Tragedy on Trial

The Story of the Infamous Emmett Till Murder Trial

by Ronald K. L. Collins

Tags: Civil Rights/Race and the Law, Courts, Criminal Law, Violence and Crime

Table of Contents (PDF)

448 pp  $24.95

ISBN 978-1-5310-2749-0
eISBN 978-1-5310-2750-6

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Tragedy on Trial reveals as never before the entire and shocking story of the 1955 trial of Emmett Till's murderers. Based on extensive research, and accompanied by photos of the trial and a "For the Record" Introduction by Lonnie G. Bunch, III (Secretary of the Smithsonian), the brisk narrative brings the story alive, revealing all its manipulations of justice, including:

  • the sheriff who from beginning to end put the fix in for the defendants;
  • the ethically conflicted county attorney who selected the jurors;
  • the successful scheme to never charge the guilty defendants with kidnapping;
  • the defense lawyers who corruptly built their case on racism of the cruelest kind;
  • the White woman who falsely accused Emmett Till, inflaming an already bigoted all-White male jury;
  • the Black witnesses for the defense who were rounded up and secretly jailed in distant jurisdictions;
  • the defense's medical "experts" who were not experts; and
  • the defense's closing arguments (never recorded but now reconstructed) directed to "every Anglo-Saxon" member of the jury.

Ronald Collins offers an original and in-depth account that highlights the fearless efforts of Mamie Till and the courageous friends and family who testified. Collins also uncovers the truth behind the widely read 1956 Look magazine story, correcting falsehoods that persist to this day.

Ronald Collins's mind-opening book, Tragedy on Trial: The Infamous Story of the Emmett Till Murder Trial, is a long-overdue and indispensable account of the 1955 murder trial. This amazing book throws yet more logs on the raging fire of the judicial injustice that still permeates America's legal system. . . . Like so many others, I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about the Till murder trial and the hasty not-guilty verdict by an all-white male jury. Then I read Tragedy on Trial and learned of so many other evils lurking in the transcript. To think that this shocking story might have been lost to time reveals how the story of prejudice must be retold to new generations in truthful and unapologetic ways. Tenacity in the cause of truth is no sin."

— Congressman Bobby L. Rush (from the Foreword)
The judicial system is a highly orchestrated attempt at truth-telling toward the aim of justice. The Till case—as more thoroughly revealed through Ronald Collins's groundbreaking text Tragedy on Trial—exposes one of that system's greatest betrayals. As we confront a deepening crisis of confidence in our courts and a war on truth and history, the revelations of this primary document are especially timely and urgent. The 'Till moment' is an unending and pressing reminder that, until we take the time necessary to confront this miscarriage of justice head on, and address the unfinished business that is the tragedy of Emmett Till and everything his murder and the acquittal of his killers represent, we will remain haunted. Thankfully, Collins has brilliantly unlocked a critical historical component of that difficult journey and dared us to embark."

— Janai Nelson, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund
Ronald Collins's Tragedy on Trial: The Infamous Story of the Emmett Till Murder Trial presents an in-depth, heartrending account that brings fresh insights to a case that was a turning point in American civil rights. As the director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, I am a firm believer in the potency of historical truth, and Collins's work embodies this truth profoundly. His narrative, fortified by extensive research and drawn from long-concealed transcripts, is gripping and unveils a justice system seething with bias. This book not only boldly confronts this failure of justice but also amplifies the courageous voices of Mamie Till, Moses Wright, Willie Reed, and other Black witnesses who defied danger to testify. Tragedy on Trial is essential reading for anyone seeking to comprehend this critical juncture in our history more clearly. It inspires us to remember, learn, and persevere in the pursuit of justice."
— Patrick Weems, Executive Director, Emmett Till Interpretive Center
"Tragedy on Trial tells the story of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till from the perspective of the long-lost trial transcript. In a crowded field of films, documentaries, and academic tomes, Tragedy on Trial stands out for its informed perspective on the murder that launched the movement and the trial that has long been remembered as the 'first great media event of the civil rights movement.' With Ronald Collins's careful research, the transcript becomes a living document, bearing witness to the legal contortions of the trial. Further, by attending not simply to the words of the transcript but also its cultural legacy, Collins makes the transcript a source of insight into the long silences that have undermined attempts to remember Emmett Till."
— Dave Tell, author of Remembering Emmett Till (2019)
Scholars have had a greater understanding of the Emmett Till murder trial ever since the FBI located a copy of the long-lost transcript in 2004. Ronald Collins's fully annotated study not only provides this historically important transcript in full but also includes helpful and important introductory remarks in each chapter. Collins has also carefully and reliably reconstructed the closing arguments, which were not included in the original transcript. Thus, the trial now comes alive as never before. The two-and-a-half days of testimony resulted in a verdict that proved to be one of the greatest injustices in American jurisprudence. Importantly, readers now have the benefit of seeing it all unfold with intrigue and accuracy under the observant eye of an astute legal mind. Going forward, Tragedy on Trial is sure to remain the go-to source for understanding this trial."
— Devery Anderson, author of Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (2017)