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The Death of Emmett Till -- Bob Dylan

The US has just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day; here's an appropriate
guest poem sent in by Rohit Grover
(Poem #1151) The Death of Emmett Till
 'Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago,
 When a young boy from Chicago walked through a Southern door.
 This boy's fateful tragedy you should all remember well,
 The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.

 Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.
 They said they had a reason, but I disremember what.
 They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat.
 There was screamin' sounds inside the barn, there was laughin' sounds out
     on the street.

 Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a blood red rain
 And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screamin' pain.
 The reason that they killed him there, and I'm sure it was no lie,
 Was just for the fun of killing him and to watch him slowly die.

 And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
 Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.
 But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful
 And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.

 I saw the mornin' papers but I could not bear
 To see the smiling brothers walking down the courthouse stairs.
 For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
 While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.

 If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,
 Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
 Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it
     must refuse to flow,
 For you'd let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

 This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
 That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
 But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we give all we could give,
 We'd make this great land of ours a greater place to live.
-- Bob Dylan
I just watched a PBS documentary on the death of Emmett Till. Emmett Till's
death sparked off the civil rights movement in the US. He was lynched for
whistling at a white woman, and the (white) killers were later acquitted by
an all-white jury in Mississippi. What made my blood boil was that the
killers *confessed* after being acquitted, but the case was not reopened.

Why does this bother me? Those not from India should read Rohinton Mistry's
'A Fine Balance' - there's a disturbing parallel in the Indian caste system.
My generation has grown up with the mantra of no casteism, secularism and so
on. But then I pick up a newspaper (or visit the website here) and read
about Dalit's being lynched, or raped. And it's not just villages - even in
cities like Mumbai caste becomes all-important. Among people from my
generation - engineers, doctors - well-educated, seemingly scientific

Bob Dylan's song captures the frustration so well - and does so beautifully.
The few people who took the witness stand in the Emmett Till case in support
of the prosecution were brave beyond belief.


[Martin adds]

An appropriate companion piece is Phil Ochs's "Too Many Martyrs":

And here's Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech:

83 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

mc said...

Such a powerful and painful subject that any criticism of the poetry seems churlish. Still, I prefer the Phil Ochs. I don't like the way Dylan gets away with awful scansion:

"But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful

Or with using way too many syllables in a line:

"There was screamin' sounds inside the barn, there was laughin' sounds out
on the street."

Or the amateurish way he inverts the language of a sentence in order to reach for a rhyme:

"If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust...dust"

Or the hackneyed way he uses vernacular: "God-awful low," "screamin'" "laughin'" etcetera.

Or the incessant polemic...or the feel-good moral...

Is it actually true that accomplices of the murder served on the jury? Pretty terrible, if true, but I don't trust Dylan to have checked his facts.

I'd walk past a hundred poems like this for a novel like "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, which takes the time and has the sensitivity to treat the good guys and the victims and the evildoers and the audience alike as real human beings, not caricatures, and in the process, lays racism bare with a clarity that can open and change minds. Dylan, at least this pissed off, self-righteous 1962 Dylan, can only preach to the chorus.


Acynta said...

Re: The Murder of Emmett Till.

Though of course it's infuriating that Emmett Till's murderers confessed to
the murder after their acquittal and still escaped justice, it's important to
remember that in the United States you cannot be tried twice for the same
offense. Once tried for the murder, they could not be tried for it again.

In the saga of the American struggle for civil rights, the murder trials that
have taken place in the past decade have generally been trials of men who
were never tried (or arrested) to begin with, due to the prevalent racism of
sheriff's departments across the South. The only exception was for one
murder which turned out to have taken place on Federal land; thus the US
Government was able to try the killers thirty years later in Federal court
despite an earlier acquittal in a local court.

I also want to recommend Paul Hendrickson's nonfiction "Sons of Mississippi",
which has just come out. A really thoughtful and interesting discussion of
racism in Mississippi (focusing on the Charles Moore photograph of five
Mississippi sheriffs brandishing a nightstick during the integration of Ole
Miss), from the 60s to the present day.


Joseph Nagarya said...

Though true that under US law one cannot be tried twice for the same crime, that is modified by the fact that we have two levels of gov't. We are simultaneously citizens of both the state of our residence, and of the United States.

Thus the murderers of Emmett Till could have been tried on the Federal level (regardless whether the crime occurred on Federal or non-Federal land), in addition to the state trial which acquitted them, under one or more 19th or 20th century civil rights acts -- had the Federal authorities been interested in doing so.

You'll note, as example, that the murder of Medgar Evers (see Dylan's "Pawn in Their Game," on "Te Times They are A-Changin'") did not occur on "Federal land" (he was assassinated in his driveway), yet there were several trials of the murder, Byron de la Beckwith. He was finally convicted for the murder -- by Federal trial -- during the 1990s.

Joseph J. Nagarya
Boston, MA

A lie is halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. -- Mark Twain (Journalist)

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