Emmett Till's saga: a crucial hate crime

December 07, 2003|By James Ralph | James Ralph,Chicago Tribune

Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson. Random House. 320 pages. $24.95.

There are no memorials in Money, Miss., reminding visitors of what happened there nearly 50 years ago. The town itself, nearly abandoned, seems on the verge of sinking into the rich soil of the Delta region of Mississippi. There are no signs off the main roads directing travelers to Money. Only a U.S. post office set in a small trailer confirms that this is the place where a black Chicago teen-ager allegedly violated Southern racial etiquette and then was murdered for his offense, a hate crime that helped set in motion forces that would transform the country.

In late summer 1955, Mamie Till placed her 14-year-old son, Emmett, on an Illinois Central train heading south so he could spend two weeks visiting relatives in Money. One hot afternoon, Till and a few of his cousins and friends went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market for refreshments. There Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the proprietor, concluded, without justification, according to Till's mother, that he had insulted her. Three days later, Roy Bryant, Carolyn's husband, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his great-uncle's home in the middle of the night. He was beaten, killed and tossed into the Tallahatchie River.

When news of Till's disappearance reached his mother in Chicago, she nearly fainted. As she recalls in her new autobiography, written with journalist Christopher Benson, she had debated whether to permit her only son to go to Mississippi, the place of her birth, without her. She had prepared him for the rigid racial practices there. "He had to understand that he would not be in Chicago and had to act differently," she writes. "I wanted him to be aware of this at all times."

Three days later, her worst nightmare came true. Her son's body, swollen and mangled, was discovered in the Tallahatchie.

Though racked with grief, Mamie Till kept her head. She demanded that her son not be buried in Mississippi as local authorities had hoped. She inspected her son's body when it arrived in Chicago, despite orders from Mississippi officials that the casket stay sealed. After her inspection, which is recounted in one of the most searing passages in a moving book, she insisted that the casket remain open during her son's funeral. " 'Let the world see what I've seen,' " she said.

Tens of thousands of people paid their respects to Emmett Till at the viewing of the casket and the funeral on Chicago's South Side. And many more were led to question Southern racial ways because of the extensive coverage by the American and international press.

Mamie Till traveled to Mississippi in September to testify at the murder trial of Bryant and Milam, who insisted they had released Till alive after having abducted him. But the members of the all-white jury were not ready to convict two of their own. Bryant and Milam were acquitted, though later, in a story for Look magazine, they would tell how they killed Emmett Till.

Last January, Mamie Till-Mobley died at 81, prompting tributes to this courageous woman and commentary about the lynching of her son.

Fortunately, she lived long enough to tell her own story. Death of Innocence presents a riveting account of the tragedy that upended her life and ultimately the Jim Crow system.

By the late 1980s, Mamie Till-Mobley had become something of a first lady of the civil-rights movement. In 2000, at the march commemorating the 35th anniversary of the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., she was at the head of the procession with President Bill Clinton, Coretta Scott King and John Lewis, among others.

After her son's death in 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley knew no better way to honor him than to use his memory to fight injustice. With this important book, she has helped ensure that the story of her son (and her own story) will not soon be forgotten.

James Ralph is a professor of history at Middlebury College. He is the author of Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement. This review appeared in longer form in the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune publishing newspaper.

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