A scholar of Southern history and culture expands on the saga of a racially motivated 1955 murder that resonated around the globe and helped spawn the political activism of courageous blacks in Mississippi and other former slave states.
Emmett Till was the murder victim, a 14-year-old black male from Chicago visiting relatives in rural Mississippi. The targeting of Till by white racists began with supposedly inappropriate remarks he made to a 21-year-old white female shopkeeper. Decades later, Tyson (Blood Done Sign My Name, 2004), a senior research scholar at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, located and interviewed that woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham. From that interview, bolstered by prodigious research, the author determined that Bryant (her maiden name) was an unreliable witness, almost certainly exaggerating Till's alleged disrespectful conduct in the store. She now regrets that her testimony led to his murder by at least two relatives, with maybe others directly involved: “Nothing that boy did could justify what happened to him.” For those who have read previous books about the Till murder—and there are plenty—not much else in Tyson's book is likely to constitute fresh news. Nonetheless, the well-presented details on the buildup to the murder, the incident in the store, the brutality of the killers, the mostly pro forma law enforcement investigation, the trial of the two defendants, and their unsurprising acquittals add atmosphere. In addition, Tyson is masterful at explaining how the Till murder became a major cause of the civil rights movement. Especially resonant today is the author’s focus on obtaining voting rights for blacks in Southern states that denied those rights before the Till murder. “America is still killing Emmett Till,” he writes, “and often for the same reasons that drove the violent segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s.”
Tyson skillfully demonstrates how, in our allegedly post-racial country, a "national racial caste system" remains in place.