Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy in 8th grade at the McCosh school, was visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi during August 1955. He was originally from Chicago, and he lived with his mother. On August 24, he went into a grocery store to buy a pack of bubble gum while in Mississippi. On his way out, he whistled or flirted with the white female store clerk who took great offense to it, and she told her husband, Carolyn Bryant. Four days after this incident, Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Millam, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home. They then beat him and killed him, shooting him in the head. They also tied him to a large piece of metal with barbed wire and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. His body was found three days after the incident. His face was so badly injured and distorted that the only way the police could identify him was his ring, which was originally his father’s. Eventually, the brothers were charged with the murder of Emmett Till, and, on September 19, 1955, the court case was started. However, the jury was all white, and the brothers were acquitted although there was an overwhelming amount of evidence against them. The deliberation only lasted around an hour, which is extremely short. In January 1956, the brothers admitted that they murdered Till and gave the full story to Look magazine. In the magazine, one of the last things that the brothers tell Till is, “Goddamn you, I’m going to make an example of you – just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand”. The brothers killed Till to send a message, that they did not approve of African-Americans being able to “flirt” with white women. They could not be charged again however because of the double jeopardy laws. Even more recently in a 2007 interview the store clerk told the press that Till never whistled or tried to flirt with her and that she made it up. This interview was later released in 2017. Throughout the history of this murder, many civil rights activists and other members of society spoke out against it, including Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan, who was originally named Robert Allen Zimmerman, was born on May 24, 1941, the same year as Emmett Till. He grew up in Duluth, Minnesota and he always had an interest in music. He began to make a name for himself while performing folk music during college under the name Bob Dylan. He was inspired by the famous folk singer Woody Guthrie, who also sang protest songs. Dylan arguably wrote this song for the same reason Guthrie wrote his songs, to try to draw attention to an unjust cause. He tried to follow in his idol’s footsteps and write a prevalent protest song. During the time that he wrote the song, there were many pressing issues relating to racial justice. One of the most prevalent issues was Brown V. Board of Education in 1954. During this Supreme Court case, the “separate but equal” clause was created stating that facilities could be separate for whites and African Americans if they were equal. However, these facilities were rarely equal with the white facility usually being nicer. In the 1960s, when the song was written, the fight for equal rights in America was becoming more prevalent as Dr. King would give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech about a year after Dylan wrote his song. Later in his career, Dylan said that the main reason he wrote this song was to write about something topical. However, this song still had a positive impact because it was able to shine even greater light on Emmett Till’s murder.
“The Death of Emmett Till” was a very literal song that went straight to the point, that the racial injustice in the south needed to change. He sang this song in the folk genre, which he is most famous for. Dylan uses simple and direct language to speak to his audience to get his point across. In the song, Dylan skips almost no time and begins to describe the story of Emmett Till. He says, “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 can’t remember what”. Dylan begins by just giving some of the facts of the situation. He also says that the brothers had a reason, but he doesn’t remember. By doing this, he is discrediting the brothers and condemning their “reason.” Soon after, Dylan says, “They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat. There was screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street”. Dylan is commenting on how this situation and murder was acceptable in southern culture. He argues that this murder was even supported by the community. The brothers even admit this, because when the brothers were taking Till to the river, Milliam says, “When we got to that gin, it was daylight, and I was worried for the first time. Somebody might see us and accuse us of stealing the fan’. The brothers were more worried about someone seeing them with the fan than stopping them from getting rid of Till. This shows the reader that this behavior was completely acceptable in southern culture. Later Dylan is talking about the trial of the brother for the killing of Till. He says, “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 crime”. Dylan believes that the only reason the brothers were not charged with this crime was that the jury was made up entirely of white men because there was still racial discrimination while picking juries. Although there was enough evidence for a convention, the brothers were acquitted. Dylan decides to end the song by reminding us that “But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give, We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live”. Dylan tries to remind his audience that the ideology and thoughts that allowed Till’s killers to get away still exist and that we need to fight against them.
Bob Dylan was able to convey the right emotions in his song by singing in as a folk song. The lack of other instruments besides his guitar makes his voice more prevalent and captivating. He sings this song in a somber mood to show that Till’s death was a tragedy and something that should not be taken lightheartedly. He believed that this was a serious topic, and he wanted his song to reflect his opinions. He sang this song with a pain in his voice that almost convinces the listener that he had a personal connection to Emmett Till, although he did not. He sang this song like this so that people would remember it and remember the injustice of the murder of Emmett Till. Overall, Dylan sings this song so that the form fits the function. He sings in a way that the listener remembers, and in a serious mood.
The legacy of this song changes greatly from the time it was written. At first, Bob Dylan was proud of his song. He was proud when he heard it on the radio for the first time in 1962, and said that he was during interviews. This song helped improve his reputation as a folk singer, as he was not very well known at the time. Later, however, he was not proud of how literal the song was and the reasons he wrote it. He also later called his song a “bullshit” song after he released some of his better works. Because of these other works, this song has been overshadowed and it is usually not remembered as Dylan’s greatest songs. Although it is not one of Dylan’s best, it is still remembered as one of the first protest songs that Dylan wrote, and the song did help draw attention to the murder of Emmett Till. Dylan’s song shows his attitude toward racial intolerance and shines a light on one of the most unjust murders and court cases of all time.