The Blood Of Emmett Till, by Timothy B. Tyson (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2017, 291 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
- Sir Winston Churchill
February 22, 2017 (San Diego) - The Blood Of Emmett Till is perhaps the most painful and disturbing book that I have ever read, and I am a professional writer and book reviewer, having written more than 200 book reviews. Two of those book reviews contributed towards the authors winning the NAACP Image Award in Literature; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Gregory Reed’s Obama Talks Back. It parallels Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by James Allen and Hilton Als, which I also had written a review of.
Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood Of Emmett Tyson book has stirred my soul, and resonates with me for so many profound reasons, as the subject of this soul searching book was born in Chicago and I spent the majority of my life there. And my children were born there. As a matter of fact, it was my daughter Brandy that brought this book to my attention.
Timothy B. Tyson is Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Visiting Professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School, and adjunct professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina. He is the author of Blood Done Sign My Name, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and the Grawemeyer Award in Religion; and Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, winner of the James A. Rawley Prize for best book on race and the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize for best first book in U.S. History from the Organization of American Historians. He serves on the executive boards of the North Carolina NAACP and the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
The Blood Of Emmett Till is a horror story of epic dimensions. It speaks to man’s inhumanity to man! How could a human being kill and mutilate a little boy that had just turned 14, ostensibly for whistling at a white woman or “getting out of his place?” A dog or any other animal would not have been killed and disfigured as depicted in the picture of young Emmett Till!
In 1955, white men in the Mississippi Delta lynched a fourteen-year-old from Chicago named Emmett Till. His murder was part of a wave of white terrorism in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared public school segregation unconstitutional.
The national coalition organized to protest the Till lynching became the foundation of the modern civil rights movement. Only weeks later, Rosa Parks thought about young Emmett as she refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Five years later, the Emmett Till generation, forever marked by the vicious killing of a boy their own age, launched a sit-in campaign that turned the struggle into a mass movement. “I can hear the blood of Emmett Till as it calls from the ground,” shouted a black preacher in Albany, Georgia.
But what actually happened to Emmett Till – not the icon of injustice but the flesh-and-blood boy? Part detective story, part political history, Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till draws on a wealth of new evidence, including the only interview ever given by Carolyn Bryant, the white woman in whose name Till was killed. Tyson’s gripping narrative upends what we thought we knew about the most notorious racial crime in American history.
There is a sad and tragic irony to this book and story by Tyson, as I spent most of my life in Chicago where Emmett Till was born, and actually travelled to the Mississippi Delta area where Till was murdered and his body was thrown in the Tallahatchie River – while on “Freedom Ride II” in a bus caravan from Chicago in an attempt to get elected the first black to Congress since Reconstruction.
The aforementioned “Freedom Ride II” was a bus caravan from Chicago of more than 200 volunteers some 30 years ago – orchestrated and comprised of Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, Congressman Gus Savage of Illinois, Ben Hooks the President of the NAACP, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. the President of Operation PUSH. We left Chicago from the offices of Operation PUSH, determined to make a change and difference in history, heading for the Mississippi Delta, the same general area where Emmett Till was murdered.
We were to disperse and live in the homes of other blacks in the Mississippi Delta, namely, Greenwood, Indianola, Grenada, Yazoo City, Jackson, Clarksdale and others. I actually stayed with an aunt in Grenada that I had never known previously.
I recall a particular instance when we were engaged in “Chicago style” campaigning, and I handed out a “poll ticket” with selected candidates to vote for to a white man near a polling place, and he told me that that “I could take that poll ticket and wipe my ass with it.” Needless to say, I was stunned and didn’t know what to say, so I just laughed and went about my business. This was my introduction to Mississippi hospitality, as it was my first and last time in the state where Emmett Till was murdered.
