Rating: ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤

When I read Devery Anderson’s 2015 Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement  and Mamie Till-Mobley’s Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America to refresh my memory about the savage murder  – obliteration, really – of Emmett Till and saw the famous photo of the bloated, distorted blob of his corpse’s face in both books, I couldn’t stop imagining the boy’s horrifying last minutes of life, nor could I turn away from that wretched blob which could have passed for “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick’s pitiful head. Except Merrick’s deformation was congenital and Emmett’s was inflicted on him deliberately by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, who were empowered by a demonic caste system that had condemned the boy long before they mutilated his body.

I’m somewhat studied in the Atlantic Slave Trade, American slavery and the evil legacy of the Jim Crow era, but until relatively recently I still regarded racist lynching to be a bygone horror. However, when I found and read Laurence Leamer’s The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan, I was shocked that I hadn’t known about the random slaughter of nineteen-year-old Michael Donald in Alabama as late as 1981. The case is similar to that of the Emmett Till murder in that it was perpetrated by two vengeful white men under implicit orders to make an example of a black person by killing him. Though it happened over 35 years ago and the subsequent civil trial brought on by the heroic Morris Dees had the positive effect of mortally wounding the United Klans of America for its official encouragement of racial violence, the whole thing should remind us that racial turbulence ebbs and flows periodically, in much the same way antisemitism resurges off and on throughout history. In The Black Presidency Michael Eric Dyson says that “slow terror seeps into every nook and cranny of black existence,” which is a disturbing sign of leftover near-indelible pain and resentment.

“Injustice, murder, the shedding of blood, unhappily, are commonplace,” James Baldwin wrote in “The Uses of the Blues.” “These things happen all the time and everywhere.” But sometimes historical episodes radiate far beyond their place and time, and they become symbols of humanity’s inhumanity, a harkening to the wolf knocking at every heart’s door, a mirror for our own souls. This is why yet another book on Emmett Till is necessary; this is why his blood still “calls from the ground,” to use some of Reverend Samuel Wells’ 1962 words about the crime, words that author Timothy Tyson used as both an epigraph for and part of the title of his new book, The Blood of Emmett Till.

Tyson, NAACP board member and author of Blood Done Sign My Name and Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, wrote this important book both to illumine more of the subject and to contextualize Emmett’s fate with the problematic (to say the least) status of race relations in the United States today. This dual purpose is best explained by James Baldwin in my favorite passage from “As Much Truth As One Can Bear”:

What the writer is always trying to do is utilize the particular in order to reveal something larger and heavier than any particular can be. Thus Dostoevsky, in The Possessed, used a small provincial town in order to dramatize the spiritual state of Russia.

The memory of the murder of a black man named Henry Marrow back in 1970, as well as his father’s activism against injustice, has instilled a lifelong concern for civil rights in Tyson, and he continues the cause of racial equality and eradication of white supremacy to this day. Since history is a sort of cause-and-effect web, Tyson includes a backstory of race and society in Chicago and Mississippi up to the mid-1950s, since Emmett hailed from Chicago and had only been visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta at the time of his demise. The book also contains the crucial background of 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education and its aftermath, the Dixiecrats’ opposition to civil-rights legislation (which included an anti-lynching bill, notably), voting disparities and the pervasive oppression of Jim Crow.

The living nightmare of the Till murder began with an encounter between fourteen-year-old Emmett Till and the beautiful twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant in Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, which was located in the Mississippi Delta’s small town of Money. By the trial, Carolyn testified that Emmett had grabbed her hand and waist, sexually propositioning and frightening her. After one of Emmett’s cousins convinced him to leave the store, Carolyn hurried out to a car in front of the store and retrieved a pistol, allegedly out of fear of rape. This incident led to her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, forcing Emmett out of Moses Wright’s home in the middle of the night, taking him to a shed where they beat him mercilessly, relocating him to a remote area, shooting him in the head, tying an industrial fan to his neck and dumping his corpse off the side of the Black Bayou Bridge. Tyson emphasizes the sickening fact that “many white people believed Till had violated this race-and-sex taboo and therefore had it coming…Without justifying the murder, a number of Southern newspapers argued that the boy was at least partially at fault.”

However, The Blood of Emmett Till further debunks the malicious contention that Emmett’s transgression was attempted rape or anything near it. The trial transcript, released in 2007, “reveals that Carolyn Bryant told an even harder-edged story in the courtroom,” a story she contradicted in conversation with Tyson so many decades after the event. She confessed that she’d lied about Emmett physically accosting her in the store, jibing with her earliest account of what happened in the store, which involved insulting language and no aggressive physical contact. The most Emmett probably did was place his cash payment directly into Carolyn’s hand, still violating one of the many unwritten codes between blacks and whites back then. Tyson’s book goes on to provide much evidence of insult over injury, even in the language of Bryant and Milam the night they took away Emmett. Phrases such as “the one talking up at Money,” “the smart talk up at money” and, later, “ugly remarks,” suggest a verbal matter, not a venereal one.

