When news surfaced a few weeks ago that Carolyn Bryant, the white woman responsible for the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, had confessed to having made up the most glaring part of her testimony, it felt almost like the whole thing had been orchestrated — if not to play into a grieving, post-Ferguson climate in which we now have a new president boasting a white supremacist agenda, then into my own life and work. Last fall, as part of a larger piece of commentary on black life in America, I spoke at length with Samaria Rice. She is, as most people know, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir, who was fatally shot by police in 2014. “Tamir was only 12 years old,” she told me. “America robbed me of my son’s life.” It was impossible then, as now, to not be reminded of Emmett Till, who was 14 when he was thrown into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River with an iron fan fastened to his neck with barbed wire, and America robbed Mamie Till of her son’s life.
The platform for Bryant’s confession is “The Blood of Emmett Till,” a new book by Duke professor Timothy B. Tyson about the Till lynching and, among other things, how it set the modern civil rights movement into motion. As first reported by Vanity Fair, Bryant broke her decades-long silence to tell Tyson that although she had previously stated in her original testimony (under oath) that Till physically and verbally assaulted her on that wretched day in August over half a century ago, as it turns out, “That part’s not true.” Her admittance would be shocking if not for its precise and poignant illustration of what Samaria Rice meant when she said mere months ago that “America robbed me of my son’s life,” and what Mamie Till sought to expose over 50 years ago when she insisted on an open-casket funeral for her slain and mutilated son.
In painstaking, often difficult to read detail, Tyson reaches into the chest cavity of America and pulls out its bloody heart with this acute retelling of Till’s barbaric murder. Even if his own Southern white do-gooder bias occasionally peeks out from behind the otherwise elegant and sophisticated prose, Tyson effectively recasts the killing of an innocent black boy, re-investigates the subsequent trial that took place during the heat of a Mississippi summer when each day the county sheriff would greet the black press on his way into court with a cheerful “good morning” and a racial epithet. Tyson outlines the inevitable acquittal of the two white men charged with the murder, who would later confess to the crime and brag about it as a badge of honor.
Emmett Louis Till was born near Chicago on July 25, 1941 to Mamie, nearly a child herself at 18. Mamie split from Emmett’s abusive father after a brief and tumultuous marriage, and moved in with her mother, where the three generations created a close and loving bond. Like many Southern black Americans, Mamie and her family had fled Mississippi for Illinois on “the chicken bone express” during the Great Migration. There was of course segregation, racist violence and bigotry in Chicago too, but it paled in comparison to Mississippi, which “outstripped the nation in virtually every measure of lynching: the greatest number of lynchings, the most lynchings per capita, the most lynchings without an arrest or conviction, the most female victims, the most multiple lynchings, and on and on.” Mamie grew up just outside of Chicago in Argo, Ill., where she recalls fond memories of a tight-knit extended family, and a childhood where “it really seemed like almost everybody from Mississippi was coming through our house — the Ellis Island of Chicago.”
That is the environment into which Emmett was born and also, where he flourished. Despite a monthlong bout with polio at the age of 6 that resulted in a lingering stutter, Emmett was a bright, resilient and playful boy who grew into a well-mannered and curious young man. By 14, Emmett had assumed household duties and responsibilities, loved to laugh and joke, and was known for wearing a straw hat and tie to church, which he scarcely missed. He also had a crew of cousin-friends who went to the beach on hot days, sang doo-wop on warm nights, and loved to be outside in the world. Mamie’s uncle, a preacher named Moses Wright who still lived in Mississippi, suggested the boys come back down South with him after a visit in Chicago.
From here, most people know some variation of what happened next: An overconfident black boy from the urban North walks into a grocery store in the rural South one afternoon, doesn’t know his place, shoots off at the mouth, smiles or whistles at a white woman, and that night the white woman’s husband along with two other men abduct the boy, torture and kill him. Perhaps more important than the details of the actual incident is the culture in which it occurred, and which has not just survived but thrived — a quintessentially American backdrop that allows white men to kill a black boy with impunity in, as Tyson writes, “an atmosphere created by the Citizens’ Councils, the Ku Klux Klan, and the mass of white public opinion, all of which demanded that African Americans remain the subservient mudsill of Mississippi — or die.”
The reality, though, was not just about black people remaining subservient, but also embodying and actively playing out the assigned stereotype, specifically black boys and men, whether true or not. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Mississippi Circuit Court judge Thomas Brady gave a speech called “Black Monday” that foretold the circumstances of the vicious intent of Till’s murder: “the supercilious, glib young negro, who sojourned in Chicago or New York, and who considers the counsel of his elders archaic.” Said boy will say the wrong thing to a white woman, the flowers of our universe and then, Brady cautioned, it’s over — violence, mayhem and murder. And it was always and ever about protecting white women.
Brady’s manifesto, which he later expanded on and published as a book, lays this premise out clearly: “The loveliest and purest of God’s creatures, the nearest thing to an angelic being that threads this celestial ball is a well-bred, cultured Southern white woman…. The maintenance of peaceful and harmonious relationships, which have been conducive to the well-being of both the White and Negro races of the South, has been possible because of the inviolability of Southern womanhood.” At all costs, white women were to be protected specifically against the ramped-up sexualized threat of black men.
When you combine this fear of black men with what Tyson writes as the South’s “disquieting sense that it no longer possessed the political high ground,” it makes for a toxic, fear-mongering social system that breeds and condones white terrorism. Sound familiar? Tyson successfully connects the dots, and without actually saying so (he worked on the book for years prior to Nov. 8, 2016), draws a resolute if symbolic line between Emmett Till and Tamir Rice, and the white supremacist foreground of this country.
Carroll is editor of special projects at WNYC radio in New York and the author of several books of narrative nonfiction about race in the United States. She is one of The Times' critics at large.
By Timothy B. Tyson
Simon & Schuster: 304 pp., $27