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kottke.org posts about Emmett Till

The short history from Emmett Till to here

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 27, 2017

Emmett Till, 14, was murdered and mutilated for flirting with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, 21, in August 1955. Some reports say Till whistled at Bryant; others that he said “bye, baby” when leaving her store. Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped, tortured, and killed Till, then dumped his body in the river. Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury that September. Till’s lynching and the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision the year before mark the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the United States.

There are two new books about Emmett Till — or rather, partly about Till and partly about the world around him, which is not so far from ours as we might like. Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till includes interviews with Carolyn Bryant Donham, now 82, where she recants much of her testimony in the Till case, including her claim that Till made verbal or physical advances on her.

Clearly, he observed, she had been altered by the social and legal advances that had overtaken the South in the intervening half century. “She was glad things had changed [and she] thought the old system of white supremacy was wrong, though she had more or less taken it as normal at the time.” She didn’t officially repent; she was not the type to join any racial reconciliation groups or to make an appearance at the new Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which attempts to promote understanding of the past and point a way forward.

But as Carolyn became reflective in Timothy Tyson’s presence, wistfully volunteering, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save A Life takes up the story of Till’s father Louis, who beat his wife, left the family destitute, chose the army over prison, then was court-martialed and hanged in Italy during World War 2 on thinly substantiated rape charges. When it comes to sex and race, the lines we might draw between legal and extralegal punishment, rough familial revenge and precise military bureaucracy, gets blurrier and blurrier. What Wideman finds instead in both Till cases, father and son, is a “crime of being.”

I had never once thought of nor seen Louis Till before Wideman painted him so exquisitely, and now I have to acknowledge that he is all around me. Walter Scott? He’s Louis Till; so is Eric Garner. Michael Brown, unsympathetic as he appears on that convenience-store video — I can no longer see him without conjuring Emmett’s father. Seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, wandering through the Chicago night until his body jumps and jerks from 16 shots? Louis (Saint) Till. Poor Philando Castile — pulled over at least 49 times in 13 years before the final and fatal interaction that left him bleeding in front of his girlfriend and her daughter and all the rest of us on Facebook Live — is a high-tech Louis Till. Ditto Alton Sterling down in Baton Rouge, Freddie Gray up in Baltimore and “bad dude” Terence Crutcher out in Tulsa: all these men are Louis Tills. Trayvon Martin and 12-year-old Tamir Rice are something else altogether, heart-rending combinations of both Tills, père and fils, doomed man-children in the fretful, trigger-happy imagination of American vigilantes and law enforcement. Whatever other crimes may or may not have been committed, may or may not have potentially been on the brink of being committed, these were all crimes of being before they were anything else.

It may be too hard to hold all of this in our heads — the elderly woman making gestures of repentance but still complicit in that horrible, racist crime, and the mysterious, violent man ground to dust by racist military machinery — and also recognize that this is still living memory: that Emmett Till and so many others should still be here to tell the stories of their lives, not have others speak for them. At the same time, when the horrors of World War 2 and Jim Crow suddenly in some ways feel closer than ever, how can we not strain to hear whatever they have to tell us?