There is no question that Emmett Till, and his murder-by-lynching which helped galvanize the Civil Rights Movement, is perpetually relevant. On Friday, Till, who’s been dead for over 60 years, trended on Twitter when news broke that Carolyn Bryant Donham—whose husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, brutally murdered Till—lied on the witness stand about the extent of Till’s flirtation with her, a proclaimed motive for the murder. Bryant and Milam were acquitted.
It’s likely that nothing she could have said, before or after taking the stand, would have saved Till’s life. In fact, Timothy B. Tyson—author of new book The Blood of Emmett Till, which contains this information as well as the only interview Donham has ever granted—says there’s “concrete” evidence that Donham, then known as Carolyn Bryant, did not want Till to die. Yet it was still the outcome of a brief flirtation August 28, 1955, in Money, Mississippi, when Till walked into the grocery store where she worked, asked her out, touched her hand, and then whistled at her outside, according to other witnesses accompanying Till that day. Donham’s lie didn’t kill Till, but it did ensure that her husband and brother-in-law got off scot free in a time in a Southern culture gripped by the “Southern Rape Complex” (which mythologizes black men as sexual predators who threaten the virtue of the Southern white woman), terrified of miscegenation, and unwilling to yield to Brown v. Board of Education, which had been ruled a little over a year before Till’s death.
Why Till’s name has been invoked by Black Lives Matters protesters is obvious—there’s a clear through-line from the disregard for his body and life on both an interpersonal and judicial level, to the deaths and subsequent acquittals that are all too common today. But there are subtler ways that details within the narrative, which is rendered in cinematic clarity via Tyson’s telling, are astonishingly relevant. Mamie Till-Mobley, Till’s mother, demonstrated a true media savvy by insisting Till’s casket remain open, and by allowing photographers, including one for Jet magazine, to photograph Till’s severely disfigured corpse to show the world the barbarism her son faced in death. (Diamond Reynolds’s decision to live-stream of the aftermath of Philando Castille’s shooting because she “wanted it to go viral” was reminiscent of Till-Mobley’s rationale.)
The Citizen’s Council, which helped suppress voter rights and distort press coverage of the Till trial among other racist acts, “believed that anything that weakened white supremacy or challenged the existing social hierarchy in any way was socialism,” according to Tyson. A version of that organization exists today (it’s now called the Council of Conservative Citizens), and its spirit lives on more broadly in the white nationalist/“alt-right” movement that’s reemerged in the mainstream in the United States in the past year. The Southern rape complex has yet to be resolved and, beyond its particulars, the credo-like devotion with which Bryant and Milam regarded it reverberates whenever “sincerely held” beliefs (religious or otherwise) are used to justify discrimination or bigotry. “The predicaments of this moment are illuminated in a whole new way if you see from whence we have come,” says Tyson.
Tyson’s book, which recounts Till’s murder, the subsequent trial, and the larger social forces at work during that time, is at once thrilling and agonizing, and the author himself is nothing short of fascinating. He’s white—or, in the Ta-Nehisi Coates-coined parlance he prefers, he’s a person who thinks he’s white—and has devoted his historian career to studying, teaching, and writing about race in our country. He’s a member of the NAACP and has written books on the Black Power movement, the Wilmington Race Riot, and Henry Marrow, another murdered young black man, who was killed in Oxford, North Carolina, where Tyson grew up.
I talked to Tyson by phone earlier this month about his book, his interview with Carolyn Bryant Donham, and his career—as well as his thoughts on being published by Simon & Schuster, which faced the wrath of the internet when it was announced last month that the publisher would be releasing a book by Milo Yiannopouloss. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation appears below.
Jezebel: What was it like sitting down with Carolyn Bryant, given what her lies caused?
Timothy B. Tyson: I had an image of her in my mind, which had very little to do with the person that I met. She was 21 when this happened, poor, not very well educated, it’s 1955 and she’s in rural Mississippi. She did something terrible, she told the story of the black-beast rapist in court, and portrayed the incident in the store as an attempted rape, really.
And she admitted she lied about that to you?
She said, “That part is not true.” So my inevitable question was, “Well, what did happen?” And she said, “I can’t remember. It was 50 years ago. You tell these stories until they seem true. But that was not true. And nothing that boy did could justify what happened to him.” To me, that’s one of the most important pieces from her. I was surprised at the intellectual sophistication of Carolyn Bryant. She had thought about the malleability and unreliability of her memory, and when she said that to me, she was distinguishing between the narrative in her head, which said one thing, and her standing at distance from that and saying, “That’s not true, that’s a created memory embedded in the lie I told.” That was her being a detective of her own case.
Did you get a sense that she’s truly sorry?
There was a quality of confession about it, about parts of our interview. I think she’s carried an enormous burden of guilt. There’s concrete evidence suggesting at the time she did not want this to happen. She did not tell her husband about the incident at the store. Her husband and brother-in-law found out about it through someone else. It seemed to me she still had a burden of guilt, and I’m not sure that was entirely unburdened by our conversation.
