Following the publication of his book Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press, Davis Houck, Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies at Florida State University, had students in his “Rhetoric and Race in America” class analyze bias in newspaper coverage of the death of Emmett Till. A black youth from Chicago, Till was abducted and murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman while visiting in Mississippi.
The FSU library has an excellent collection of black-owned newspapers, but called on CRL to purchase additional papers not represented in the FSU holdings. Ultimately Houck’s class consulted newspapers from 34 states.
Houck says CRL’s newspaper holdings were critical to the project. “We were interested in regional coverage, not just major dailies . . . We were able to tease out media bias across regions by carefully examining word choice, photographs, placements, editorials, and letters to the editor. We found that newspapers in the South and Pacific Northwest regions were particularly unsympathetic to the Till family. For example, Emmett was described as a ‘husky lad’ or even a ‘man,’ while the ‘innocent beauty’ of the young woman was emphasized,” said Houck.
The material gathered proved worth preserving at FSU. Houck explains, “The day that my students turned in their papers, I had FSU Special Collections staff scoop up the thousands of pages of newspaper coverage students had copied. Their work is now housed in our Emmett Till Archive.”