The Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Miss., has been restored to look as it did in 1955, when it hosted one of the most notorious events of a tumultuous time: the trial of the murderers of Emmett Till.
It’s generally a quiet place, dominating a desolate town square, across the street from the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, a small museum with a big mission: racial conciliation. It seems more a spot for calm contemplation than the site of an angry and defining moment of the civil rights movement. The renovation and the museum appear to stand as evidence that Mississippi has made progress, or at least acknowledged the sins of this episode.
But a new book from Duke historian Timothy B. Tyson, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” shatters the relative silence surrounding the old, cold case and questions whether we’ve made much progress on the museum’s stated goals. Tyson’s powerful narrative sheds new light on the circumstances that led to the murder, makes the case that its influence stretches from the Montgomery bus boycott to the angry protests in Ferguson, Missouri – and argues that the country hasn’t yet come to grips with the roots of any of the above.
First, some background: Emmett Till, 14, from Chicago but visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta, was kidnapped and killed in August 1955. His offense, as an all-white, all-male jury came to see it, was his approach to Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white storekeeper; Till, who was black, was said to have made sexual advances toward her. Maybe he touched her hand when he gave her money for candy. Perhaps he put his hands on her waist. And probably he whistled at her when she walked outside.
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Till was beaten and shot. His mutilated body, wrapped in barbed wire and weighted by an iron fan, was pulled from the Tallahatchie River a few days later. And in September 1955, after a five-day trial, Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and J.W. “Big” Milam were acquitted (they later confessed in a magazine interview).
Carolyn Bryant was not allowed to testify to the jury about what Till actually said or did. Outside the presence of the jury, however, she told the court of Till’s hands on her waist and his profane advances, information that found its way to the jury through a defense lawyer’s clever closing arguments. It was certainly enough to acquit defendants in the Mississippi of the 1950s.
Now, the news: In 2008, Tyson interviewed Carolyn Bryant – now Carolyn Bryant Donham – in Raleigh, where she lives. The testimony about Till grabbing her around the waist and describing his wishes with obscenities: “That part’s not true,” she said, according to the book.
“Nothing that boy did,” she told Tyson, “could ever justify what happened to him.”
Some of us would view that as news. Tyson, however, came to see it as the key to something more. The book spurred by that interview would take more than eight years to research and write. The secret held, and Tyson said at a recent appearance in Durham that he didn’t think the content of the interview demanded immediate publication. (The crucial interview is covered in the book’s first chapter.)
The author is no newcomer to civil rights history. His 2004 book, “Blood Done Sign My Name,” examined a racial murder in Oxford, N.C., a work that led Donham’s daughter-in-law to contact him in 2008. He also reported and wrote “The Ghosts of 1898,” a 16-page examination of the Wilmington race riot, published in The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer in 2006.
Tyson’s tight story is propelled by voluminous research (documented in 60 pages of notes and bibliography) and a recently discovered transcript of the trial. He describes Moses Wright, a black sharecropper and minister and Till’s uncle, taking the witness stand to identify one of the white defendants.
“Neatly dressed in a white shirt, black pants, a thin, dark blue tie with light blue stripes, and white suspenders, Wright settled into the big wooden witness chair, the back of which reached nearly to the top of his head,” Tyson writes. “He tugged nervously at his thick, workingman’s fingers that had been clearing fields of cotton. ‘I wasn’t exactly brave and I wasn’t scared,’ he said later. ‘I just wanted to see justice done.’ ”
Wright and other black witnesses against the white defendants were relocated after the trial. It wasn’t safe for them in the Mississippi Delta.
Tyson explores the impact of the Till case on the growth of the civil rights movement. Shortly after, Rosa Parks had Till in her mind when she refused to move on the Montgomery bus. Marchers across the country chanted Till’s name as they protested the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014.
“The killing of that boy who ‘did the talking’ had become much more than just another lynching in the South,” Tyson writes. “For some, including Mamie Bradley (Till’s mother), it was an Archimedean lever with which to move the world.”
The Till case did just that. Tyson’s book brings it back to life, even with an eight-year delay to deliver its news.
Steve Riley, a native of Mississippi, is The N&O’s senior editor for investigations. 919-836-4940, @SRileyNandO
“The Blood of Emmett Till”
By Timothy B. Tyson
Simon & Schuster, 304 pages
▪ 7 p.m. Monday, Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd Chapel Hill.
▪ 7 p.m. Friday, Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh. (Signing line ticket needed)
▪ 11 a.m., March 4, McIntyre’s Books, 2000 Fearrington Village, Pittsboro.