By Paul Von Blum
Paul Von Blum is a longtime member of the California State Bar and has taught at the University of California for over 40 years. He is currently senior lecturer in African American Studies at UCLA.
John Edgar Wideman, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, Scribner, 216, 208 pp. $25.00.
The tragic story of fourteen-year-old African American Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching in Mississippi is well known for its unspeakable brutality, grotesque injustice when an all-white jury freed his two murderers, and its significance as one of the catalysts in the modern civil rights movement. Seeing the image of young Emmett Till’s mutilated body in an open casket has haunted countless Americans throughout their lives. His mother, Mamie Till, performed an enduring public service when she decided to show the world what racist killers had done to her only child. It was a grim reminder of the tragic history of violence against African Americans, which began with slavery and continues to the present.
But few people know the equally tragic story of Emmett Till’s father, Louis Till, who was hanged, probably unjustly, by the United States military in 1945, ten years before his son was lynched. John Edgar Wideman, one of contemporary America’s premier literary figures in contemporary America, now reveals this hidden history with the publication of Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File.
This remarkable new book is an engaging fusion of fiction, memoir, investigative journalism, speculation, and fact that defies easy categorization. It falls into no conventional literary genre, which augments its power and effectiveness. Above all, it is an exquisite rumination of collective and individual memory, a treatment of American racist brutality that implicates the entirety of U.S. history, which includes its awed system of law and justice.
The book is divided into three sections: “Louis Till,” “The File,” and “Graves.” Yet each section is not fully distinct and transcends its formal title. Like the volume as a whole, they move seamlessly from subject to subject across national, legal, and personal history. That structure, while perhaps initially jarring, becomes a source of the book’s overall power and strength.
The first section, “Louis Till,” begins with the author’s refection about the murder of the senior Till’s son in 1955. Wideman was exactly Emmett’s age when he learned of the murder. Their birthdays in 1941 were a little more than a month apart. “I was fourteen the first time I saw the photo in Jet,” he writes. “Emmett Till’s age that summer they murdered him. Him colored, me colored. Him a boy, me too.” He reveals his reaction even more disconcertingly: . . . “ a dead colored boy murdered in Money, Mississippi, whose mutilated face looked like a bug squashed under his thumb.” Many young African American boys in 1955 could also imagine themselves in the place of young Emmett, spared only because they were in Pittsburgh or Los Angeles or New York, instead of Money, Mississippi.
The Emmett Till case outraged older African Americans and reminded them painfully of the infamous history of thousands of lynchings of their fellow black men, women, and even children since the end of Reconstruction. When Jet Magazine published the photograph of Emmett Till’s mangled face, its predominantly black viewers saw the raw face of racism that had despoiled American history since its inception. Appalled and disgusted, very few were surprised.
The phony trial of Till’s killers also reinforced African Americans’ deep suspicion about the fairness of the American legal system, especially in the South. The monstrous injustice of that farcical proceeding was apparent to all who observed it. As Wideman reports from the Chicago Defender account of the trial, the black press was limited to four seats while the white press had twenty-two in a racially segregated courtroom. Wideman further quotes that the Jackson Daily News’ account of the local Sheriff’s denial regarding Emmett Till’s body: “The whole thing looks like a deal made by the NAACP.” That was the official story. For white segregationist public officials, only communist-inspired civil rights organizations could concoct such a tale about a vicious murder of a teen- age black boy from Chicago.
Early in the book’s first section, Wideman turns directly to the troublesome case of Emmett’s father, Louis Till. Instead of employing actual quotations from news sources, Wideman draws on his powerful talents as a fiction writer to express the racism of the American military in World War II and the near universal attitudes of African American soldiers in that conflict:
Army lies …Treat us like slaves. Like animals. Yes they did. And nothing we could do about it. . . . Treat us colored soldiers like they own us, like they got the God-given right to kick us, spit on us and the only right we got is salute and say, Yes sir. Here’s my behind, sir. Kick it again, sir….White man lie say you’re guilty––you’re guilty. Case closed.
By using the expressiveness of black language, Wideman reveals the deeper essence of the structural military racism during that time. This was the environment that led to the arrest, trial, and execution of Louis Till, Mamie Till’s husband and Emmett Till’s father.
Those sentiments accurately reflect the historical reality of African American participation in the United States armed forces. As late as World War II, black soldiers and sailors were treated neither equally nor decently. They served in racially segregated units, often performing menial tasks under white officers. It was not until 1948, when President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, that the military finally desegregated all its operations.
The second section of Writing to Save a Life involves the government’s le on Louis Till (The File), which Wideman requested through the Freedom of Information Act. That le reflects the shoddy treatment that soldiers of color experienced in the military justice system during World War II. Wideman waited a long time for its arrival and was actually convinced for a while that it would never come. When it did, Wideman discovered that its pages were not numbered consecutively and the entries were not arranged chronologically. He had to pencil numbers on the file’s pages in order to make any sense of it.
