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The lynching of Emmett Till in August 1955 and the subsequent publication of images of his bloated, abused, and almost unrecognizable body in national magazines like Jet served as a catalyst for young civil rights organizers in the 1960s. Modern American “progress” cannot be understood without understanding the life, death, and legacy of Emmett Till. In The Blood of Emmett Till, Timothy B. Tyson masterfully reconstructs the days, weeks, months, and years leading up to Till’s interaction with Carolyn Bryant at Bryant’s Grocery that August evening. While many people have written about Emmett Till, and especially the way he died, Tyson’s work adds considerable depth and historical perspective to the saga. More important, Tyson clearly and concisely states why a fourteen-year-old African American boy was killed: the disease of white supremacy in America. [End Page 450]
Tyson’s retelling opens not with Till or the murderers, but in Carolyn Bryant Donham’s living room, where Tyson interviewed her in 2008—one of the few times she has spoken on the record about Till. Donham died in 2014 but not before she told Tyson that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him” (p. 7). While this admission frames the opening of the book, Tyson’s monograph leaves little room to empathize with Donham. Instead, Tyson shows how the former Mrs. Bryant’s testimony in her husband Roy Bryant and cousin-in-law J. W. Milam’s trial was the veil the all-white, all-male Mississippi jury needed to acquit Till’s murderers.
The book provides biographical background not only for Emmett Till, the Bryants, and the Milams but for all the major players in the saga of the trial and the aftermath. More than much of the other work written on Till, Tyson situates the lynching in the political and cultural context of 1955 Mississippi. The best chapters trace the development of the White Citizens’ Councils, the gendered politics of white supremacy in Mississippi, and the protests following the acquittal of Bryant and Milam. Tyson also takes great care to reconstruct the trial, and readers will appreciate the descriptive nature of his prose in those chapters. The reader can feel the stagnate air and the tension of the Sumner, Mississippi, courtroom as Mamie Bradley (Till’s mother), Moses Wright (Till’s uncle), and Willie Reed (a neighbor who heard the murderers beat Till) bravely testified. Using the trial transcripts recovered when the FBI reinvestigated Till’s lynching in 2004, these chapters follow the prosecution and defense through the investigation, trial, and eventual acquittal. Tyson applies historical analysis to the tactics of lawyers and the judge in Sumner, showing how white supremacy infected the proceedings, even if the judge could be considered “fair” in 1955 Mississippi.
Tyson is at his best when his work focuses on archival research, oral histories, and analysis. His final chapters, on the legacy of Till’s murder for the civil rights movement, the no-punches-held run through of what, exactly, happened to Till the night he was lynched and who is to blame for the crime, and finally, a statement on Till’s [End Page 451] relevance to our contemporary moment are especially powerful. He strays a bit when he inserts himself in the argument—for example, narrating his feelings of being in Carolyn Bryant Donham’s living room and remembering a preacher from his youth. While readers can appreciate Tyson’s personal connections to his research, the interjections pull the reader out of the power of his argument and insert the author in jarring and unhelpful ways.
Such criticism should be taken lightly. The Blood of Emmett Till is an excellent work of history. Twentieth-century U.S. history, African American studies, and American studies instructors should all consider the work for their classrooms. The final twenty-five pages should be required reading for all students in history surveys and for anyone interested in the long history of the struggle for a more perfect union...