Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The Blood of Emmett Till

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson is a fine follow up to his two previous Civil Rights era-focused books. I first read Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power over a decade ago. And his second book, Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story, offers a 1970 North Carolina lynching which makes for some difficult reading, too.

The Blood of Emmett Till explores the infamous lynching of this 14 year old Chicago boy while visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta in 1955.

Tyson attempts to reconstruct not only the grocery store incident in Money, Mississippi, that resulted in Till's death, he also poignantly provides significant contextual information about why Till's killers felt bold enough to commit the terrible murder with so little fear of legal prosecution. Tyson's examinations of the murders of George Lee and Lamar Smith, and also that attempted murder of Gus Courts, all who were advocates for black voting rights in Mississippi, provided Till's killers with a high level of confidence that they would not be convicted by an all white male jury of their peers.

Tyson also spends considerable effort debunking the belief that Till, a Chicagoan, did not know about Southern racial mores. Till's mother was born in Mississippi, and although it was not as blatantly racist as the Magnolia State in 1955, the Windy City knew its own fair share of racial violence. Till was widely aware of what it meant to be African American in 1950s America. Till's mother, too, had warned the young man before he left about what to do and not to do while visiting relatives down South. Why Till chose to ignore her advice is unknown, perhaps he was just a 14 year old being a 14 year old, but as his mother stated, "Nothing that boy did could every justify what happened to him."

The brutality of the murder is on full display in the book's pages. However, it also tells of the bravery that Till's mother displayed in having a open-coffin funeral to show the world what white supremacy did to her son, and her courage to attend and testify at the killers' trial. These actions show how strong of a woman she truly was. Similarly, Till's uncle, Moses Wright's testimony against the two white men literally jeopardized his life. Regardless, he stood up bravely and pointed at the men who had taken Till from his home that August 1955 night.

Till's tragic story helped galvanize the evolving Civil Rights Movement. It was after all in the weeks following the acquittal of Till's murderers that Rosa Parks explained that she drew upon an inner strength pulled partly from Till's brutal killing that she refused to give up her seat on her Montgomery, Alabama bus.

Over 60 years removed from Till's murder, our society is still not free of racism. However, as James Baldwin once told us, only by facing our past, especially the ugly past, can we hope to change for the better. The Blood of Emmett Till helps us face that ugly past. I highly recommend it.

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