Blood of Emmett Till


How The Blood of Emmett Till Still Stains America Today

A new history of the most famous lynching in the country provides context on how racism continues to work in the present.

Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed.
Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed.Bettmann / Getty

What does American tyranny look like? In the past few months, fears about the collapse or degradation of the American democratic system have led many to engage in the grim exercise of game-planning the endgame of tyranny. For some, dystopian novels ground that exercise. Some take stock of the rise of authoritarian powers in the past. Others rely on expert realpolitik analysis from political minds like my colleague David Frum. Regardless of the source, we have arrived at Belshazzar’s feast. The writing is on the wall: It could happen here.

Or, it could happen here again. After all, it wasn’t too long ago in American history that millions of Americans were trampled under the heel of a repressive, anti-democratic kleptocracy and faced economic reprisals, violence, or death for any dissent. And nowhere was the iron grip of that system—known as Jim Crow to some of us—stronger than in Mississippi. That grip manifested itself most notoriously in the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy, in 1955. That year, Till was tortured and lynched by white men after allegedly making lewd comments toward a white woman. His mutilated corpse became one of the first mass-media images of the violence of Jim Crow, and the trial of his killers became a pageant illuminating the tyranny of white supremacy. And through protests across the country, Till’s broken body became a powerful symbol of the civil-rights movement.

In his new book, The Blood of Emmett Till, the historian Timothy B. Tyson revisits the circumstances of Till’s death, and brings to bear a wide scope of reporting, historical research, and cultural analysis. It’s not a definitive history of the Till case; other works have synthesized more primary sources and firsthand accounts. Rather, The Blood of Emmett Till is focused on the historicity of race in America: It posits that Till’s death is an emblem of the ways in which American tyranny works. To that end, the climax of his book comes not in the death of Till, in the ensuing sweltering court proceedings, or in the backwoods thriller of the black Mississippi Underground that investigated the case, but in the present.Tyson tells the story of how a young Chicago boy’s summer sojourn in Mississippi ended with him kidnapped, beaten, shot, and tossed into a river by Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam, and a group of others. The historical context Tyson provides often dwarfs the actual tick-tock of the case: An account of Mamie Till-Mobley’s childhood and her close bond with her son is wrapped in a narrative about the Great Migration of black people from the South to the West and North in the mid-20th century. Till’s lynching is backgrounded by an instructive history of the genteel and intellectually racist Citizens’ Councils and how they fueled the raw violence of a white proletariat. The surfeit of contextualization verges on digression at times, but serves the ultimate purpose of giving Till’s life weight six decades after his death.
The effect of Tyson’s wide-angled framing is especially pronounced in the bombshell revelation that Carolyn Bryant—the white woman who originally claimed Till grabbed and sexually harassed her in her husband’s store—lied about those claims. Media coverage has focused on that explosive admission and the conversation around redemption that it seems to spark, but Tyson’s book, in the end, is largely unconcerned with that line of inquiry. Bryant’s testimony on the stand and her later admission have little to do, in this narrative, with her own battle with guilt; rather, they serve to advance Tyson’s thesis that culpability for Till’s death rests on millions of shoulders. The unlikely thing, he argues, was not that Emmett Till was lynched, but that his lynching actually stirred a national response.
Tyson takes great pains to illustrate how the mechanisms working in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1955 still animate life today, and how America has never really found justice for Till. He details the rise of the civil-rights movement and how Till’s death helped to forge a common purpose for the wide-ranging and often contentious factions of black activism. He describes how white supremacist organizing arose in direct response to that mobilization. And he examines how school desegregation and black suffrage undergirded the social tensions of the Jim Crow era.
Perhaps most importantly, Tyson considers all the ways in which an American populace was complicit in its acceptance of violence against black people—and then considers all the ways in which it is still complicit in the deaths of people of color today. For instance, in his examination of the Citizens’ Councils’ literature, which fomented mass fears of black criminality and fantasies of rampant black sexual deviancy, Tyson also shows how poor white “peckerwoods” were loathed by wealthier white people, and manipulated into doing the bloody business of physical violence. In this, he provides a thinly veiled parable for today’s politics in how the rhetoric of white supremacy—even in its subtlest dog-whistle form—is used to radicalize people, and how the uneasy detente between classes of white people is often maintained by propaganda built around the threat of the other, even as the culpability is passed to the lowest rungs. “We blame them,” Tyson writes about those radicalized perpetrators of physical violence, “to avoid seeing that the lynching of Emmett Till was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades, but not as much as we pretend.”In service of his analysis of the present, Tyson also compares the “Emmett Till generation” of civil-rights leaders that developed after Till’s death to the Black Lives Matter movement that gathered force after the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. In The Blood of Emmett Till, that comparison is not just a coincidence, but, rather, the end result of a social system that continues to perpetuate injustice today. “America is still killing Emmett Till,” Tyson writes, “often for the same reasons that drove the violent segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s.”The Blood of Emmett Till is a critical book not just because it provides a good reason to revisit a foundational moment in American history—though it manages that feat in spades—but also because it manages to turn the past into prophecy and demands that we do the one vital thing we aren’t often enough asked to do with history: learn from it. In firmly tying Till’s legacy to protests over black bodies, re-segregation, voting-rights struggles, hate crimes, and the creeping reemergence of bigotry today, Tyson implores readers to learn that American tyranny already has a face, has already left millions of victims in its wake, and doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to fathom. Perhaps the dystopia we envision isn’t some far-off future, but simply a return to the past.

