FEBRUARY 20, 2017
TIMOTHY B. TYSON has written a concise and urgent book about Emmett Till’s 1955 murder in a small Mississippi town, a crime that ignited civil rights defenders into a long, hard struggle against the Jim Crow regime in the South, and inspired an outraged Rosa Parks to defy segregation laws on a Montgomery city bus. It’s a macabre story of inhumanity and injustice, but also of resistance and unity across a divided nation.
The facts may be known, but bear repeating. Fourteen-year-old Emmett, during a visit from Chicago to his family’s hometown of Money, Mississippi, allegedly whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in a grocery store. After Bryant claimed, untruthfully, that the black boy had also grabbed her, her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam abducted Emmett from his grand uncle’s house, beat, mutilated and shot him, then dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River, from where it was recovered three days later. Just another lynching in the Jim Crow South … until it wasn’t. If it weren’t for the specific time and place, it’s unlikely to have become arguably the United States’s most consequential hate crime, the first act in a drama of reckoning that tested a nation’s moral fiber.
Expertly, Tyson demarcates and mines the territory of Till’s murder, including why the killers assumed it would go ignored; of the trial, which indeed concluded with a not-guilty verdict; and of the countrywide reaction to both. Yet his analysis of the big national moment does not upstage his attention to the Till family’s unimaginable personal loss. He writes movingly of what Emmett’s life might have been, imagining his return to his mother, Mamie Till, in Chicago, filled with tales of two weeks in the Delta. There’s a literary quality to his decision at the end of the book to reenact the abduction and murder, a visual, almost surreal flashback of the hideous crime that started a war. But the feather in Tyson’s investigative cap, and what gives this exquisite work the strengths of revelatory reportage as well as scholarship, is his interview with Carolyn Bryant, whose admission that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him” provides the poetic title of Tyson’s opening chapter (“Nothing That Boy Did”) and a humanity that cuts through the book.
To the first question, then: how did a 14-year-old visitor from another state incense locals of his ancestral town to the point where they committed such sordid retribution, making his body, even if it hadn’t spent three days in the river, almost unrecognizable? Emmett had a reputation as a prankster and mimic, which in normal circumstances would give a teenager an edge in a popularity contest. But this was dangerous for a black boy, especially one who’d grown up in the urban North; who, whatever the warnings from wiser elders, was unaware of the necessity of the “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” to white neighbors in Mississippi. And whatever he said, or whistled, to Carolyn Bryant, the reaction may have been different had it happened two years earlier. His mutilation was the spinoff of a segregationist movement that was losing political ground.
The locus of this story is the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision — baptized “Black Monday” by Mississippi Representative John Bell Williams — that, as Tyson says, “dropped the bomb on public school segregation.” The decision increased the perceived threat that young black boys, now squeezed into the same classrooms and school grounds as white girls, posed to the Southern Way of Life. Earl Warren, Supreme Court chief justice at the time, wrote in his memoirs that no less than President Eisenhower had tried to assure him that white Southerners were “not bad people,” but merely concerned about their “sweet little girls” sitting beside “some big overgrown Negroes.” The “horror of interracial sex,” as Tyson describes it, turned the black boy into a new arch-villain in a kind of mutated Southern Gothic. In such fragile times, sociopaths like Milam and Roy Bryant became an asset, if not a necessity.
From every bit of progressive change in the North rose stronger forces of white supremacy in the South, a foretaste of which Mississippi had sampled in its violent overthrow of Reconstruction in the late 19th century. FDR’s New Deal in the ’30s built a bridge between the Democratic Party and African Americans, as poor blacks benefitted from social programs targeting the economic underclass nationwide. These were the first whispers of the realignment, consolidated in the ’60s and ’70s with LBJ’s passage of civil and voting rights acts and Nixon’s “southern strategy,” that would put black voters squarely in the Democratic corner. At the time, however, there was still a ways to go. The so-called Dixiecrats, leading the defense of states’ rights, were a determined bunch, and tightened their grip on the Democratic Party. (The religious right, meanwhile, found powerful corporate sponsors who saw in the rhetoric of Christian individualism a vehicle and alliance to counter the federal government’s supposed impositions on states’ sovereignty.) And with the Black Monday decision in Brown, Citizens’ Councils enforcing white supremacy rose up like boils as the South fought the infection of integration.