Of course, the verbal does have power. The very language of many key actors in this unraveling crime story revealed the racist roots of the system that ultimately doomed Emmett Till. In court Sheriff George Smith said that he confronted Roy and “asked him about going down there [to the Wright’s house] and getting that little nigger.” On the witness stand Carolyn nonchalantly referred to Emmett as a “nigger man.” the defendants’ lawyer, John Whitten, appealed to the “Anglo-Saxon” nature of the jury. And dehumanizing speech went even deeper in the rhetoric of Judge Tom Brady, who, still resentful of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, had been whipping up mass opposition against the NAACP and led the segregationist Associated Citizens’ Councils. He harped on the age-old psychosexual pathology against blacks in defense of “the inviolability of Southern womanhood.” To him, “the loveliest and purest of God’s creature, the nearest thing to an angelic being that treads this celestial ball is a well-bred cultured Southern white woman,” so the scenario of a black boy attempting to soil such a treasure was unforgivable. Brady went as far as to say that “the social, political, economic and religious preferences of the negro remain close to the caterpillar and the cockroach.” Therefore, when the Citizens’ Councils waged economic war against those who opposed racial inequality and punished them by ruining employment, committing vandalism and even giving death threats, it was, to them, an act of pest fumigation rather than terrorism.

The racist social infrastructure spread out like a cobra’s hood as the situation intensified and trial seemed imminent. In spite of her role in the conflict at the store and allegation that she’d been shown Emmett by her husband and brother-in-law that awful night, Carolyn Bryant wasn’t even considered for arrest. Sheriff Smith didn’t want “to bother that woman.” Furthermore, Sheriff Strider of Tallahatchie County tried to cast doubt on whether or not the corpse was that of Emmett’s. His bias toward Bryant and Milam swelled into an accusation that the NAACP had done the killing to upset the peace. The near-miracle of the Till event is that Bryant and Milam were indicted by a grand jury and fair-minded Judge Curtis Swango, vetted as an excellent pick by the reliable likes of black newsman James Hicks, was chosen to rule over the case. The thing that helped to nullify that near-miracle was an all-white jury plucked from the indoctrinated populace.

Regardless, the trial’s existence was a triumph in itself. Bryant’s and Milam’s crime might have dissolved into obscurity had it not been for the proactivity of Emmett’s uncle Moses Wright and – especially – Emmett’s outraged mother, Mamie. After learning of her son’s destroyed body being found submerged in the Tallahatchie River, she wisely contacted the press and arranged to have the corpse transferred to Chicago by her uncle before it could be buried hastily – without autopsy, no less. Marie also insisted on an open-casket funeral in order to broadcast the brutality of the men who stole her boy, a poignant visual affront bravely used by the producers of Jet magazine when they published a close-up photo of the corpse’s ghastly head. Perhaps for the same reason, Tyson includes this description of that head before it was prepared for the viewing:

His right eyeball rested on his cheek, hanging by the optic nerve, and the left eye was gone altogether. The bridge of his nose seemed to have been chopped with a meat cleaver, and the top of his head was split from ear to ear.

Much later in the book, Tyson presents a remarkable factual and speculative reconstruction of the crime, assuring readers that “if the past is irrevocably gone…we can nevertheless follow whatever fragments of evidence lead us and try to understand what they tell us.” In the composite account, Emmett was taken to a shed on the Milams’ property and then beaten, pistol-whipped and tortured, probably with available tools. A black worker named Willie Reed claimed he heard Emmett beg for the men to stop and plead, “Mama, please save me” shortly before falling silent. Judging by the condition of the corpse, the men unleashed “a breathtaking level of savagery”: a piece of Emmett’s ear missing, the crown of his skull caved in, an eye popped out, broken wrists, a broken thigh bone, a bullet wound in the head. “Amid all informed speculation, there is this fact: it takes from five hundred to one thousand pounds of force to crack a human skull,” writes Tyson. This line must’ve impacted my soul with double the force as I read it, and I’m reminded of Michael Eric Dyson calling the desire for “black death” being “both sport and lust.” Hesitant to use the cliché, I must call this an orgy of violence if there ever was one.

