Officials in Mississippi and elsewhere were defiant that they would not obey that decision, and rhetoric detailing the horror of race mixing increased. The timing of Till’s actions at the store in Money, Mississippi coincided with emotions reaching a boiling point over this issue and the attempts of activists trying to increase the black vote. Whitfield’s detail of white-black relations in the Jim Crow South, leading up to Till’s murder is superb.

Chapter two, “Chicago Boy, and chapter three, “Trial by Jury” detail Till’s abduction, murder, and the trial of his accused killers. In chapter four, “The Shock of Exoneration,” Whitfield analyzes the killer’s later published confession and challenges some of its accuracy, as well as journalist William Bradford Huie’s reporting (Huie secured the confession for $3,500). In their confession, published in Look magazine soon after the trial, and later expanded in Huie’s book Wolf Whistle in 1959, acquitted killers J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant characterize Till as unafraid and back-talking during the kidnapping and entire night of torture and murder. Says Whitfield: “It is therefore possible that, in talking to Huie, the half-brothers fabricated—or at least exaggerated—Till’s resistance to their intimidation as a way of accounting for their own terrible urge to murder him. There are no other living witnesses—or at least none willing to confess. But the description in Wolf Whistle of Till’s cool defiance, of his numbness to the immediate threat to his life, invites skepticism if not incredulity” (58). Whitfield’s hesitancy to take the confession at face value is refreshing. Too many writers have accepted it uncritically.

Despite the soundness of Whitfield’s overall analysis, he elsewhere relies too much on already existing sources and therefore perpetuates inaccuracies that could have been avoided. He did not conduct interviews with any of the participants, although he says in the acknowledgments that Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley did not respond to his requests for an interview. She denied to me that she had ever received any such requests, and assured me that she would have been willing to talk if she had. Had Whitfield talked to Till’s cousins Wheeler Parker, Simeon Wright, or Curtis Jones, he would have learned that Jones was not at the store to witness the incident between Till and Carolyn Bryant. Jones had not yet arrived in Mississippi from Chicago. He quotes Jones’s interview from the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize where Jones claims to have been there (17). Why Jones made that claim is puzzling, yet Whitfield could have avoided it had he spoken with the cousins--and others--who were there.

Much of the remainder of the book, while still touching on the Till case, analyzes race relations since the 1955 murder. From published interviews marking the 30th anniversary of the Till murder, he updates readers on the lives of participants such as Mobley,  Bryant, and Milam. 

While not the definitive work on the case, and lacking needed detail, it is the best work to date to place the murder in context. It helps the reader understand why the slaying of a 14-year-old could have happened when and where it did, and how a jury could acquit his obvious killers. Future writers will have a hard time surpassing that.