Rec.Music.Dylan Article on Emmett Till


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                  Good car to drive, after a war

As a follow-up to Sorabh's posts on the Emmett Till story, I wanted to post some information on this story from some additional sources in the EDLIS archives.

The source Sorabh used:
>[1] This posting has been transcribed from the book, "Eyes on the Prize,"
>America's Civil Rights Years, 1954 - 1965, A Robert Lavelle Book, Viking Publications.

The Video

This book is one of several companion books to two excellent PBS series on the history of the civil rights movement in America. "Eyes on the Prize" covers 1954-1965, and "Eyes on the Prize II" covers 1965-1990. They are oral histories, in that they tell the story by interviewing those who were there at the time, interspersed with original footage of the events. The result is a powerful re-creation of the mood of the times, and the events as they occurred.

Anyone interested in Emmett Till must watch the first episode in the first series: Awakenings. Here in Palo Alto, the local Blockbuster video store has the whole first series available for rent at $2 per episode. They can be purchased at (800) 752-9727.

Ten minutes into the Awakenings episode they give a 15 min account of the entire Emmett Till story. You will see original footage of his uncle (who identified the murderers at the trial), his mother, the local sheriff, the river the body was found in, the trial itself, the murderers with their wives, the funeral, and much more. One picture of Emmett is shown, as well as a gruesome shot of the beaten corpse, which appeared in Jet Magazine at the time, and did a lot to make this a very big story in the Black community.

Whatever you do, make sure you see this video. It is outstanding, and really does bring the story to life. There are interviews of Emmett's uncle, his mother, the newsman who later paid the murderers for their story, and others. Not to be missed. (BTW, no mention of Dylan or his song in this.)

The Complete Story

For the most complete inquiry into this event, there is a 193 page book devoted exclusively to the story:

A Death in the Delta; The Story of Emmett Till : by Stephen J.
Whitfield : New York, The Free Press, 1988 : ISBN 0-02-935121-9.

Sorabh's source says:
Precisely what happened next is unknown. Two months after the trial, however, William Bradford Huie, a white Alabama journalist, paid Milam and Byrant $4,000 to tell their story.

Whitfield points out that Huie was an early practioner of "checkbook journalism", which is so prevalent today. There is plenty of it in the current O. J. Simpson case. Anyway, Whitfield has some interesting details on this part of the story.

From Whitfield:
Two months after the trial, Huie went to Sumner to speak to one of the attorneys, hoping to ferret out the facts in the wake of the acquittals... To the journalist's initial inquiry in Sumner, John Whitten responded: "Well, I'd like to know what happened. I defended them, but I never asked 'em whether they killed the boy or not. I didn't wanna know."

Huie remembered: "They were called in, and they agreed for the reasons I've said. They didn't think they were guilty. They didn't think they'd done anything wrong." According to Huie, "The man who had done the killing" did not therefore offer a confession in the sense of hankering to purge his soul of its anquish.... the murderer simply "told [him] the truth."

Dylan's Song

In his book, Whitfield does discuss Dylan's song. A complete transcript of that section follows:

The civil rights movement in which youngsters took such risks constituted a subculture that bestowed a privileged position upon folk music and spirituals. Probably the most important troubadour of the movement in the early 1960s was Bob Dylan, who had performed on sites where "black is the color and none is the number." Born in the same year as his fellow Midwesterner Till, Dylan was to transcribe his sense of horror in the Delta in an early song, "The Death of Emmett Till." Told in the first person, Dylan recounted the story, describing the beating in the barn but omitting any mention of the episode in the store that had presumably provoked the murder. The fourth stanza gets a couple of facts wrong, because Dylan referred to the confessions as though Bryant and Milam had admitted the murder even before the trial took place; and "The Death of Emmett Till" also claims that the jury included members who were accomplices of the half-brothers. The trial in Sumner was indeed in many respects a sham, as Dylan noted. But the defendants confessed only to Huie, and not in a courtroom; nor was a conspiracy among some jurors who might have participated in the crime ever suggested. The song ends with Dylan reading the newspapers but finding himself unable to bear the sight of the grinning countenances of the killers descending the steps of the courthouse. He then exhorts other Americans to denounce such atrocities.

Though its lyrics were mawkish, the ballad was a precocious attempt to continue the tradition of the folk protest song. "The Death of Emmett Till" prefigured Dylan's condemnation of callousness to suffering that also characterized "Blowin' in the Wind," a civil rights anthem that asked how long other Americans would need before they would realize that "too many people have died."

The chief moral that Dylan seemed to derive from the lynching was its inherent injustice, which a heightened ethical sensitivity might remedy.

The Motivation for the Murder

Actually Dylan's song apparently contains another inaccuracy, having to do with the motivation for the murder:

Some men they dragged him to a barn
and there they beat him up.
They said they had a reason,
but I can't remember what.
They tortured him and did some things
too evil to repeat.
They were screaming sounds inside the barn,
there was laughing sounds out on the street.