 

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It is still Black History Month and I feel that this is an important subject. America is racist and many Americans are racist. We all, despite color, need to read and be honest with ourselves when we take a closer look at who we are and what we believe. Many Americans do not think they are racist, the society that they were raised in often hides racism as jokes, small glitches and not being understood by another race of people.

 

People have begun to trash the concept of “being politically correct” and there are many reasons to be politically correct. If you look back perhaps three decades or more, you hear words being used that are hurtful and fuel buried feelings of inadequacy and fear. You used to hear: wop, spic, mick, jungle bunny and an assortment of others. White people who tend to enjoy using labels that are not politically correct are afraid of others. They are not afraid in the sense of physical fear but if this black man or that Asian, or those Muslims can come to America and accomplish that great job, the huge home and the brand new Lincoln Town Car, why am I in this dead end job? Why do I drive a used Ford? Why do I live in a nice middle class neighborhood but wish that I lived in an exclusive area?

 

When a racist type of person compares themselves to other people of color, they feel anger if the others have accomplished more in life than they have. The average white middle class male goes to work, comes home and lets the dog out. He eats the dinner his wife has prepared, sprawls out on the couch to drink beer and watch TV. Mindless TV that does not challenge him mentally or morally. Beer is the perfect anesthesthetic to forget he saw a guy he went to high school with today and he is black. Not a bad guy but he now has the job he always wanted. It makes him feel very bad about his own life.

 

His job could be done by anyone, though he would never admit it to another living soul. He is comfortable in his middle class life because it asks nothing further of him. He never talks about the future or plans anything. To do that he would have to look at his life and admit that there had to be something more. Perhaps he should go back to school. What is he good at now? Could he get an online college? No, he’d have to give up Thursday bowling with the guys and Sundays at the Sports Bar to watch the game with his buds and drink beer. These are his social activities. He thinks maybe he should get a motorcycle. That would be cool and he’d be the envy of all his friends.

 

Does he do any of this? No because it would take effort and he probably couldn’t get the grades if he went back to school. People would laugh at a guy almost fifty going back to school. It could be very embarrassing and he sure doesn’t need that. Maybe the wife should go back work full-time. Yeah, that’s a good idea. She is putting on weight anyways. She could take some of the burden off of his shoulders of supporting this family. Then he would feel better. He is just overwhelmed with too much responsibility. He could get the motorcycle with the money she earns. Yep this is a good plan. He’ll tell her tomorrow. Right now, he needs another beer. Survivor is coming on…

 

The successful person of color who accomplishes all that the American dream promises, is a threat to this man. A serious threat to his sense of entitlement. His Dad had a good life and he didn’t have to go to school. The president is the problem. They are shipping too many jobs overseas. The president isn’t doing enough for the real Americans. Guys like him. America is for guys like him.  The people of color are taking the really good jobs. Next election, he plans to vote for a no nonsense candidate. Someone who will shake up Washington and get things back where they used to be. And get rid of that Affirmative Action stuff, those jobs belong to the real Americans.

 

Well, he’s done that: voted for the “outsider”, the guy who promised to get rid of political correctness, promised to keep out all the “others” and talked about watching “certain areas” for voter issues.

 

And now, that white man on his couch is watching, and waiting, with a growing sense of dread, most likely, as he looks around and sees that things aren’t getting better, that the swamp isn’t being drained, and that the rights of his wife, his friends, and neighbors are being slowly eroded.

 

Perhaps by the next election — in 2018, not 2020 — he’ll realize being politically correct wasn’t the problem.

 

The problem is, he got conned.

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