The supposed holiness of maintaining segregation ensured that local authorities would let any little white thug get away with all kinds of violence, aggravated by a reticence in Washington, DC to encroach on states’ rights and Southern turf. Earlier in that summer of ’55, two voting rights activists were murdered — George Lee and Lamar Smith — and the federal government refused to assert jurisdiction over the case, “thus not only preventing African Americans from voting but also enabling Milam and Bryant to feel confident that they could murder a 14-year-old boy with impunity.” So why was the Till case different? Why did this murder make John Edgar Wideman, for example, also 14 at the time, feel, “Him so absolutely dead he’s my death, too”?
In a hilarious interlude in Paul Beatty’s Booker-prize winning The Sellout, the black-slave-owning narrator riffs about the concept of twin cities, describing the different instances in which two towns are conjoined in the public mind. One of these is the “shotgun wedding,” where one city “impregnated the other […] on a first date that spun violently out of control centuries ago.” Money, Mississippi and Chicago formed exactly such a union. The Great Migration had seen millions of African Americans flee Jim Crow to northern cities. While there was de facto segregation and much racial violence in these cities — in the case of Chicago, a racial dividing line between South Side and the North — the formal absence of Jim Crow did yield one tangible, and critical, difference: stronger voting rights. Racist officeholders and policies risked defeat at the ballot box. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently described the South Side of Chicago as “home to arguably the most prominent and storied black political establishment in the country,” producing such figures as Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson, and Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman to win a Senate seat. At the other end of spectrum, Mississippi, Tyson notes, had the highest percentage of African Americans but the lowest percentage registered to vote. It was also the center of Dixiecrat power.
At the same time, the state exerted a strong pull on the hearts and minds of its expatriates in the North (the Tills called their neighborhood in Chicago “little Mississippi”) — a sentiment which proved tragic for the family that put young Emmett on a train back to the Delta that fateful summer. But the link between the places would also prove crucial to turning a local murder into a national issue. It was to Chicago’s newspapers that Mamie Till first reported her son’s kidnapping, and it was these newspapers that would, again due, in large part, to her tirelessness, extensively cover the boy’s lynching and his body’s homecoming, turning the crime into a political event, and making Emmett himself both embodiment and consolidation of the link between African Americans in both parts of the country.
Indeed, the Emmett Till story is also the story of a body. That story began the moment the boy was abducted and then physically violated. But, in a sense, the bigger story begins after his death. Tyson’s focus on what happened to Emmett’s corpse is evocative, starting with the knees and feet a sharecropper’s 17-year-old son noticed bobbing in the water and the effort of pulling it out — rope around the legs, the motorboat pulling the body upriver “until the weight holding the head down came unsnagged from whatever pinned it to the bottom of the river.” Mamie’s decision to hold the funeral in Chicago meant the body would now begin a longer, more emblematic journey, defying the local sheriff who wanted it — and the case — buried as soon as possible. As Tyson says, “Had his body been buried hastily in Mississippi soil, most of the rest would almost certainly not have followed.” The same train that took a boy from Chicago to Mississippi was now, two weeks later, bringing his corpse back to his mother, another apparition from the South to haunt a nation with its testimony of injustice. For Money, Mississippi, the unburied body became a curse. The local undertaker who prepared the corpse tried to impose a condition that the casket seal would never be broken, and this was the agreement that allowed the casket out of the South: dead Emmett Till would never again be seen.
But he would be seen. Once the casket was on the train to Chicago, Mississippi lost control of the body and the experience it carried. The image of Mamie waiting at the station for her dead boy is especially poignant for a South Asian reader like myself, given the experience of the Indian subcontinent’s 1947 Partition when Muslim and Hindu families would wait on platforms for carriages bringing beloved relatives, mutilated in communal violence as they crossed a new border.
