In his new book, The Blood of Emmett Till, the historian Timothy B. Tyson revisits the circumstances of Till’s death, and brings to bear a wide scope of reporting, historical research, and cultural analysis. It’s not a definitive history of the Till case; other works have synthesized more primary sources and firsthand accounts. Rather, The Blood of Emmett Till is focused on the historicity of race in America: It posits that Till’s death is an emblem of the ways in which American tyranny works. To that end, the climax of his book comes not in the death of Till, in the ensuing sweltering court proceedings, or in the backwoods thriller of the black Mississippi Underground that investigated the case, but in the present.
Tyson tells the story of how a young Chicago boy’s summer sojourn in Mississippi ended with him kidnapped, beaten, shot, and tossed into a river by Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam, and a group of others. The historical context Tyson provides often dwarfs the actual tick-tock of the case: An account of Mamie Till-Mobley’s childhood and her close bond with her son is wrapped in a narrative about the Great Migration of black people from the South to the West and North in the mid-20th century. Till’s lynching is backgrounded by an instructive history of the genteel and intellectually racist Citizens’ Councils and how they fueled the raw violence of a white proletariat. The surfeit of contextualization verges on digression at times, but serves the ultimate purpose of giving Till’s life weight six decades after his death.
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.
Tyson takes great pains to illustrate how the mechanisms working in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1955 still animate life today, and how America has never really found justice for Till. He details the rise of the civil-rights movement and how Till’s death helped to forge a common purpose for the wide-ranging and often contentious factions of black activism. He describes how white supremacist organizing arose in direct response to that mobilization. And he examines how school desegregation and black suffrage undergirded the social tensions of the Jim Crow era.