In Other Words
The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson
When telling the story of the murder of Emmett Till, it is difficult to know where to start. A novelist might begin at his funeral in Chicago in 1955, which his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted be open-casket in order to show the ways in which her fourteen-year-old son had been brutalized while spending the summer down south. A folk singer might set the scene on the August night when white men burst into the Mississippi home of Rev. Moses Wright and kidnapped his nephew from his bed, to punish the boy for flirting with one of their wives. Timothy B. Tyson, a historian who has written several books about violence and civil rights, opens The Blood of Emmett Till with a confession over coffee. Carolyn Bryant, the white woman whose virtue was supposedly impugned by the advances of an African-American adolescent, admits to Tyson that Till never grabbed her around the waist, never tried to assault her that day she waited on him at her family’s store. More than 50 years later, she says, “Honestly, I just don’t remember. … You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true.”
At the time, most of white America was still asleep when it came to the racism and inequality that roiled the South nearly a century after emancipation. Till’s murderers beat and kicked him for an extended period of time after stealing him away in the dead of night. They then tied an electrical fan to his neck and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River. Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law were arrested and tried for the crime and were found not guilty by a jury of their peers. They were acquitted not because they were believed innocent but because the jury was of the mind that, since Till had allegedly spoken in a lewd manner to and possibly whistled at a white woman, he had brought his death upon himself. (Bryant had not yet said that Till had grabbed her when her kin killed him; she made that claim in later statements.) Till’s murder woke up the country and is known as a turning point in the civil rights movement, thanks in no small part to Till’s mother’s subsequent lifelong efforts as an activist and speaker to make sure her son did not die in vain.
Tyson’s descriptions of Till’s pulverized body are stark and devastating. That human beings could savagely kill another person — a child — for a perceived infraction of their self-serving caste system summons an instant sense of shame and rage at the abject racist history of the United States. Tyson puts Till’s murder into the context of its time, linking it to the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka), in 1954, which declared segregated schooling for blacks and whites to be unconstitutional. This mandate for integration incensed many across the South especially, who opposed any form of race mixing. Though violence and intimidation could not stop the forward march of progress, engaging in civil rights work meant being targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and the Citizens’ Council. In the Mississippi Delta town where Carolyn Bryant lived in 1955, Tyson writes, “Black people were expected to say ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘Yes, sir’ when talking with white people, even whites younger than themselves.” He continues that according to Bryant, “Blacks were ‘actin’ up’ or ‘weren’t in their place’ if ‘they didn’t step aside when someone white passed them on the sidewalk. They better not look any white person in the eye, either. That’d get them punched.’ ”
During the trial, as Northerners decried the racism of the South, black activists from above the Mason-Dixon line took the opportunity to point out hypocrisy. Black children might not be murdered by adults with impunity in Chicago, but racism was still a problem. Neighborhoods were segregated, leading to segregated schools and a general sense that African-Americans were second-class citizens. The fight for voting rights is explored as Tyson connects the struggle for equal representation to the justification, on the part of Southern white men, for murder. And he shows how Emmett Till and Mamie Till Bradley catalyzed a generation of activists, resulting, for instance, in black teenagers desegregating lunch counters across the South in the spring of 1960. He leads us into the present with themes of police brutality and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. The local grand jury’s decision not to prosecute the officer who did the shooting inspired a new national movement in Black Lives Matter. There is still enormous work to do for civil rights in this country, Tyson writes, but Till’s legacy lives.
“Young protestors throughout the United States chanted, ‘Say his name! Emmett Till! Say his name! Emmett Till!’ His name, invoked alongside a litany of the names of unarmed black men and women who died at the hands of police officers, remained a symbol of the destructiveness of white supremacy.” — Jennifer Levin