In his new book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” Duke University scholar Timothy B. Tyson takes on the nation’s most infamous hate crime, one most of us think we already know: the brutal lynching of a Chicago boy who dared to flirt with a white woman in Jim Crow Mississippi.
That’s because the crime — which stunned the world, jump-started the civil rights movement and delivered a staggering blow to the segregated South — also inspired a legion of writers and a library of books since the boy’s mutilated body was dragged from the Tallahatchie River in 1955. Not a lot of unplowed ground here.
What sets Tyson’s book apart is the wide-angle lens he uses to examine the lynching, and the ugly parallels between past and present. Emmett, he argues, is the ancestral father of the Black Lives Matter movement, and America, which followed the Obama era with the election of Donald Trump, has steadfastly refused to reject white supremacy, or account for its original sin.
Through research and his little-known interview with the late, elderly Carolyn Bryant — the purported “victim” of the boy’s advances — the author sweeps in unsung heroes, puts minor figures in the spotlight, underscores the ground-shaking strength of Emmett’s grief-stricken mother and gives depth to familiar villains. That includes Mississippi, a grotesque Southern caste system, unequal justice and a nation ambivalent about lynching until Mamie Till-Mobley forced it to look.
Tyson delves into the changing social and economic forces that drove hard-drinking Army vet Roy Bryant and his menacing half-brother, J.W. Milam, to execute Emmett behind closed doors, confess to it, yet rightly expect acquittal from a jury of their peers.
Just before the lynching, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling sent shock waves across the region, Tyson writes. White elites in pro-segregation “citizens’ councils” preached to “peckerwoods” — the white rural working class — about the threat black males posed to genteel white womanhood, encouraging violence while keeping their own hands clean.
But an emerging African-American business and civil rights leadership — educated, fearless, hardened by World War II service — fought back, writes Tyson, including a young Medgar Evers as well as two black bystanders who identified Bryant and Milam as Emmett’s killers from the witness stand. Some fled Mississippi for good; others paid with their lives.
A terrific writer and storyteller, Tyson compels a closer look at a heinous crime and the consequential decisions, large and small, that made it a national issue. But, he writes, the forces that led Bryant and Milam to kill a 14-year-old black boy with impunity — then live as free men, taking the truth to their graves — are still present.
“America is still killing Emmett Till,” Tyson writes, in lingering inequality for African-Americans, unequal justice for black men and boys, and the notion that a bigoted white billionaire who openly questioned a black president’s birthright can make America great again.
“We have to come to grips with our own history — not only genocide, slavery, exploitation and systems of oppression,” Tyson writes, “but also the legacies of those who resisted and fought back, and still fight back.”
Joseph P. Williams, a former Star Tribune assistant managing editor, is a senior news editor for U.S. News & World Report.
The Blood of Emmett Till
By: Timothy B. Tyson.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 291 pages, $27.