‘This is a story that won’t let us go’: New book revisits racial injustice of Emmett Till’s murder

Nation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: unexpected revelations more than 60 years after one of the more seminal moments in the civil rights era.

That's the focus of Timothy Tyson's new book, "The Blood of Emmett Till," the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with him recently.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why retell this story? What drove you to want to take another look?

TIMOTHY TYSON, Author, "The Blood of Emmett Till": I was actually working on another book, and a nice woman from Raleigh called on the phone and wanted to tell me how much she liked my previous book.

She said, well, my mother-in-law is coming next week. She's — I gave her the book for Christmas, and she liked it very much, and we'd like to have a cup of coffee with you. She said, well, you might know my mother-in-law.

Her name was Carolyn Bryant. And, of course, being a historian of the 20th century civil rights movement, I knew that Carolyn Bryant had not uttered a word in public about the lynching of Emmett Till since 1955.

JEFFREY BROWN: The woman at the store who made the claims about Emmett Till.

TIMOTHY TYSON: In whose name he was lynched.

JEFFREY BROWN: Remind us what she had said, and what she says now.

TIMOTHY TYSON: In court, she testified to something that was tantamount to sexual assault, to coming around the counter, grabbing her by the waist with his hands, and not letting go, and speaking to her sexually.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have broken some new ground here with having her say that the most sensational parts of her testimony were not true.

TIMOTHY TYSON: Yes.

In reference to the sort of physical piece, she said, that part's not true. Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I read that in your book, when she says that, and, in one way, it's the most obvious statement possible, right? Of course nothing that he did could justify what happened to him. But what importance do you feel, if any, of her finally saying it?

TIMOTHY TYSON: I'm sure it's important to the Till family and to other people who have — you know, have a kind of connection to the case.

But, you know, I certainly never thought she was telling the truth at trial. People are really interested because it's a mystery. She's been in hiding almost for all these 60-some years.

It was her husband who did the killing and her brother-in-law. It's not clear what role she had in that. But the FBI investigated this in 2005 and said there was nothing to prosecute her on. And a grand jury that had a black majority ruled not to indict her.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you know why she finally spoke?

TIMOTHY TYSON: I can't say for a fact. I can't read her mind. And she didn't say.

There was kind of an implication that she was in poor health and getting on in years and wanted to have her say and tell what she knew.

JEFFREY BROWN: The real heroine of that — of the whole episode is Emmett Till's mother, Mamie.

TIMOTHY TYSON: Yes, so courageous.

She brings Emmett's body back from Mississippi and has an open casket funeral, so everybody can see what the world did to my boy, she said.

She also gets on the phone even before the body comes back and starts calling reporters, and just becomes a clearinghouse for this media operation.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's fascinating, because she took her personal grief and made it into a kind of public awareness.

TIMOTHY TYSON: That's right. Yes. That's right.

And she knows Chicago. And she leverages the strength of black Chicago, of the institutions that had been built there over the decades, The Chicago Defender, Johnson Publishing, which is "Ebony" and "Jet," black labor unions, and so on.

With that, a movement emerges that becomes the infrastructure for the national civil rights movement. One of the grassroots activists in Mississippi spoke at Dexter Street Baptist Church, invited there by an unknown pastor named Martin Luther King.

And Rosa Parks was in the congregation. And four days later, she was asked to move to the back of the bus. She later says, "I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not move."

JEFFREY BROWN: And the name Emmett Till cited to this day.

TIMOTHY TYSON: He's emblematic of racial injustice in America, and of violence against young black men in particular, and the ruthless indifference to the lives of young black men. So, yes, this is a story that won't let us go.

JEFFREY BROWN: What compels you? What pushes you personally to look at this history?

TIMOTHY TYSON: The summer that I turned 11, a boy that I played with every day, his father and his brothers murdered this young black man in public for speaking perhaps something flirtatious to a white woman at the store counter.

And they chased him out of the store and shot him from behind and then beat his head in with stocks of the rifles. And this wasn't a murder mystery. And they were acquitted really in protest against school integration. It was almost an atmosphere of war.

And I wondered, how did this all get started? Why am I in this craziness? And that began a process of discovery that led me, you know, a long way.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is "The Blood of Emmett Till."

Timothy Tyson, thank you very much.

TIMOTHY TYSON: Well, thank you, Jeffrey. Thanks for having me.

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