In Other Words

The Blood of Em­mett Till by Ti­mothy B. Tyson

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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

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