Emmett Till's Father Was Also Hanged: A New Book Tells His Story | KUOW News and Information

Emmett Till's Father Was Also Hanged: A New Book Tells His Story

Nov 12, 2016
Originally published on November 12, 2016 5:42 am

Even a well known story depends on where you begin to tell it.

In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy visiting Mississippi, was lynched by white men who said he'd flirted with a white woman. Till's body was returned home to Chicago where his mother insisted on an open casket. Photos were wired around the globe and the world saw his mutilated body. His murderers would be free within a month.

Writer John Edgar Wideman was thinking of writing a novel based on the Till case, when he came across the story of Louis Till, Emmett's father. Louis Till was serving overseas in the Transportation Corps of the U.S. Army during World War II.

The army was still segregated at the time, and he and another African-American private, Fred McMurray, were found guilty by an army court-martial of raping two Italian women and murdering one during an air raid in 1944. Both men were hanged. Wideman isn't convinced of their guilt.

"Louis Till nor Fred McMurray ever had a chance," Wideman tells NPR's Scott Simon. "It was decided long before anybody even knew their names that some black soldiers are going to take the fall for these crimes."

Wideman's book about the case is called Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File.


Interview Highlights

On seeing the photo of Emmett Till's body as a teen

That scared the crap out of me. I was transfixed by the photo of a kid my age whose face was almost beyond recognition. It just was horrific. The fact that he was an African-American kid of color like me ... I had many, many ways that I connected with that face — that boy's face.

On what led him to believe that Till and McMurry weren't given a fair trial

In about 2005 I wrote to the Army archival center, sent a Freedom of Information letter for everything I could find, everything that they were willing to tell me about the Till trial. ... Slowly but surely as I took the evidence apart and checked out dates. ... I found that there were very few connections, almost none, that ... made it beyond any question of doubt that Till and McMurry had done these killings and rapes.

On Louis Till's silence

It bothers me. Somebody needed to speak up. Somebody needed to contradict what the army officers were saying or what the other allegedly guilty parties were saying. But also I recognize his silence. I recognize the silence of someone who knows better than to waste his breath or her breath addressing power.

... You speak very little to the master ... because anything you say will be held against you, and can be held against you. And so it was dangerous to speak and therefore that silence was part of the heritage, that was part of the legacy.

On the effect Louis Till's story had on the trial of his son's murderers

After that first trial the federal government put pressure on the state of Mississippi and said: You've got to try these guys for something. Come on. You just can't let them go. The whole world screaming, it's bad for Mississippi, bad for the South. So the state of Mississippi decided that kidnapping charges would be preferred against the two murderers, because during the course of the trial they had both admitted that, in fact, they did, at gunpoint, take Emmett Till in the middle of the night out of his great uncle's house.

But at that point the press was informed that Till's father had committed murder and rape in Italy and been executed. And so that just made it absolutely impossible to charge [J. W.] Milam and [Roy] Bryant with kidnapping.

On his own son, who has a parole hearing coming up — as a teenager he was convicted of the 1986 murder of a fellow 16-year-old

Prisons are awful, awful places. And believe it or not, to make public an inmate's good luck actually puts them in jeopardy — in jeopardy of the jealousy of other prisoners, the guards — he becomes a target. Let me at the same time say: He is closer to release this moment than he has been in over 30 years. And that is that is all good news.

On how father-son relationships play into his writing

I think I've been dealing with the same ideas for an awful long time. I had a vexed relationship with my father mainly because he and my mother didn't get along all the time. And he had the same kinds of complicated forces in his life that Louis Till had. My search for the past is a subject of my novels and my fiction and continues to be. And so this book about Louis Till and Emmett Till is a natural continuation of all that research into who I am, where I come from, what it all means.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Even a well-known story depends on where you begin to tell it. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 when he was lynched by white men who said he'd flirted with a white woman. Emmett Till's body was returned home to Chicago where his mother insisted on an open casket. Photos were wired around the globe, and the world saw how a young African-American teenager had been murdered and mutilated by white men and would be free within a month.

