John Edgar Wideman does not know where he was when he first saw the picture of Emmett Till, but he vividly remembers how he felt. “It was the sensation of looking in the mirror,” Wideman recalled. “But it was a me that was inconceivable. It was a me who was dead.” Emmett Till and John Wideman had lived nearly identical lives. In the summer of 1955, both were 14-year-old black boys being raised in the Midwest. Yet by August, Emmett was dead. He was shot and lynched after being accused of flirting with a white woman.
Seeing Emmett’s mutilated features in Jet magazine forced the country to grapple with the brutality of American racism. It also sparked Wideman’s lifelong journey into the history of the Till family and American injustice. He’s intimately acquainted with the criminal justice system — both his brother and his son have been incarcerated. He shared his thoughts at the Aspen Institute in a conversation with Michele Norris, executive director of The Bridge, the Institute’s new program on race and cultural identity.
In his book, Writing to Save a Life, Wideman introduces Louis Till, Emmett’s father. Ten years before his son’s death, Louis was executed by the US Army during World War II after being convicted of rape and murder. Although Louis’ past was used in court as evidence that Emmett was a “bad seed,” his story has since been forgotten. Wideman himself did not read about the execution until decades after he had first learned of Emmett’s death. In his research, Wideman found the circumstances of Louis’ conviction to be questionable. This motivated him to tell the stories of father and son together for the first time.
By diving deeper into the Louis Till files, Wideman sought to reestablish a historical continuity for the Till family to show his readers how the injustices against both men are tragically linked. The surfacing of Louis’ execution in a gossip magazine in 1955 generated an upsurge of support for Emmett’s killers. This led to their subsequent acquittal by an all-white jury.
Carolyn Bryant, the woman who initially accused Emmett of grabbing her and being sexually crude, recently recanted her story in an interview with Timothy Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till. Tyson joined Wideman after the talk to sign books and answer questions. While he does not believe that Bryant will be brought to account for her actions, he credits Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley with creating her own form of justice. Tyson said that Mamie was able to turn Emmett’s death into a movement that resurrected “the democratic dreams of reconstruction towards full citizenship for African Americans.”
The stories of Emmett and Louis Till are testaments to the silence of our institutions in the face of racial injustice. These injustices are still present today. As “the Emmett Till generation” of activists makes way for movements like Black Lives Matter, these books serve as a reminder that social transformation requires a few history lessons.
Watch the full discussion: