How Chicago Turned Emmett Till’s Death Into A National Conversation

Blood of Emmett Till
Book cover image courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Blood of Emmett Till
Book cover image courtesy of Simon & Schuster

How Chicago Turned Emmett Till’s Death Into A National Conversation

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The death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black Chicagoan beaten to death for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, has gotten renewed attention since his accuser, Carolyn Bryant, admitted in a new book that she had falsely testified Till threatened her. Till’s killers were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Timothy Tyson, author of the book The Blood Of Emmett Till, said it’s not just the confession that should be news. Tyson told Morning Shift’s Tony Sarabia that the Till killing and trial shaped Chicago and racial history.

Tony Sarabia: What parallels do you see between the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and today?

Timothy Tyson: It’s an atmosphere of war and terror into which Emmett Till wanders while visiting his relatives. (He) violates racial etiquette and then is kidnapped and tortured to death and his body thrown into the river. But it’s part of a larger political scene.

The story of Emmett Till likes to emphasize that he was innocent … and he came down to Mississippi and it’s sort of a Southern horror movie starring redneck Frankenstein. Which is legitimate. But (it wasn’t just Mississippi), if you were a 14-year old black boy in Chicago in 1955, and you didn’t know where you could play baseball and where you could not play baseball, you were in a lot of trouble.

Sarabia: So he wasn’t naive when he went down there; his mother warned him as well?

Tyson: His mother warned him as well. She was like thousands if not millions of African-Americans in Chicago. She had roots in Mississippi. She was born there. She was a child of the Great Migration. So she told him about the racial etiquette of Mississippi, which is different from Chicago and yet they’re similar in certain ways.

File photos of John W. Milam, 35, left, his half-brother Roy Bryant, 24 , centre, who went on trial in Sumner, Miss., Sept. 18, 1955, charged with the murder of 14-year-old African-American Emmett L.Till from Chicago, who is alleged to have 'wolf-whistled' and made advances at Bryant's wife Carolyn, seen right. (AP Photo)

Sarabia: Where does Carolyn Bryant fit in?

Tyson: According to the African-American grassroots activists in Mississippi who investigated this case — people like Medgar Evers and T.R.M Howard — Roy Bryant came home and the person who told him about the incident at the store was actually not Carolyn Bryant, but someone who hung around at the store.

When (Roy) Bryant found out he was furious at his wife for not telling him. Where she comes into play, really, is she testifies in court. It is kind of important to say that the jury did not hear her testimony — the judge said nothing that happened three days before the murder of Emmett Till could have any connection with this murder.

Sarabia: I found it pretty amazing that the judge said that.

Tyson: Yeah it was. I was quite surprised by the equanimity and fairness of the judge, which I was not expecting whatsoever. But the defense knew that the jury would hear it anyway. She (told) essentially an old story that was already hovering in the minds of all of those jurors — and white Southerners in general — of the “black beast rapist” and the “fairest flower of Southern womanhood.” She told a story of him coming around the counter and grabbing her around the waist with both hands and a strong grip and not letting her go and talking about how he’d had sex with white women before … she told about essentially a sexual assault. That was in an effort to acquit her husband and brother-in-law, but it was not essential … they would have been acquitted if she had gone in and screamed that they were a lynch mob.

I’ve got the notes from her interview with her attorney. A few days after the incident, after her husband had been arrested, after they’d found the body of Emmett Till, her story to him was about a boy who was rude, (who) insulted her. An affront to her racial sensibilities certainly, but there’s no hint of anything physical, menacing or sexual in that description that she gives to her attorney in private a few days after it happened. So that’s quite a different story than the one she told a few weeks later.

Sarabia: You’ve said in the past that if Emmett Till wasn’t from Chicago, we wouldn’t know his name. Explain what you meant by that.

Tyson: To me, this is the most important thing about this story, because it’s not just a story about horrifying racial brutality, though that’s obviously important and real. But it’s about how a people rose up and organized a movement to topple that social order, of which Emmett Till’s murder is almost an inevitable byproduct. James Baldwin said that the glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another is and always has been “a recipe for murder.”

What happened (was) courageous and politically astute. Mamie Bradley, Emmett Till’s mother, she organizes black Chicago. She brings in the unions … The most powerful black political machine in the world is in Chicago: the (William L.) Dawson machine. In 1955 they dumped the mayor of Chicago, (Martin) Kennelly, the Irish mayor, because he wasn’t good to the black community and was racist, and they installed Richard Daley. Then of course we’ve got the largest circulation black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, in the country. And we’ve got Johnson (Publishing Company), which is Ebony and Jet and about 10 other national publications. So we’ve got all this black, political and cultural power that becomes a megaphone to the entire world about the Till case, which becomes a kind of metaphor for American racial injustice.

They create the infrastructure of the civil rights movement.

An undated portrait of Emmett Louis Till, a black 14 year old Chicago boy, whose weighted down body was found in the Tallahatchie River near the Delta community of Money, Mississippi, August 31, 1955. (AP Photo)
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click ‘Play’ above to listen to the whole segment.