Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Blood of Emmett Till

A number of things crossed my mind when I read The Blood of Emmett Till a new book by Timothy Tyson.  Tyson does a thorough job of describing the context for the murder, the background of the murderers, the background of the victim, and the courage of the victim's family.

By the time I was a junior in high school I had become a good student.  I had not been in junior high school--often reading teacher descriptions of my work stating that I was underachieving. But I did okay by the time I was in eleventh and twelfth grade.   In New York State it was in a student's junior and senior year when you studied American History. Then in the second semester of my freshman year I took American History from the Civil War to the present with as energetic a professor as I have ever had.  People fought to get into David Goodman's class. He was dramatic as a lecturer, flamboyant with his cowboy hat, funny on occasion, unconventional (we did not have a text, we had to read four novels about the various decades of that period), and you were lucky to get a seat.

Point is that in both high school and in college I do not remember reading about or studying about Emmett Till.  I know that a folksinger I liked, Phil Ochs, had a song about Emmett Till--so I knew there was a story there, but I did not know the details. It was sometime in graduate school when I read about how Till's mother had forced an open casket and Jet magazine had put a photo of the mutilated kid on its cover.

Why did we not study it in high school or college?  The Till case was an egregious case of injustice. I graduated high school in 67. Till was murdered only 12 years before.

There is no doubt that the half brothers, JW Milam and Ron Bryant, kidnapped, killed, and then dumped Till's body in a river. Tyson begins his book with an interview with Carolyn Bryant the woman Till, allegedly, good gosh, spoke rudely to which caused the half brothers to abduct and murder. Bryant now in her 80s essentially said the kid did nothing warranting such punishment, and admitted that she lied at the trial.  So, they did it. They were guilty. And they were acquitted.

The defense attempted to provide some handle onto which the all white jury could hang a not guilty verdict. So, they contended that the identifications of the kidnappers might have been inaccurate, and the body pulled from the river might not have been Till's, and besides the kid had mouthed off to a white woman. Each of these arguments is at odds with the others.  If we can't convince you folks that these good old boys did not kidnap the kid, maybe we can convince you that the dead kid wasn't the kid they kidnapped. And if we can't convince you that they did not kidnap the kid, and if we can't convince you that the dead body wasn't Till's, well maybe we can provide you with a good reason for why the boys done it.

It worked.  Big rush of joy from the south. Why. Not because the brothers were innocent of this outrageous murder, but because yet again a southern jury protected its racial nonsense.

I thought of the Kent State murders while reading this book, and also the Simpson trial.  I've read a number of books on both, and spent quite a bit of time at Kent State's library in their special collections unit. There is no doubt, none, that the guardsmen's acts--in the words of the Scranton Commission--were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.  Yet at the trial the guardsmen were acquitted.  There is no doubt that Simpson murdered his wife and Ron Goldman.  Yet he was acquitted.

I see an analogy here. The jurors in the Simpson case and the Kent State case were looking for a reason to acquit.

However, the Till case is even more horrific, because it was not an isolated incident. Till type murders were the way of the south and not a one-off like OJ or the National Guard.  The kid was mutilated by fellows who thought they had the right to kill.

I think what Tyson does best in this book is describe the climate at the time of the killing. It makes the reader realize that Bryant and Milam probably thought their actions were no big deal and they would be heroes of sorts, or at least just doing what a man should do.  He also describes the courage of Till's mother and uncle very well.  I am not sure the last chapter makes its mark, but as for the rest of it--you want the facts, you'll get the facts.  Emmett Till was murdered brutally for doing nothing wrong. He was butchered and when the not guilty verdict was read, there was dancing in the streets. Not that long ago.  There are still crimes of this ilk.

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