From then on, Mamie Till was once again Emmett’s custodian. Tyson’s descriptions of the state in which she found her son make for harrowing reading. The decision to have an open casket funeral, without retouches that would have made the vision a lot less morbid — “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said at the funeral home — was all the more remarkable. An amenable preacher opened his church doors to the public to view the body as it was, and an estimated 100,000 people saw it over the next several days. Magazines and newspaper published pictures of it, including a close-up in Jet, about which Tyson contends, “Perhaps no photograph in history can lay claim to a comparable impact in black America.” A new age of mass media meant that protest could outgrow the local to the national and even international level. So politically hot was this corpse that Bryant’s and Milam’s lawyers tried to claim that given the extent of disfigurement there was no way to confirm that it was even Emmett’s.
The global context, too, was crucial. Many scholars have written about the importance of World War II to the civil rights struggle, given the obvious inconsistency of a nation sacrificing the lives of its young men for freedom’s survival abroad. (A good recent account of this can be found in Linda Hervieux’s 2015 book, Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes at Home and at War.) Black soldiers returned from European battlefields with a new motivation to fight for their own freedom at home.
The argument was persuading many whites, too, all the more so in the new context of the Cold War. While J. Edgar Hoover was tagging those who betrayed sympathy for the Tills as Communist-inspired (such as Chicago mayor Richard Daley), there were other powerful constituencies within the white mainstream who saw Till’s lynching as test case of the United States’s moral authority in a lately bipolar world. Three years previously, that same concern had informed a Justice Department friend-of-the-court brief in the Brown case that stressed the foreign policy ramifications of public school segregation: “The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.”
And yet. All this wasn’t enough for a conviction in Mississippi. Jurors subsequently admitted that the evidence against Bryant and Milam was strong, and the defense, which ranged from suggestions that it wasn’t Emmett’s body that was retrieved from the river to blaming the victim for the ostensible threat he posed to innocent Carolyn, absurd. But Emmett was clearly too tempting a symbol of the pain and menace of desegregation to invest with the authority of a victim. The message from the jury wasn’t about Bryant and Milam’s innocence; based on the false premise that Emmett had grabbed Carolyn, it was a warning to black boys who thought they could get carried away with white girls.
In his latest book, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, the American master Wideman explores one more aspect of this tragic drama: how a “colored father [was] summoned from the dead to absolve white men who had tortured and shot his son.” Private Louis Till’s confidential army service file, which covered the older Till’s hanging for rape and murder in Italy through a “kangaroo court-martial” during World War II, was apparently leaked to the press two weeks before a grand jury was to consider a kidnapping charge against Milam and Bryant (after they’d been acquitted for murder). This time, it was the ostensible sins of the father that precluded justice for the son: if Till senior was a rapist, surely Emmett had it in him, too.
So the killers went free. Now, the nation needed to free itself. Just over a month after the acquittals, preoccupied like many African Americans by the Till case, Ms. Parks was arrested for refusing orders to move to the back of that Montgomery bus. Something new was happening.
Six years after Emmett was murdered out of the “horror of interracial sex,” a biracial couple gave birth to a boy who would grow up to become the 44th president of the United States. But for all the progress made, it’s not difficult to comprehend, or even necessary to explain why the Till case speaks to us more today than it did, say, 10 years ago. It’s enough to remember Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others — to say their names out loud: race remains critical to understanding relationships between communities in the United States, and between some communities and the state. Tyson’s book is as much about the present as the past, and comes with an explicit warning:
If we refuse to look beneath the surface, we can simply blame some Southern white peckerwoods and a bottle or corn whiskey […] We blame them 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.
Forget, for example, that as recently as the mid-’90s, a school principal in Alabama, Hulond Humphries, provoked outrage when he banned interracial dating in his school. We need look no further back than January last year to witness Maine’s governor Paul LePage warning a town hall about drug dealers from elsewhere named D-Money and Shifty coming over and impregnating white girls, as cited by Wesley Morris in an October 2016 New York Times Magazine piece titled “Last Taboo: Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal with Black Male Sexuality.”
