But with a late life confession, we now have a better understanding of what happened in 1955 in Mississippi. The author gained not only an interview with Carolyn Bryant, but also the notes from interviews with her lawyer. Tyson went beyond the extra mile and found post-trial interviews with the jurors. He also brings experience to the story in that a horrible lynching occurred nearby when he was growing up.
This new knowledge is perhaps not enough for some to be motivated to read this book. For me, I felt we owe it to Emmitt Till to understand his story.
Tyson tells us Till grew up in a hard-nosed Chicago neighborhood. The African American community there swelled in numbers during the Great Migration. The author quotes Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote what sure seems like the definitive account of that mass exodus of people during the Jim Crow era.
What might have been. Till liked to play baseball. He rooted for the Dodgers because Brooklyn had Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. Till had some talent himself as a sandlot pitcher.
Tyson weaves in and out from his interview with Bryant to what happened to Till. He also lays down the context of life in Jim Crow south and Mississippi. More lynchings took place in Mississippi than any other state. These were crimes that were not prosecuted.
Blacks were supposed to abide by what one might call “rules of engagement.” This was especially true when a black man interacted with a woman. The defense lawyers for Till’s two murderers used this a part of their pleas to the jury. The jurors should have cast it aside, but did not.
The ledger of life is filled with way too many other Emmett Till’s. But as the author reminds us, the vicious murder of this fourteen-year-old and the outrage that followed put down stepping stones for the Civil Rights movement.
About a month after the trial was over, a black lady stepped into a church in Birmingham and became part of an overflow audience that filled Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. They came to hear Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a surgeon, speak about Till and the injustice of the not guilty verdict. Four days later, this lady refused to move from her seat in the whites only section of a bus. She would later say she was thinking of Emmitt Till when she resisted.
That lady was Rosa Parks.