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Vol. 81/No. 16      April 24 2017

(In Review)

Emmett Till lynching spurred fight that overthrew Jim Crow

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson. 291 pages. Simon & Schuster, 2017.  

This new book recounts the story of the brutal lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black youth from Chicago who was spending part of the summer of 1955 with relatives in Mississippi. The courageous response to the murder, starting with the decision of Till’s mother to display his tortured body in an open casket, helped to inspire the mass movement to bring down Jim Crow segregation.

It certainly had an impact on my life, growing up in a largely Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, near where Till grew up.

On Aug. 24, 1955, after working in the fields, Emmett and some other youth went to a store for snacks in the small rural town of Money, Mississippi. He was served by Carolyn Bryant, who owned the store with her husband Roy Bryant. The story that was spread was that Till grabbed her and cat-whistled at her outside the store.

Four days later, in the middle of the night, Roy Bryant and his brother-in law, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from the house of his uncle Moses Wright, threatening to kill anybody who talked about it. They pistol-whipped him, shot him in the head, tied a 75-pound fan around his neck with barbed wire, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.

I was 6 years old in 1955. Tyson’s book describes how segregated Chicago was (and still is). I remember the racist attacks on Blacks living in the South Side Trumbull Park Homes housing project and on the beaches of Lake Michigan. One summer my mostly Black friends and I were stoned by white teenage boys on Rainbow Beach. There were big protests in the Black community against this kind of racist thuggery. Participants, including my mother, identified with the civil rights movement in the South.

The lynching of Till was part of a wave of racist terror that swept the South in response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing public school segregation. Three chapters in the book describe the government-condoned activities of the segregationist White Citizens’ Council, which opposed the growing fight to end Jim Crow.

The movement for Black rights grew up against seemingly insurmountable odds and won. Protests answered the lynchings. The civil rights movement gained support in the working class all over the country. The mobilizations grew larger and started to hit every city and town in the South — and many in the North. Jim Crow’s days were numbered.

In a 2008 interview with Tyson, Carolyn Bryant admitted that she had lied about Till. He never “grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities,” as she said at the trial of Bryant and Milam, who were found innocent. “You tell these stories for so long that they seem true,” she confessed to Tyson, “but that part is not true.” More than 50 years after the trial she admitted, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

I like to think that over time she was impacted by the effects of the overthrow of Jim Crow and the decline of racism in the U.S.

Fighters for human dignity

“In the eyes of the rich and powerful few who profit from the Jim Crow system in the South, and of the demoralized and depraved who follow them, a Negro who is not afraid, who believes he is equal, is a poisoned enemy who must be destroyed,” an editorial in the Jan. 23, 1956, Militant said. “Fighters for human dignity are the finest things a nation can produce.”

The Emmett Till story is a story of the courageous response by ordinary people: his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, a clerk-typist and teacher; his uncle, Moses Wright, a Mississippi sharecropper; Willie Reed, a young sharecropper; and others who refused to accept Jim Crow terror.

The coffin containing Emmett Till’s body came back to Chicago nailed shut and his mother was instructed not to open it. She told the funeral home that if they didn’t open it, she would get a hammer and do it herself. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she said.

According to the Chicago Defender, 250,000 people filed by the church where the open casket lay for four days. My mother took me there; the line wound through the neighborhood for blocks on end.

Tyson describes what the casket revealed: “The huge tongue seemed choked from his mouth. His right eyeball rested on his cheek, hanging by the optic nerve, and the left eye was gone altogether. The bridge of his nose seemed to have been chopped with a meat cleaver, and the top of his head was split from ear to ear. A bullet hole just behind his temple showed daylight from each side.”

Although we stood in line for hours as a protest against the murder, my mother didn’t take me into the funeral home. Like many thousands of others, she was afraid of what we would see. Later, I saw the photos showing the mutilation of Till’s face in Jet magazine, which was passed from hand to hand in my school, in Black churches, at workplaces, and on the streets, reaching millions of people.

For months, protests of thousands sponsored by the NAACP and various unions took place from coast to coast. Some of these are described in the book in a chapter titled “Protest Politics.”

In one such account, Tyson describes an action in New York. “Jammed into the Garment District on 36th Street between Seventh and Eighth, the twenty-thousand protesters roared their approval when Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. proposed a national boycott on Mississippi products and a March on Washington in January to demand that Congress finally pass an antilynching bill.”

You can find out more about how these actions unfolded and the growth — and victory — of the battles against Jim Crow in the pages of the Militant newspaper. They can be found at

Ilona Gersh is a member of the Socialist Workers Party in Chicago.

Related articles:
Moves to censor Till painting are threat to political rights
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