The specter of Emmett Till refuses to stay buried. Recent reminders of the 14-year-old are often in the media. When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September, Till’s glass-topped casket was placed on permanent exhibition, a reminder of the brutal lynching that forced America to confront its racist beliefs and perverted justice system.
During the recent election cycle, the historical marker indicating the site where Till’s body was found was photographed riddled with bullet holes, vandalized by an unknown assailant. Last month President Obama signed the Emmett Till Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, which allows the Department of Justice and FBI to reopen unsolved civil rights cases.
Till’s murder, wedged between the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and the December 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, accelerated the African-American community’s demands for social equality and galvanized the civil rights movement.
Two books, one recently published and the other forthcoming, wrestle with the legacy of this haunt in American history, seeking to examine and understand the impact of racial violence and the generational trauma it can leave behind. Six decades after Emmett Till’s murder, Timothy B. Tyson and John Edgar Wideman delve into Till’s case, enhancing history’s footnote with dramatically different outcomes.
On Aug. 28, 1955, Emmett Till, a Chicago-based African-American teenager visiting his family in Mississippi, was abducted, beaten and shot by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. The torture was punishment for allegedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white shopkeeper in Money, Miss. Till’s neck was then wrapped in barbed wire and attached to a cotton gin fan before being dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
His body was discovered three days later. The corpse was identified by a silver ring with the letters L.T. engraved into it, the initials of Emmett’s father Louis Till, the ghost at the center of “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” Wideman’s first work of nonfiction in over a decade.
Wideman, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and double PEN/Faulkner award winner, latches onto this small detail, the ring, an overlooked aspect of the Emmett Till case. Louis Till was deceased for almost a decade by the time his son was slain. While stationed in Italy during World War II, Louis was tried in military court for the crimes of kidnapping, rape and murder. On July 2, 1945, his sentence was carried out: death by hanging.
This information, leaked to the media from Louis Till’s confidential military file, would keep his son’s murderers from being charged with kidnapping because the father’s transgressions were seen as justification for violence perpetuated against the son. (Tried for murder, the pair was acquitted, although they later confessed to a journalist.)
In this moment of tension Wideman unwinds the Till family’s genealogy of brutality and trauma, themes Wideman, one of the caretakers of African-American storytelling tradition, has explored for decades.
In Wideman’s examination of the Till files, the personal meets the political: In Emmett Till, he sees himself. Both of their fathers served as soldiers during World War II, and Till and Wideman are both progeny of the Great Migration living in Northern cities: “him colored, me colored. Him a boy, me too. Him so absolutely dead, he’s my death too.”
In this moment of the uncanny, of seeing a face like his lying in a casket, disfigured and bloated, there is a doubling, a bond of two lives layered on top of one another. Wideman has one foot in the historical past, and the other in modern racial history, operating in this realm off and on throughout the book: “[F]amiliar script. Offended white males go after black boy accused of molesting white female. Same ole, same ole Mississippi Till story repeating itself, but with the roles, the scenario sort of scrambled … and getting worse day by day it seems when I pay attention — one more colored victim declared guilty without a trial falls, fallen, falling dead, here, there, everywhere…”
Exploring the Louis Till files allows Wideman the space for intellectual exploration, to examine the things the author keeps close to the chest, including the fates of his brother and son, who are serving separate sentences in prison for murder. Wideman survived to write his meditations, these smaller intimate tendrils of memory and history mingled with imagination that allow him to reconstruct what might have actually happened based on what the author knows to be true from his experiences as an African-American man, a son, a father and keeper of memories.
If Timothy B. Tyson’s literature has a signature, it lies in his ability to compose authoritative, informative, vivid scenes out of thousands of snippets of source material. His latest book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” is composed of the author’s detective work and framed by analysis of political history.
Tyson, a North Carolina writer and historian, specializes in the issues of social justice; contentious moments in American history are his hallmark. His first work was an examination the Wilmington race riot of 1898. His autobiographical second book, “Blood Done Sign My Name,” grappled with the history of a racially motivated murder in the small Southern town of Oxford, N.C., and the subsequential acquittal of the perpetrators. Tyson’s work earned him a Southern Book Award and designation as a National Book Critic Circle Award finalist.
“The Blood of Emmett Till” unfolds like a movie, moving from scene to reconstructed scene, panning out to help the reader understand the racism and bigotry that crafted the citadel of white supremacy and focusing in on intimate exchanges imbued with meaning.
Tyson explains the set of circumstances and thought processes that empowered and legitimized the state of segregation: “the very sight of white and black reporters greeting one another and exchanging notes in a friendly manner shocked the Sumner (Miss.) crowd. Therein was some of the trial’s actual drama, for if almost anyone involved could predict the trial’s verdict, few could predict its consequences,” he writes.
Through intimidation and disenfranchisement, African-Americans were excluded from the political system and discouraged from voting due to the threats of retaliation from white mobs inciting terror in the middle of the night. Tactics like these, and the racially motivated murders, led to the resurgence and maintenance of white supremacy in the Deep South.
As Tyson explains, Till’s death via violent white retaliation was not out of the norm: from Reconstruction through the civil rights period of the 1960s, more than 500 lynchings took place in Mississippi.
Tyson portrays the historical characters as fully fleshed out people instead of merely victims, as illustrated by this digression about Emmett Till’s love of baseball: “One night when Emmett was about 12, Mamie sent him to the store to buy a loaf of bread. He was ordinarily reliable about such things, but on the way home he saw some boys playing baseball in the park … he planned to stay for a short time and then go home with the bread; his mother might not even notice, he told himself.”
In moments like these, Tyson is able to separate the boy from the martyr. Even ancillary characters such as Rev. Moses Wright is multi-faceted. By bringing life the subjects’ world, Tyson conveys how the particular case of Emmett Till became the crime that sparked nationwide protest and elevated the victim to a symbol of American injustice.
Tyson’s and Wideman’s books are complementary to one another: neither offers a complete examination of the saga of the Till family. Wideman focuses on what came before, Tyson on what came after. Wideman’s “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File” is a mirror in which to reflect on the murder. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till” is, perhaps, a magnifying glass. If Wideman is a weaver of the fabric of America’s history during the life of Emmett Till, Tyson is the museum’s curator, giving context to the other author’s inquiries and experiences. To both authors, Emmett — and by extension, Louis and Mamie Till — are historical touchstones. The reverberations of their traumatic legacy still tinges the edges of the African-American experience, even in its modern incantation, with the murders of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Keith Lamont Scott and Alton Sterling, and the exoneration of their killers.
The societal ramifications and emotional cost of living in perilous times feels markedly relevant, with the expiration of the Voting Rights Act and restructuring of identity politics in America. Books like Tyson’s and Wideman’s can facilitate the country’s attempts to grapple with America’s ugly track record of dealing effectively with racial discontent as we embark upon the next chapter of America’s story.
‘Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File’
By John Edgar Wideman
$25, 208 pages
‘The Blood of Emmett Till’
By Timothy B. Tyson
Simon & Schuster
$27, 304 pages