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From the Stacks: “The Blood of Emmett Till” offers harrowing look into the past

by Kimberly Bolton | March 19, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
"The Blood of Emmett Till" by Timothy B. Tyson. Kimberly Bolton/Jefferson City News Tribune.

On August 31, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till's body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in northern Mississippi. A heavy cotton gin fan had been tied around his neck with barbed wire. Hours later, when asked to identify the boy's body, Emmett's great uncle, Moses Wright, could only recognize him by the ring Emmett wore in memory of his father.

In "The Blood of Emmett Till," Timothy B. Tyson recounts the harrowing tragedy that lit the spark for the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Tyson credits Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who brought the frequent occurrence of lynching of young black men and boys to the forefront of the American conscience and asked us to look at the ugliness of the country's segregation and racism of the 1950s. It was her courage and determination to bring justice to the crime perpetrated on her son, despite threats to her own life, so that her son's death "would not be in vain" as she declared during and after Emmett's funeral.

Mamie bravely made the decision to have his casket opened for viewing so that the world could not hide from her son's tragic and senseless death. Emmett Till's death photograph was published all over the world and was the catalyst that launched civil rights activists into motion.

This book is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy read. However, it is an important one. It is a bracing, eye-opening account of the horrific crimes against African Americans in the Deep South and the culture that condoned it. This was during the era of Jim Crow when African Americans had no recourse for lawful protection.

Tyson offers groundbreaking new evidence in the case that has only come to light now, nearly 70 years later. Emmett Till was accused of "untoward" behavior toward a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, which as everyone in Mississippi, both black and white knew, was a death sentence for any African American male.

Amid all the rumors and hearsay that followed Till's lynching, no evidence was ever found or proven. However, Emmett was from Chicago and the ways of the south were not ingrained in him as it was for the cousins and great uncle whom he had come to visit that summer of 1955.

For 68 years, Carolyn Bryant has kept silent about the events of that summer that led to Till's murder and in which she played such a crucial part until her interview with Timothy Tyson for his book. As shocking as her admission was (she later recanted), it was no surprise to the victims and survivors of racial injustice in the south during that time.

The trial of Carolyn's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, drew the world's attention to Sumner, Mississippi. The outcome would be a terrible, yet not unexpected one, for not only Mamie, but also for millions of others. There was no justice for Emmett Till in 1955, nor would there be decades later when the FBI reopened the case in 2004 and closed it three years later without a conviction of any of those involved in the murder still living, including Carolyn Bryant.

Mamie Till Mobley passed away in 2003 never having gained justice for her son, but she galvanized a national movement. Even today, Emmett Till's blood speaks to us from the grave, reminding us that we cannot rise above our past until we have confronted it.

Kimberly Bolton is a circulation clerk at Missouri River Regional Library.

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