The brutal murder of young Emmett Till in 1955 stands as one of the most outrageous crimes of the twentieth century. The case has inspired a rich and substantial literature, including Mamie Till-Mobley’s 2003 memoir, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America; John Edgar Wideman’s searing 2016 book, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File; and Deverny Anderson’s comprehensive history of the case, published in 2015, Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement. In The Blood of Emmett Till, Timothy B. Tyson brings his considerable skills as a writer to bear upon this story to produce a fresh and gripping narrative of Till’s life, his murder, and its aftermath. The story is well known. Two white men, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, kidnapped Till, fourteen years old and black, all because he had the audacity to flirt with Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, at the small grocery store they owned in the Mississippi Delta. They pummeled the boy and shot him in the head, and then dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. The crime sent shock waves through the country and provided fuel for the burgeoning civil rights movement, largely because Till’s mother made it so. She appealed to the media in Till’s hometown of Chicago, held a public funeral, and allowed the black press to publish a photograph of Till’s disfigured and bloated corpse. Bryant and Milam, meanwhile, were tried and acquitted. Tyson situates these events within the tense racial landscape of early 1950s Mississippi and, in doing so, imparts a sense of inevitability to the drama of Till’s murder and the acquittal of his murderers. The black freedom struggle was heating up, as men like Amzie Moore and Dr. T. R. M. Howard formed the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), which, in 1952, launched a protest against segregated restrooms at filling stations and began a voter registration campaign. These activities provoked a white backlash that only intensified in the wake of “Black Monday,” when the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) decision was handed down. Civil rights workers increasingly found themselves the target of sinister and violent threats, and, in the months preceding Till’s murder, white supremacists murdered activists George Lee and Lamar Smith with impunity. In this context, Tyson writes, “it is no surprise that J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant would assume they could murder Emmett Till without real consequences” (120). But, it is in that same context that we see the emergence of the “Mississippi Underground,” led by Dr. Howard and comprised of activists and sympathetic journalists, black and white, who initiated their own investigation of the case. When a black farm worker, Frank Young, arrived at Howard’s door claiming to have witnessed Till’s murder along with several other workers, Howard’s group, along with law enforcement, formed an interracial search team to track down the witnesses and provide them protection. Tyson thus paints a picture of Mississippi justice that is more complex than most would expect. Tyson makes ample use of the transcripts from the Milam and Bryant trial, which were only released in 2007. He also relies heavily on Mamie Till-Mobley’s memoir, as well as later accounts from witnesses and the defendants. Most remarkably, however, Tyson interviewed Carolyn Bryant, the woman who set the whole tragedy in motion. Bryant has also penned her version of events in an unpublished memoir, now housed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tyson accessed this memoir, as well as notes Bryant’s lawyer had made at the time of the trial. Tyson’s interview with Bryant has drawn the most attention, and understandably so. At the trial, Bryant testified that Till did more than flirt with her or whistle at her; he had grabbed her and “uttered obscenities” (6), a claim that did not appear in any other witness accounts. The presiding judge, whom Tyson represents as fair-minded, kept Bryant’s testimony from the jury at the prosecution’s request on the grounds that the events at the Bryants’ store constituted a prior incident unconnected to the focus of the trial, that is, the actions of Milam and Bryant later that night. Ironically, it was the defense attorneys who insisted upon her testimony in order to provide a justifiable motive for a crime they denied their clients committed. Although the jury did not hear her testimony, they certainly heard about it, and the defense in summation insinuated that Till was guilty of a crime even more threatening to white womanhood than flirtation. Tyson implies that the weight of this accusation was key to Bryant and Milam’s acquittal. That implication is arguable, as the jury was eager to acquit anyway. Still, now, some sixty years later, Carolyn Bryant admits she lied. Why did she lie? What really happened that day when Till entered her store? What is her motive in coming forward now? Unfortunately, we do not learn the answers to these questions. Bryant remains a cipher. She tells Tyson that she does not remember what actually did happen that day, except that Till did not grab her. The meaning of Tyson’s title sinks in: “the blood of Emmett Till” is on Carolyn Bryant’s hands. If Bryant is seeking atonement, she has done a little too little, and much too late. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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