I’ve done hundreds of oral history interviews. She was able to stand back from herself of six decades earlier, and think about what that person she was had done, in a way that most people can’t. That was impressive to me. I also thought she was a lovely person. She was very kind. I liked her. She was nice and warm. This event took away the rest of her life. It broke up her marriage. It put her on the run. She was caught up in a lie and deeply devoted to her family. When she was wrestling quite visibly with what to tell me, she sort of muttered to herself, “Everybody’s dead anyway.” In other words: I can say this. One of the things we find out [in the book] is that half a dozen people are involved in the lynching of Emmett Till. It’s not just the two men who were prosecuted.
When I did the research to prepare for the interview, I discovered there wasn’t nearly as much about the Till case as I expected there to be, and also the interview itself brought so much new information. There was a lot of new information that I hadn’t heard about. The FBI had reopened the case in 2005 and produced a really telling voluminous report with all kinds of new information that debunked all the previous accounts. They also found a transcript of the trial, which had been missing since 1955, and which gives us a lot of confirmation and revision of things that we heard. A lot of the simple facts are different. What I was surprised to find is that black Chicago had really pushed this into national and then international spotlight, and launched a movement that provided the infrastructure to the Civil Rights Movement. It was really the beginning.
What new information did the FBI report provide?
The old narrative is essentially a Southern horror movie with redneck Frankenstein. It’s a crucifixion without a resurrection, and the story conveniently left everybody off the hook. None of us is redneck Frankenstein. But a foretelling of what actually happened is hopeful in that people rose up and rejected the social system, in which the murder of Emmett Till and other events like it are really an inevitable byproduct.
I read about the Citizen’s Council and it sounded so much like the white nationalists of today. Do you think there’s a similarity there?
Absolutely, and think of the response to President Obama, a moderate centrist. But he’s a “socialist” and a “threat to America’s way of life” and “we need to take our country back” from this “illegitimate” government. Much of that really resonates with what’s going on in the 1950s. That’s also a piece of the story that hadn’t really been illuminated before—the atmosphere of war in which Emmett Till is what we would call collateral damage. He drops down into a struggle over voting rights, a struggle over public education, a struggle over black citizenship. His murder is an inevitable byproduct of the social system in which he is born. To read the Jackson Daily News in 1955, Mississippi is trembling on the verge of a race war and the country doesn’t care. This was an exotic regional story that the national press is paying no attention to. It’s seen as not having anything to do with “our” national life, it’s just happening “down there” in the strange, distant place. When, of course, the racial caste system in Chicago was as strong as the one in Mississippi.
As much as this book is a tragedy and reflection of the terrible state our country has not been able, or refuses, to get itself out of, it’s full of stories of triumph. They’re not stories of sea change, but they’re heartening. Mamie Bradley [née Till-Mobley] was a maverick, incredibly media savvy. Moses Wright [Till’s uncle he was staying with in Mississippi] as well, exhibited unbelievable courage by pointing out Roy Bryant from the on the witness stand.
My goodness, it was just jaw-droppingly inspiring. I think it’s important to understand the volcanic movement out of the black community in response to the Till case is really rooted in decades of organizing in black Chicago.
Mamie Till has been seen as the sorrowful, brokenhearted, courageous black mother, which of course all that’s true, but as you point out, she is media savvy. She understands how the press works. She dramatizes the lynching of her son as a way to topple the social order that killed him. For example, she knows that any perception of sexual interest or sexual playfulness from her son to Carolyn Bryant will turn that into justifiable homicide in the unconscious of America, but also in the literal sense, and so regarding the whistling piece of it, she says, “He had a speech impediment and so I told him if he couldn’t get his words out to whistle.” That’s just a fabrication, but she’s spinning a difficult piece of it—he did whistle at [Bryant], that’s sort of agreed upon—but she’s trying to get America to look at his humanity and to look at the inhumanity of the racial caste system in America. It’s imaginative, it’s bold. She reached out to the newspapers, she was willing to speak anywhere, at any time, all over the country talking, trying to make his death matter. To make his black life matter, which it does. We owe her a great debt.
In a piece for The News & Observer called “Dylann Roof and the white supremacist in us all,” you wrote: “I have come a long way, and I am trying to be a good soldier in the struggle.” Given the focus of your work teaching African American studies, as well as your writing about civil rights, what is the work you’ve done to untangle white supremacy from your thinking?
White supremacy is the water, and we are the fish. Our typical conversation about race in America is as if one fish said to the other, “Well, you’re wet!” “No, you’re wet!” If you get beyond the commitment of denial to any connection to this ugliness, if you stop defending yourself and stop stuffing this way down inside yourself, then you can learn about yourself. And then the implicit white supremacy that you breathe in, through no fault of your own, no longer controls you but you control it. I found that once I stopped trying to deny the ideas that lingered in my brain, often unbeknownst to me, then my head became the white supremacy museum. I could look and say, “Oh, that!” It was no longer a threat to me, and it no longer had any power on me. It was a great freedom to begin to look at that. I think that’s a point where we can grow and change. We don’t have to be stuck in this, but we have to look at it honestly. Without an honest confrontation of our past, we have no control over our future.
