Now, I don’t know if you know about Emmett Till, but you definitely should.
This time every year—but especially now with Trayvon Martin’s death and the trial of George Zimmerman—I think of Emmett. It is a sad time.
14-year-old Emmett Till was savagely murdered August 28, 1955, while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi.
Death of Innocence—The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, tells the story as only a mother could. I loved this woman’s courage.
Her son’s ‘crime’? Entering a small grocery store for sweets and supposedly whistling at a white woman, the wife of the proprietor.
Emmett’s mama insisted his casket be open at the Chicago funeral (in order to do so without the smell, a glass-covered casket was used) with thousands of people filing in to view the body. Photographers took pictures of her son—photos that appeared in a black newspaper and Jet magazine. The result was shock, horror, and—some say—the impetus for the civil rights movement.
“People had to face my son and realize just how twisted, how distorted, how terrifying race hatred could be. People had to consider all of that as they viewed Emmett’s body. The whole nation had to bear witness to this,” she said.
Heartbreaking as it is, Till-Mobley’s account of her son’s murder is a testament to her strength, vision and tenacity. And her words ring especially true today.
She writes, “If you look at Emmett’s century, you see that the men who lived important lives, significant lives, were truly gifted. They were blessed with good mothers, mothers who gave them exactly what they needed—unconditional love. That, and the freedom to express themselves, to fulfill their promise. In that way, these mothers helped their sons come to believe that there was nothing they couldn’t achieve. This was a gift I gave my own son—a boy of great potential.”
Sadly, potential never realized. As Mamie Till-Mobley said during the 1989 dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial (at the Southern Poverty Law Center Headquarters, Montgomery, Alabama):
“We cannot afford the luxury of self-pity. Our top priority now is to get on with the building process. My personal peace has come through helping boys and girls reach beyond the ordinary and strive for the extraordinary. We must teach our children to weather the hurricanes of life, pick up the pieces, and rebuild. We must impress upon our children that even when troubles rise to seven-point-one on life’s Richter scale, they must be anchored so deeply that, though they sway, they will not topple.”
The murder of her son pushed her into activism: the NAACP asked Till-Mobley to tour the country relating the details of her son’s life, death, and the 1955 trial that acquitted his murderers. (Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam confessed in Look magazine, reportedly earning $4,000 for their participation in the 1956 article.) In 1956 she graduated from Chicago’s Teacher’s College; in 1976 she obtained her master’s degree in administration at Loyola University Chicago.
Till-Mobley died in 2003 at age 81 during the writing of her book, and although she sought justice for her son her entire life, no one has ever been convicted of the crime. The state of Mississippi had to exhume Emmett’s body in 2005 to reopen the case, and his casket now resides in the Smithsonian.
But perhaps Emmett and Mamie led the way for that other boy of color with a single mother, born six years after Emmett’s death: Barry Obama.