Tyson’s Emmett Till book probes darkness
by Rob Neufeld
EVENT: Timothy Tyson discusses his book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, 6 p.m., Wed., Feb. 15. 828-254-6734.
In 2007, Tyson had contacted Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant, and landed the only interview with her since an all-white Mississippi jury had exonerated the lynchers—Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband; and J.W. Milam, Roy’s thug-like half-brother.
Bryant had invited Tyson because she’d just read his first book, “Blood Done Sign My Name,” a memoir about his childhood in Oxford, N.C., and the lynching event through which he’d lived. Plus, the recording of the trial had just been found, and its transcript released.
So Bryant’s recantation, withheld by Tyson for timing impact, was big news.
But there are two other possible headlines, based on Tyson’s work:
“Why the Till lynching is the most notorious racial incident in history” and: ‘How African-Americans made a successful protest.”
Tyson illustrates his history with detail and feeling, becoming turgid only when chronicling national trends, and rising to a call for the end of white supremacy.
Portrait of a hero
Tyson’s portrayal of Emmett Till’s mom, Mamie Bradley, is legendary.
As soon as she got the news of Emmett’s death—she was in their hometown, Chicago—she called the press, her only avenue of power. When Tallahatchie County officials moved to bury Emmett immediately, she stopped that action; and she overruled others by requiring an open casket at Emmett’s funeral.
Her emotional power came through when she cried to Emmett’s corpse, “My darling, my darling, I know I was on your mind when you died.”
Emmett had been a protected, happy-go-lucky boy who’d regularly attended church and emulated comic George Sobel. Emmett’s death, as Tyson reveals in a late chapter, had been horrible, having followed broken bones and mutilations.
Reporters mobbed Mrs. Bradley when she arrived in Mississippi. The “Chicago Defender,” an African-American newspaper, reported that Mamie shouted out, “Lord you gave your only son to remedy a condition, but who knows but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.”
In his effort to end racism, Tyson strives to humanize the villains (except for Milam) and cast the net of accountability wide.
The interview with Bryant must have greatly impressed him.
In her tween years, Carolyn had been best friends with a black neighbor, Barnes Freeman, until Barnes had invited Carolyn to ride on his bike and her aunt Mabel had suddenly panicked at the threat.
Carolyn’s father had been a prison guard who had refused to whip black prisoners. After his death, she’d eloped with Roy Bryant and became part of a family who used the n word a lot and made family loyalty the number one ethic.
Tyson repeatedly shines a light on what he calls a “fallen world” and the way racism corrupts all of America.
That includes Chicago, where the segregated African-American ghetto was called “Little Mississippi”; and where, in 1953, white mobs besieged African-Americans who moved into a white neighborhood.
The depths and ironies of the big story is that Mississippi supremacists used Chicago’s ills in defense of themselves and of their symbols, Milam and Bryant.
The defense position is a study in twisted logic and conspiracy theory.
H.C. Strider, the Tallahatchie County sheriff, announced, as the trial was going on, “I’m chasing down some evidence now that the killing might have been planned and plotted by the NAACP.”
In court, the defense team questioned whether the body pulled out of the river with a fan tied to its neck with barbed wire was actually Emmett, or even black—though, as Tyson, comments, the sheriff sent the body to an African-American funeral home. Also, the body was wearing the ring Emmett’s father, Louis, had given him.
(John Edgar Wideman’s new book, “Writing to Save a Life,” poetically and probingly explores the life of Louis Till, who was hanged by the U.S. Army.)
The aim of the defense strategy was to speak to the jury. Mamie was branded as an outsider and a traitor to Mississippi. Emmett, according to exaggerated and false accounts, was accused of threatening Southern white womanhood.
“The contradiction of a defense team strategizing to introduce a motive for a crime they professed their clients did not commit,” Tyson writes, “provided glaring evidence, if any were needed, that the trial had never been about justice.”
Memory and history
In his recreations and deductions, there’s one scenario that Tyson doesn’t shed enough light on—what may have actually happened with Carolyn Bryant in Bryant’s Grocery. Emmett had gone there with friends, who dared him to ask Carolyn for a date? I find that preposterous, unless his friends and cousins hated him, which they didn’t.
Tyson may have felt he didn’t have enough information to get imaginative in a true way, for, after all, fake news and false memories are some of Tyson’s targets.
“We must look at the facts squarely,” Tyson proclaims, and he quotes W.E.B. Du Bois: “This country has had its appetite for facts on the Negro question spoiled by sweets.”
Facts do allow Tyson to bolster legends. African-American doctor T.R.M. Howard founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in Mississippi; and built an armed compound at which witnesses, activists, and reporters found sanctuary.
Rev. Moses Wright, from whose house Emmett had been kidnapped, testified at the killers’ trial despite two recent assassinations of African-American trouble-makers. A photo of him identifying Milam by pointing at him from the witness stand became famous.
The heroes were effective. The Emmett Till story became historic and marks the years 1954-55 as one the large convulsions in our country’s progress.
In 1954, Brown v. the Board of Education required the integration of public schools. Milam himself blamed that Supreme Court decision for the murder of Till. Till’s influence, as Mamie had intended, continues to shape events.
Rosa Parks decided to refuse to stand on the Montgomery bus four days after she’d heard a speech about Till. The African-American N.C. A&T students who staged a sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth’s had been moved by the legacy of Till.
Six decades later, Tyson notes, protestors at the trial of the police officer who had killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, shouted, “Say his name! Emmett Till!”
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times. He is the author and editor of six books, and the publisher of the website, “The Read on WNC.” He can be reached at RNeufeld@charter.net and 505-1973. Follow him @WNC_chronicler.