Wideman read the Louis Till le cover to cover many times, trying to make sense of its “frustrating discontinuities, helter-skelter chronology, bits and pieces of handwritten military dispatches and typed correspondence tossed in with no apparent rhyme or reason.” At one level, this is probably a function of bureaucratic ineptitude. At a deeper level, however, the military has little inclination to be transparent about its awed criminal processes, especially when the result was the execution of two black men, Till and Fred McMurray.
Whether deliberate or not, the confusing le itself reflects the institutional racism that underlies the case as a whole and the grimmer reality of the grossly disproportionate death sentences during World War II imposed on African American military personnel. Prof. Alice Kaplan of Yale University indicated that 83 percent of the men executed in Europe, North Africa, and the Mediterranean for the crimes of rape and murder during World War II were African Americans. This reflects the systematic racial bias of the military justice system where very few African American officers were available to sit on courts martial and review boards. This mirrored the general U.S. criminal justice system (including the trial of Emmett Till’s killers) where white judges and juries were the dominant reality.
Louis Till and Fred McMurray were accused, tried, convicted, and executed for rape and murder of white civilians in June 1944 in Civitavecchia, Italy. The entire process followed from an order from the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower, which called for an expeditious resolution of all pending cases alleging capital crimes that U.S. service personnel committed against foreign nationals.
The facts of the Louis Till case are ambiguous. On the evening of June 27, 1944, while antiaircraft artillery rumbled in the background, “all hell broke loose,” as Wideman reports. Two Italian women were allegedly raped and one Italian woman was murdered. American soldiers were in the vicinity, including Privates Louis Till and Fred McMurray. Masked intruders, according to the file, were responsible for the crimes, including one who carried a gun. When they burst through the door where one of the rape victims, Frieda Mari, lived, one of them lit a match, ostensibly allowing the inhabitants to identify them as “three colored men.” But the witness accounts were sketchy and vague, probably an inevitable response in light of the horrific crimes they experienced.
Wideman expresses the tragedy of the scene with graphic, literary candor: “No doubt about it. Some brutal, ugly shit went down in Civitavecchia.” The issue is whether sufficient evidence existed to condemn Louis Till to death. The le reveals astonishingly accurate descriptions of the perpetrators. Witness statements are precise, indicating the exact height of the men (5’10’ and 5’6”). But these are the written reports from Army Criminal Investigation Division agents, hardly disinterested figures in the saga. They are translated from Italian to English and from centimeters and meters to inches and feet.
At the court martial itself, however, no victim could actually identify Till or McMurray. That is not unusual in criminal and other trials. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously problematic, especially back then. Wideman makes no attempt in his book to perform a systematic review of the actual evidence and its striking contradictions, as a competent appellate lawyer would do, especially in a capital case. Writing to Save a Life has deeper objectives, far beyond its specific factual critique of a probable individual legal injustice.
As a writer and public intellectual, John Wideman seeks to expose the systemic racism among the legal personnel charged with administering the military justice system in 1945. His text shows how agents had ample and irresistible opportunities for abuse, reflecting their fundamental attitudes and General Eisenhower’s desire to expedite existing criminal matters in the European theater at the end of the war.
Wideman claims reasonably, given the powerful racial biases of the era, that interrogators planted information and coaxed and coerced witnesses to provide information used to convict the defendants. More chilling, he likens the entire procedure to the logic of Southern lynch “law.” Louis Till and Fred McMurray were black men accused of raping white women, the infamous excuse for murdering black men for centuries in the United States. In essence, the military hanging of Louis Till in 1945 was a real life version 30 years after the infamous Ku Klux Klan lynching of the character Gus in D.W. Griffith’s racist “classic,” “Birth of a Nation.”
Privates Till and McMurray were sentenced to death, as Wideman bitterly maintains, “on the basis of being the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He concludes that the Louis Till File is replete with lies and is little more than a cover for a rush to judgment that has regularly occurred with black men accused of crimes against whites, especially rape. The swift “justice” in the military system at that time is scarcely different from the 1944 South Carolina case where 14 year-old African American George Stinney was convicted of murder by an all-white jury in ten minutes and almost immediately executed in the electric chair. It also bears a disconcerting resemblance to the 1945 Mississippi case of Willie McGee, a black man accused of raping a white woman. He was convicted by an all-white jury in three minutes and executed six years later despite international protests.
By lambasting the racism of the military justice system in 1945, Wide- man nevertheless seeks no whitewash of Louis Till himself. Till was, at best, a problematic figure who quite possibly had something to do with the grisly events in Civitavecchia that June night in 1945. He had previously assaulted his wife Mamie and was judicially forced to enlist in the United States Army rather than face jail time. But his unsavory character is likely no different from that of many other victims of injustice over the years. Some persons executed but tried and convicted under racist or other deplorable circumstances were probably guilty of the crimes for which they were originally charged. It is also possible that some African American lynching victims may have raped their white female victims.
