|Emmett Till in Different States
Poems by Dr. Philip C. Kolin
|Third World Press, 2015
A friend asked me the other day if I thought the world was ending. She was drowning in the constant-seeming reports of violence in the news, on college campuses, in the streets of major cities, violence so often targeting minorities and the poor. My first thought was to consider America in the ’60s. After centuries of slavery, the oppression of Night Riders and lynching meant to stifle dissent, the hidden slavery of forced labor in prison systems in the South, change seemed to be coming. People were marching in the streets in protest of this barbarity and making national headlines. But so many Civil Rights leaders were murdered for their troubles—Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers—in addition to Freedom Riders beaten and murdered, church bombings, race riots; countless people of color were attacked, threatened, and silenced. In my own home state of Arkansas, the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School, telling the story that they had to wring their clothes out after they got inside the school because they’d been so soaked in spit from the jeering mob outside. It must’ve seemed like the end of the world then, too. Out of the horrors of the ’60s, which were just an extension of the horrors many African Americans and minorities faced since the beginnings of this country, one crime has stood out as particularly brutal. The murder of Emmett Till made national headlines not because a young black man was murdered in the South. Nor was the fact that Till’s murderers went free a particularly uncommon event. Till may have been forgotten, as countless victims before and after him, were it not for the courage of his mother, who held an open casket service, and the newspapers and magazines that covered the tragedy and expressed the outrage many in the nation felt. Now, this centuries-long culture of subjugation and violence was, at least, being exposed in tones too pervasive to ignore.
On the 60th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, Dr. Kolin has released a collection of poems chronicling the events surrounding Till’s death and the reverberations it created. The book begins with excerpts from articles in Southern newspapers of the time, which mostly distort the situation to make Till seem at fault. Similarly, in an interview with Look Magazine, Till’s murderers claimed that the 14-year old was unrepentant and didn’t show them the proper respect, forcing them to kill him, something novelist William Faulkner responds to in his Harper’s essay, “On Fear,” saying,
If the facts as stated in the Look Magazine account of the Till affair are correct, this remains: two adults, armed, in the dark, kidnap a fourteen-year-old boy and take him away to frighten him. Instead of which, the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone, in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him…. What are we Mississippians afraid of?
In the end, Till has been cast as something not quite human in many ways, first by his murderers, and later by those who consider him a martyr, a symbol more than a 14-year-old teen. Dr. Kolin tries to humanize Till. “Facts about Me” lists basic details one might not think of with Till, such as his bout with polio:
I was born breeched.
They had to tie a red string
around my wrist to pull me out.
Mama said breech babies would have
more danger in their lives.
Kolin focuses on much of the minutia of Till’s life, finding meaning in his wallet, with its pre-packaged photos, his hat, his father’s ring, his spelling ability. These things serve to show that Till had human reactions.
The environment of Money, Mississippi, where Till was murdered, lends much to the feel of the book. The Tallahatchie River, in which Till’s body was found, appears many times, and the culture of the place is explored in several poems. “Mamie Till’s Warning,” imagines what Till’s mother might have told him about Mississippi:
She lectured me about lynching trees
with their bitter fruit hanging
A few feet from the ground—
all the space a black person really needed.
I heard her cry about the night riders
who stole black men and boys away
And drug them home
as pulp-faced ghosts.
I had to learn fast that the rules
of white etiquette in Mississippi
Were written on the inside of
Reading and thinking about what happened to Till is troubling, but one of the most devastating poems in the collection is “Slop Jars,” which tells the story of donations gathered to fund the murderers’ defense.
They put them out all over
Tallahatchie County—from Charleston
to Sumner to Webb to Whitehead—
in stores, gas stations, fire stations,
police stations, schools, hospitals,
banks, restaurants, morgues,
post offices, any public place
unafraid of shame
The callousness reverberates far beyond the page. Without this perspective, it might be easy to dismiss Till’s murder as a singular act, an anomaly. Dr. Kolin makes sure to list businesses from all walks of life, professional and private, to demonstrate that this hatred crossed economic classes. It’s not completely hopeless, though, as Dr. Kolin points out:
They found mostly loose change and talk,
IOU’s, congratulations, even a pair of jokers
from a deck of cards. But not enough.
they never got half of what was promised.
Legal fees were costly and they had a roof
and sheets to put over their heads.
He goes on to describe their ruined finances, as the store owned by Bryant went out of business, not that financial troubles in any way balance the evil done by these men.
Dr. Kolin eventually shifts the narrative from Till to the broader reverberations Till’s murder caused throughout American culture, from Eisenhower’s silence on the murder, to other, similar, murders such as Trayvon Martin’s.
So is the world ending? For Till and Martin and so many others, it has, and for many African Americans and minorities, the fear is that their worlds, their lives, will end, similarly, in violence and oppression. Many people would like to think that the world that allowed—encouraged—these murders to happen is ending, that these most recent vile acts are the death throes of racist hegemony. Maybe they’re right, but it smacks of laurel-resting and wishful thinking. The real lesson to take from Till’s murder, finally, is one of vigilance.