The Blood of Emmett Till

I was going to give "The Blood of Emmett Till" the "Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet" treatment, but after finishing the book, I realized (1) there were way too many excerpts I wanted to share (2) I wanted to say some things alongside those excerpts rather than letting them speak for themselves.  So consider this a much longer, slightly annotated version of TSFABPTLFAT, with the excerpts in italics and my thoughts underneath.  And,by the way, there are still way more excerpts worth reading than I've shown here.  Read the book.

Mamie was haunted by the story of a little black girl who had been playing with a white girl at the home of the white family that employed her mother. The white girl got upset with the black girl and ran to tell her father as he walked up the driveway from work. He angrily snatched up the black girl, shook her like a rag doll, then tossed her up against a tree in the front yard. “Now, that girl’s mother had to finish her day’s work before she could even look after her daughter, who was left there writhing in pain the rest of the day,” Mamie remembered many years later. “Eventually, the little girl died of her injuries.” This was “a cautionary tale,” she said, a tale of horror rooted in real experience, whether or not it was precisely true in its particular details. “Was this a true story? I don’t know. But I do know this: Somewhere between the fact we know and the anxiety we feel is the reality we live.”

Talk about "know your place."  Imagine growing up with stories like this, and having them reinforced by your own experiences and then that of your children.  

Thanks to Mamie, Chicago’s newspapers, radio, and television were already starting to cover the lynching. A TV news bulletin even interrupted I Love Lucy to report the discovery of the body. Now word spread that Emmett Till’s body was coming home to Chicago. Mamie now envisioned God’s purpose for her life—and for her son’s life: “I took the privacy of my own grief and turned it into a public issue, a political issue, one which set in motion the dynamic force that ultimately led to a generation of social and legal progress for this country.”  Unlike any of the white newspapers, soon after Till’s lynching the Pittsburgh Courier predicted that his mother’s “agonized cry” might well become “the opening gun in a war on Dixie, which can reverberate around the world.”  Activists across the country hoped and believed that this tragedy might be the wellspring of positive change. Mamie had ensured that to her mother’s cry would now be added the mute accusation of Emmett’s body. 

A colleague wrote to the activist Anne Braden soon after the lynching, “This 14-year-old’s crucifixion is going to strengthen and clarify the cause of de-segregation, human brotherhood, and freedom.”  It would fall to Mamie Bradley to transform crucifixion into resurrection.

From the depths of unspeakable and horrific loss, Emmett Till's mother demonstrated extraordinary courage, foresight, and moral authority.

Emmett’s murder would never have become a watershed historical moment without Mamie finding the strength to make her private grief a public matter. Today was the day he should have bounded from the train with stories of the Delta to tell, eager to know if she’d gotten his bicycle fixed, ready to take to the sandlots and dream he was Don Newcombe pitching Brooklyn into the World Series. He should have bounced into the house eager to see his dog, Mike, rescued from the pound. He was supposed to start school in a few days, and finish painting the garage door. But now his mother’s errands included finding a way to bury her own heart, finding a way to go forward without a reason to do so, and giving her only son back to God. She would do all that, and she would leverage the only influence America’s racial caste system granted her: public grief and moral outrage sufficient to shame and anger some fraction of the nation.

Today we still do have public grief and moral outrage.  Do we have shame and anger too?

The sociologist Adam Green observes that the spectacle surrounding Emmett Till’s death “convened” black Chicago and black Mississippi into one congregation that trumpeted the tragedy to the world. These voices of mourning and protest emerged exactly as Mamie hoped they would. Members of this black national congregation launched rallies, letter campaigns, and fund drives that transformed another Southern horror story into a call for action. In this call and response, Green writes, “northern city and southern delta seemed the same place, and the need for collective action among African Americans across the nation seemed urgent as never before.”

Read that last sentence again and tell me you are not thinking about the present day as well.

Those who organized Mississippi’s effort to block blacks from voting did so without shame. The day before the murder of Emmett Till, Thomas Tubb announced that no African American would ever be allowed to vote in Clay County, where he made his home, “but we intend to handle it in a sensible, orderly manner.” Blacks “are better off” not voting, Tubb continued, than being “given a whipping like some of these country boys plan to do.” Ten days later Tubb insisted he knew of “no widespread or systematic effort to deny Negroes the voting right,” but a day after that denial he appointed a statewide committee “to study ways of cutting down the numbers of Negro voters.”

