A Review of The Blood of Emmett Till, by Timothy Tyson (Simon & Schuster, 2017. $27.00)
The sensational response to Timothy Tyson’s new history of the 1955 Emmett Till murder, The Blood of Emmett Till, has centered on the recantation by Carolyn Bryant—the white woman who accused Till of the verbal and physical offense that led to his murder–of her testimony. It may be surprising to find out how little of the book is actually concerned with Bryant and her lies. Tyson has more important things to consider.
No one can realistically be surprised to find out that Bryant lied; it’s a revelation, I guess, that she copped to it, but hardly news. The Blood of Emmett Till is less concerned with the historical cowardice of Bryant and the white men who effectively lynched Till, and much more invested in the bravery of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, and of the courage of the black activists who worked for voting rights and justice amidst the violent horror of life in Mississippi.
Emmett Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River on August 31, 1955, three days after he was sadistically tortured (I know that “sadistically tortured” is redundant, but the emphasis makes clear the sanctioned, normalized sadism that permeated a culture) by white men protecting a social order that deemed murder an appropriate response to a 14-year-old boy whistling at a white woman.
Mamie Till’s first act of courage was to insist upon an open casket and a public viewing of her son’s mutilated body. She had to fight the State of Mississippi to even get Emmett’s body returned to his family in Chicago, and that return came with a locked casket and an insistence that it not be opened or the body displayed. It’s courage of one kind to resist the state; it’s another level of courage to see your son’s body so destroyed and to then have it photographically distributed around the world. (Greensboro’s International Civil Rights Museum has a powerfully presented image of Till’s body on display in its Hall of Shame). Without Mamie Till’s insistence, Emmett’s murder would have been largely forgotten in the welter of racial violence of the time.
Ms. Till eventually testifies in the trial and Tyson reports on the abuses and accusations of the defense counsel, and even the indignities of the prosecution as they insist on referring to her as “Mamie” so as not to offend the all-white jury with a more respectful form of address. Tyson describes her dignity as another shock to the white system.
The testimony of Moses Wright—the black man whose home was invaded the night Emmett was kidnapped—was bravery in the face of probable death. Wright knew the white powers would try to kill him for testifying, but “some things are worse than death,” he said, and added, “if a man lives, he must still live with himself.”
Tyson is a deeply political writer. His history is an exploration of a violent and corrupt system and of the resistance movement that fought it. Much of the book deals with the role of the NAACP, the various black newspapers like The Chicago Defender and the individuals who stood up—and sometimes died—for voting rights in Mississippi. Tyson uses his research to give us examples of how to resist, of what it takes to resist, of the courage that might still inspire us to resist. Tyson quotes a New York Post editorial from 1955 that contextualizes the Till case: “Like other great episodes in the battle for equality and justice, this trial has rocked the world, and nothing can ever be quite the same again—even in Mississippi.”
In an epilogue, Tyson addresses 21st Century racism: “America is still killing Emmett Till,” in Ferguson and Charleston and on and on. The blatant lies and willful contradiction of facts of the 1955 Mississippi politicians, press and defense council is eerily familiar. Fascist states, like Mississippi under Jim Crow, live on the tacitly agreed upon great lie, in this case the lie of white supremacy. Histories like Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till expose these lies while also exposing the deeply flawed belief in American Exceptionalism. To emphasize the importance of this kind of expose, Tyson quotes Czech writer Milan Kundera: “The struggle of humanity against power is always the struggle of memory against forgetting.” And so it goes on.
For those who worry that little has changed in America (or that great reversals of change are upon us), Tyson uses the example of Emmett Till’s mother’s courage to inspire us: “…Mamie Bradley dug deep within herself and inspired thousands of other Americans…. From this tragedy large, diverse numbers of people organized a movement that grew to transform a nation, not sufficiently but certainly meaningfully.”
Tyson knows that “the lynching of Emmett Till was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades, but not as much as we pretend.” The Blood of Emmett Till is a history of an event from over 60 years ago. Its relevance is obvious.
Timothy Tyson will appear in person at Scuppernong Books on Wednesday, March 1 at 7:00 pm.