Then they rolled his body down a gulf
amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide
to cease his screaming pain.
The reason that they killed him there,
and I'm sure it ain't no lie,
Was just for the fun of killin' him
and watch him slowly die.

Some background from Sorabh's post:
In Linden, Alabama, state senator Walter C. Givhan railed against the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) campaign to end school segregation. What, he asked his white audience, is the real purpose of the campaign? ``To open the bedroom doors of our white women to Negro men.''

And later on:
The two Mississippians attempted to justify the murder by claiming that they didn't intend to kill Till when they picked him up at Mose Wright's house, that they had only wanted to scare him. But when the young boy refused to repent or beg for mercy, they said, they `HAD' to kill him.

``What else could we do?'' Milam told Huie. ``He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers in their place. I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice.''

In his book, Whitfield gives a more detailed account of the murderers' motivation from the Huie interview of the killers. This is best described in another companion book to the 'Eyes on the Prize" series:

Voices of Freedom; An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement
from the 1950s through the 1980's : by Henry Hampton & Steve Fayer:
New York, Bantam Books, Feb 1990 : ISBN 0-553-05734-0.

This book contains interviews of the participants, including one of Huie in which he says:

They did not intend to kill him when they went and got him. They killed him because be boasted of having a white girl and showed them the pictures of a white girl in Chicago [his home town]. They had him in the car trying to scare him and that sort of thing for about three hours. Young Till, he never realized the danger he was in, he never knew. I'm quite sure that he never thought these two men would kill him. Maybe he's in such a strange environment he really doesn't know what he's up against. It seems to a rational mind today, it seems impossible that they could have killed him. But B. W. Milam [the shooter] looked up at me and said, "Well, when he told me about this white girl he had," he says, "my friend, that's what this war's about down here now. That's what we got to fight to protect." And he says, "I just looked at him and I said, 'Boy, you ain't never going to see the sun come up again.'"

They were told that they had inherited a way of life. They were told that for a young black man to put his hand sexually on a white woman was something that could not be allowed. They were told that with the beginning of the Supreme Court decision this was war.

[This interview is also in the PBS video.]

Dylan on his Song

Heylin gives some background on the Till song. He discusses Suze Rotolo's influence on Dylan from her work with CORE, the possibility she pushed him into doing protest songs, and Dylan's reluctance to assume the title of "protest singer".

Heylin claims that Dylan admitted he stole the tune for it from Len Chandler (p. 67). And then this 1964 quote of Dylan: "I used to write songs, like I'd say, 'Yeah, what's bad, pick out something bad, like segregation, OK, here we go,' and I'd pick one of the thousand million little points I can pick and explode it, some of them which I didn't know about. I wrote a song about Emmett Till, which in all honesty was a bullshit song....I realize now that my reasons and motives behind it were phony. I didn't have to write it." (p. 98)

Importance of the Killing

What made this killing any different from any of the hundreds of other lynchings of blacks that occurred in the South? It was in large part due to the publicity it garnered, largely due to the actions of Emmett's mother, who insisted upon having an open casket funeral for all the world to see.

From her interview in Voices of Freedom:
I understand the order came from the sheriff's office to bury that body just as soon as you can. And they didn't even allow it to go to a funeral parlor and be dressed. He was in a pine box. Well, we got busy. We called the governor, we called the sheriff, we called Crosby, my mother's brother. We called everybody we thought would be able to stop the burial of that body. I wanted that body. I demanded that body because my thoughts were, I had to see it, to make sure, because I'd be wondering even now who was buried in Mississippi. I had to know that was Emmett. Between Crosby and the sheriff in Mississippi who went with him and the undertaker here who contacted the undertaker there, we were able to stop the burial.

After the body arrived I knew I had to look and see and make sure it was Emmett. That was when I decided that I wanted the whole world to see what I had seen. There was no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.

[BTW, it should be noted that at the trial, the defense position was that the brothers should not be convicted of the murder of Till, because of the fact that the body recovered was too mutilated to even be positively identified!]

Voices of Freedom goes on to say:
The boy's body was so mutilated that Mose Wright had been able to identify Emmett only by the ring on his finger. The black press was outraged. Jet magazine ran a photograph of the corpse that Mamie Till Bradley had resolved all the world should see. Her son's face was swollen and disfigured. He had been beaten severely. One eye was gouged out, and one side of his forehead was crushed. A bullet was lodged in his skull.

The Chicago Defender, one of the country's largest national black weeklies, gave the Till case and the open-casket funeral prominent coverage. The story of the lynching also received unusual attention in the national white media, with newsreel and television cameras on the scene in the Delta.

Medgar Evars, the first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, traveled to the Delta for the trial....

Pivotal Event

The conclusion of the "Eyes on the Prize" account of the story was that this was a pivotal event in black history, as it "set in concrete the determination of people to move forward." And hence, their decision to make this the first story featured in their history of the civil rights struggle.

So, in spite of Dylan's rejection of his own song, there can be no question that in choosing this story to write about, he was once again ahead of his times.

Ron Chester
EDLIS Bibliographer

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Last updated: 12/3/95
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