Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 291 pages. Index, bibliography and notes.
The story is well known. In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy from Chicago travels to Mississippi to spend the summer with relatives. He says something to Carolyn Bryant, a clerk in a small grocery store and whistles at her as she goes out to fetch a pistol from her car. Till is later kidnapped in the middle of the night, brutally tortured, killed, and his body is dumped in a river. We know so much about this story, compared to other lynchings, because of Till's mother. She refused to let the story be buried. She insisted that her son have an open casket funeral. She contacted Chicago black community leaders who helped spread the word around the world, creating a media event. Soon, Emmett Till is a well-known name, synonymous with lynchings.
Much of this story has been told many times. What is new with Tyson's account is his interview with Carolyn Bryant. Even after reading the book, we still don't know exactly what happened between Emmett and Carolyn inside that grocery story. However, in the interview, Carolyn admits he didn't grab her around the waist. She doesn't remember all what what was said that evening. There have been so many years and the stories been told and retold, leaving her questioning what was said. However, one thing she is certain of, "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."(7)
Carolyn's husband and brother-in-law were arrested shortly after Till's body was discovered by a fishermen. Their trial brought reporters from all over the world along with an African American congressman from Detroit. The trial became a showcase of life in the segregated South. (They had to have separate reporter tables in the courtroom for African-American press). Although there were irregularities in the handling of the case, such as the Sheriff visiting a key witness to suggest that he think about what he testifies in court, the trial itself goes smoothly and appears fair. Yet the jury only deliberated a short time before returning a not-guilty verdict. Although many expected the verdict, most knew the men were guilty and a few years later, with them safe from another trial, they admitted as much. Most of the the African-Americans who testified in the trial, in fear for their lives, immediately leave Mississippi and relocated up north.
In telling the story, Tyson doesn't just show the horrifying conditions of African-Americans in the South. He tells of the conditions in the North, especially in segregated Chicago, where Till grew up. There are also questions left hanging such as what happened to the two black men who worked on the plantation Carolyn Bryant's brother-in-law ran, who helped subdue Till in the back of the truck as they rode around in the early morning hours looking for a place to do the terrible deed.
Although the book is well written, it is not an easy story to read. Yet, it is a story that needs to be told and retold. This event only happened a little over sixty years ago. In the Epilogue, Tyson attempts to bridge the events in 1955 with the current “Black Lives Matter” campaigns. As a member of the dominant culture, this book provides interesting insights into what other have had to endure not that long again.
This is the third book I've read by Timothy Tyson. The first was Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and It's Legacy, which he co-edited with David Cecelski. In 2007, I read and reviewed Blood Done Signed My Name. Tyson seems to have a thing for books with blood in the title, yet sadly much of the racial history of our country is stained with blood.