Last November, I spoke with PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novelist John Edgar Wideman just before the publication of Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File. Wideman’s book—part history, part memoir, part fiction—begins with an investigation into the recently declassified details of the 1945 court martial and execution of Louis Till, a black private in the segregated U.S. Army stationed in Italy during World War II. Louis Till’s name surfaces rarely if at all as a footnote to the horrific, and much better-known story of his son, Emmett Till, an African-American teenager from Chicago who was kidnapped, bludgeoned almost beyond recognition, shot, and dumped in a river in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. As a distant precursor to his interest in Louis Till, Wideman recalls being haunted by the image of Emmett Till’s mangled face from the moment he saw it in Jet magazine in 1955. The young Wideman—then 14 years old, just like Emmett Till—found himself filled with dread by a single, unshakable thought: “That could have been me.”
Wideman’s reaction was far from unique among African-Americans at that time. College students who began sitting in at segregated North Carolina lunch counters, confronting violent mobs in Alabama bus terminals, and risking life and limb to fight Jim Crow in 1960–61, famously described themselves as “the Emmett Till generation.” Rosa Parks reported that she was thinking of Emmett Till when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in December 1955, just 67 days after Till’s killers were acquitted by a jury that took an hour to reach a verdict.
In our interview, Wideman brought up The Blood of Emmett Till, a new examination of the Emmett Till case by historian Timothy B. Tyson, and described what reading it revealed to him. “Tyson’s book reconstructs the atmosphere of Mississippi in the late Forties and early Fifties. You read it and you realize that Emmett Till was entering a deeply dangerous place, just taking that trip down south,” Wideman said. “I was afraid to take that trip. Some part of me knew. Growing up in Pittsburgh and hearing the old people’s stories, I was enough afraid of that ‘heart of darkness’ that I didn’t go. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to know anything about the South. I could have gone with my grandfather to where he was born in Promiseland, South Carolina. But some part of me as a young African-American man sensed what was waiting—the fairly horrendous picture that Tyson does such a good job of spinning out.”
Tyson’s book follows closely on the heels of Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life, published last November, and arrives less than two years after Devery Anderson’s Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement. Anderson’s book is the first historical study of Emmett Till’s lynching to take advantage of the FBI’s full 8,000-page report on the Till case, released in 2007, including the recently recovered and restored transcript of the murder trial of Till’s killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam.
Anderson’s book thoroughly recounts how an all-white jury seemed to swallow the defense’s contention that the body dredged from the Tallahatchie River, shipped north from a Sumner County, Mississippi colored funeral home, viewed by thousands who attended an open-casket funeral in Chicago, and displayed in grisly photographs in magazines and newspapers around the world, was dishonestly passed off as Till’s as part of an NAACP conspiracy to bring shame on Mississippi. Anderson also draws on numerous interviews with Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, conducted over nearly two decades. The book chronicles not just Till’s childhood, multiple perspectives on the incident at the Bryant store that culminated in the fateful wolf whistle, the murder, and the trial, but also Mamie Till Mobley’s national speaking appearances and difficult relationship with the NAACP following the verdict, her decades-long efforts to have the case re-opened (including exhumation of her son’s body for DNA testing), a campaign to secure funding for a 21st-century documentary about the Emmett Till case, and her draining struggle to have her son’s remains moved, re-interred, and protected.
Tyson’s book works within a tighter timeline, mostly limiting its focus on the Till case to 1955. The news hook of The Blood of Emmett Till is the fact that Tyson, against all odds, landed an interview with Carolyn Bryant Donham, the target of Till’s alleged wolf-whistle and “smart talk” in the Bryant store, who has outlived nearly all of the other principal figures in the case.
More than 60 years after Till’s death, the details of the incident that launched the chain of events leading to his lynching remain murky. During the trial, Bryant testified that Till entered the store to buy candy, asked her for a date, claimed he’d been with white women before, and grabbed her by the wrist and waist. In Bryant’s interview with Tyson—again, the only one she ever gave—she admits that she can’t remember exactly what happened in the store that day, but acknowledges that nothing Till might have done could have justified what her husband and brother-in-law did to him.
Even more revealing than Bryant’s late-repentant admissions is Tyson’s analysis of the perverse circumstances of her testimony on the witness stand. Most striking are not the sensational lies she told under oath, but the defense’s insistence on reading her testimony into the record even after the judge sustained the prosecution’s objection and insisted that it be done without the jury present, as justification for a murder that the defense claimed never even happened.
