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Old Newspapers Shed New Light On Emmett Till Murder

Mar 31, 2013
Originally published on March 31, 2013 6:21 pm

New details about one of Mississippi's most infamous murders are coming to light — more than a half-century later. The death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who allegedly whistled at a white woman, helped spark the civil rights movement.

Till lived in Chicago, and was visiting his relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he was murdered. His body was mutilated and dumped into a river. The accused were the woman's husband and her half-brother, and their trial drew reporters from both the white and black press.

Researchers have long studied the court proceedings. Among them, Davis Houck, a professor at Florida State University and co-author of a book about the media's coverage of the trial.

It wasn't until a few years ago, however, that Houck learned another black paper — the St. Louis Argus — also had journalists there. But the paper's archive from that time had gone missing.

So he began working with his students to track down the Argus. It was one frustrating dead end after another, as microfilms from that time didn't contain the trial coverage. Then, just a few days ago, they caught a break. Houck and his students figured out the missing issues were in a state historical archive in Missouri.

"This is just going to be another layer for us to process," he says. "Another layer of what it was like to be black in the Jim Crow South covering this case."

Houck says he still has to go through the documents to see if the paper scored an exclusive interview with anyone or if it offers any new piece of evidence at all.

The discovery is already a treasure trove, however, with never-before-seen pictures of the NAACP's Medgar Evers as well as articles written during the trial and long forgotten. Houck says he's savoring the find and taking his time to read through the new discovery. His search, though, is not done yet.

"There's a couple of Canadian newspapers and a London newspaper we're still searching for, and one from New York, actually, too," he says. "So I'm encouraging all the folks who study civil rights history, let's keep looking."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Mississippi, where new details about one of the state's most infamous murders are coming to light; the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who whistled at a white woman.

As NPR's Russell Lewis reports, the new information gives a clearer picture of that time in 1955.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Emmett Till lived in Chicago and was visiting his relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he was murdered. His body mutilated and dumped into a river. The accused were the woman's husband and half-brother. The trial drew reporters from both the white and black press.

Researchers have long studied the court proceedings, among them, Davis Houck. He's a professor at Florida State University and co-author of a book about the media's coverage of the trial. But it wasn't until a few years ago that Houck learned another black paper, the St. Louis Argus, also had journalists there. But the paper's archive from that time: missing.

DAVIS HOUCK: You know, is there a conspiracy here? Somebody doesn't want us to see the coverage. You know, what's going on here?

LEWIS: So he began working with his students to track down the Argus. It was one frustrating dead-end after another. Microfilms from that time didn't contain the trial coverage. But then, a few days ago, a break. Houck and his students figured out the missing issues were in a state historical archive in Missouri.

HOUCK: So this is just going to be another layer for us to process. Another layer of what it is was like to be black in the Jim Crow South covering this case. I've still got to go through the documents to kind of see, did they score an exclusive interview with somebody? Did they offer us a new piece of evidence?

LEWIS: Already, it's a treasure trove. Never before seen pictures of the NAACP's Medgar Evers, as well as articles written during the trial and long forgotten. Houck says he's savoring the find and taking his time to read through the new discovery. His search, though, is not done yet.

HOUCK: There's a couple of Canadian newspapers and a London newspaper we're still searching for, and one from New York actually too. So I'm encouraging all the folks out there who study Civil Rights history, let's keep looking.

LEWIS: It was one death and one trial. But the Emmett Till story energized Civil Rights advocates. Now, this new old information is helping researchers understand that time just a bit better.

Russell Lewis, NPR News.

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