Reopening The Case Of Emmett Till

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The grave site of lynching victim Emmett Till is seen Friday, July 10, 2009, at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. (M. Spencer Green/AP)
The grave site of lynching victim Emmett Till is seen Friday, July 10, 2009, at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

With Anthony Brooks

Something in Timothy Tyson’s 2017 book "The Blood of Emmett Till" led the Justice Department to reopen its probe into the 1955 lynching.


Timothy Tyson, New York Times best-selling author of "The Blood of Emmett Till," historian at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

Deborah Watts, cousin of Emmett Till and co-founder and executive director of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. (@DeborahWattz)

From The Reading List

NPR: "Emmett Till's Cousin On Reopening Of Case: 'An Opportunity For The Truth To Be Told' " — "Deborah Watts was just a toddler in 1955 when her 14-year-old cousin Emmett Till was kidnapped, viciously beaten and murdered after a white woman accused him of whistling and making advances toward her. Watts' aunt, Mamie Till-Mobley, famously made the decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son, showcasing the brutal violence of white supremacy to the rest of the world. The injustice of Till's death — two white men were acquitted of his murder — became a powerful testimony for the Civil Rights Movement. Now, 63 years later, Watts hopes that the Justice Department's decision to reopen the investigation into Till's murder will bring long-awaited justice to her family."

Excerpt from "The Blood of Emmet Till" by Timothy Tyson

Nothing That Boy Did

The older woman sipped her coffee. “I have thought and thought about everything about Emmett Till, the killing and the trial, telling who did what to who,” she said. Back when she was twenty-one and her name was Carolyn Bryant, the French newspaper Aurore dubbed the dark-haired young woman from the Mississippi Delta “a crossroads Marilyn Monroe.” News reporters from Detroit to Dakar never failed to sprinkle their stories about l’affaire Till with words like “comely” and “fetching” to describe her. William Bradford Huie, the Southern journalist and dealer in tales of the Till lynching, called her “one of the prettiest black-haired Irish women I ever saw in my life.” Almost eighty and still handsome, her hair now silver, the former Mrs. Roy Bryant served me a slice of pound cake, hesitated a little, and then murmured, seeming to speak to herself more than to me, “They’re all dead now anyway.” She placed her cup on the low glass table between us, and I waited.

For one epic moment half a century earlier, Carolyn Bryant’s face had been familiar across the globe, forever attached to a crime of historic notoriety and symbolic power. The murder of Emmett Till was reported in one of the very first banner headlines of the civil rights era and launched the national coalition that fueled the modern civil rights movement. But she had never opened her door to a journalist or historian, let alone invited one for cake and coffee. Now she looked me in the eyes, trying hard to distinguish between fact and remembrance, and told me a story that I did not know.

The story I thought I knew began in 1955, fifty years earlier, when Carolyn Bryant was twenty-one and a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago walked into the Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in a rural Mississippi Delta hamlet and offended her. Perhaps on a dare, the boy touched or even squeezed her hand when he exchanged money for candy, asked her for a date, and said goodbye when he left the store, tugged along by an older cousin. Few news writers who told the story of the black boy and the backwoods beauty failed to mention the “wolf whistle” that came
next: when an angry Carolyn walked out to a car to retrieve the pistol under the seat, Till supposedly whistled at her.

The world knew this story only because of what happened a few days later: Carolyn’s kinsmen, allegedly just her husband and brother-in-law, kidnapped and killed the boy and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. That was supposed to be the end of it. Lesson taught. But a young fisherman found Till’s corpse in the water, and a month later the world watched Roy Bryant and J. W. “Big” Milam stand trial for his murder.

I knew the painful territory well because when I was eleven years old in the small tobacco market town of Oxford, North Carolina, a friend’s father and brothers beat and shot a young black man to death. His name was Henry Marrow, and the events leading up to his death had something in common with Till’s. My father, a white Methodist minister, got mixed up in efforts to bring peace and justice to the community. We moved away that summer. But Oxford burned on in my memory, and I later went back and interviewed the man most responsible for Marrow’s death. He told me, “That nigger committed suicide, coming in my store and wanting to four-letter-word my daughter-in-law.” I also talked with many of those who had protested the murder by setting fire to the huge tobacco warehouses in downtown Oxford, as well as witnesses to the killing, townspeople, attorneys, and others. Seeking to understand what had happened in my own hometown made me a historian. I researched the case for years, on my way to a PhD in American history, and in 2004 published a book about Marrow’s murder, what it meant for my hometown and my family, and how it revealed the workings of race in American history. Carolyn Bryant Donham had read the book, which was why she decided to contact me and talk with me about the lynching of Emmett Till.

Excerpted from the book THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL by Timothy Tyson. Copyright © 2017 by Timothy Tyson. Reprinted with permission of Simon and Schuster.

The lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 sparked the modern civil rights movement. He was visiting family in Mississippi when a white storekeeper accused him of whistling at her. For that, white men kidnapped Till, tortured and murdered him. An all-white jury acquitted them. Now, almost 63 years later, the government is reopening the case.

This hour, On Point: Justice, finally, for Emmett Till.

— Anthony Brooks

This program aired on July 17, 2018.


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