“A Revolution of the Heart in the America That Never Has Been Yet: What the Emmett Till Case Teaches” was the first event in Holy Names University’s new “Soaring Toward Justice” speaker series. The goal of the series is to encourage conversations about anti-racist action, diversity, and restorative justice.
The guest speaker, Timothy B. Tyson, is an author and historian from North Carolina who specializes in the issues of culture, religion, and race. Tyson is also a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and serves on the executive boards of the North Carolina NAACP. Tyson shared his thoughts on what the Emmett Till case teaches about American history and how to create an anti-racist society.
“History is a stream that runs behind us, but it also runs ahead of us. We have nothing to make the world from except our past because we are such a function of our past,” said Tyson. “Historical understanding is vital if we’re going to have any sense of purpose and control over where we’re going.”
When discussing the foundation of America, Tyson explained how historical injustices have created our way of life. “Our national birthplace is really in the abyss. In the bottom of the Atlantic where the bones of millions of dead Africans settled into the sand in this enormous death machine called the Atlantic slave trade.”
Tyson described how the slave trade built the foundation of the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Also, how it laid the foundation for our enduring predicaments and the ones that, once again, we’re so deeply entangled in as a society.
“We’ve been facing these predicaments since 1619, and even before, but violence has been at the heart of things,” said Tyson. He demonstrated that violence is a means of control; it’s a means of creating race, creating a labor system, and creating wealth that has endured through the brutalities of slavery and through the Civil War. Tyson underscored that the violence we’re confronting in the streets in today’s society isn’t anything new. “In 1919 there were race riots in 25-30 American cities, where white mobs invaded Black communities. It was called a genocidal massacre, where people try to kill all members of a group, and where you try to kill enough of them to make the other ones compliant.”
Violence has long been a part of America’s history, and this is shown through the Emmett Till case. “I think one reason that Emmett Till has clung like a burn in the brain of America is that it’s like a family heirloom of our birth place in the abyss. It’s cruel enough to feel like home in that bitter sense, and yet it’s small enough to wrap our heads around,” Tyson explains. Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black boy from Chicago, was accused of offending a white woman in Mississippi. That harmless encounter resulted in a torturous death by a mob of white men. “That story has stuck with us because it’s a heartbreaking memento of something that we sense is beneath the surface of our national life—and is,” Tyson said. “That’s why it still echoes in the streets today, and why young people are chanting ‘Black or Brown Emmett Till how many Black kids will you kill?’ That’s why when they chant ‘Say his name’ and ‘Say her name,’ Emmett Till’s name is invariably in the list.”
“Martin Luther King said a couple of years later that, ‘We will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.’ That is still true today; things don’t have to be this way,” said Tyson. Tyson’s story of Emmett Till is about interracial organizing and Black power in Chicago, which had been slowly organized over the course of sixty years. Tyson gives the example of the Dawson political machine in Chicago, which empowered the Black community, along with other Black-owned organizations like the Johnson Publishing Company and The Chicago Defender.
“The core of this story to me is not the crucifixion of Emmett Till; it is what Emmett Till’s mother and her allies did in working the politics of resurrection that leveraged the Black power of Chicago,” explains Tyson. “It turned into a national movement that lasted a couple of years, and in a certain way it never stopped, because from there you get the Civil rights movement.” Tyson conveys that Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Bradley was able to turn her private agony into a public issue and into political organizations. “She was politically savvy, and she wanted to make her son’s death mean something.”
Tyson’s story on Emmett Till holds a greater power than any other because it is told in-depth compared to other films and books about the Emmett Till case. “The story of the Southern horror movie starring redneck Frankenstein , or at least that’s what I like to call it, is based on the words of two of the men that killed Emmett Till,” said Tyson. “Also, the story of the film Eyes on the Prize is about the account of the murderers, and that account is a lie from one end to another.”
The media that surrounded Tyson’s book, The Blood of Emmett Till, mainly focused on Carolyn Bryant, and how he’d managed to book an interview with the white woman from the Emmett Till case. “I understand the fascination, but the truth is it’s not really important to how the history unfolded; we have a long history of violence and brutality,” Tyson said. “What’s important about the Till case is that it’s not what was done to African Americans, but what African Americans did on their own behalf by leveraging the power within their communities and using their allies to change the course of American history.”
Tyson shared his involvement in a political organizing project with the North Carolina NAACP in 2008. “We got the voting laws changed in North Carolina in coalition with other groups; same-day on-site registration and other reforms,” explains Tyson. In 2010 his organization also helped fight against voting suppression laws that targeted the Black community. “At one point we had the largest political demonstration in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina in the history of the state. We did a demonstration every Monday and brought together a coalition of many different issues,” said Tyson.
“People came and stood up for what they believed in; you realized that you’re many and you’re powerful,” Tyson declares. “Because if not now then when? And if not us then who? We need to think about where our power is—and it’s in each other.”