Chris Metress began teaching students about the murder of Emmett Till in 1994 as part of a class on the literature of the civil rights movement.
"It's the one event from the civil rights movement that students always want to learn about," said Dr. Metress, a Samford University English professor. "They start the semester with no idea that such things were happening. More than any other event, it establishes for them the kind of injustice that had to be overcome."
Till was a black Chicago teenager murdered in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a Mississippi white woman. He was abducted from his great uncle's cabin in rural Mississippi, where he was visiting. Three days later, his body surfaced in the Tallahatchie River.
The case is considered the spark that set off the civil rights movement. After two white men accused of the murder were quickly acquitted, black people around the nation rallied to the fight for civil rights. Three months after Till's death, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a Montgomery white man, and the civil rights movement rolled into high gear.
Metress collected volumes of material on the Till case. In 1997, he began work on an anthology. His book, The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative, was published in November by the University of Virginia Press.
In addition to Metress' introductory passages and conclusion, the book includes voluminous references to the Till case ranging from trial coverage to memoirs, poetry and fiction. Nobody was ever convicted of the crime, although the two men tried in the case later admitted their guilt to Alabama writer William Bradford Huie, who published their confession in an article in Look magazine. The article appears in Metress' book.
The Till case is spotlighted in two news documentaries, both unveiled in recent months in New York City. Metress was a part of both premieres, answering questions and providing commentary on the case.
The first documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," premiered at New York University's Cantor Film Center Nov. 16. Metress joined Mamie Till Mobley, Till's mother, on a panel. The second documentary, "The Murder of Emmett Till," was screened Jan. 8 at the Museum of Modern Art's Gramercy Theatre. Metress and producer Stanley Nelson were to appear on a panel with Till's mother, but she died at age 81 on Jan. 6. The panel was canceled, but Metress and Nelson were available for questions at the program. The Nelson documentary aired Jan. 20 on the PBS show, The American Experience.
In addition to teaching students about the civil rights movement, Metress hopes his book will show how misconceptions about the Till case have developed over the years.
"One popular story is that Till did not understand the severity of his situation, that he was acting brashly, which further incited his captors," said Metress. "My book shows how this interpretation becomes an accepted fact as it is repeated in various accounts over the years. "The same is true of the belief that the two white men acted alone. Early news accounts clearly establish that there were at least four other men, two white and two black, involved in the murder. Unfortunately, most of these accounts are long forgotten.
"In the end, I want the reader to decide what facts stand up as true, based on reading different accounts," said Metress. "That's why I put together an anthology instead of writing a history."