Mississippi had the highest percentage of African Americans in the country and the lowest percentage registered to vote. In the thirteen counties with a population more than 50 percent African American, black people cast a combined total of fourteen votes. In five of those counties, not one African American was a registered voter; three listed one registered African American who never actually voted. In the seven counties with a population more than 60 percent black, African Americans cast a combined total of two votes in 1954.  Even so, on April 22, 1954, the Mississippi legislature passed a constitutional amendment explicitly designed to keep black people from the polls: it required citizens wishing to vote to submit a written explanation of the state constitution to the registrar, who would determine whether the interpretation was “reasonable.”  Seven months later, as the first Brown decision rocked the state, Mississippi voters ratified the amendment by a five-to-one margin.

The Associated Citizens’ Councils of Mississippi, determined to block African American voting at all costs, declared that it was “impossible to estimate the value of this amendment to future peace and domestic tranquility in this state.” 

To reduce the number of black ballots, the Citizens’ Councils had relied mainly on economic pressure, but the message could arrive in considerably starker terms. On July 30, 1955, Caleb Lide, one of the tiny handful of registered voters in Crawford, received an unsigned letter threatening, “Last warning. If you are tired of living, vote and die.”

Today's voter ID laws obviously do not rise to this level of intimidation, but maybe you can now understand why people who are against them feel so strongly about any form of voter suppression.

Wright knew to a certainty who had abducted his nephew, tortured and butchered him. He knew how remarkable it was that there would even be a trial and knew to a near certainty that the murderers would be found not guilty by a jury of white men. He knew that African Americans had been killed by whites for centuries without real consequence. There was no reason to imagine that this time would be any different. But like George Lee, like Gus Courts, like countless other African Americans pasting bumper stickers to their cars, attending rallies, signing their names on school integration petitions, and attempting to register and vote, he chose courage. That was why he stayed in the Delta. “There was not a trace of fear about [Wright] as he asked his visitors to enter,” a reporter visiting the reverend’s home wrote later. “There was even a little defiance when Carlton suggested that things might not go well with Moses Wright if he fingered Milam and Bryant.”

Again, this is an extraordinary act of courage, and it is incredible to think of how many acts of courage were strung together and continue to need to be strung together in order to effect real change.

One answer might be that no African American took the stand for the prosecution without having first thought deeply about what doing so was going to ask of them then and thereafter. In unique ways each had already wrestled with the question of how they would live with the consequences of their testimony. Mamie had decided beforehand what her life would mean from then on. The rest of the black witnesses had already made arrangements to leave Mississippi, probably forever, and move to Chicago—including the next witness, just four years older than Emmett Till, who by agreeing to testify was saying goodbye to his home, his friends, his church, and everything he had grown up around.2 Willie Reed was one of the witnesses unearthed by Howard’s Mississippi underground as they scoured the cotton farms. He was an eighteen-year-old who lived on the old Clint Sheridan place, a large farm in Sunflower County managed by Leslie Milam. His testimony would tie J. W. Milam to the site of the murder; with it the prosecution shifted from trying to inspire sympathy to offering eyewitness evidence of the crime. Like Moses Wright, Reed was asked to point out Milam in the courtroom. Like Moses Wright, he provided another icon of courage, knowing, as did most in that courtroom, that he would have to move, perhaps change his name, live somewhere else for the rest of his life. He surely also imagined that doing all of this might not be enough, that his life might be taken anyway; he was testifying, after all, against two white men in the murder of a black boy. Nevertheless, when asked to identify the killers, he did not hesitate.

What I said above.

To anyone still committed to reading the Till trial as an exploration of facts and justice, this is where things take an odd and revealing turn. The jury had been given powerful prosecutorial evidence that Bryant and Milam kidnapped and murdered Emmett Till. Rather than refute that evidence, the defense now wanted to tell the jury why Milam and Bryant had every reason to do so: because that black boy had tried to rape this white Southern woman. There was the oddity: the defense wanted to admit evidence that would further damn their clients, and the prosecution wanted to stop the defense from explaining why their clients were guilty. 

