Sunday, June 04, 2017

Timothy Tyson: The Blood of Emmett Till

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Lately, every time I read or see something historical about race in this country, I feel like I could be reading the story of the modern times. About a year ago, the Oakland Museum of California put out an exhibit about the Black Panthers. I read a lot about the Panthers, and know the history a bit. The history is, of course very tied to the history of Oakland. What the exhibit made very clear is just how close the history is to today's present. The police brutality might look a little different, but ultimately, police violence is still very real. And a disturbing map of Oakland hung on the wall that still haunts me. It looked something like this. If you know Oakland at all, you know that the redlined areas are exactly the most poor and, not at all coincidentally, black and brown neighborhoods. Timothy Tyson's "The Blood of Emmett Till" is just this kind of book. Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 and he died at the hands at racist white men. His story started a movement. Does this sound familiar? 

What it is: Emmett Till was a 14 year old black kid murdered in Mississippi in 1955 by an unknown number of white men. He was pulled out of the house where he was sleeping, driven around, tortured and beaten to death. The men were tried (unusual for the time) and found (not unusual for the time) not guilty. The events occurred because Till spoke in an "inappropriate" manner to a white woman, though Tyson opens his book with the now elderly white woman admitting that she exaggerated about just how "inappropriate" Till was. 

After the murder, Till's mother Mamie Till, had his horribly mutilated body shipped back to Chicago and held a funeral with an open casket. Thousands came to see what white "justice" looked like in the South. The book is also this story: the story of the civil rights groups that came after the lynching, and their organizing for justice. 

Why you should read it: I was familiar with the story of Emmett Till, but the details and context that this book brings really are important. I didn't know about the Citizens' Councils- the "civilized" versions of the KKK that white people used as cover in the South, especially Mississippi, to basically terrorize black people. A white supremacist group, they remind me much of the people who enabled Trump to get elected and to give the Republican power structure plausible deniability when the "riff raff" do the dirty work of hate crimes, "free speech" protests and the like. Here's a quote from a Citizens' Council member in a town debating pool desegregation in the 50s: "I figure any time one of them gets near the pool, we can let some redneck take care of him for us."

My "aha" moment:  The story of Emmett Till isn't over. What's great about Tyson's book is that it contextualizes Till's lynching both in its time and place and in the present. And even when Tyson isn't doing it explicitly, it's pretty hard to miss. Tell me this doesn't sound familiar, if with some less liberal usage of the N word. One of the Till's killers: 

Just as long as I can live and can do anything about it, n--- are going to stay in their place. N-- 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.
Or, in the words of a judge at the time, scared of the possible harm that would come from school desegregation (and if this doesn't make you think of Betsy DeVos and the war on drugs, you're not paying attention):
Brady's prescription included the abolition of public schools, if necessary; the intimidation of rebellious African Americans by economic reprisals; and the institution of special courts to try and punish "all undesirables, perjurers, subversives, saboteurs and traitors."
Tyson spends some time discussing the difference between a lynching and a murder. Till's death qualifies as a lynching because his killers "presumed they were acting in service to race, justice, tradition, and widely held values of their community."  It wasn't a spectacle- Till wasn't hung from a tree. But it was a lynching that was meant to be known far and wide: "a matter of local gossip and lore, a badge of honor among the faithful." The men did not kill the boy in secret. They drove him around in the back of a truck. But they didn't win: Till became a famous person, and a spark to a movement.

The name I have not written yet, but that was in my head while I read this book, is, of course, Trayvon Martin. I think his murder too, by this standard, was a lynching. And the book is evocative of so many deaths (Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, etc.) at the hands of modern day Citizens' Councils. In 1952, the Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote "Racial discrimination in the United States remains a source of constant embarrassment to this Government in the day-to-day conduct of its foreign relations." I think about the deported veterans and Trump's decision to proudly call his Muslim ban a "ban" again. Hate crimes and terror attacks in white cities. And always, black lives that don't really seem to matter. Emmett Till died in 1955 in Mississippi. Near the end of the book, Tyson asks why we blame the white "redneck monsters" in the South, or Emmett Till, or a million other people. "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."

Rating: You've gotta read it.