THE BARN de Wright Thompson

A shocking and revelatory account of the murder of Emmett Till that lays bare how forces from around the world converged on the Mississippi Delta in the long lead-up to the crime, and how the truth was erased for so long.

The Secret History of a Murder in Mississippi
by Wright Thompson
Penguin Press, September 2024
(via David Black Literary Agency)

Wright Thompson’s family farm in Mississippi is 23 miles from the site of one of the most notorious and consequential killings in American history, yet he had to leave the state for college before he learned the first thing about it. To this day, fundamental truths about the crime are widely unknown, including where it took place and how many people were involved. This is no accident: the cover-up began at once, and it is ongoing.

In August 1955, two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were charged with the torture and murder of the 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. After their inevitable acquittal in a mockery of justice, they gave a false confession to a journalist, which was misleading about where the long night of hell took place and who was involved. In fact, Wright Thompson reveals, at least eight people can be placed at the scene, which was inside the barn of one of the killers, on a plot of land within the six-square-mile grid whose official name is Township 22 North, Range 4 West, Section 2, West Half, fabled in the Delta of myth as the birthplace of the blues on nearby Dockery Plantation.

Even in the context of the racist caste regime of the time, the four-hour torture and murder of a Black boy barely in his teens for whistling at a young white woman was acutely depraved; Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision to keep the casket open seared the crime indelibly into American consciousness. Wright Thompson has a deep understanding of this story—the world of the families of both Emmett Till and his killers, and all the forces that aligned to place them together on that spot on the map. As he shows, the full horror of the crime was its inevitability, and how much about it we still need to understand. Ultimately this is a story about property, and money, and power, about white supremacy. It implicates all of us. In THE BARN, Thompson meets the few people who have been engaged in the hard, fearful business of bringing the truth to light, people like Wheeler Parker, Emmett Till’s friend, who came down from Chicago with him that summer, and is the last person alive to know him well. Wheeler Parker’s journey to put the killing floor of the barn on the map of Township 22 North, Range 4 West, Section 2, West Half, and the Delta, and America, is a journey we all need to go on if this country is to heal from its oldest, deepest wound.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN and the bestselling author of Pappyland and The Cost of These Dreams. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi with his family.

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