GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER:
The True Story of The Emmett Till Case
Written by Chris Crowe
(Speak/Dial BYR; $10.99, Ages 12 and up)
Author Chris Crowe first wrote Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of The Emmett Till Case, a riveting and award-winning nonfiction book, back in 2003. Today I’m reviewing a revised edition that “has been updated to reflect the newest information about Emmett’s life and untimely death …” which should be read by every teen to understand the Jim Crow era South and “the hate crime that helped spark the civil rights movement.”
In the L.A. Times on Friday, July 13, I read that the Emmett Till case has once again been reopened based upon new information that has come to the attention of authorities. I needed to know more. Over the years I only learned snippets about the case because, like a majority of students to this day, I was never taught the Till case in school. Now that I’ve read Crowe’s engaging, well-crafted and meticulously researched book, I know about the grave miscarriage of justice that occurred in Mississippi in 1955. In an intro, eight chapters, a detailed time line plus back matter, Crowe examines events leading up to the brazen and brutal murder of 14-year-old African American, Emmett Till, the subsequent trial and later developments that culminated in the exhumation of Till’s body. Crowe’s also tied in the Black Lives Matter movement that grew out of the senseless Trayvon Martin killing. For those yet to read Getting Away With Murder, Crowe puts all the events that take place into historical context by educating us about current events of the time period. For example, the heinous, racist crime against Till took place three months prior to Rosa Parks’ historic bus activism and was an important catalyst in the civil rights movement. Covering the case should be part of every school’s curriculum especially given that innocent black lives continue to be taken 63 years on.
Emmett Till and his mother lived in Chicago, but when his Uncle Mose Wright, a sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta region, invited him for a visit, he jumped at the opportunity to spend time with his family. It was the summer following eighth grade and fun-loving Emmett was feeling good. His mother, on the other hand, felt nervous. Mrs. Mamie Till Bradley knew that, while she and her son lived in a segregated Chicago neighborhood, theirs was a relatively racial violence free existence. Emmett didn’t have to deal with the harsh realities and repercussions of the Deep South Jim Crow era laws. But Mamie was from Mississippi. She worried Emmett wouldn’t take the law or her advice seriously and sadly she mother was right. He found her cautions silly.
Once with his southern family, Emmett was boastful about his life in Chicago, about how he interacted with and claimed to date white women. Not long after his arrival, in the nearby town of Money, Till was egged on by his cousins. He went into Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, a small white-owned store belonging to Roy and Carolyn, to chat up the woman. Bryant was out of town on a delivery and his wife was alone in the store. Things turned bad quickly when Emmett, who didn’t “appreciate the seriousness of this Southern taboo …” entered Bryan’t market, asked for some candy and then made a pass at Carolyn. According to her statement, “… when she held out her hand for his money, … he grabbed it, pulled her toward him, and said, ‘How about a date, baby?'” Some other interaction occurred as well. This was followed by a wolf whistle after Emmett had been pulled from the store by his friends.
When nothing happened for several nights everyone thought Emmett was in the clear. As we know, such was not the case. When Bryant returned from his trip, he and his half-brother, J. W. “Big” Milam, kidnappped Emmett in the middle of the night. The men felt retaliation was required to defend Bryant’s wife’s honor and teach the boy a lesson so they tortured him. When he was defiant, they killed him. One of five lawyers, J. J. Breland, who eventually took on the defendant’s case said they all felt intense pressure to “let the North know that we are not going to put up with Northern negroes ‘stepping over the line.'” As the title implies, the men were acquitted. While in their minds justice prevailed, it clearly had not. The case won national coverage due to multiple reasons, but one of the most crucial ones was Mamie Till Bradley’s decision to have an open casket at Emmett’s funeral so the world could see just what had been done to her son.
Getting Away With Murder explains how much of what happened that summer was driven by racism, fear and anger. Bryant and his fellow Southerners were unhappy about the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating desegregation in schools. The majority of the population in the segregated South did not want their way of life to change, especially if dictated by Northerners. But it was truly the beginning of the end for them.
There were many surprises in the book for me but I don’t want to share them all here. While their significance is of the utmost importance, I think they have to be read first hand to appreciate the implications and feel the outrage. What’s sad about this pivotal event in our country’s history is that while a lot has changed, a lot has unfortunately remained the same in regards to racism. Last night I described the Emmett Till case to my husband who had never heard of it. My 17-year-old son had. My son said he found out more details from me than what he had originally learned. My husband thanked me. We must keep sharing the story. I recommend picking up a copy of Chris Crowe’s book for your teens. They will thank you .
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel