The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative

Edited by Christopher Metress (Charlottseville: University of Virginia Press, 2002. xxiii, 365).

This book is a major contribution in providing to the general reader, as well as scholar, valuable details of the Emmett Till murder case. As a documentary history, it contains published accounts contemporary to the events of 1955, and allows readers to see the case unfold as never before. From the time young Till was abducted in Money, Mississippi, through the aftermath of the trial in Sumner, the volume tells what reporters, journalists, and others had to say.

For the scholar, of course, these documents are priceless. Just the time saved in scouring libraries, ordering material on interlibrary loan, and traveling to archives is enough to rejoice. Edited by Christopher Metress, associate professor of English at Samford University, the volume is part of the American South Series published by the University of Virginia Press. He divides the contents into six chapters. The first, “Discovery and Indictment,” begins the case with the first published account of Till’s disappearance, which appeared before he was even known to have been murdered. “Two White Men Charged with Kidnapping Negro,” was the headline in the Delta-Democrat Times, published in Greenville, Mississippi on August 30, 1955. It is significant that this early account states: “The Bryants were said to become offended when young Till waved to the woman [Carolyn Bryant] and said ‘goodbye’ when he left the store” (15). There is no mention of Till having grabbed Mrs. Bryant or asking her for a date, as Bryant later testified in court. As with any collection of primary source material, these documents answer many questions, raise others, and appear contradictory in places. Thus the historian’s job, as always, is to weigh their value and determine their accuracy in the light of all that is known.

Metress proceeds though the trial, providing court testimony where reporters had the foresight to publish it—important since the official court transcript had vanished until the FBI discovered a copy in 2005. He also provides material dealing with the national outrage that followed the acquittal. In “Searching for the Truth,” Metress reproduces the killer’s confession, written by William Bradford Huie, as well as investigative reports by Jimmy Hicks (Metress reproduces Hicks’s articles online, and a link is provided on this website), Olive Adams, and others. He also includes numerous personal essays in the “Memoirs” chapter. “Literary Explorations” provides a finishing touch to the book, wherein Metress reproduces poetry about the Till case, such as a little known poem by Langston Hughes.

Metress included all of the materials that he could. He laments that some publications, such as the New York Times and others charged such a high fee for rights to reproduce their articles that they were outside of his budget. Some detail is lost as a result. For example, in a September 22, 1955 New York Times article by John Popham, the author mentions that at the conclusion of day three of the trial, Judge Curtis Swango decided to allow the jury, which was sequestered at a hotel in Sumner, to listen to a radio broadcast that evening of the Marciano-Moore heavyweight championship fight. This detail, although not overly relevant, nevertheless is ignored in the trial accounts provided by Metress. It does raise the question if the jury was immune to any outside discussion of the trial.

Metress did more than merely compile the information. He provides an editor's introduction to the book, introductory commentary for each chapter and for the individual documents themselves. Any writer on Emmett Till in the future will rely heavily on this collection, but should also remain committed to search for, and immerse him or herself in those not included as well. There is more to sift through, much more. Metress, however, makes the job a lot easier.