Before Timothy Tyson got the phone call, he did not want to write a book about Emmett Till.
Like most historians of the American South, the senior researcher at Duke’s department of documentary studies thought he knew the story. In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicagoan, allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white Mississippian. Bryant’s husband and kin, drunk on whiskey and white power, charged Till for his act of racial disrespect with Till's life. Pictures of Till’s brutally mutilated body, published in black magazines, sparked worldwide outrage. The murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury.
But like most southern historians, Tyson also knew that there was at least one part of Till’s story that had gone untold: Carolyn Bryant had not spoken publicly since the time of her husband’s trial. So when Tyson got a phone call in 2008 from a Raleigh woman who said her mother-in-law, the former Carolyn Bryant, wanted to chat over coffee, Tyson quickly scheduled the meeting.
Carolyn Bryant Donham knew a lot about Tyson, having read his critically acclaimed memoir, "Blood Done Sign My Name." Tyson did his research on Bryant as well. He dug into the Emmett Till case, only to find there wasn’t much to dig into.
“There was only one history book and it was a very flimsy thing indeed and was written 25 years ago,” Tyson said. “I was surprised to see there was not a stack of decent history books on this story.”
So he decided to write that book, "The Blood of Emmett Till."
Despite a few flashy headlines (“How Author Timothy Tyson Found The Woman At The Center Of The Emmett Till Case,” blared Vanity Fair), "The Blood of Emmett Till" is not a story about Carolyn Bryant’s conscience. It is a story of tragedy, brutality and love in action. It is a story of societal guilt and boyish innocence. That Bryant decided to tell some measure of the truth a half-century after perjuring herself in court is of little consequence to Tyson’s work.
“It wasn’t the morning news to me that she was lying,” Tyson said.
Bryant’s courtroom tale was just another etching in the racist mythology of the black beast and the southern beauty. The Emmett Till story is much bigger than that narrative; it is a “global story,” to use Tyson’s language. Like most global stories, it began with an act of displacement.
Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, was a refugee. In 1924, when she was two, her family moved from the “ancestral homeplace” of Webb, Mississippi to escape “a land of ghosts and terror,” as Tyson writes. Their new home, Argo, Illinois, was not a great deal friendlier than the South in some ways. Segregation was even more robust; white terror manifested itself in dozens of house bombings.
But Mamie, as Tyson calls her “to depict her as a human being rather than an icon,” could vote. And she could organize. When she sent her bubbly, baseball-loving son, Emmett, to Mississippi to visit family in 1955, just over a year after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, she sent him to a hostile South.
Emmett was accused, tracked down and killed after an encounter with Bryant at a convenience store. When his body, maimed almost beyond recognition, returned to Mamie in a casket, she gained a new, unspeakable grief. But unlike so many contemporary family members bereaved by white brutality, she had institutions she could leverage to help her tell her story.
Even though Emmett’s skull was fractured in multiple places, one of his eyes gouged out, and parts of his ear missing, Mamie decided to hold an open casket funeral for the world to see.
Even Tyson said he was surprised by the extent to which Mamie was able to turn “grief into love on behalf of humanity,” wearing herself out with speaking engagements in the months following Emmett’s murderers’ acquittal.
Her struggle imparts several important lessons. The social movement that arose after the acquittal of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam leaned heavily not only on Mamie Till-Mobley, but large institutions: labor unions, churches, the NAACP and black media outlets. The segregationist hardliners likewise organized through pillars of white supremacy like Citizens Councils, white newspapers and, of course, state houses.
It doesn’t take a particularly close reading of Tyson’s work to come to the worried conclusion that the institutions responsible for positive 20th century social change are severely lacking today. The local newspaper is dying; the plight of working people, so often intertwined in the fight for African American civil rights, feels like a bygone fight. Activists have had notable success on social media, but information there is inevitably fragmented and sensational.
In Tyson’s view, social progress has in some ways regressed in his lifetime.
“I did not plan to be almost 60 years old and still fighting for Brown vs. Board and voting rights,” Tyson said. “Yet here we are.”
Tyson reminds us that, just as the murder of Emmett Till did not take place in a social vacuum, a 21st century reading of the national tragedy must keep one eye fixed on the present. Despite the wealth of historical information at the disposal of the tenacious researcher, the work is not a tome. In fact, a worse writer may have written a book twice as long. Yet every word of the historical call to action rings with righteous purpose.
“We have guiding spirits who still walk among us,” read Tyson’s final pages. “We have the boundless moral landscape where Mamie Bradley still shakes the earth with her candor and courage.”
Some might call such proselytizing inappropriate for a historian, but Tyson believes that history written and consumed by people can never be totally objective. But it can gain its moral energy from evidence. For history to mean anything, “people who are trying to be citizens and reshape the world” have to know where the author is coming from.
If we are indeed going to reshape the world as Tyson would like to see it, we will need guiding spirits, imperfect as they might be. Tyson writes that William Faulkner, the Mississippian literary giant, offered one of the more eloquent responses to Till’s murder.
“If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture where we must murder children...we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.”
But Tyson notes that was not Faulkner’s only response.
Some months later, an apparently intoxicated Faulkner told a reporter, “The Till boy got himself into a fix and he almost got what he deserved.”
Whether Faulkner said this or not (Faulkner denied it), Tyson’s choice to include the drunken musing reminds the reader that even the most celebrated among us must fight daily to appeal to the better angels of our nature.
Perhaps in that moment Faulkner succumbed to his darkest impulse, his alcoholism. More likely, a lifetime in an unquestioned racial hierarchy left scars that even the brilliant artist could not help but show every now and then.
"The Blood of Emmett Till" implores us to be honest about our scars. If we continue to deny the past, justifying white supremacy and the effect it has on our schools, cities, justice system, media and so many other places, Tyson warns, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.
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