So here is another shard of truth, which we must accept if we are to make sense of the trial: faith in our courts and our laws, in the statement chiseled above the columns of the U.S. Supreme Court building—“Equal Justice Under Law”—can obscure the obvious, particularly with the passage of time. There was no equal justice, no universal protection of law in the Mississippi Delta, certainly not in 1955. If the real question was whether or not Milam and Bryant had committed murder, wouldn’t each team of attorneys have approached the trial differently? Of course. So why didn’t they? The obvious answer is that every lawyer in that courthouse knew that a jury of white male farmers from Tallahatchie County would hear a story about a black boy and a white woman and approve of that boy’s murder. The contradiction of a defense team strategizing to introduce a motive for the crime they professed their clients did not commit provided glaring evidence, if any were needed, that the trial had never been about justice. 

Fifty years later Carolyn summoned her courage to tell me that her testimony had not been true, even though she didn’t remember what was true, but that nothing Emmett Till did could ever justify what had happened to him. But in 1955 she provided the court and the case with a billboard: My kinsmen killed Emmett Till because he had it coming.

Read this excerpt again.  The defense's argument was not that the defendants did not commit the crime, and here's why.  Rather, it was that the commission of the crime was warranted, and here's why.

Milam, Bryant, and their accomplices expected a select audience for their abduction and butchery of a black teenager. They expected that audience to be local rather than regional or national, and it is unlikely they gave world opinion any thought. They assumed any attention given their crimes would be whispered rather than broadcast. They abducted Emmett Till, killed him, and disposed of his body in ways they knew would promote those whispers. With their guns and flashlights and swagger, they knew that every black person in the Delta would soon hear of his disappearance, and their role in it. From the moment they got in the truck to grab the boy who “did the talking” they were determined, as they would soon say publicly, to send a message that would serve as both signpost and pillar of the social order of white supremacy. From the moment they decided to kill him, their act was a lynching, not an assassination or a simple murder. 

White authorities were determined to claim otherwise. “This is not a lynching,” declared Governor White. “It is straight out murder.”  Yet despite such official and editorial claims, this was a lynching in the sense that a group of people killed someone and presumed they were acting in service to race, justice, tradition, and widely held values in their community.  The lynch mob never intended Emmett Till’s killing to be one of the old spectacle lynchings, once common in the South, with the victims burned alive or hanged before an audience of hundreds or even thousands, body parts taken as souvenirs, lynching photographs bought and sold, lurid accounts published in local newspapers.  As the twentieth century marched onward, extrajudicial murders conducted for public viewing and participation were less acceptable. But while Carolyn Bryant’s kinsmen intended, at least initially, that the details of their torture and killing of Emmett Till would remain their own family secret, they knew neighbors would talk, and they expected them to do so. The decision to take the boy started with storefront rumors, and they intended that his murder would become a matter of local gossip and lore, a badge of honor among the faithful. 

A quiet joke went around: “Isn’t that just like a ni**er to try and swim the Tallahatchie River with a gin fan around his neck?” That kind of local winking and terror were as far as the men who killed Emmett Till expected their murderous handiwork to go. Instead Till’s body rose from the dark waters of the Tallahatchie, ended up on worldwide television, and painted his death brightly in the unimaginable global imagination. Mass media and massive protest may have made his murder the most notorious racial incident in the history of the world. White mobs lynched thousands of African Americans—even children occasionally—but it is Emmett Till’s blood that indelibly marks a before and after. His lynching, his mother’s decision to open the casket to the world, and the trial of Milam and Bryant spun the country, and arguably the world, in a different direction.

This isn't the main point of this excerpt, but I'm struck by just how inflammatory and hateful the hangman's noose is in a racial context.  Those who in recent years have hung them are either willfully ignorant of the violence and dehumanization they represent, or are fully aware of just how despicable of a message they are sending.

