By Clenora Hudson-Weems. (Troy, MI: Bedford Books, 1994. xviii, 371 pp.).
In this book Clenora Hudson-Weems expands on her 1988 doctoral dissertation, "Emmett Louis Till: The Impetus for the Modern Civil Rights Movement." The result is a plethora of valuable material in relation to the role of the Till case in history. As the title to both the dissertation and published work implies, it it Hudson-Weems's thesis that it was Till’s murder that started it all. A professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Hudson-Weems, creates and uses primary source material not found in any other volume on the case. For that, she will be cited heavily in future studies on the subject.
The book is divided into two sections: “The Case,” and “Voices from Inside the Story.” Her chronological narrative of the Emmett Till story is limited to sixty-six pages, after an introductory chapter on 20th century black history and events leading to the Till murder. She then provides an overview of the Civil Rights movement, establishing her thesis that Till’s murder was the "catalyst for that quest for black equality. The chapter, “Artistic Response” highlights several, although not all, of the literary creations that were inspired by the story. Says Hudson-Weems: “Even though historians, on the whole, have underplayed the significance of the Till case in relation to the modern Civil Rights Movement, the legacy of this historical figure has been graphically captured through literature. The image of Emmett Till serves as a frontispiece for several examples of African-American literature produced during and after the modern Civil Rights Movement” (109)."
Hudson-Weems’s also provides reminiscences of others who were affected by Till’s brutal slaying. “Blacks and whites alike need this opportunity to say what they feel, “ she writes. “Invariably, they seem to seize the opportunity to share their feelings when asked about the case” (133-134). Nineteen pages are dedicated to such personal accounts.
The most valuable contributions of the book however, are the interviews that Hudson-Weems conducted in preparing her work. She speaks in depth with Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till. She also includes her discussions with Rayfield Mooty, civil rights activist, cousin of Mobley, and her (Mobley’s) right-hand man after Emmett’s slaying. She also interviews Wheeler Parker and Simeon Wright, cousins of Emmett Till who were with the Chicago youth at the store in Money, Mississippi when he wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant, and who were also present at the home when Emmett was kidnapped. Wright was even in the bed with him when he was abducted. These interviews are produced in their entirety in part two. She also includes the text of a 1955 speech that Mamie Bradley delivered in South Bend Indiana. Together these reminiscences help provide important detail in this troubling case.
Despite the fact that the original trial transcript was missing for decades, some court documents relating to the case survived, and Hudson-Weems photographically reproduces them. These include summons of witnesses as well as the hand-written “not guilty” verdict read in court. The documents reveal names of individual that appear not to have actually testified, and begs the question: who were they, and what did they know?
At times Hudson-Weem’s narrative seems more emotional than scholarly. She often sounds more like an advocate, and at times, and angry one. This can be overlooked, but it isn't always easy. Since the book's original publication, however, Hudson-Weems has published two other volumes--sequels, in her eyes--which have seriously damaged her reputation as an Emmett Till scholar. These writings have descended into a sad diatribe of self-pity and bitterness because others have received more recognition for their contributions to the case than she, which she believes is the result of plagiarisms of her own works. To read, or listen to her now, she comes across firmly believing that she, and only she, has a right to write, talk, or speak about this case.
Yet, when the focus is on her original publication, it must be stated that it is an important work that not only illuminates the story of Emmett Till, but makes a case for the overall place of his murder in the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. And it was about time that somebody did that. She will be quoted heavily as a significant source, but by no means the ultimate one, on Emmett Till.