One woman’s role in a lynch­ing prompted by a lie

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Leonard Pitts Jr.

Ev­ery­one al­ready knows the story. It is like some grim fairy tale of the un­re­con­structed South. Ev­ery­one knows how a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named Em­mett Till went to Mis­sis­sippi to spend the sum­mer of 1955 with his fam­ily. Ev­ery­one knows how he wolf-whis­tled at a pretty white woman, how he was kid­napped by her hus­band and his half-brother, how he was butchered and dumped in a river. Ev­ery­one knows how his body rose to the sur­face three days later, how his grief-stricken mother, Mamie Til­lMob­ley, in­sisted upon an open-cas­ket fu­neral so the world could see what Amer­ica had done to her child. Ev­ery­one knows how his killers were set free. And ev­ery­one knows how the mur­der gal­va­nized an out­rage that had long lain sim­mer­ing in the col­lec­tive breast of African Amer­i­can peo­ple, how it was said to be one of the rea­sons an Alabama seam­stress named Rosa Parks said no when a bus driver in Mont­gomery de­manded that she sur­ren­der her seat four months later.

Ev­ery­one knows the story. And that’s the big­gest chal­lenge Ti­mothy B. Tyson faced in re­count­ing it. A story of­ten told has a way of grow­ing smooth and fea­ture­less in the telling, of los­ing the blood, heat and im­me­di­acy that made it worth telling in the first place. And if any story de­serves bet­ter, this one does.

So the most valu­able ser­vice Tyson, a

Duke University vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor and au­thor of “Blood Done Sign My Name,” ren­ders in “The Blood of Em­mett Till” is sim­ply to clear away the un­der­brush of myth that has ac­cu­mu­lated over the decades and re­store the im­me­di­acy of this quintessen­tially Amer­i­can story. He ac­com­plishes this feat over the course of just 218 swift-fly­ing and metic­u­lously re­searched pages, bring­ing the story back to vivid life with a jour­nal­ist’s nose for facts and a novelist’s eye for telling de­tails.

So you get not just the hard fact of the half-broth­ers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, show­ing up at the door of Em­mett’s share­crop­per un­cle, Moses Wright, in the mid­dle of the night, but also the heart­break­ing im­age of Wright stand­ing alone in his yard, watch­ing long af­ter the kid­nap ve­hi­cle, its head­lights doused, has melted into the shad­ows.

You get not just the hard fact that the body was dis­cov­ered three days later, but also the odd, mis­placed pri­or­i­ties of the teenager who saw the dead boy’s knees and feet pok­ing out of the wa­ter while walk­ing be­side the Tal­la­hatchie River just af­ter dawn, yet took time to check his trout lines be­fore alert­ing au­thor­i­ties to his grisly find.

You get not just the hard fact of Wright com­mit­ting the un­think­ably brave act of tes­ti­fy­ing in court against two white men, but also the in­deli­ble truth of what it must have felt like to be Moses Wright in that defin­ing mo­ment, sit­ting there in his neat white shirt and black pants, his fin­gers tug­ging ner­vously at one an­other as cig­a­rette smoke rose to­ward the ceil­ing fans in a crowded court­room hot as an an­te­room of hell.

And you get not just Em­mett Till, the hu­man cau­tion­ary tale whis­per­ing his warn­ings across six decades, but Till as he was in life, a brash, fun-lov­ing boy who sang street-cor­ner doowop badly and loved Jack Benny.

Tyson’s book could not ar­rive at a more pro­pi­tious time. Ever since the stalk­ing and killing of Trayvon Martin by a self-dep­u­tized neigh­bor­hood watch­man in 2012, this coun­try has been riven by re­newed de­bate over the Amer­i­can habit of de­stroy­ing African Amer­i­can life. A cry arises from African Amer­i­cans and their al­lies that “Black Lives Mat­ter,” and the rest of the coun­try re­sponds with con­trived con­fu­sion and feigned ig­no­rance, pro­fess­ing not to un­der­stand why such a thing is nec­es­sary to be said.

