Noted author and historian Tim Tyson said the lynching death of Emmett Till continues to burn into the soul of the nation more than 60 years after it occurred because it offers a glimpse into the abyss from which America was born.
Tyson’s most recent book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” garnered lots attention after it revealed that the account of the events that led to Till’s 1955 lynching death were fabricated by Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, who accused Till of flirting with her and grabbing her hand.
Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago, was kidnapped and brutally murdered by white men while visiting family in Money, Mississippi for supposedly flirting with Bryant, who testified at the trial of her then-husband and another man accused of committing the heinous crime.
Both men were set free, but later admitted to the killing in a magazine interview.
Never miss a local story.
Instead of Constitution Hall or Jefferson’s Monticello, Tyson contends America was born in the bowels of slave ships and at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean where the bones of more than six million Africans rest, victims of the cruel Atlantic Slave Trade, which fueled the fledgling country’s economic prosperity.
“America’s true birth place is quite literally the abyss of the Atlantic,” Tyson told several hundred students, parents and educators attending the third installment of the new Jordan High School Distinguished Speaker Series on Wednesday.
To justify the slave trade, which contradicted the high ideals in the nation’s Constitution, Tyson said America’s fathers created the concept of white supremacy.
“That’s the idea that God has created humanity in a hierarchy of moral, cultural and intellectual worth with the lighter-skinned people at the top and the darker-skinned people at the bottom,” Tyson explained.
He said Till’s death also continues to fascinate because, led by Till’s mother Mamie, it gave birth to the civil rights movement by helping to mobilize Chicago’s black power structure, which raised thousands of dollars to fund organizations and causes such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a stealth voting registration movement in Mississippi.
The movement for black equality also gained support from around the world after Mamie Till agreed to an open casket funeral and the gruesome images of Emmett Till’s battered and disfigured body were published in newspapers and magazines.
“Mamie Till turned her own private agonies, imagine what they might have been, into a movement,” Tyson said. “It became a movement from coast-to-coast with hundreds of thousands of people involved.”
Tyson said Till’s murder formally united what had been disparate civil rights movements across America.
“This national protest movement gave this a national infrastructure and that is what elevated Martin Luther King to world historical status,” Tyson said. “That is what won the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.”
So, out of the darkness that was Till’s murder came a bright blight, Tyson said.
“Oddly enough, Emmett Till’s lynch shines a bright light out of the abyss, up through the darkness,” Tyson said. “It illuminates a brave, politically sophisticated black mother who transfigured her heartbreak into a nationwide movement that leveraged the black power of Chicago to build the infrastructure for a national civil rights movement.”
Still, American history’s essential question about to whom do we extend Jefferson’s self-evident rights remains, Tyson said.
He said the young voices of the Black Lives Matter Movement demand that the question be answered.
“Can African Americans ever expect equal justice in the United States and a full share of the blessings of liberty?” Tyson said. “This has been the question at the heart of American history since the very beginning.”
Tyson, an Oxford native, is also the author of “Blood Done Sign My Name,” which is about a racist murder in Oxford that has been made into a film and theatrical production.
Bryant, whose name is now Carolyn Donham, gave two interviews to Tyson nearly a decade ago after Tyson was contacted by Donham’s daughter-in-law, who had read “Blood Done Sign My Name.”
Donham now lives in Raleigh, according to the Associated Press.
Karen Jones, who attended the event with daughter April, a 2016 graduate of Jordan who is now a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, told Tyson that she wants Bryant prosecuted.
“I’m sorry, I do,” Jones said shortly after Tyson signed a copy of “Blood of Emmett Till for April. “I need her to pay. “An innocent black child was killed because of her. I hold her responsible.”
Earlier during his talk at Jordan, Tyson sounded very much like a commencement speaker, taking comfort in being among fellow “nerds geeks, freaks and poets.”
He fondly remembered his days as a troubled student who was frequently truant, sent to detention and often banished to the library where he enjoyed reading independently.
Tyson was the third of five scheduled speakers to participate in the JHS Speaker series.
Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project, is scheduled to speak March 28.
Lau was in the news recently after the childhood home of Pauli Murray, a civil rights activist and first African-American female Episcopal priest, was named a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Pauli Murray house is located at 906 Carroll St., in Durham’s West End community.
The speaker series will wrap up on April 20 with U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who represents the state’s Fourth District that includes parts of Durham, Alamance, Orange, Wake, Harnett, Chatham and Cumberland counties.
Jordan High social studies teacher Brian McDonald and the staff of the JHS Social Studies Department came up with the idea to create the speaker series.
It has been made possible with a significant donation from a Jordan parent who has a great appreciation for the work of the school’s Social Studies Department because his child took several classes in the department, McDonald said.
The first speaker was former Jordan student, George Masao Yamazawa, a world-renowned spoken word artist, who goes by the stage name “G.”
He was followed by Charmaine McKissick-Melton, an associate professor and Interim Chairwoman of the Department of Mass Communication at N.C. Central University.
McKissick-Melton is the daughter of the late civil rights leader Floyd McKissick Sr.
She spoke about the Jim Crow laws in the South and her family’s role in the integration of Durham schools.