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Thursday, May 03, 2018

The Blood of Emmett Till

When I taught my sixth-grade students about race relations, which was often a topic due to the texts chosen, I tried to get them to understand how different it was then now. It's not perfect, but they don't know about segregated bathrooms, and many of them are interracial, so wouldn't understand the taboo of miscegenation. So to drive home the point I always mentioned the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was brutally killed just for whistling at a white woman.

Timothy B. Tyson's book on the subject, The Blood of Emmett Till, taught me a lot I didn't know on the subject. For one thing, he spoke to the white woman in question, Carolyn Bryant, who, well into old age, admitted that Till did nothing to get himself killed. "She insisted that the only mistake he made was to place his candy money directly in Carolyn’s hand rather than put it on the counter, as was common practice between whites and blacks." He also, according to witnesses outside the store, told her "Goodbye," and then whistled at her. She went and got a gun, but it was her husband and brother-in-law who kidnapped him, beat him, and shot him. During the trial, she fabricated a story about him grabbing her, asking her for a date, and bragging about sleeping with white girls.

What added to the story was that Till was spending the summer in Mississippi and lived in Chicago. He was not up to speed on the kowtowing that blacks had to do for whites in that state. Mississippi was ground zero for racism; "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." The state also had the highest percentage of black citizens, but the lowest number of black voters. Attempting to register to vote while black could be fatal.

What surprised me is that the two men responsible were arrested and tried, and it was a fair trial, with a unbiased judge and a prosecution that tried their best. But of course there was no way that a jury of twelve white men was going to convict. The defense played it both ways: they argued that the body wasn't that of Emmett Till (it was too mutilated to be properly identified they insisted) and that if it was, the men were justified in their actions.

I also didn't realize the attention the case got. It was one of the first murders to be sensationalized by TV, and it was kept in the public eye by Emmett's mother, Mamie Bradley. She insisted he be buried in Chicago, and had an open casket funeral so that everyone could see what they did to her boy. "Here was another moment when the Till case could have become just another private bereavement and another mother’s appeal to her church and the local press for justice. Had his body been buried hastily in Mississippi soil, most of the rest would almost certainly not have followed...Emmett’s murder would never have become a watershed historical moment without Mamie finding the strength
to make her private grief a public matter."

Tyson also goes to the influence the black press had. They attended the trial (and were greeted every morning by Sheriff Strider, the arresting officer, with a "Hello, niggers") as did reporters from all over the world.

The description of the kidnapping, the hunt for Emmett, his discovery (he was found in a river, weighted down by an industrial fan tied to his neck with barbed wire) and the trial is a page-turner, and reads like a thriller. He also expertly ties Emmett to his time:."In many ways Emmett Till was a casualty of the anger produced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, handed down on May 17, 1954, first dubbed “Black Monday” by Representative John
Bell Williams of Mississippi." Till was murdered that summer. Tyson also goes deeply into the resistance by whites to the black vote. In some places, where there was a majority of black people, the amount of votes by blacks could be counted on one hand. Blacks who were on the rolls were regularly threatened with violence.

Emmett Till has come to be known as a martyr for civil rights. His murder and trial was only a few months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. His trial showed great bravery of some, not just his mother, but black witnesses who tied the perpetrators to the scene of the crime. Of course, they had to be relocated to Chicago.

The case brought great disdain from the rest of the world to Mississippi, and white Mississippians resented it. Who were these Northerners telling them how to live their lives? There has been progress. A tree in Till's honor was planted in Washington, D.C., with John Lewis and both of Mississippi's senators, white Republicans, taking part in the planting.

But Tyson rightly realizes that the case lingers. "Six decades later a white police officer shot and killed a young black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson,Missouri. The local grand jury’s decision not to prosecute the officer expanded and enraged a national movement born of similar killings, and young protesters throughout the United States chanted, “Say his name! Emmett Till! Say his name! Emmett Till!” His name, invoked alongside a litany of the names of unarmed black
men and women who died at the hands of police officers, remained a symbol of the destructiveness of white supremacy."

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