Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 when two white men kidnapped him, tortured him and dumped his body in a river.
His crime? He had made conversation and possibly flirted with a young white clerk in a grocery store. The clerk, Carolyn Bryant, spoke to the author of this remarkable book, admitting that she had lied, and that nothing the boy had done or said could justify what happened to him.
The assailants – the clerk’s husband and his half-brother — crushed Emmett’s, skull, shot him in the head and gouged out an eye before attaching a weight to his neck so his body would sink to the river bottom.
A jury of 12 white men found the two defendants not guilty, but the pair later admitted that they had killed the boy.
Timothy Tyson, a research scholar at Duke University, presents a detailed examination of the imbedded racism that guaranteed the assailants would be found innocent.
Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, had warned her son about the dangers for a black boy traveling to Mississippi. “Should any dispute arise with any white person whatsoever, humble yourself and agree with them,” she advised.
Bradley demanded that her son’s body be returned to Chicago, where tens of thousands of mourners saw “a breathtaking level of savagery” in an open casket. Gruesome pictures of the open casket were printed in minority newspapers and magazines worldwide.
The killing followed the historic Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education striking down segregated schools. Southern whites feared that integrated schools would lead inexorably to inter-racial marriage and voting rights for blacks.
The two killers carried out their crime “in an atmosphere created by the Citizens’ Councils, the Ku Klux Klan, and the mass of white public opinion,” which demanded that African-Americans remain subservient to the white majority. Emmett Till’s murder electrified the nascent civil rights movement.
“The Blood of Emmett Till” offers a chilling reminder of the ugly toll of racism, which still infects American culture long after the Civil War.
The author has delivered a well-written, fair summary of this historic case, while conceding that we will likely never know for sure the details of what happened in the grocery store.
Tyson ends this powerful book with these words, “America is still killing Emmett Till, but often by means less direct than bludgeons and bullets.” The ways include re-segregated schools and segregated neighborhoods.
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