Blogs > Liberty and Power > Emmett Till Story: Hey, I Didn't Mean That!

May 6, 2005 2:08 pm

Emmett Till Story: Hey, I Didn't Mean That!

Since Aeon raises the general subject of journalism, I had an experience that shows once again the perils of talking with reporters who are under deadlines and are looking for sound (or is that print?) bites.

I was interviewed by several papers yesterday on the FBI's decision to exhume the body of Emmett Till. Ralph Luker and others have kindly noted that my wife, Linda Royster Beito, and I have written several articles on the question of whether others were involved in the crime, here and here.

One of the most extended set of quotations appeared in a story that appeared in The Chicago Tribune.

The story was generally fair and accurate and noted our role in finding new information as well as our belief that more than two people took part in the crime. But other parts were disappointing to say the least. Some of my comments were badly managled to give a meaning that was quite different from the one I had intended to convey.

When we spoke yesterday, the reporter raised the issue that one of the FBI's stated reasons for the exhumation was to confirm that it was, in fact, the body of Till. I responded that I dismissed the possibility that it was someone other than Till as"laughable" and wondered why the FBI felt compelled to"prove" an obvious fact.

I stressed that no person of any credibility believes the ludicrous claims of the defense and sheriff at the time that the body was someone other than Till. I noted that even members of the jury, when interviewed a few years after the crime, confided to an investigator they did not believe the defense or sheriff. In fact, they more or less admitted to the investigator that they were not going to convict any white men for such a crime, regardless of whether they were guilty.

The reporter then asked what result could come from an autopsy that would"most surprise" me. I answered that it would be most surprising if it produced evidence leading to a prosecution.

At this point, he volunteered that the greatest surprise would be if the body was not Till's. Such a possibility had not even entered my head! Since he brought it up, however, I said that if the body was someone other than Till, that would be the"ultimate surprise."

Here is how that conversation finally appeared in the story. For the record, I am not (contrary to the implication of the story) against exhuming the body but am skeptical that anything of substance will be discovered:

But, David Beito, a University of Alabama historian who has closely studied the Till case, said he doubts there will ever be new criminal charges and said he doesn't see much point in the exhumation beyond"adding to the historical record."

"What if it's not him?" Beito asked."That would be the ultimate surprise."

UPDATE: I had a fruitful correspondence with the reporter. It is clear that he did not mean any harm and, in fact, meant to accurately communicate my views on this matter.

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