Bank of the Tallahatchie River, Money, Mississippi, 2009. Emmett Till’s body was recovered from the river on August 31, 1955. Photograph by Jessica Ingram from "Road Through Midnight; A Civil Rights Memorial"; the Center for Documentary Studies exhibited the series in 2015. To see more of Ingram's work, visit jessingram.com
THE CHILDREN OF EMMETT TILL
By Timothy B. Tyson
A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
My name is being called on the road to freedom. I can hear the blood of Emmett Till as it calls from the ground. . . . When shall we go? Not tomorrow! Not at high noon! Now!—Reverend Samuel Wells, Albany, Georgia, 1962Epigraph from The Blood of Emmett Till
Late last year, our director here at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), Wesley Hogan, got a call from the Oxford American: Would CDS be interested in creating online content for the magazine to help celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2017? Yes. We’ve been OA fans from the beginning, and it seemed like a natural fit. We share some on-paper traits—both university-affiliated (Duke in our case) nonprofit arts enterprises, both about the same age (we celebrated our own quarter-century mark in 2015), both from the South. But our strongest tie is the animating force of a shared philosophy and reason for being: The enduring, transformative power of stories, well told. So here we are, and honored to be so.
To introduce our first story for The By and By, a writing-and-audio narrative around The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schuster, 2017), we asked Timothy B. Tyson to reflect on the overwhelming response to his book since its release, why the story of Emmett Till continues to resonate so profoundly. Tim, as we know him, is CDS’s senior research scholar, a beloved and renowned professor, historian, activist, and writer.
—Elizabeth Phillips, CDS Communications Director
I. Still Deep and Deeper We Must Go
Timothy B. Tyson, for The By and By
Our nation’s birthplace is not Independence Hall, where the Founders “secure[d] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Nor is it Monticello, where Jefferson framed the self-evident truths of our democracy, perhaps by the light of a lamp brought to him by the mother of his children, to whom he held a deed. To find our nation's heart, Melville writes, “Deep, deep, and still deep and deeper must we go.” America’s true birthplace is quite literally the abyss of the Atlantic, where the bones of several million Africans settled into the sand, interred by the enormous death machine of the Atlantic slave trade.
Emmett Till will not let us go, in part because his story gives us a glimpse into that abyss from whence we arose. His power also draws on the daily crisis of American democracy—Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and many more gone; chasms of racial inequality; assaults on voting rights; and our ruthless indifference to the fate of young black men, among many other things. “We will have to repent in this generation,” declared Martin Luther King Jr., “not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Emmett Till insists that we answer our history’s timeless questions; including, as we translate the Founders’ legacy for ourselves, who does “our posterity” include and to whom do we extend Jefferson’s self-evident rights? Can African Americans ever expect equal justice and a full share of the blessings of liberty? Young voices of the Black Lives Matter movement demand our answers, chanting, “Tamir Rice / Emmett Till / How many black kids will you kill?”
The Blood of Emmett Till refuses to flinch at our nation’s history but shines a bright light up from the abyss. It illuminates a brave mother who transfigured her private heartbreak into nationwide protests—Mamie Bradley and her activist allies leveraged the power of Black Chicago to build the infrastructure for a national civil rights movement. Asked to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery soon after the acquittal of two of the boy’s killers, Rosa Parks said, “I thought of Emmett Till . . . and I just couldn’t move.”
If the abyss invoked by Emmett Till’s lynching is part of our legacy, then the torchlight of those who resisted—those who always have and always will, those who turned that Mississippi crucifixion into a national resurrection—that, too, is our shining inheritance. If the abyss is our birthplace, it is not our home.
II. When the Truth Came Calling
In 1970, when Tyson was eleven years old, a young black man named Henry Marrow was beaten and shot to death in Oxford, North Carolina, following his allegedly flirtatious interactions with a young white woman in her family’s rural store; two white men charged with the crime were later acquitted by an all-white jury. The series of events was eerily similar to those surrounding Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955. “Seeking to understand what had happened in my own hometown made me a historian,” writes Tyson, who researched Marrow’s case for years on his way to a PhD in American history and publication of a book, Blood Done Sign My Name (Crown Publishing Group / Penguin Random House, 2004). He couldn’t have known that writing the book would lead to a phone call that would utterly change the direction of his next ten years. The Blood of Emmett Till begins with the only interview ever given by the woman in whose name fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was murdered. Her 2008 revelations to Tyson compelled him down the long, painful road. “I still don’t know how she got my cell phone number,” Tyson begins, in this clip from “The Way Forward,” a talk he gave in Durham, North Carolina, in December 2016.
