Many know how the lynching of Emmett Till—and the subsequent exoneration of his killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—helped galvanize the Civil Rights Movement. What’s less known is how his family’s quest for justice was undermined by the selective leak of information about his father, Louis. That story is the subject of scholar John Edgar Wideman’s new book, "Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File."
Louis Till, a U.S. Army private serving in Italy during World War II, was charged alongside fellow Black soldier Fred McMurray with raping two Italian women and murdering another in 1944. Both men were court-martialed and sentenced to death by hanging.
Released today (November 15), "Writing to Save a Life" delves into the senior Till’s story, using Army documents and contemporary media to address the flimsy evidence that was mounted against Louis Till at a time when the Army disproportionately executed Black privates for alleged wartime crimes. In the below passage from the book’s first chapter, Wideman explains how the leak of Till’s abruptly de-classified Army files to Southern media destroyed any chance that his family would find any justice during the trials of Milam and Bryant:
As I read more about the trial, I discovered that the jury had deliberated less than an hour—sorry it took so long, folks…we stopped for a little lunch—before it delivered a not guilty verdict. For an American government waging a propaganda war to convince the world of Democracy’s moral superiority over Communism, intense criticism of the verdict abroad and at home was an unacceptable embarassment. Federal officials pressured the state of Mississippi to convict Milam and Bryant of some crime. Since abundant sworn testimony recorded in the Sumner trial had established the fact that Milam and Bryant had forcibly abducted Emmett Till, the new charge would be kidnapping. Justice Department lawyers were confident both men would be found guilty.
Except, two weeks before a Mississippi grand jury was scheduled to convene and decide whether or not Milam and Bryant should be tried for kidnapping, Emmett Till’s father, Louis Till, was conjured like an evil Black rabbit from an evil White hat. Information from Louis Till’s confidential [A]rmy service file was leaked to the press: Emmett Till’s father, Mamie Till’s husband, Louis Till, was not the brave soldier portrayed in Northern newspapers during the Sumner trial who had sacrificed his life in defense of his country. Private Louis Till’s file revealed he had been hanged July 2, 1945, by the U.S. [A]rmy for committing rape and murder in Italy.
With this fact about Emmett Till’s father in hand, the Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Milam and Bryant for kidnapping. Mrs. Mamie Till, her lawyers, advisers and supporters watched in dismay as news of her husband’s execution erased the possibility that killers of her 14-year-old son Emmett would be punished for any crime, whatsoever.
"Writing to Save a Life" is available for purchase now via Scribner.