Emmett Till, it turns out, died for nothing like a good reason, only the worst reasons: racism, ignorance and fear.
And he did not die for the reason raised at the trial of the two men accused of his murder in 1955: that Till, a black 14-year-old boy, had come into a store in the town of Money, Miss., and assaulted the young white woman behind the counter, "grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities."
That never happened.
Timothy B. Tyson's new book, The Blood of Emmett Till, skillfully tells the story of the gruesome murder and its still-resonant aftermath. It's hardly a new story — except that Tyson reports that Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused Till and whose husband was one of the killers, told him 50 years later that the most incendiary part of her story was "not true."
Tyson, a historian at Duke University, in 2004 published Blood Done Sign My Name, an award-winning nonfiction account of a 1970 lynching in the North Carolina town where he lived as a boy, a murder that had some similarities to the Till case.
Carolyn Bryant Donham (she remarried after her first husband's death) read that book and in 2005 invited Tyson, who is white, to her home for coffee and pound cake and a confession: Till never touched her or said anything suggestive. Her sympathies, she said, went out to his mother.
"Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him," she said.
Tyson's book opens with that newly revealed information, and the rest of the book makes clear that there was never any good reason that Emmett Till died. But his heartbroken mother, Mamie Bradley, found a way to mourn her only child that changed history.
The book places the crime in its larger cultural and historical context. Bradley was born in Mississippi but was working and raising Emmett, a cheerful youngster who loved to bake and play baseball, in Chicago, a rigorously segregated city.
In the summer of 1955, she sent him, along with a couple of cousins, to stay for a while at the farm of his uncle and aunt, Moses and Elizabeth Wright, near the hamlet of Money.
Along with several young relatives, Till went to a general store run by Carolyn and Roy Bryant that served mostly black shoppers. He said something that Carolyn took as an insult. Word spread, and Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his uncle's house in the middle of the night. His aunt was so frightened she left town hours after he was kidnapped and never returned.
Till's body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days later; one of the terrible details Tyson notes is that Till's relatives and the county sheriff knew where to look along the banks because the bodies of so many other lynching victims had been pulled from that river.
At the time, Tyson writes, "Mississippi outstripped the rest of the nation in virtually every measure of lynching: the greatest number of lynchings, the most lynchings per capita, the most lynchings without an arrest or conviction, the most female victims, the most multiple lynchings, and on and on and on."
The boy's body was in a horrific state: skull crushed, one eye missing and the other hanging on his cheek, a bullet hole beside his ear. A 150-pound fan was secured to his neck with barbed wire, in a futile attempt to sink the corpse.
Instead, Till's body rose, first in the river, then before the eyes of the world. Although the sheriff of the county where he was found tried to have the body buried immediately, Bradley not only had her son sent back to Chicago but insisted on an open-casket funeral. She "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."
Photographs of Till's body appeared in Jet and Ebony and in black newspapers, and then everywhere, including the still-new and powerful medium of television. His death became a galvanizing event in the growing civil rights movement — even as his killers were acquitted, after one hour's deliberation (they stretched it out by ordering sandwiches) by a jury of 12 white men. Bryant and Milam would later swaggeringly describe the killing, secure in knowing they couldn't be prosecuted again, when Look magazine offered them $1,500 each for their stories.
Tyson's account of the times helps the reader to understand the climate in which Till's murder occurred. The early stirrings of civil rights grew as black veterans returned from World War II unwilling to accept the old racist hierarchy. As veteran and activist Amzie Moore said, "Everywhere we went, we were faced with this evil thing — segregation. If we were here fighting for the four freedoms that Roosevelt and Churchill talked about, then certainly we felt that the American soldier should be free first."
That newfound assertiveness frightened many white Southerners, and they were also incensed by the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, which called for the integration of public schools. The backlash to all that included the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan as well as the birth of its white-collar cousin, the Citizens Council, which writer Lillian Smith called "a well-bred mob." Made up of white bankers, lawyers, businessmen and others, it grew from its founding in 1954 to 60,000 members a year later. Blacks who tried to register to vote or joined such organizations as the NAACP would lose their jobs, their credit, their mortgages — and sometimes, when economic threats didn't work, their lives.
One of the most persistent stereotypes that drove such white supremacist groups was a terror of "race-mixing," sexual contact especially between black men and white women. That threat crept into Carolyn Bryant's testimony — even though she never mentioned that element in her first interviews with police. It became part of the killers' defense, even though they pleaded innocent, Tyson writes: "The boy had it coming, in other words, but our clients did not kill him. In fact, although it was his fault if he was dead, he might not even be dead." (Oh yes, there was also a conspiracy theory that the body in the river wasn't Till's.)
Carolyn Bryant's confession adds yet another layer of tragedy and irony to Emmett Till's story. Tyson reminds us that it's a story that is not over. Young black men still die for no good reason, no reason at all. And as white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine black members of a Bible study class in their own church in 2015, he told them his reason: "You rape our women and you're taking over our country."
Just as Mamie Bradley's decision shone essential light on what happened to her son, so does this book. As Tyson writes, "The bloody and unjust arc of our history will not bend upward if we merely pretend that history did not happen here. We cannot transcend our past without confronting it."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.