An excerpt from “The Way Forward,” a talk by Timothy B. Tyson.
(A link to the full talk can be found at the bottom of the piece.)
III. Boots on the Porch
Chapter 2 from The Blood of Emmett Till
IV. Mississippi, 1955
“The merciless ferocity of the assault may be proven by the injuries to Emmett Till’s body. . . . The ruthless attack inflicted injuries almost certain to be fatal,” Tyson writes in The Blood of Emmett Till. “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. . . . Emmett Till’s death was an extreme example of the logic of American’s national racial caste system.”
In the following outtake from Tyson’s interview with CDS audio director John Biewen, recorded for a 2017 episode of our Scene on Radio podcast, “Movement Time,” he describes what that system looked like in Mississippi in 1955 and adds, “This is about the first moment when a whole lot of people have a television. . . . So it wasn’t just something that happened in the deep, dark, exotic southern wild. But instead, was about African American life, about the chasm of race in America, in Chicago as well as in Missisissippi, and it lays the groundwork for a national civil rights movement.”
An excerpt from Scene on Radio Episode 30, an interview with Tyson by podcast producer and CDS audio director John Biewen.
(A link to the full Scene on Radio episode can be found at the bottom of the piece.)
V. Seeing Beyond the Ghosts
From the epilogue to The Blood of Emmett Till
“While the blame for the grisly mutilation of Till has been placed upon two cruel men,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1958, “the ultimate responsibility for [the Till lynching] and other tragic events must rest with the American people themselves.”
We are still killing black youth because we have not yet killed white supremacy. As a political program white supremacy avers that white people have a right to rule. That is obviously morally unacceptable, and few of its devotees will speak its name. But that enfeebled faith is not nearly so insidious and lethal as its robust, covert, and often unconscious cousin: the assumption that God has created humanity in a hierarchy of moral, cultural, and intellectual worth, with lighter-skinned people at the top and darker-skinned people at the bottom. Unfortunately this poisonous notion is as dangerous in the minds of people of color as it is in the minds of whites. “The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another—or others—always has been and always will be a recipe for murder,” writes James Baldwin. It also remains a recipe for toxic self-hatred.
The ancient lie remains lethal. It shoots first and dodges questions later. White supremacy leaves almost half of all African American children growing up in poverty in a de-industrialized urban wasteland. It abandons the moral and practical truth embodied in Brown v. Board of Education and accepts school resegregation even though it is poisonous to the poor. Internalized white supremacy in the minds of black youth guns down other black youth, who learn from media images of themselves that their lives are worth little enough to pour out in battles over street corners. White supremacy also trembles the hands of some law enforcement officers and vigilantes who seem unable to distinguish between genuine danger and centuries-old phantoms.
To see beyond the ghosts, all of us must develop the moral vision and political will to crush white supremacy—both the political program and the concealed assumptions. We have to come to grips with our own history—not only genocide, slavery, exploitation, and systems of oppression, but also the legacies of those who resisted and fought back and still fight back. We must find what Dr. King called the “strength to love.” New social movements must confront head-on the racial chasm in American life. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” Baldwin instructs, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Our strivings will unfold in a fallen world, among imperfect people who have inherited a deeply tragic history. There will be no guarantee of success. But we have guiding spirits who still walk among us. We have the courtroom of historical memory, where Reverend Moses Wright still stands and says, “There he is.” We have the boundless moral landscape where Mamie Bradley still shakes the earth with her candor and courage. We have the bold voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding justice now and reminding us to remember Emmett Till, to say his name. We have the enduring NAACP and the interracial “Moral Mondays” coalition spreading out of North Carolina, like the sit-ins once did, and dozens of other similar crusades across the country. We can still hear the marching feet of millions in the streets of America, all of them belonging to the children of Emmett Till.
Full video of “The Way Forward,” a December 2016 talk in Durham, North Carolina, in which Tyson reflects on The Blood of Emmet Till; movements past and present; race, class, and ideology in the state and in the country; and where we go from here.
Excerpts from The Blood of Emmett Till reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.
This installment of The By and By is curated by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS). CDS is dedicated to documentary expression and its role in creating a more just society. A nonprofit affiliate of Duke University, CDS teaches, produces, and presents the documentary arts across a full range of media—photography, audio, film, writing, experimental and new media—for students and audiences of all ages. CDS is renowned for innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education classes; the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; curated exhibitions; international prizes; award-winning books; radio programs and a podcast; and groundbreaking projects. For more information, visit the CDS website.