“America is still killing Emmett Till,” writes Duke professor Timothy Tyson in his new book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.”
Tyson revisits the 1955 kidnapping and brutal killing of Till, a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi. At a country store, Till’s encounter with an attractive white woman broke the “color code” and prompted her husband and brother-in-law to punish him.
Tyson’s book gained immediate national attention because the woman changed her version of what Emmett Till had said and done to her in the encounter that led to Till’s murder. Carolyn Bryant Donham told Tyson her earlier statements that Till had made sexually explicit statements to her and grabbed her were, as she told Tyson, “That part is not true.”
While Donham’s revised version of the 1955 events grabbed the headlines, it is only a part of the mosaic of racism and oppression Tyson lays out. His detailed description of her husband’s family’s instability and racism would fit the Appalachian families described in “Hillbilly Elegy,” the recent bestseller by J.D. Vance.
On the other side of the racial divide, Tyson poignantly describes the indignities suffered by Till’s mother’s family in Mississippi. Never look a white person in the eye. Never say or do anything that could be viewed as disrespectful. Do not attempt to register to vote. Violating these or multiple other rules by a Mississippi black could lead to loss of employment, burnings, midnight gunshots into your house, brutal beatings or death.
While the racism in Chicago, where Till lived, was not quite so brutal, the dehumanization and violence were so similar to the situation in Mississippi that parts of Chicago were known as “Little Mississippi.”
Tyson revisits the horrible details of Till’s kidnapping by Donham’s husband, Roy Bryant, and her brother-in-law, J. W. Malam, the brutal beating and gunshot through Till’s head that ended his life, and the attempt to hide his body by attaching a heavy fan to his body with barbed wire and tossing it into a nearby river.
A few days later, however, Till’s bloated and mangled body was discovered and ultimately returned to Chicago, where his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral. The murders of other blacks who violated race codes in Mississippi and other southern states never captured the attention of the public as profoundly as the widely publicized images of Till’s brutalized body.
After Bryant and Malam had been acquitted of Till’s murder, Rosa Parks heard a speech about the events that, Tyson writes, “moved her deeply.”
Tyson writes that four days later a Montgomery city bus driver told her to move to the back. Thinking of Emmett Till, “Parks refused to do so. Her subsequent arrest provided the occasion for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”
More importantly, according to Tyson, “the impact of the Till lynching resonated across America for years, touching virtually everyone who heard.”
Tyson says, for instance, that it motivated North Carolina A&T students who began a sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960. Within a few days, students in other parts of North Carolina were sitting in at segregated lunch counters. He writes, “A new, mass-based phase of the civil rights movement, a distinctive radicalism rooted in nonviolent direct action, had begun. Driving it were young people, many of whom had been inspired to action by the story of a boy their age lynched in Mississippi.”
Tyson writes that the recent national movement born of the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and other similar killings, continues the tradition as “young protesters throughout the United States chanted, ‘Say his name! Emmett Till!’”
Nevertheless, Tyson hopes that “difficult as it is to bear, his story can leave us reaching for our better angels and moving toward higher ground.”
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.