Along with press attention, TV coverage boomed, carrying the horrible news and showing the true face of institutional racism to folks far beyond the town, presaging the rapid and vast spread of civil rights. Again, Mamie deserves most of the credit for this social explosion. “Emmett’s murder would never have become a watershed historical moment without Mamie finding the strength to make her private grief a public matter,” writes Tyson. “[S]he would leverage the only influence America’s racial caste system granted her: public grief and moral outrage sufficient to shame and anger some fraction of the nation.”

Forty-seven years later, with the help of Christopher Benson, Mamie decided to write an enlightening book on her experiences back then and what she did with her life afterward, Death of Innocence. In the book’s introduction, she speaks of her struggle to overcome futility after “something so evil.” Eventually, she realized her “important mission” of ministering to her community, teaching children and doing the loving work of God (qualifying her, I think, for inclusion in a future new edition of Cornel West’s and Christa Buschendorf’s priceless Black Prophetic Fire):

You see, my story is more than the story of a lynching. It is more than the story of how, with God’s guidance, I made a commitment to rip the covers off Mississippi, USA – revealing to the world the horrible face of hatred….It is the story of how I was able to pull myself back from the brink of desolation, and turn my life around by digging deep within my soul to pull hope from despair, joy from anguish, forgiveness from anger, love from hate.

When Mamie testified at the trial, J.J. Breland, attorney for the defense, tried to suggest that she had an unscrupulous interest in cashing in on the life insurance on her son. He also echoed the sex-paranoid language of Judge Tom Brady when he asked, “And did you caution [Emmett] in those conversations that you had with him not to insult any white woman?” Imagine the strength Mamie had to muster to endure such audacity in the wake of her son’s destruction. Even Carolyn Bryant recalls the anguished mother’s testimony with pity: “I don’t know how she went through the trial the way she did.”

By the time Carolyn testified, after the prosecution (prematurely) rested, “it was time to play the old song of the Bruised Southern Lily and the Black Beast Rapist,” as Tyson puts it. “Somewhere,..Mrs. Bryant seemed to have learned all the verses.” Then the defense switched to a bizarre but repulsively brilliant tack: no denial of Bryant’s and Milam’s criminal act, but defense of their motivation. The boy’s impudence had justified their ire. Sadly and insanely, the jury reached a “not guilty” verdict. The obstinate nature of racism continued to puff up J.W. Milam who told William Huie in an interview for Look magazine that he had “just decided it was time a few people got put on notice…And when a nigger even gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’.”

The unjust verdict and the continued impunity of the murderers could have solidified a general feeling of futility for citizens out of lockstep with the rotten status quo, but social awareness burgeoned instead, and assertive activism followed. The civil-rights awakening inspired countless black folks, such as the righteously defiant Rosa Parks, the SNCC’s Joyce Ladner, the NAACP’s Julian Bond, the heroic Greensboro Four, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali, to name only a few. I’m reminded of how Martin Luther King, Jr. explained the seemingly sudden oppositions to racial injustice, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to his wife Coretta (read more about her here). He said “there comes a time when time itself is ready for a change.” Tyson notes the catalyzing effect of Emmett’s death and Mamie’s insistence on the worth of his life in this thrilling passage:

Mass media and massive protest may have made this murder the most notorious racial incident in the history of the world…His lynching, his mother’s decision to open the casket to the world, and the trial of Milam and Bryant spun the country, and arguably the world, in a different direction.

The Blood of Emmett Till’s uniqueness lies in its updated sociopolitical context: real and perceived tension between blacks and police (such as the seminal fate of Michael Brown in Ferguson), a multitude of racial disparities and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. After extending the blame for Emmett Till’s death to President Eisenhower and his inaction against the voter suppression of blacks in the South, the segregationist politicians of the era, the Citizens’ Councils and the majority of the U.S. citizenry, Tyson addresses the reader of the book: “Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is really so different now.” Despite my cynicism toward most collectivist language and the concept of existential bloodguilt for past or present atrocities, I understand Tyson’s basic point about complacency at best and passive approval at worst:

America is still killing Emmett Till, but often by means less direct than bludgeons and bullets. The most successful killers of African American youth are poverty, resegregated and neglected public schools, gang violence, and lack of economic opportunities…We are still killing black youth because we have not yet killed white supremacy.

So many past civil-rights voices remain relevant and important today – and for countless tomorrows: Solomon Northup, Dred Scott, Frederick Douglass, Homer Plessy, John Brown, the Abolitionists, DuBois, Ida Wells, Ella Baker, MLK, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, James Cone, Derrick Bell, Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X, Huey Newton. And perhaps the loudest, most affecting voice comes from the call of Emmett Smith’s blood.

– David Herrle