The death of Emmett Till resurfaced back into the public sphere last week with the bombshell revelation that the woman who was at the center of the horrendous saga, Carolyn Bryant, admitted to fabricating much of her account of happened. A new book titled The Blood of Emmett Till, written by Timothy Tyson, a senior research scholar and historian at Duke University, quotes Bryant as saying, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
I think all of us would agree with her latest statement.
Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, during the summer of 1955. He was kidnapped under cover at night, mercilessly beaten, shot, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River for having the audacity to flirt with a woman. Let’s clarify that, he was a teenage Black boy who had the audacity to flirt with a White woman, and a Southern one at that.
Bryant asserted that Till had grabbed her while making lewd, crude and profane comments as well as whistled toward her. She testified to this before an all-White jury during the trial of her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam. In a compelling article for Vanity Fair magazine, Sheila Weller passionately highlights the grim, repressive, restrictive, and terrorizing reality for Black people in the South during this largely oppressive era.
Anyone with any knowledge of American history knows that an all-White, all-male Southern jury in mid-20th century Mississippi had absolutely no intention of convicting two White men for the crime of murder of a young teenage Black boy, despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt.
In fact, in closing arguments, the defense made the case that, as White, Anglo-Saxon men, they had a “conscientious” duty to render a not-guilty verdict. Several months later, after their acquittal in January 1956, Bryant and Milam gave an interview to Look magazine in which they were paid for their story and admitted their guilt. Milam passed away in 1981 and Bryant died in 1994. Today, Carolyn Bryant is 82 years old and her family has kept her whereabouts secret.
Though it happened more than half a century ago, Till’s murder was a prime example of how Black men have long been targets of pathological paranoia, hatred and malice from many segments of society. Black men have been see as particularly dangerous to the safety of White woman.
More than a few bodies of Black men (often innocent) were strung up and hung from trees, burned alive, genitals chopped off, and sold as souvenirs to mentally unhinged spectators who took sadistic delight in horrid spectacle. Often times, it was due to the words of a White woman. Whether her words ring true or false was irrelevant. The bottom line was that the words of a White woman (or man) took precedence over the words, rights and dignity of a Black person.
From the era of slavery, to the present day, Black men have always borne the brunt of hostility from the larger, White culture. Black men have often been under an unrelenting public microscope, accused of being hypersexualized, perverted freaks of nature. The image of the street thug, crotch-grabbing, Black brute has for far too long dominated the media landscape.
These are the sorts of images that have firmly etched themselves in the minds of the larger public and all too often result in negative responses from individuals from all walks of life that Black men are violent, rapacious, menaces to the larger society, and need to be put under control by any means necessary. Till was no different.
The fact that even Emmett Till, a teenage boy, could be viewed as a dangerous threat to the sanctity of White womanhood and White culture in such a reactionary manner, vividly demonstrates the lack of humanity afforded to many Black people then and now. Despite the fact that she is an octogenarian, Carolyn Bryant and anyone else still alive and contributed to this horrid event should face some sort of justice for their role in the murder of Emmett Till. His decades-old blood is on her hands and possibly those of others.
There is no doubt that a number of historical articles books, archives and websites will have to be updated to accurately disprove the lies and reflect what actually occurred in this most dark and sordid chapter of American history.
Could training in implicit bias be helpful at your institution?