The author of The Blood Of Emmett Till is meticulous and is well-documented in his research for this book. His interview of Carolyn Bryant is insightful, and certainly a difference maker in history. In his interview with Bryant, some 60 years after the murder of Emmett Till by her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, she stated: “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Tyson describes Carolyn Bryant in his book as “the mouthpiece of a monstrous lie.”
Also, in his interview with Carolyn Bryant, which she requested perhaps to clear her conscience, Tyson states: “As I sat drinking her coffee and eating her pound cake, Carolyn Bryant Donham handed me a copy of the trial transcript and the manuscript of her unpublished memoir, More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham. I promised to deliver our interview and these documents to the appropriate archive, where future scholars would be able to use them. In her memoir she recounts the story she told at the trial using imagery from the classic Southern racist horror movie of the Black Beast rapist. But about her testimony that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities, she now told me, ‘That part’s not true.’” Read Carolyn Bryant’s trial testimony here.
Ms. Donham told him that soon after the killing, her husband’s family hid her away, moving her from place to place for days, to keep her from talking to law enforcement. “The circumstances under which she told the story were coercive,” Dr. Tyson said. “She’s horrified by it.” There’s clearly a great burden of guilt and sorrow.
Perhaps also, why Carolyn Bryant had decided to do the interview with Tyson, goes back to her observation of Mamie Bradley (Till) some 60 years earlier, as she testified in court about the murder of her son. Across the courtroom Carolyn Bryant watched in awe as Mamie Bradley (Till) testified. “I had all these things running through my mind,” she recalled. “My husband’s going to the penitentiary, maybe for life. I have children to support.” In her memory, however, her fears did not squelch her astonishment at the African American mother across the room. She could not stop thinking about her. “Here is this woman whose child has been brutalized, just brutalized every kind of way – how could she stand it? I don’t know how she went through the trial the way she did.” Read Mamie Bradley’s (Till) testimony here.
Despite the eye witness accounts of Willie Reed and his sworn and trancribed testimony here, the all-white and all-male jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam.
Tyson’s The Blood Of Emmett Till resonates with me and momentarily tested my faith due to a passage in this powerful book and the quote of Amzie Moore, a black World War II veteran who lived in the Mississippi Delta where and at the time Emmett Till was murdered. Tyson states and quotes Moore: “To Moore the color line in Mississippi seemed so stark and inexorable as to seem the very will of the Creator. ‘For a long time,’ he remembered, ‘I had the idea that a man with white skin was superior because it appeared to me that he had everything. And I figured if God would justify the white man having everything, that God had put him in a position to be the best.’ He told an interviewer, ‘I just thought [whites] were good enough, that God loved them enough, to give them all these things that they had. And that, evidently, there had to be something wrong with me.’” Incredulous!
The author points out that according to a William Bradford Huie, J.W. Milam later, and after he and Roy Bryant had been acquitted by an all-white jury, justified Till’s lynching using terms of violent and sexual politics:
Just as long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are going to stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger even gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ liven’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we’ve got some rights….”Chicago boy,” I said, “I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. God damn you, I’m going to make an example of you just so everybody can see how my folks stand.”
This mood and state of mind of J.W. Milam was exemplified in a movie made and directed by Roger Corman, and starring William Shatner of Star Trek fame, some 55 years ago in the small town in Missouri that I was born in, Charleston, before spending the majority of my life in Chicago. This movie, The Intruder, depicts the forced integration of a high school in Charleston that I graduated from, and many of my black neighbors and friends actually had roles in this movie pictured here.
The aforementioned J.W. Milam, after he and Roy Bryant had been acquitted by an all-white jury, actually admitted in an interview for Look Magazine in 1956 how he murdered Emmett Till, after having him strip naked and carry the 150 pound cotton gin fan that would be placed around his neck with barbed wire, to weigh him down after he had been shot near his right ear and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. This, and the earlier beating administered in a barn by Milam and Bryant, which 18-year-old black boy Willie Reed testified in court, contributed to the gruesome condition and the pictures seen of Emmett Till seen around the world.
