The Lynching of Emmett Till and Toni Morrison's Writing (Shane Colleran)
The following essay is based on a text authored by student Shane Colleran, with edits and additional text added by Amardeep Singh.
The murder of Emmett Till in 1955, a pivotal event in the Amercian civil right movement, is referenced early in Song of Solomon, and it proves to be a formative moment for the character Guitar Bains as well as for others involved in the Seven Days. Here is how the event is introduced in Morrison's novel:
“Sh!” said Railroad Tommy. Guitar turned around and motioned him to come in but to be quiet. They were listening to the radio and muttering and shaking their heads. It was some time before Milkman discovered what they were so tense about. A young Negro boy had been found stomped to death in Sunflower County, Mississippi. There were no questions about who stomped him—his murderers had boasted freely—and there were no questions about the motive. The boy had whistled at some white woman, refused to deny he had slept with others, and was a Northerner visiting the South. His name was Till. (Morrison, 80)
Historically, both Emmett Till's lynching and the subsequent acquittal of his killers demonstrate the prevalence of institutional racism in the South at the time, especially in the judicial system. On August 28, 1955, Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago, was brutally murdered by two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, in Mississippi. He was beaten, his eyes were gouged, he was shot in the head, and he was tied with barbed wire and throw in a river for allegedly flirting with a white woman a few days prior. The death of Till sparked a variety of reactions across the country, with many newspapers in the South appearing to be sympathetic to the killers. In the Black press, the response to the killing was outrage and bewilderment; on Mamie Till's request, the African-American oriented magazine Jet published graphic photos of Till's mutilated corpse, which provoked widespread anger. A second round of controversy arose in September 1955, after the killers were acquitted by an all-white despite overwhelming evidence linking them to the crime.
An article published in The Plain Dealer, an African American run newspaper out of Kansas City, shortly after the killing details the disgust and shame of the black community. The author writes,
We are disgusted, however, with the defense’s charge to the jury. The jurors were pointedly referred to as “Anglo-Saxons” and were urged to do their duty lest their “forefathers turn over in their graves.” This was a vicious, bigoted slur on every American. It brought the ugly racial nationality issues which long have plagued this nation into focus. (Plain Dealer)
The invocation of the "forefathers" and the explicit racial tone in the address to the jury -- by a white lawyer to an all-white panel of jurors -- regarding the killing of a Black child, underscores the bias built into the judicial system. Whether you are from the North or South, black or white, the killing of Till and the acquittal of his killers reflects poorly on all individuals as Americans.
This section of a Black newspaper that represents the frustrated and emotional view of many can be contrasted with the way the killers were represented in many white circles. Davis Houck, an African American historian, writes, regarding the portrayal of Till’s killers,
The Clarion- Ledger published its first pictures of the accused kidnapper-murderers. Rather than a police mug shot, the paper featured J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant in separate side-by-side photographs—in military dress. The smiling men looked nothing like racist thugs, nor yet the “sick” and “depraved” criminals of the Jackson Daily News’s editorial; rather, the accused looked like avuncular and likeable smiling patriots proud to represent America abroad. (Davis Houck)
This troubling depiction of the killers is reflective of the pervasive white-supremacist attitude in the United States at that time. The newspaper intentionally would not include the mugshots of the killers, which might have implied criminality. By normalizing the men as much as possible, white southerns media portrayals of them led many readers to downplay the violence of their action. It is also important to note the military dress, which would have elicited further sympathy. Also, by referring to Milam and Bryan as "patriots," their actions are given historical weight and gravitas.
In effect, there was a distinct divide in the country’s reception to the killing of Till. Black people and progressive whites condemned the action, yet many other white people were either indifferent to or even supported 'vigilante' justice against a perceived 'Black sexual predator.' This divided response is part of the reason the killing has been such a topic of scholarly and historical research, and why authors like Morrison have taken such an interest in the circumstances and responses to the killing.
Toni Morrison's Engagements with Emmett Till: Dreaming Emmett and Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison has a complicated relationship with the figure of Till, engaging with him in her 1977 novel Song of Solomon, as well as in her play, Dreaming Emmett (1986). Toni Morrison views Till’s murder as a monumental event in the lives of African-Americans, and firmly believes that African-Americans alive today still are affected psychologically by both the death of Till and the result of the trial.