Hugh Whitaker, a graduate student from the Sumner area whose father had worked the trial as a law officer, returned half a dozen years later and interviewed nine of the twelve jurors. He found that not one had ever doubted that Milam and Bryant had killed Emmett Till, and only one had even entertained Sheriff Strider’s suggestion that the corpse might not be Till’s. Nobody had based his vote to acquit on “outside interference” by the NAACP or the flood of reporters and media coverage. All of the jurors Whitaker interviewed agreed that the sole reason they had voted “not guilty” was because a black boy had insulted a white woman, and therefore her kinsmen could not be blamed for killing him.

Justice as some of us understand it was not served in this case, as it often isn't when race and violence mix.

Any thought that the case would fade as 1955 turned into 1956 would soon vanish, thanks to the ongoing protests but also to the work of William Bradford Huie, a seventh-generation Alabama novelist and journalist with an inflamed ambition and iridescent imagination. In January 1956 Look magazine, with one of the largest circulations in the country, published Huie’s “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.”  In addition to copies for their nearly four million subscribers, Look printed an extra two million for the newsstands. Three months later the story was reprinted for eleven million subscribers to the Reader’s Digest. 

Huie’s story would shape America’s imagination of the Till case for fifty years. Huie began working on the Till case a month or so after the acquittals. In Sumner he met with J. J. Breland, pointing out that the truth of what happened had never been established. “And this lawyer said, ‘Well, I’d like to know what happened. I never asked them whether they killed the boy or not.’ ” A pioneer in what would later be derided as “checkbook journalism,” Huie told Breland that Look would pay Milam and Bryant $4,000 to give their account. Breland called in the killers and relayed Huie’s offer. Because they had been acquitted, they could not be tried again for the same crime; therefore, without shame or law to impede them, and with cash on the table, there was no reason not to go public with their version of events. They accepted. There would be $1,000 for the law firm and $3,000 to be divided between Milam and Bryant in exchange for the story of Till’s kidnapping, beating, and murder. Huie would state the facts, including quotes, without saying how he had gotten them; that would allow the half-brothers to maintain some pretense of innocence. And they would sign a waiver not to sue Huie for libel. Breland then set up a week of secret meetings at the law firm at night. After Look’s senior counsel showed up with a satchel full of cash, J. W. Milam and Roy and Carolyn Bryant told Huie their story through a haze of cigarette smoke, with Milam doing most if not all of the talking.  

If any of them mentioned a physical assault of any kind on Carolyn, Huie did not report it, which seems unlikely given his penchant for the sensational. In this version Emmett Till of Chicago, visiting his country kinfolks in Mississippi, boasted to his young cousins about having had sex with a white girl. Outside Bryant’s Grocery the youths dared Till to ask Carolyn Bryant for a date. He did so. Hearing the tale, Milam and Bryant kidnapped the boy from his great-uncle’s farmhouse, intending merely to beat him, but Till taunted them with stories of having sex with white girls and proclaimed his own equality. In short, the boy virtually committed suicide. 

“We were never able to scare him,” Milam told Huie. “They had just filled him so full of that poison he was hopeless.” The men took turns smashing Till across the head with their .45s. The boy never yelled, but continued to say things like “You bastards. I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. My grandmother was a white woman.” Milam made their case: 

Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a ni**er. I like ni**ers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, ni**ers are gonna stay in their place. Ni**ers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a ni**er even gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country and we have some rights. . . . Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know where me and my folks stand.

And so, Milam said, they drove to the cotton gin, forced Till to carry the heavy fan to the truck, took him to the riverbank, shot him in the head, and rolled him into the river.

If you are surprised at how prevalent and how deeply ingrained white supremacy is in our country, remember that there are still people alive today who were contemporaries of J.W. Milam, and many more people alive today who were children and grandchildren of contemporaries of J.W. Milam, and as such grew up thinking these things to be not only normal but noble, to be captured and honored in national media publications.