Tyson actually indicates in his book The Blood Of Emmett Till that William Bradford Huie of Look Magazine offered and paid Roy Bryant and J.W. Bryant $4,000.00 to tell their story of how they murdered Emmett Till, after they had been acquitted by an all-white and all-mail jury. They admitted that they both took turns smashing Till across the head with their .45s.
This book by Tyson is full of ironies – one of which is the execution by hanging of Emmett Till’s father, Louis Till, while he was in the Army just 10 years earlier than Till’s lynching in 1955, allegedly for murder and rape while serving in Italy. The ring that Louis Till was wearing, which had the initials “LT” emblazoned on it, which was later returned to Chicago and claimed by his son Emmett, was actually used to help identify the gruesome remains of young Emmett as he was retrieved from the Tallahatchie River. The case has refused to fade, revived in a long list of writings and works of art, as told by Richard-Perez-Pena in the New York Times, including recently, in a book by John Edgar Wideman; Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File.
John Edgar Wideman actually alludes to a conspiracy theory in his book, theorizing that: “Each time the October 14 date appeared, I wondered if I had discovered a smoking gun. Doesn’t a conspiracy to violate Private Louis Till’s right to privacy originate there, on that day in October 1955, just after the Sumner trial when Till’s confidential military record is declassified and the way cleared for the file’s contents to be leaked to the press. Just in time to sabotage any likelihood a Mississippi grand jury might convene in November and decide to try Milam and Bryant on kidnapping charges.”
Tyson's The Blood Of Emmett Till opens the door in another way to Wideman's book; Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, in a quote by Wideman in which he states: "If Louis Till had been around to school his son about the South, about black boys and white men up north and down south, would Emmett have returned safely from his trip to Money, Mississippi, started up public high in Chicago, earned good grades like I did, eluded the fate of his father, maybe even become president of the United States. But the flame of his father's fate draws Emmett like a moth. Son flies backward and forward simultaneously like the sankofa bird because part of the father's fate is never to be around to protect, advise, and surpervise his son, the fate of father and son to orphan each other always. Fathers and sons. Sons and fathers. An eternal cycle of missing and absence. Bright wings flutter like a dark room lit suddenly by a match." Louis Till pictured here.
Another irony about this story is the fact that my 99-year-old aunt in Gary, Indiana just recently told me that her and my father, Dennis Moore, Sr., told me that they both were born in the Mississippi Delta area, approximately 30 miles from Money, Mississippi, and where Emmett Till was murdered and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. My Aunt Hattie White also told me just last week in our telephone call from Gary, Indiana, that when she and her brother, my father, lived in that area many years ago they had to rush him on a train to get back to the army for fear of his life being in jeopardy – somewhat similar to that of Emmett Till – due to a white person’s concern and misunderstanding over $10.00. My father could have suffered the same fate as Emmett Till, if he had not gotten out of Mississippi when he did.
As chronicled and profiled in the aforementioned Without Sanctuary, thousands of blacks had been lynched across the country. It was even memorialized in this song by Billy Holiday; Strange Fruit here. What happened to Emmett Till and so many other blacks is this nation’s shame, and is also profiled in this YouTube video by an Emory University professor here.
Tyson points out that there were more than 50,000 people to view the mangled body of Emmett Till at the A. A. Rayner & Sons Funeral Home in my hometown of Chicago, on 41st Street and Cottage Grove, on that first day of viewing when he was brought back from Mississippi. The author further points out in The Blood Of Emmett Till that in subsequent days those in Chicago that viewed the 14-year-old’s body was upwards of 250,000 in estimates given by the Chicago Defender Newspaper.
This is such an intriguing book by Tyson, and a painful reminder of history and man’s inhumanity to man, a book that resonates with me for some many profound and heartfelt reasons – one that I highly recommend.
Dennis Moore has been the Associate Editor of the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor of SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine. He is also the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago. Mr. Moore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.