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Monday, May 27, 2024

The last living journalist from the Emmett Till case dies

"Tasha Jones is a rare and wonderful artist that strikes a balance in a world so often lopsided. She has the soul of a Nikki Giovanni draped in the Haute Couture fashions of a runway model. Jones is a student of life and a teacher of lessons. On stage, she tells the story of her life and, in doing so, tells the story of all women, a story of love, loss, and life. She offers a perspective, poignancy, and insight in her writing that allows men to see themselves through her work and women to see themselves in her work. She proves herself to be simultaneously what women are and what they aspire to be. Once you've experienced her for yourself, you will feel better, wiser, and are enriched for it." — Jon Goode

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Dan Wakefield and LaTasha Boyd Jones. (Photo provided/LaTasha Boyd Jones)

Dan Wakefield (May 21, 1932–March 13, 2024) was an American novelist, journalist, and screenwriter. His impactful career spanned various mediums, leaving an indelible mark on literature, television, and memoirs.

To “One” America, Wakefield is most widely known as a novelist and a screenwriter. Author of several notable novels, and two gained that widespread recognition: “Going All the Way” (1970): This best-selling novel explored the complexities of friendship, love, and growing up in 1950s Indianapolis. The novel was later adapted into a feature film of which he wrote the screenplay. The film featured Ben Affleck, Rachel Weisz, and Rose McGowan. The other, “Starting Over” (1973), is a novel that explores the complexities of divorce, loneliness, and the struggle to find connection in a changing world, also a film adaptation.

Alternatively to “The Other” America, Wakefield is most widely known as the Indianapolis journalist who covered the trial of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, the two white men accused of savagely murdering the 14-year-old Black youth named Emmett Till. The details were gruesome: Till’s body had been found in the Tallahatchie River, a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire for committing the crime of “whistling” at a white woman.

It was the cub reporter’s first assignment for The Nation Magazine. In 1955, Wakefield arrived in Sumner, Mississippi, for the murder that catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement. The work had become his distinction. His recollection “of the all-white jury listening impassively with their minds likely made up long before the proceedings began.” Wakefield would reaffirm the article’s first line. The sentence captured the essence of the Delta town: “The crowds are gone, and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

The Emmett Till case extended beyond the trial, the courtroom, and the verdict, leaving Wakefield with a gnawing hunger for truth that could not be satisfied. In the years that followed, Wakefield witnessed variations of that trial—different guises, different places. The nightmare persisted: racial injustice, whispered secrets, and lives cut short.

As the last living journalist to witness the trial, he felt a responsibility to delve deeper and uncover the layers of injustice that clung to a Delta that had mostly stayed the same in a highly polarized country. Wakefield still received inquiries about that trial. Students and scholars reached out, seeking the perspective of the last living witness.

Decades later, Wakefield would pen an essay, “How an Old White Guy Got Woke,” for the Indianapolis Monthly. In it, he expressed the time it took to see “Two Americas,” the injustices America inflicts on people of color.

Wakefield’s legacy as a writer, journalist, and social activist inspired generations, and his willingness to be a vulnerable and compassionate voice in American literature and journalism will always resound.

During my time as a graduate student at Butler University, Wakefield played an instrumental role in helping me navigate my academic journey as a performance poet. He insisted that I remain true to the core of the work and provided thoughtful guidance and advice on everything from coursework to career planning. He even wrote the introduction to my upcoming work, ‘Pyramids. Plantations. Projects. Penitentiaries.’

His  mentorship and vocal and written support lulled the curricula that neglected alternative perspectives. Wakefield’s willingness to go the extra mile to ensure my success was invaluable; and because of our year-long recorded conversations, I can continue gaining sound advice and hearing his unwavering support and encouragement.

Dan Wakefield’s life and legacy testify to the power of journalism and the written word. His dedication to truth and justice serves as a reminder that the power of the written word can change the course of history. As we bid farewell to the last living witness of the Emmett Till trial, let us honor his memory by continuing to confront the darkness and fight for a more just and equitable future for all.

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