This is an account of one of the most notorious hate crimes in American history: the murder of Emmett Till. It was written by Timothy Tyson, an academic and writer whose own roots lie in the lands of the old Confederacy.
The crime took place in 1955 in the village of Money, Mississippi, in the closing years of the Jim Crow era. The outlines of the story are well known, at least in the United States. A 14-year-old black boy, Emmett Till, attempted to flirt with a 21-year-old white woman, Carolyn Bryant, while she was working in her husband's store. Mississippi had a dismal record on race, even by Southern standards, and it could be a truly dangerous place for African Americans. Emmett, who was from Chicago, was fatally ignorant of local racial taboos. Carolyn's husband and brother-in-law - small-time white trash called Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam - learned about the incident. They abducted Emmett and tortured and killed him. The plan went wrong when Emmett's body was discovered in the local river, and the two men ended up being put on trial. But their defence counsel nakedly played the race card, and the all-white jury acquitted them. In 1956, the killers unashamedly sold their story to Look magazine. Meanwhile, the murder outraged sufficient numbers of Americans, both black and white, to drive forward the nascent civil rights movement.
It was a classic lynching, and it came at a time of high racial tensions. White supremacism was utterly mainstream in 1950s Mississippi, and it wasn't confined to scum like Bryant and Milam. Respectable white conservatives could afford to denounce violent methods because enough of their fellows were willing to do their dirty work for them. The attitude was that white terrorism was all very distasteful but sadly inevitable if people would insist on trying to promote silly ideas like race equality.
In the recent past, things had got worse rather than better. Black veterans who had fought for freedom abroad in World War II were no longer prepared to tolerate unfreedom at home. White opinion was shifting, too: in 1954, the US Supreme Court had ordered an end to school segregation. There was ongoing strife over the growing number of blacks who were brave enough to register to vote. Above everything else loomed the morbid fear of miscegenation. Looked at from a present-day perspective, this intersection between racism and sex was both shocking and creepy. Political opposition to equal rights for African Americans was bound up with weird, dark neuroses about black men corrupting the purity of Southern womanhood. This was the lethal tripwire that the young Emmett Till stumbled across.
Having said this, Tyson does note that Emmett would not have been naive about racial divisions. Blacks in his native Chicago had more rights than they did in rural Mississippi, but the city was no multiracial utopia. It was the point of entry for large numbers of black Southerners who had decided to move to the North: they saw Chicago as a place of opportunity and freedom; but many of the local whites saw things differently. The community in which Emmett grew up was no stranger to segregation or racial violence.
Perhaps surprisingly, the local white community in Mississippi didn't immediately close ranks to protect the killers. Emmett's uncle went to the authorities and Roy Bryant was arrested the next day, even before the body was found. The grand jury indicted Bryant and Milam; they were put on trial; and the judge conducted the proceedings fairly. Small fry like Bryant and Milam weren't entirely above the law, and Carolyn Bryant was genuinely worried that her husband was headed for jail. In the end, though, Jim Crow came through for them. It was never likely that a white jury in rural Mississippi was going to convict two of their own at the behest of a bunch of uppity negroes. One defence lawyer openly reminded the jury of their "Anglo-Saxon" descent and told them: "It is within your power to disregard all the facts, the evidence, and the law". There were even whispers that any juryman who voted to convict would follow Emmett to an early grave.
On the witness stand, Carolyn Bryant claimed that Emmett had assaulted her. She said that he had used an obscenity to her and seized her waist so tightly that she had difficulty escaping. In an interview conducted in her old age, she admitted to Tyson that she had lied about that part. Shortly after the incident, she told a lawyer that Emmett had grabbed her hand; but even this seems to have been an exaggeration. Witnesses who saw the scene through a window said that Emmett merely put his money into Carolyn's hand rather than on the counter - and this would have been enough to put him in violation of Jim Crow etiquette. As to what he said to her, we will probably never know; Carolyn told Tyson that she couldn't remember. What we do know is that she became angry enough to go to fetch her husband's pistol, at which point Emmett wolf-whistled at her. The local black boys who were on the scene immediately panicked and fled. They realised that a dangerous line had been crossed.
The killers, Bryant and Milam, were brutal racists with a history of violence and petty crime. Their drunken assault on the boy was sickeningly savage. They were helped by several accomplices, although this tends to get left out of tellings of the story. The morning after the killing, Milam showed Emmett's corpse to a passing black man who was asking too many questions: "This is what happens to smart niggers".
The defence case was that Bryant had allowed Emmett to go free and the body recovered from the river was someone else. Yet the defence also took the revealing step of putting forward evidence of what had happened in the Bryant store - a matter which should have been irrelevant to the murder charge if Emmett was indeed still alive. The defence was claiming, in short, that the defendants hadn't killed Emmett, but he'd had it coming to him anyway. It is often noted that the jury took only an hour to free the men, including a break for soft drinks. But it is interesting to learn that the verdict was not entirely a foregone conclusion. Three jurors initially refused to acquit, and the jury had to vote three times before they reached a unanimous Not Guilty verdict.
The result was a victory for white supremacy; but it was a hollow one. The murder had taken place in the era of mass media, and it rapidly became clear that white Southerners couldn't get away with lynch justice any more. Emmett's mother Mamie emerged as a determined and articulate campaigner. Crucial was her decision to hold an open-casket funeral in which her son's mutilated body was shown to the world. The case of Emmett Till became a cause célèbre not only across America but around the world. It gave huge impetus to the civil rights movement, as hundreds of thousands of people rallied to protests. Just weeks later, Rosa Parks was inspired to begin the famous Alabama bus boycott. Even those whites who weren't sympathetic towards equal rights for blacks had the sense to realise that lynching people was doing America no favours in an era when cold war politics made it vital to win the battle of ideas and ideals. The verdict of the Mississippi jury was denounced by everyone from the Communist bloc to the Vatican.
Tyson closes the book with reflections on the relevance of the Emmett Till case to modern America. Jim Crow is history now, but Emmett has become one of the icons of the Black Lives Matter campaign, in a country in which "many white citizens feel that something has been and is being taken from them". Tyson quotes Martin Luther King's epitaph on the slain black 14-year-old: "While the blame... has been placed upon two cruel men, the ultimate responsibility... must rest with the American people themselves...."