The 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager accused of whistling at a Mississippi white woman, is considered the spark that set off the civil rights movement.
On August 28, Till was abducted in the dead of night from his great uncle's cabin in Money, Miss. Three days later, his body surfaced in the Tallahatchie River. His face was badly disfigured from torture and he was identified only by a ring he was wearing.
Despite having confessed to kidnapping young Till, two white men were quickly acquitted in a trial in nearby Sumner. A few months later, in an interview in "Look" magazine, they admitted their guilt to Alabama journalist William Bradford Huie, depending on double jeopardy to keep them from being tried again. Both are now deceased, and no one has ever been convicted for the murder.
The case prompted black people around the nation to actively begin the fight for equal rights. Three months after Till's death in August, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, and the civil rights movement was on its way.
Two documentaries on the Till case have been produced recently, including one, "The Murder of Emmett Till," that will air on the PBS series, The American Experience, on Monday, Jan. 20.
Coinciding with renewed interest in the Till case is a new book, "The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative," from the University of Virginia Press. Samford University English professor Christopher Metress edited the book, writing introductory passages and compiling voluminous references to the Till case ranging from trial coverage to memoirs, poetry and fiction.
Metress did the book because of student reaction to the details of the case.
"It's the one event from the civil rights movement that students always want to learn more about," said Metress. "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."
The book has received national exposure since its introduction at New York University's Cantor Film Center with the premiere of Keith A. Beauchamp's documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," in November. Since then, Virginia has sold out of its first press run of 3,500 and quickly reordered an additional 5,000 books, which were received this week.
On Jan. 8, the documentary to be aired on PBS had a special private screening on a program at the Museum of Modern Art's Gramercy Theatre in New York City. Metress was invited to appear on a panel there with producer Stanley Nelson and Mamie Till Mobley, Till's mother, following the screening. But Mrs. Mobley died at 81 two days before the program. Metress and Nelson attended the screening and were available for questions.
Metress began teaching students about Emmett Till in 1994 as part of a class on the literature of the civil rights movement. After encouragement from colleagues, he began putting together a book in 1997. Much of the research was done in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Papers in the Library of Congress and in the archives of newspapers that covered the Till case.
In addition to helping teach students about Till and the civil rights movement, Metress hopes the book will show how certain misconceptions about the 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 accepted fact as it is repeated in various accounts over forty years.
"The same is true of the belief that the two men acted alone. Early news accounts clearly establish that there were at least four other men, two whites and two black, involved in the murder. Unfortunately, most of these early accounts are long forgotten.
"In the end, I want the reader to decide what facts stand up as true, based on reading differing accounts. That's why I put together an anthology instead of writing a history."
Metress has taught at Samford since 1993. He is author of an earlier book on the detective writer, Dashiell Hammett. His next proposed project is a book on Galileo. But first, he has appearances relating to the Till book at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis in February, the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville in March and others pending. Plus, he'll teach three classes at Samford during the spring semester, including one that will certainly include material on Emmett Till.