Timothy B. Tyson

The Blood of Emmett Till

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The Blood of Emmett Till Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 31-page guide for “The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy B. Tyson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 18 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Racism and Failed Justice.

Plot Summary

The Blood of Emmett Till is a 2017 nonfiction book by Timothy B. Tyson. The text provides an account of the murder, in 1955, of a young African-American boy, Emmet Till, in Mississippi. Till was visiting from Chicago, where his parents had emigrated during the Great Migration of the 1920s. They sought employment in the North, but they also sought to escape from the terror exercised by whites on blacks in the South.

The Civil War ended slavery, but it did not put an end to white racism or to the idea common among southern whites that blacks should submit to white rule. During Reconstruction (1865 to 1877), northern whites sought to change the racial caste system of the south by making free blacks more self-sufficient and independent of whites. They also made it possible for blacks to participate in government for the first time, and to vote. Southern whites fought back, and after the end of Reconstruction, they instituted rules, collectively known as Jim Crow Laws, that made blacks into second-class citizens who were deprived of their rights and forced to live in menial circumstances. The doctrine of white supremacy was used to justify this continuation of slavery; according to its assumptions, blacks had to defer to whites or be treated with violence. Systematic lynching was used to keep blacks in line.

During the New Deal of the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt made blacks part of his political coalition. They also served during World War II. A new sense of power and dignity led many blacks to militate for change in the South after the war. They began to demand political and civil rights, including the right to vote. They were prevented from doing so by poll taxes that many blacks could not afford, as well as by overt terrorism. A system of segregation kept blacks out of white communities and schools.

Things began to change in the 1950s. The Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 granted equal access to public schools to blacks. The decision alerted the South that change was coming, but it also provoked a reaction. Southerners formed Citizens’ Councils to resist the attempts of blacks to bring about change in their culture. Tyson describes the culture of racism in the South and argues that the legacy of racism accounts in part for the murder of Emmett Till.

While visiting Mississippi, Till made the mistake of ignoring southern customs regarding the proper behavior of blacks towards whites. He touched the hand of a white woman while handing her money for a purchase, and he apparently spoke to her in a flirtatious manner. She took offense and told her husband, who, with the help of friends, kidnapped Till, beat him, and murdered him. They disposed of the body in a river, but the body reappeared several days later, and the men who did the killing were arrested and put on trial. A jury of all white men acquitted them of the crime, despite the fact that the evidence against them was compelling. In the South at the time, it was taken for granted that a white jury would never convict white men for killing a black person.

Till’s mother turned the murder into a tool for organizing blacks to oppose white racism in the South. She decided that Till’s coffin would be open so that an audience all around the world could see his terrible wounds. Tyson argues that the death of Emmett Till had a profound effect on the civil rights movement. It galvanized support and convinced many that the racism of the South had to end.

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