Amid all informed speculation, there is this fact: it takes from five hundred to one thousand pounds of force to crack a human skull. No one exerts that level of force on a fourteen-year-old’s head without willingness to kill. When Carolyn Bryant says Emmett Till didn’t deserve what happened to him, this—delivering hundreds of pounds of force at impact, over and over again—is part of “what happened to him,” in addition to the other unspeakable tortures that went on in that barn. Clipped ear. Broken bones. Gouged-out eye. The ruthless attack inflicted injuries almost certain to be fatal. They reveal a breathtaking level of savagery, a brutality that cannot be explained without considering rabid homicidal intent or a rage utterly beyond control. Affronted white supremacy drove every blow.

That savagery still exists in America, and no matter how much I prepare my youngest son I know I will never not worry he could be subject to it.

These are the facts. But we are obliged to go beyond the facts of the lynching and grapple with its meaning. If we refuse to look beneath the surface, we can simply blame some Southern white peckerwoods and a bottle of corn whiskey. We can lay the responsibility for Emmett Till’s terrible fate on the redneck monsters of the South and congratulate ourselves for not being one of them. We can also place, and over the decades many of us have placed, some percentage of the blame on Emmett, who should have known better, should have watched himself, policed his thoughts and deeds, gone more quietly through the Delta that summer. Had he only done so, he would have found his way back to Chicago unharmed. That we blame the murderous pack is not the problem; even the idea that we can blame the black boy is not so much the problem, though it carries with it several absurdities. The problem is why we blame them. We blame them 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. 

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. writes that his worst enemies are not the members of Citizens’ Councils or the Ku Klux Klan but “the white moderate” who claims to support the goals of the movement but deplores its methods of protest and deprecates its timetable for change: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

When we blame those who brought about the brutal murder of Emmett Till, we have to count President Eisenhower, who did not consider the national honor at stake when white Southerners prevented African Americans from voting; who would not enforce the edicts of the highest court in the land, telling Chief Justice Earl Warren, “All [opponents of desegregation] are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in schools alongside some big, overgrown Negroes.” We must count Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., who demurred that the federal government had no jurisdiction in the political assassinations of George Lee and Lamar Smith that summer, thus not only preventing African Americans from voting but also enabling Milam and Bryant to feel confident that they could murder a fourteen-year-old boy with impunity. Brownell, a creature of politics, likewise refused to intervene in the Till case. We must count the politicians who ran for office in Mississippi thumping the podium for segregation and whipping crowds into a frenzy about the terrifying prospects of school desegregation and black voting. This goes double for the Citizens’ Councils, which deliberately created an environment in which they knew white terrorism was inevitable. We must count the jurors and the editors who provided cover for Milam, Bryant, and the rest. Above all, we have to count the millions of citizens of all colors and in all regions who knew about the rampant racial injustice in America and did nothing to end it. The black novelist Chester Himes wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post the day he heard the news of Milam’s and Bryant’s acquittals: “The real horror comes when your dead brain must face the fact that we as a nation don’t want it to stop. If we wanted to, we would.”

Emmett Till’s death was an extreme example of the logic of America’s national racial caste system. To look beneath the surface of these facts is to ask ourselves what our relationship is today to the legacies of that caste system—legacies that still end the lives of young African Americans for no reason other than the color of their American skin and the content of our national character. Recall that Faulkner, asked to comment on the Till case when he was sober, responded, “If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture where we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.” Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is really so different now.

This.  All of this.

America is still killing Emmett Till, and often for the same reasons that drove the violent segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, many things have changed; the kind of violence that snatched Till’s life strikes only rarely. A white supremacist gunman slaughtering nine black churchgoers in a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2014, however, reminds us that the ideology of white supremacy remains with us in its most brutal and overt forms. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” the murderer said as he fired round after round into his African American victims. He could have been quoting Judge Thomas Brady’s 1954 Black Monday or a Reconstruction-era political pamphlet. White America’s heritage of imagining blacks as fierce criminals, intent on political and sexual domination, as threatening bodies to be monitored and controlled, has never disappeared. These delusions have played a compelling and bloody role for centuries. The historian Stephen Kantrowitz writes that the murders in Charleston are “an expression and a consequence of American history—a history that the nation has hardly reckoned with, much less overcome.”

If you are thinking that 1954 was so long ago, 2014 was not.

We are still killing black youth because we have not yet killed white supremacy.

I'd like it very much if we could finish the latter so we can stop doing the former.

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