That is beside the point. The United States Constitution––as well as common decency––requires that persons accused of crimes be afforded rigorous due process protections. The Louis Till case falls absurdly short of that standard. John Wideman provides a service by bringing the case to public attention. The sketchy les that Wideman received and reviewed reveal that due process was conspicuously missing. No one should have been convicted, much less executed, on this corrupt example of judicial indifference, even contempt, for the truth and for the rights of the accused.
The third and final section of this book is titled “Graves.” This segment exhibits the most complex features of the work and gives readers a compelling sense of the powerful implications of the Louis Till case. These implications reflect African American historical consciousness, which includes personal recollections (some extremely intimate), family memories, and collective racial flashbacks of political and legal injustices and oppression, among many other elements.
After reading and rereading the Louis Till le, Wideman flew to France to find and visit Louis Till’s grave. Till is buried in a small plot of land outside the official grounds of the Oise-Aisne American cemetery in France, which contains the remains of 6,012 American war dead from World War I. Till is buried in Grave 73, Row 7, Plot E, a separate, hidden section approximately 100 yards away. Here, there are 96 small markers made of marble squares with numbers and no names. They are allotted half the space given the other graves across the road. They are the American military prisoners, mostly black, who were executed, by hanging or ring squad: the “dishonored dead.” No flag flies over Plot E. None are encouraged to visit.
Ambivalent about the journey, he visited the grave site and walked along the beach in Northern France. The trip catalyzed a flood of personal memories that returned him to his Pittsburgh childhood in the 1940s and 1950s. Several personal stories permeate the final section of the book, reinforcing its overall nonlinear structure and adding significantly to its strength and appeal.
Wideman’s French journey also generated even more disturbing feelings and speculations about the fate of Private Till, as well as the anguish of his fellow black prisoners who endured brutal treatment from their white captors. The prisoners were confined at the Disciplinary Training Center at Metato, near Pisa, Italy. Wideman calls it a black hole, where African American soldiers constituted approximately 25 percent of the inmates. They were at the mercy of white officers, most of whom were overtly racist. They were subjected to beatings, humiliations, and oppressive labor. As Wideman puts it, they were born again slaves, not dissimilar to the obscenely large number of African American inmates imprisoned in America today.
Above all, this remarkable book is a meditation on the complex history that people of African ancestry have endured over the centuries in this country. It is a glimpse into collective memory that includes mundane features of personal life as well as the continuing oppression of legal and political institutions. Wideman’s literary style, which sometimes abruptly moves from an examination of a legal le to a rumination about his early sexual encounter with his first girlfriend or childhood visits to the barbershop, can be unsettling to audiences, like lawyers, who may prefer straightforward analytic treatments of complex subject matter.
But memory is never straightforward and recollections of oppressed peoples likewise range widely across the personal and political landscapes. Wideman’s style reflects the realities of people who may share pleasant memories of family life while experiencing egregious discrimination (or worse) from police, judges, prison officials, and other legal officials. Millions of African Americans shift rapidly from loving treatment, or the opposite, in black families and schools to recollections of lynch victims and legal injustices. The latter recollections, especially for older people, often re- mind them of the cases of George Stinney, Willie McGee, and countless others. Millions too, like John Wideman himself, have images of Emmett Till their memory. With this book, the specter of Louis Till has been added to the mix.
Writing to Save a Life is not a hopeful book. In many ways it is quite the opposite. It is the lament of a 75 year-old distinguished writer who has also experienced profound personal tragedy, with both a brother and a son serving long prison terms. In 2017 African Americans have little cause for optimism. To be sure, the United States military is no longer the segregated institution it was during the time of Louis Till. The Uniform Code of Military Justice, passed by Congress in 1950 and signed by President Harry Truman, provides many of the due process rights conspicuously missing during the Louis Till fiasco. Moreover, while the death penalty remains in the law, it has become extremely rare, nothing like the veritable bloodbath it was during the Second World War. Still, Wideman’s deeper pessimism about the law as it affects and oppresses African Americans, personified in the 1945 case of Private Louis Till, is entirely justified.
The events of the very recent past fortify the vision emanating from this book. In 1991, for example, when several Los Angeles Police Department officers savagely beat Rodney King with fifty-six baton blows and several kicks, many African Americans were not surprised. They believed that the only difference between what happened to King and what happens to many other black men was that someone happened to have a video camera. Although outraged, many blacks were likewise not surprised when the state court jury acquitted three of the officers and deadlocked on the fourth.
Similarly, in Los Angeles, the killer of 15 year-old African American Latisha Harlans in 1992 received only five years of probation and 400 hours of community service. That case exposed the raw emotions of millions of African Americans and entered the storehouse of memory that Wideman expresses so effectively. What Emmett Till was for his generation, Rodney King and Latasha Harlans were for theirs.
The examples from the early twenty-first century are similarly grim: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray—all of whose killers have been exonerated by the American legal system. Their stories have entered the memories of contemporary African Americans. A literary successor to John Wideman may well relate some of those stories as part of a meditation on African American historical consciousness. Until Americans fully realize that the ghosts of the past remain deeply embedded in African American consciousness, nothing will change, especially in the perilous years of the Donald Trump regime.