Had Emmitt Till not been brutally murdered for a crime he didn’t commit he would have been 76 today. I don’t mean to step on AL’s post, but I think it is appropriate to not let the anniversary of his birth, and the memory of a life cut tragically short by racism, hatred, and intolerance.
From the FBI:
In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old African-American Emmett Till had gone on vacation from Chicago to visit family in Money, Mississippi. He was shopping at a store owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant—and someone said he whistled at Mrs. Bryant, a white woman.
At some point around August 28, he was kidnapped, beaten, shot in the head, had a large metal fan tied to his neck with barbed wire, and was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. His body was soon recovered, and an investigation was opened.
It took fewer than four weeks for the case to go to trial: Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam were accused of the murder, and an all white, all male jury acquitted both of them. No one else was ever indicted or prosecuted for involvement in the kidnapping or murder. Bryant and Milam, though, later confessed and told a magazine journalist all the grisly details of their crime. They are both, now, long deceased.
In May 2004, the FBI reopened the investigation to determine if other individuals were involved, working with the Mississippi District Attorney, U.S. Attorney, federal attorneys, and local law enforcement. Till’s body was exhumed for an autopsy in 2005. In March 2006, the FBI announced that information developed in its exhaustive investigation confirmed the Department of Justice’s earlier conclusion that the five-year statute of limitations on any potential federal criminal civil rights violation had expired, thereby precluding federal prosecution of this case. The FBI reported the results of its investigation to Joyce Chiles, the District Attorney for the Fourth Judicial District of Mississippi.
Although justice has not been served in the case, the tragic murder helped galvanize the growing civil rights movement in this country in the 1950s and beyond.
Here are the links to the FBI’s 2006 investigative report. Part 1. Part 2.
We now know, thanks to a recently published biography of Till/history of the Till case that his accuser lied.
The effect of Tyson’s wide-angled framing is especially pronounced in the bombshell revelation that Carolyn Bryant—the white woman who originally claimed Till grabbed and sexually harassed her in her husband’s store—lied about those claims. Media coverage has focused on that explosive admission and the conversation around redemption that it seems to spark, but Tyson’s book, in the end, is largely unconcerned with that line of inquiry. Bryant’s testimony on the stand and her later admission have little to do, in this narrative, with her own battle with guilt; rather, they serve to advance Tyson’s thesis that culpability for Till’s death rests on millions of shoulders. The unlikely thing, he argues, was not that Emmett Till was lynched, but that his lynching actually stirred a national response.
And goes on to level a searing indictment against America – both at the time of Till’s murder and today.
Perhaps most importantly, Tyson considers all the ways in which an American populace was complicit in its acceptance of violence against black people—and then considers all the ways in which it is still complicit in the deaths of people of color today. For instance, in his examination of the Citizens’ Councils’ literature, which fomented mass fears of black criminality and fantasies of rampant black sexual deviancy, Tyson also shows how poor white “peckerwoods” were loathed by wealthier white people, and manipulated into doing the bloody business of physical violence. In this, he provides a thinly veiled parable for today’s politics in how the rhetoric of white supremacy—even in its subtlest dog-whistle form—is used to radicalize people, and how the uneasy detente between classes of white people is often maintained by propaganda built around the threat of the other, even as the culpability is passed to the lowest rungs. “We blame them,” Tyson writes about those radicalized perpetrators of physical violence, “to avoid seeing that the lynching of Emmett Till was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades, but not as much as we pretend.”