To anyone still committed to reading the Till trial as an exploration of facts and justice, this is where things take an odd and revealing turn. The jury had been given powerful prosecutorial evidence that Bryant and Milam kidnapped and murdered Emmett Till. Rather than refute that evidence, the defense now wanted to tell the jury why Milam and Bryant had every reason to do so: because that black boy had tried to rape this white Southern woman. There was the oddity: the defense wanted to admit evidence that would further damn their clients, and the prosecution wanted to stop the defense from explaining why their clients were guilty.
Following Bryant’s testimony, with the jury back in the courtroom, the defense returned to the business of contending that Milam and Bryant had turned Till loose before laying a hand on him, and that the 14-year-old had never died. Tyson contends that Bryant’s testimony—sure to find its way to the jury’s ears in its substance, if not its particulars—was sufficient to convict Till of his own murder and exonerate his killers of any crime. The mere suggestion that something approximating the rape of a white woman by a black man or boy in a Mississippi courtroom in 1955 would be enough to persuade a jury, however convinced of Milam and Bryant’s guilt, that the two men were entirely justified in the unspeakably brutal murder of Emmett Till, and thus guarantee their acquittal.
Therein lies the brilliance of Tyson’s book, the astonishing acuity with which he captures the nuances of white supremacy in Mississippi in 1955, and how it informs and explains every aspect of the Till case. What makes Tyson’s portrait of the Emmett Till tragedy so compelling is how he fills in the corners of the frame, with judiciously chosen and powerfully rendered accounts of the consequences of what W.J. Cash called “the Southern rape complex”—the notion of Southern white womanhood as an unalloyed ideal perpetually under siege by savage black aggressors. Tyson masterfully documents the exploits of the “quiet, well-bred mob” of the White Citizens Councils that kept their own manicured hands clean while protecting and underwriting the violence that sustained the entrenched racial and social hierarchy of the South. Likewise, Tyson depicts the racial violence and segregation of the southside Chicago community in which Till was raised as more of the same, white supremacy far from localized or contained below the Mason-Dixon line or passed off as a uniquely Southern problem.
In a book that moves quickly and feels remarkably concise at just over 200 pages, Tyson documents the deadly power and unflagging persistence of white supremacy, and its looming and inescapable dangers. In his previous book, Blood Done Sign My Name—a penetrating account of a 1970 lynching in his North Carolina hometown under circumstances eerily similar to Till’s—Tyson describes white supremacy as “like the water and we were like the fish, and of course we were all drenched to the skin.” No American historian working today captures the nuances of white supremacy and the ways in which it engulfs us all more convincingly than Tyson. Moreover, few if any use history more effectively to create a context for understanding the resurgence (or resurfacing) of white supremacy and white nationalism in the American political and social mainstream in the backlash against the presidency of Barack Obama and the ascendancy of Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right.
Tyson’s portrayal of white supremacy makes it abundantly clear how the Emmett Till case was supposed to go: how, in the absence of an open-casket funeral and the culturally destabilizing impact of Till’s mutilated face and body being beamed across the world, Milam and Bryant’s actions would have sent a clear message to blacks throughout the Delta that Till’s “smart talk” and violation of Southern social taboo would not be tolerated, even in the emboldening aftermath of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed school segregation.
Similarly, by exposing the power and pervasiveness of the “Southern rape complex,” Tyson reminds us why the day George Bush greenlighted Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton campaign ads, he all but guaranteed his election in 1988. Tyson’s characterization of our country’s immersion in white supremacy lends credence to those who might argue that Donald Trump—a man who once purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the lynching of the Central Park Five—clinched the 2016 presidential election when he tied his opponent’s purported preference for open borders to his assertion that Mexico was exporting hordes of rapists to the United States.
“America is still killing Emmett Till,” Tyson repeats like a mantra in The Blood of Emmett Till’s final chapter. He connects contemporary police killings of unarmed African-American men and boys to our country’s still-unreckoned-with history. He notes that these killings have engendered national protests that ring out with chants of “How many black kids will you kill? Michael Brown, Emmett Till!” If anything, the murder of Michael Brown resounds much deeper in the history of American lynching than Emmett Till. The circumstances of Brown’s public execution hearken back to times when black bodies were routinely left swinging for days to convey the same message Till’s murder was meant to send—the same gauntlet laid down when the Ferguson police left Brown’s bullet-ridden body lying in public view for hours after he was gunned down in the street.
“We’re still killing black youth,” Tyson writes, “because we have not yet killed white supremacy.” It’s hard to imagine any book concerned ostensibly with events more than half a century old that could make that point as vividly and forcefully as Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till.