In The Blood of Emmett Till, Tyson draws on rediscovered court transcripts and an extensive interview with a key player in the tragedy to reexamine the notorious 1955 lynching that helped set off the civil rights movement.
What prompted you to write this book?
I got a phone call nine years ago from a woman who wanted to tell me how much she liked my previous book, Blood Done Sign My Name [which recounts the killing of a black man in Tyson’s hometown when he was nine]. She said she gave the book to her mother-in-law, Carolyn Bryant. Of course, I knew who [Carolyn Bryant] was. She was the white woman at the counter in Mississippi in whose name Emmett Till was lynched. I knew she never gave an interview or talked to reporters. But her daughter-in-law said she wanted tell her side of the story.
She testified in court that Till tried to sexually assault her. In the book, you write that she told her lawyer that Till only touched her hand at the counter and made a sarcastic remark about dating her as he was leaving the store. Why did she decide to tell that story now?
She was getting old. Her husband and brothers-in-law who participated in the lynching were dead. And she said that she felt terrible about what happened to Emmett Till. She was an uneducated, 20-year-old white woman from rural Mississippi. I’m not making excuses for her. What she did was horrible. But she was a product of her time.
It’s been over 60 years since Emmett Till’s murder. Why is his case so well-known?
Black Chicago is an important character in this story. It’s the capital of Black America. It’s full of black Mississippians. The Chicago Defender was the largest black newspaper in the country. And there was the Johnson publishing empire, with Jet and Ebony magazines. There were black unions like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And then there was Emmett Till’s courageous mother, Mamie Till Bradley, who made her private pain public and showed her son’s disfigured corpse to the world. So Black Chicago’s involvement turned Emmett Till’s murder into a major civil rights issue.
How do you see Emmett Till’s legacy in today’s struggles for civil rights?
You hear Black Lives Matter activists chanting, “Michael Brown, Emmett Till. How many black boys will you kill?” My hope and expectation is that his story will say to America, and particularly young people, that out of the most brutal and bitter tragedy can emerge a struggle for justice that can transform the nation and change Emmett Till’s tragedy from a story of crucifixion to a story of resurrection.