What we know about Dreaming Emmett is limited, since Morrison destroyed all available typescripts after the play was produced at the Marketplace Theatre in Albany, New York; she subsequently never allowed the play to be formally published. We do know that the play was commissioned to celebrate the first federal holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., suggesting that Morrison and others saw Till's legacy as connected to the broader Civil Rights movement (Beaulieu, 22). The only accounts of the work we have are from reviews written by people who attended the few live performances that took place in Albany in 1986. The play is a psychological dive into the mind of an anonymous young black male. Morrison says, regarding her literary objective of the play,
[the play] raises questions about history. Can the murder of a Mississippi boy thirty years ago be a shared collective nightmare of the American soul, black and white? Is the past too different from the present for any generation even to perceive the past? Is history a ‘dream’ that produces only ambiguity and forgetfulness? (Rubin)
Morrison’s view of Till is uniquely critical and introspective. Her anonymous protagonist connects the past and the present, linking the ever-present fact that young black men are disproportionately murdered compared to their white peers. In her first question in the quote, Morrison calls us to reflect on how Till’s death remains an obelisk of hatred and bigotry. She echoes a similar point to the black writer in the The Plain Dealer. She asserts that the murder of Till is a stain and strain on all citizens of the United States, not just black people. Morrison, finally, calls the reader to think about the importance of the past.
Another passage that describes aspects of the play can be found in Margaret Croyden's profile of Morrison and the play in the New York Times:
The characters and the action shift back and forth in time and place, and there is a play within a play. The nonlinear story involves an anonymous black boy who was murdered. In a dream state he suffers the pain of remembering his death* 30 years before. Seeking revenge and a place in history, he summons up the perpetrators of his murder, as well as his family and friends, all to be characters in the dream. But his ghosts refuse to be controlled by his imagination; all see the past in their own way, as the boy doggedly searches for a meaning to his death and thereby his life. At one point he is challenged by a member of the audience, a black woman who rejects his dream and provokes a confrontation on sexual issues. (Croyden, 1986. Cited in Beaulieu, p. 106)
Emmett Till in Song of Solomon
The figure of Emmett Till in Song of Solomon performs two functions in the novel. First, the invocation of Till moves the plot along by furthering the separation in ideologies between Milkman (Macon Dead, Jr.) and Guitar Bains. Secondly and more importantly, it gives historical information into the various ideologies possessed by Black men at the time. The reactions to Till’s death in Black communities was influential in the building of civil rights movements and calls for justice. The passage in the barbershop following the announcement of the death on the radio reveals a multitude of reactions to the killing within the black community. Hospital Tommy, one of the older men in the group says,
I’m serious now,” Hospital Tommy went on. “There is no cause for all this. The boy’s dead. His mama’s screaming. Won’t let them bury him. That ought to be enough colored blood on the streets. You want to spill blood, spill the crackers’ blood that bashed his face in. (Morrison 92)
Here, we can see the aggressive “eye for an eye” attitude that becomes explored further in the novel though the "Seven Days." Hospital Tommy and Guitar Bains seem to perceive the killing of Till as humiliating to the Black community in general and Black men in particular. In her novel, Morrison appears to condemns this attitude and the actions of the Seven Days, though their prominence in the novel suggests how important it is to acknowledge the validity of militant Black responses to racialized violence: in the case of Till, both the racist values of white southerners and the American legal system appeared to align, offering no pathway to justice through the legal or political system for the Black community
It is evident Morrison did her research, as the sources given in white newspapers support the expectations and attitudes predicted by the men in the barbershop in Morrison's novel. Rather than emphasize the horror of the gruesome murder of a fourteen-year old boy, mainstream newspapers emphasized the humanity and patriotism of the killers, and a jury later acquitted them in short order. The fatalistic response of the men in the barershop to Till's killing ("They'll catch 'em, all right, and give 'em a big party and a medal" ), was clearly an echo of the historical reality that existed for Black people in the 1950s. The cycle of violence and pervasiveness into the present, as is referenced in Dreaming Emmett, are not broken by these two approaches. Morrison recognizes the effects of Till’s murder and the thousand others just like him are haunting, though the obsession with retribution we see emerging in Guitar over the course of the novel is not going to lead to healing or fix the original sin of American racism. Rather, Milkman's journey of introspection and self-learning seems to offer a better path to well-being and self-respect for Black folks impacted by systemic racism and racialized violence.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth. The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing (2003).
Croyden. "TONI MORRISON TRIES HER HAND AT PLAYWRITING." The New York Times, 29 Dec. 1985, www.nytimes.com/1985/12/29/theater/toni-morrison-tries-her-hand-at-playwriting.html. Accessed 25 Apr. 2021.
History.com. Emmett Till is murdered, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-death-of-emmett-till.
Houck, Davis W., and Matthew A. Grindy. Emmett till and the Mississippi Press.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York, Knopf, 1977.
Rubim. "Reflections on the Death of Emmett Till." Jstor.com, 1995, www.jstor.org/stable/26235389?seq=17#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021."What Others Say Mississippi Trial Reveals Bigot's Danger to All." The Plain Dealer [Kansas City], 23 Sept. 1955, p. 7. Accessed 25 Apr. 2021.