A first-rate account of the continuing challenges of integration can be found in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, in which she writes, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Alexander argues that the focus on such issues as affirmative action has obscured the fact that “a new racial caste system […] had been developed and implemented swiftly, and it was largely invisible, even to people, like me, who spent most of their waking hours fighting for justice.” The soul of this caste system is the criminal justice system, and a Drug War built around an unstated fear and demonization of the young black man, and kitted with new legal tools such as the crack/cocaine differentiation in sentencing (which the Obama administration reduced), mandatory sentencing, and wide discretion to both police and prosecutors, all of which disproportionately affect black people. Citing data that has controlled for every other socio-economic factor, Alexander makes an unambiguous case that “mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” The statistics can indeed rattle:
[I]n major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.
This includes being denied the right to vote. Where school desegregation and voting and civil rights legislation anchored the movement in the ’50s and ’60s, Alexander is urging a new campaign around reforms to the criminal justice system.
Half-finished or not, the civil rights movement was a counterpoint to conservative, gradualist arguments about change. Time and again, liberals are warned of the dangers of moving their agenda too soon, lest they provoke a hostile response that endangers everyone and undercuts the basic objectives. Just as one of Milam’s attorneys blamed the Supreme Court and Black Monday for Emmett’s murder, many fault abortion rights (including the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision), healthcare reform, and open doors to migrants and refugees for galvanizing the rightwing and bringing a man like Donald Trump to power.
In late 2010, in my own country, Pakistan, Salman Taseer, the then governor of Pakistan’s second largest province, Punjab, defended a powerless Christian woman unfairly accused of blasphemy, urging the president to grant her clemency, and rightly describing the country’s blasphemy provision as a “black law.” For some, including myself, who had campaigned against and written about the blasphemy laws, this seemed like a moment of hope. Then Taseer was assassinated in January 2011, by one of his police guards, and his death was celebrated by a conservative section of the legal community. The government that had endorsed his courageous stance now assured the country that no one would dare touch these religious laws. A close friend, who similarly condemned those provisions, nevertheless admonished me that liberals like myself, by trying to force a fight that the country wasn’t ready for, were endangering his children. But the problem wasn’t that; the problem was that while we attended vigils and protests to condemn the assassination and the blasphemy laws, we didn’t commit our resources, financial and otherwise, to a confrontation that would force the state into a decision about whether or not to protect us against the forces of bigotry.
The quest for justice, in other words, isn’t a numbers game. The reason it is regularly subverted is that there are many willing to use violence to inspire fear against change, and if they go unpunished it reinforces the rewards of such acts. The responsibility of raising the costs ultimately rests with the state. No doubt, state structures reflect societies (as expressed in the institution of the jury), but they also reflect the will of individuals. Public mobilization certainly created a context for the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, but there are a couple of critical points here: some of the justices, even those opposed to segregation in principle, supported states’ rights, believing that the Court would overstep its mandate in the absence of a desegregation law from Congress, and thought the “separate but equal” doctrine, as established in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, sufficient. Indeed the case had to be reargued after an earlier bench was unable to decide the matter. Significantly, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson opposed overturning Plessy. He died in September 1953. His successor, Warren, was different. Warren also rightly believed that a unanimous decision would carry more moral force, and the justices who supported desegregation took time to convince their colleagues who’d been inclined toward a dissenting opinion. There was, therefore, nothing inevitable about Brown, nor its impact. Whatever the context, it was, at the end of the day, the work of bold judges.
Backed by the Supreme Court and, at critical moments, the federal government, the civil rights movement was successful not because it waited for attitudes in the South to change, but because people committed to overcoming a powerful elite and major barriers to integration. They faced all forms of intimidation and attack, including white supremacists’ kill lists with their names on them. Had the threat of violent retaliation worked, black leaders might have stopped with “separate but equal.” But it didn’t; and they didn’t. Their movement was supplied by the words and deeds of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin and Norman Thomas. In the beginning, however, there was the body. The dead of body of a 14-year-old boy that would be seen and heard and, more than 60 years later, speaks to us still.