John Edgar Wideman, the writer, had begun to look into the Emmett Till case for a novel when he discovered the case of his father, Louis Till, convicted of the rape and murder of two Italian women in 1945 during U.S. military occupation. The result is his book, "Writing To Save A Life: The Louis Till File." And John Edgar Wideman joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN: I'm glad to be here.

SIMON: You were the same age as Emmett Till. What was it like to see those photos and grow up with that story?

WIDEMAN: It scared the crap out of me. I was transfixed by the photo of a kid my age whose face was almost beyond recognition. It just was horrific, the fact that he was an African-American kid of color like me. So I had many, many ways that I connected with that face, that boy's face.

SIMON: Let me try and set some of the bare facts in the Louis Till case out. Louis Till and a man named Fred McMurray were privates in the Transportation Corps in the - it must be said - segregated U.S. Army during World War II. They were found guilty of the rape of two Italian women and the murder of one during an air raid in 1944 by an Army court martial, and both of them were hanged to death. What are some of the discrepancies or irregularities that you think you found in the trial record?

WIDEMAN: My conclusion was, after I did the research, is that Louis Till nor Fred McMurray ever had a chance. It was decided long before anybody even knew their names that some black soldier's going to take the fall for these crimes.

SIMON: What do you make - as I think a reader wonders as they read this - what do you make of Louis Till's silence?

WIDEMAN: It bothers me. Somebody needed to speak up. Somebody needed to contradict what the Army officers were saying or what the other allegedly guilty parties were saying. But it also - I recognized his silence. I recognized the silence of someone who knows better than to waste his breath or her breath addressing power.

SIMON: So you're postulating, theorizing, that Louis Till believed he was being framed and thought it was senseless to offer any kind of objection or defense and therefore just stayed silent. I don't know what - maybe hoping for a break in the sentencing or something.

WIDEMAN: I think peasants in the Ukraine, peasants in China, peasants in Mississippi in various stages of history all had that internal sense that you speak very little to the master, who's ever in control, because anything you say will be held against you and can be held against you. And so it was dangerous to speak, and therefore that silence was part of the heritage. That was part of the legacy.

SIMON: At some point during the trial of the people who went free charged with Emmett Till's murders, the story of Emmett Till's father was leaked, wasn't it?

WIDEMAN: After that first trial, the federal government put pressure on the state of Mississippi and said, you've got to try these guys for something. Come on. You just can't let them go. The whole world's screaming. It's bad for Mississippi, bad for the South. So the state of Mississippi decided that kidnapping charges would be preferred against the two murders because during the course of this trial they had both admitted that in fact they did at gunpoint take Emmett Till in the middle of the night out of his great uncle's house. But at that point, the press was informed that Till's father had committed murder and rape in Italy and been executed. And so that just made it absolutely impossible to charge Milam and Bryant with kidnapping.

SIMON: I have to ask this, Mr. Wideman, because it's been in the news. You have a son who has a parole hearing coming up.

WIDEMAN: Yes.

SIMON: Can we explain the circumstances?

WIDEMAN: Prisons are awful, awful places. And believe it or not, to make public an inmate's good luck actually puts them in jeopardy, in jeopardy of the jealousy of other prisoners, the guards. He becomes a target. Let me, at the same time, say he is closer to release at this moment than he has been in over 30 years. And that is - that is all good news.

SIMON: We should explain he was convicted of the 1986 murder of a 16-year-old named named Eric Kane. Fathers and sons, sons and fathers, and now you're telling the story in a sense of Louis and Emmett Till. How do you think that works into your novels?

WIDEMAN: Well, I think I've been dealing with the same ideas for an awful long time. I had a vexed relationship with my father, mainly because he and my mother didn't get along all the time. And he had the same kinds of complicated forces in his life that Louis Till had. My search for the past is a subject of my novels and my fiction and continues to be. And so this book about Louis Till and Emmett Till is a natural continuation of all that research into who I am, where I come from, what it all means.

SIMON: John Edgar Wideman - his book, "Writing To Save A Life: The Louis Till File." Thanks so much for being with us.

WIDEMAN: Thank you for the chance to say hello and to have a talk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.