The an­swer, of course, is as ob­vi­ous as a chim­panzee in church. Namely, that when African Amer­i­can lives are de­stroyed by white peo­ple, Amer­ica has his­tor­i­cally been re­luc­tant to bring the per­pe­tra­tors to ac­count. That was fa­mously the case with Till. And with Martin. In that sense, Em­mett was Trayvon was Abram Smith was Thomas Shipp was Sam Hose was Ru­bin Stacy was Eric Gar­ner was Tamir Rice was Mary Turner was Jesse Wash­ing­ton was Laura Nel­son was Prince Jones. And on and on. Our his­tory is a seething river of un­pun­ished blood.

So “The Blood of Em­mett Till” is a work crit­i­cal not just to our un­der­stand­ing of some­thing that hap­pened in Amer­ica in 1955 but of what hap­pens in Amer­ica here and now. It is a jolt­ing and pow­er­ful book. But it might have been even bet­ter. Per­haps the most im­por­tant thing Tyson achieves here is to bring us the voice of the for­mer Carolyn Bryant. Now an oc­to­ge­nar­ian, she has kept a six-decade pub­lic si­lence about that late-sum­mer day in 1955 when a black boy got fresh with her. Like “the white man,” the oth­er­wise uniden­ti­fied in­di­vid­ual whose need for a bus seat pro­pelled Parks into im­mor­tal­ity, Bryant was a hinge upon which his­tory swung. Like him, her ab­sence from the sub­se­quent record has al­ways made her seem less a fle­s­hand-blood per­son than a plot de­vice em­ployed by his­tory’s au­thor. In break­ing her si­lence in the pages of Tyson’s book, Bryant makes her­self fi­nally real, fill­ing in the blanks of her and her then-hus­band’s lives be­fore and dur­ing that aw­ful sum­mer.

And yes, as re­ported in re­cent head­lines, Bryant also re­cants a claim she made at the time that Em­mett put his hands on her, first seiz­ing her wrist and then grab­bing her about the waist. Those head­lines treat that news as ar­guably more sig­nif­i­cant than it is. Af­ter all, the ac­cu­sa­tion of phys­i­cal con­tact, while it roiled the South in 1955, is scarcely re­called 62 years later. What has sur­vived into the mod­ern era, what re­mains the crux of the story, is Bryant’s claim that Em­mett said some­thing un­to­ward in their brief en­counter, and she doesn’t quite re­cant that, though she says she can no longer ex­actly re­call what that some­thing was.

“I want to tell you,” she tells Tyson. “Hon­estly, I just don’t re­mem­ber. It was fifty years ago. You tell these sto­ries for so long that they seem true.”

Mean­while, she never gives you the one thing you want most: the sat­is­fac­tion of see­ing her grap­ple with her role in his­tory. What is it like to be “the white woman” who helped de­stroy a child? How does it feel to know that what you did and what you were stand re­buked? How do you live with hav­ing been so mon­strously, cat­a­stroph­i­cally wrong? Bryant never says. Maybe Tyson never asked her, which would be a lapse of re­portage. Maybe he asked and she could not an­swer, which would have been im­por­tant to know. What­ever the rea­son, the reader never re­ally sees Bryant strug­gle with these things — and that is dis­ap­point­ing. To strug­gle with them is the very least she owes the mem­ory of Em­mett Till.

There is a small mo­ment, though, when Bryant un­bur­dens her­self of an ad­mis­sion that any per­son with a spark of de­cency would con­sider self-ev­i­dent.

“Noth­ing that boy did,” she tells Tyson, “could ever jus­tify what hap­pened to him.”

It hardly sat­is­fies the need to see her wres­tle with what she did. But it is, per­haps, the best she can do, even now.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist for the Mi­ami Her­ald and the au­thor of the nov­els “Free­man” and “Grant Park.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

GENE HER­RICK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Em­mett Till, 14, was lynched in 1955 af­ter an en­counter with Carolyn Bryant in Money, Miss. Bryant now says she doesn’t re­mem­ber what Till said to her. “It was fifty years ago,” she told au­thor Ti­mothy B. Bryant. “You tell these sto­ries for so long that they seem true.”

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