In August 1955 Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. Two white men were tried for the crime but, despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt, were acquitted by an all-white jury.
The following year one of the men, now protected by the rules of double jeopardy, confessed their guilt. Till’s murder and his killers’ acquittal are now seen as a pivotal moment in the development of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, Bob Dylan described the outrage and his reaction to it in The Death of Emmett Till.
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Although I spent a term studying American history as part of my undergraduate degree at Cambridge University, we never touched upon the Civil Rights Movement, let alone Emmett Till. But this was in the mid-1970s, so maybe historians had not yet fully processed the subject matter, transforming it from contemporary observation to historical scholarship?
Today, thankfully, things have moved on, and the Civil Rights Revolution is taught as part of an undergraduate paper on The History of the United States since 1865. However, my own formal education in American history ended with the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I owe my introduction to the life and death of Emmett Till to Bob Dylan.
Born in Duluth, Minnesota on 24 May 1941, Robert Allen Zimmerman attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While studying there he began performing folk and country songs at local cafés, initially taking the stage name “Bob Dillon.”
In 1960, Dylan dropped out of college and moved to New York, where he met ailing folksinger Woodie Guthrie and became a regular in the folk clubs and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. He signed his first recording contract in 1961.
Dylan first performed The Death of Emmett Till in July 1962. It is not one of his most well known or highly regarded songs, and never appeared on any of his studio albums. However it began to circulate in various bootleg releases from the early 1960s. You can hear the song and read the lyrics in this YouTube presentation:
For me, part of folk’s appeal is that, skilfully executed, it paints vivid pictures of real lives and real issues. The anger, pain and emotion of folk songs brings to life the dirt-dry words of conventionally written history. The Death of Emmett Till may not be Dylan’s greatest composition, but it portrays graphically an injustice that should not be forgotten, and throws light on a dark corner of US history that some would prefer to remain hidden.
So, through his artistry and social conscience, Bob Dylan led me to a place that appeared not to be on Cambridge University’s radar in 1975. I don’t for a moment suppose or suggest that Dylan’s lyrics are in themselves a definitive history of Till’s murder, but in piquing my curiosity and leading me to ask the right questions they did their job.
The internet is loaded with accounts and analysis of Till’s murder and its aftermath, and I have consumed it greedily – but critically – in researching this post. The Wikipedia account is detailed and informative, but much more besides is readily available for anyone willing to look. The truth is out there…
Although it’s the best known of the songs about the Emmett Till murder, Dylan’s was not the first. An Essay on Bob Dylan by Jim Linderman reveals that this accolade belongs to A. C. Bilbrew, a long-time civil rights activist.
Bilbrew’s song is in two parts, each short enough to fit on one side of a 45 rpm vinyl single. It was released just months after Till’s death, sung by jazzman and entertainer Scatman Crothers, masquerading under the name of The Ramparts.
Sadly the song passed largely unnoticed “because [according to Jim Linderman] racist radio stations at the time wouldn’t play it.” However, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the generosity of YouTube, you can listen to Part 1 by clicking here. Part 1 describes events leading up to the murder, and Part 2 the crime itself and the subsequent – farcical – trial. Part 2 is available here.
Legendary folksinger Joan Baez, one time lover of Bob Dylan, has also recorded the A.C. Bilbrew song, combining the two parts into a single offering. You can listen to it by clicking below:
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Three months after the unsuccessful trial of Till’s killers, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A tidal wave of protest followed.
The Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than a year, resulting eventually in a US Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Many years later Rosa Parks said “I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn’t go back [to the section of the bus reserved for non-whites].”
Emmett Till has become a posthumous icon of the Civil Rights Movement. The Emmett Till Interpretive Center helps keep his story alive, both physically and digitally. Any readers of this post wishing to know more about Till’s murder are encouraged to visit the centre’s website, which avows that “racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.”
In a deliciously mischievous twist, the centre is based at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the young man’s killers were acquitted. Fair-minded people – and I include myself here – desperately want to believe that things are getting better, and the existence and deliberately ironic location of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center might suggest that they are.
However, events over the last few months, and in particular killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020, must call into question how much progress has really been made.
It is not my place, as a white man living in the UK, to make judgments as to progress – or otherwise – towards racial justice in the US. I simply worry that things appear not to be what fair-minded people might wish them to be.
Nor do I suggest for one moment that this is specifically an American issue. There have been incidents in the UK over the last six months suggesting that racial injustice is alive and kicking here too.
However, one thing does seem abundantly clear: there is no room for complacency, in the US, the UK or, indeed, anywhere else.
And for me, there are three more lessons to be drawn from this brief foray into the story of Emmett Till:
- History must not be hidden, and truths – even when they are deeply unsettling – must be told.
- Great universities like Cambridge, my own alma mater, must be vigilant in ensuring that the history to which their students are exposed isn’t monochrome.
- Folk singers must continue to fulfil their sacred duty: to protest, to rant, to rage and to roar about injustice, wherever they encounter it.
Bob Dylan ended The Death of Emmett Till with following words,
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood
it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
As the UK’s Black History Month 2020 draws to a close I’m pleased to record here my support for the line taken here by Dylan, and applaud him for standing tall in 1962, for adhering to the folk-singer’s sacred duty, and for saying what needed to be said.
Rest in Peace, Emmett Till.