Like many white people, you could have ignored the topics of your area of study and you would have gotten through life just fine. You didn’t have to confront what you did with your work.
I was in the first generation that integrated the schools. In those days, people said, “So you want your daughter to marry one?” That was supposed to shut down the whole conversation. That was the trump card, if you will, of the segregationist response to the crumble of Jim Crow. It struck me when I was a boy that grown-ups were kind of crazy and I didn’t understand what was going on. Why were we having violence in the hallways at school? Why were these white people meeting in the park across from school with confederate flags and weapons? Why was there a Ku Klux Klan rally. Why were the police the protectors of segregation? Why were the white authorities who ran the school system and implemented integration also opposed to it, by and large? I wanted to know where did this all come from? How did we get here? That set me on a lifetime of learning and put me on a whole different trajectory. Through my work with the NAACP and my research into the Black Power movement, I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the racial divide, which kind of makes you a stranger on both sides but it also gives you great clarity. You find out about your homeland by visiting another.
But I don’t come at this pointing a finger from some moral high horse. We’re a nation of recovering white supremacists. White supremacy is the notion that God has created humanity in a hierarchy of moral, cultural, and intellectual worth, in which all of those things are distributed by basis of skin color. And that’s an idea that lives in the heads of black Americans and white Americans. It does different things in both of those places. In one, it gives an implicit understanding of superiority. On the other, it gives a sense of inferiority. I think that’s something we have to work through. It’s the unfinished work of the Black Power Movement, which said, “Black is beautiful.” It’s a self-affirming black sense of self. That’s still important, and that’s something the young people of Black Lives Matter are still engaged with. You see these T-shirts, “Unapologetically Black,” valuing that identity, stamping out internalized white supremacy.
Are you apologetically white?
Ta-Nehisi Coates has a wonderful phrase in his book Between the World and Me: He calls white people “people who believe they are white.” What is white culture?
I guess you’d say it’s largely a culture of theft and oppression.
It doesn’t mean very much specific, if you take away that subtle sense of superiority and that assumption that our country is a white country and that sense of entitlement. I’m so reluctant to be self-congratulatory when it comes to race, because in many ways the essence of white racial politics is self-exoneration. We yearn to find a clean place where we can sit down in the American racial dilemma. And there’s just not one. We don’t want to be involved, we don’t want to acknowledge our connection to this ugliness that is a big part of our legacy. There’s always that, “I don’t see race.”
I want to say to white people so often: “Its not about you! Stop feeling guilty, you didn’t create this situation. How could you be responsible for the Atlantic slave trade?” It’s been over for centuries, but we’re living in its embers and in the debris of this 400-year legacy. Rather than say, “It’s not my fault,” we need to deal with what’s going on in front of our own eyes.
Did you have any opinion about Simon & Schuster, who’s publishing your book, signing Milo Yiannopoulos to a $250,000 deal?
I found that deeply disturbing. I am a complete free-speech advocate. I think that the best that is within us has a better chance of emerging in an environment in which we have free speech. But that doesn’t mean that Simon & Schuster has to give him a podium. Also, people confuse the First Amendment and think we have a constitutional right to applause. When I criticize, I always try to make it clear that I don’t question the right of someone like him to say what they say. I think it’s mean and shabby and morally reprehensible. They want to jump behind the First Amendment, but that’s not the issue. The issue is vicious racial ideology and this scorn for human beings. When this broke out, I started reading a lot of what he had to say where I could find it, and he’s cruel and vicious and cynical and scornful. It’s true that there’s white nationalism underneath what he has to say. There’s homophobia, which may surprise people because he’s gay. He’s pretty messed up.
The values of the people I have met at Simon & Schuster aren’t at all reflected in the decision to publish him. I think that’s a commercial decision unfortunately grounded in the idea that his people will be willing to pay to read his scandalous and mean-spirited writing. You’re not required to sell things just because people want to buy them. Pornography is pretty popular, but Simon & Schuster doesn’t publish it. I think it’s beneath them when you look at what they’ve published over the years. I wish they weren’t doing that.
One of the things America needs to bear in mind about race, among other things, is that you can’t fix everything. Sometimes things don’t work. Things are broken. I’m in a morally ambiguous position in being part of this in some way. At the same time, I’m not the only one Simon & Schuster is publishing who I think can fairly be described as anti-racist. To boycott Simon & Schuster is to shut down Simon & Schuster in some way, which is to shut me down too. But the world doesn’t rise and fall on whether or not I publish my book. I could publish it somewhere else, it’s just too late in the day to consider that. I think it’s a mistake, but I don’t know what Simon & Schuster can do about it.