Last November, I spoke with PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novelist John Edgar Wideman just before the publication of Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File. Wideman’s book—part history, part memoir, part fiction—begins with an investigation into the recently declassified details of the 1945 court martial and execution of Louis Till, a black private in the segregated U.S. Army stationed in Italy during World War II. Louis Till’s name surfaces rarely if at all as a footnote to the horrific, and much better-known story of his son, Emmett Till, an African-American teenager from Chicago who was kidnapped, bludgeoned almost beyond recognition, shot, and dumped in a river in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. As a distant precursor to his interest in Louis Till, Wideman recalls being haunted by the image of Emmett Till’s mangled face from the moment he saw it in Jet magazine in 1955. The young Wideman—then 14 years old, just like Emmett Till—found himself filled with dread by a single, unshakable thought: “That could have been me.”

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Survival Pending Revolution

In a rare moment of stranger-than-fiction levity during jury selection in the 1970 conspiracy trial of Black Panther Party leaders Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, defense attorney Charles Garry asked a prospective juror, “Can you take the judge’s instruction that my defendants here, Ms. Huggins and Mr. Seale, are innocent until proven guilty?”

The prospective juror replied, “I can.”

“So you know they are members of the Black Panther Party?”

“Yes, I do.”

“So what do you think of that? Do you think you can be a fair and impartial juror?”

“Well, I guess they are no different from any other motorcycle gang.”

As the courtroom erupted in laughter, the frustrated judge shouted, “Just get him out of here!”

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