Why Emmett Till still matters
Next July will mark 80 years since Emmett Till was born, months before America entered the Second World War with segregated troops. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side, turning 14 in 1955, after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that American schools must desegregate. Till wasn’t part of history, then, just an ebulliently extroverted boy. If he liked a joke, he’d pay friends nickels and dimes to repeat it. His charisma, his mother once told me, showed a potential for an impact in the world.
But history caught up with him. 14 was as old as he would get. This August marked 65 years since Till, known to friends and family as Bobo, was kidnapped and murdered in a Mississippi where racial inequality was entrenched and rage about school desegregation was boiling. In less than a month, two white men were acquitted of his killing by an all-white jury after it deliberated for an hour. One juror told a reporter afterward: “It would not have been that long if the Jury had not stopped to drink sodas.”
Today, the power of Till’s memory inspires a generation of young Americans who have learned of him in the process of becoming engaged with the chasm between this country’s possibilities and its reality. It belongs to the seemingly endless sequence of killings that shatter the illusive veneer of American justice with deeper truths that have surged back into the open with the murder of George Floyd and others.
In 1985, as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I traveled to Chicago and Mississippi to revisit Till’s murder and the trial 30 years after they happened. I went to mine the American past for the paper’s general audience, but I was also acting on awareness of my family’s history as Jewish refugees from European Fascism and the Holocaust. I always took to heart the principle that my personal background could be a resource when writing about others.
I visited Chicago to interview his mother about her only child, and also listened to cousins and friends who grew up with him. In Mississippi, I spoke with figures in the trial and local residents, white and black, including worshipers at a white church who startled me with their insistence that Till’s story stay buried.
Back in LA, I interviewed former officials of the Eisenhower administration, civil rights figures and others. They included William Bradford Huie, a journalist who wrote a piece for Look Magazine, after having paid the two defendants — Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam — for their confessions after the trial to having murdered Till. They admitted at trial to seizing the boy from the home of his great uncle on the night after he had reportedly whistled at Bryant’s wife in their grocery store — but denied killing him. He was taken from the home of his great uncle deep in the night of August 28. Remains of his tortured body surfaced in the nearby Tallahatchie River three days later.
Their attorney, J. W. Kellum, pretty much admitted he believed his clients had done it: “If the boys didn’t do it, who did?” (Subsequent reporting has explored the roles of others and evolving insights about the crime.) The body was shipped north and 10,000 mourners viewed it because his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted that his coffin be opened. This was long before a cell phone could share a killing. A mother’s determination as a witness, her power of expression, made her account unforgettable, and she etched her experience in my mind:
“I didn’t have the nerve to start at his head and work down, so I started at the toes and worked up, and when I got to the knee, I said, “Yes, yes, that’s my boy’s knee. I finally got to his face. His nose. His eye. One eye was missing, but one eye was Emmett’s eye. It was a hazel eye.
“I wanted the world to see what I had seen,” she said, calm and fierce at her kitchen table. ”I wanted the world to see what had happened in Mississippi. I wanted the world to see what had happened in America.”
I believed when I met her that stories can be antidotes to historical behaviors. Mamie Till conveyed a conviction that telling her story could shape a more just future. She had a strong Judeo-Christian, religious feeling for the moral dimensions of history. When she asked me about my personal background, I told her about growing in the shadow of the worst European memories, and she supported my sense that I had a personal stake in her son’s story.
The use of racial hatred in politics and the violence that grew from it has stayed irreducibly alive in this country through the decades since, even as stories, books, films and even official re-examination of the Till case and other killings grew. On my TV, with countless others, I watched a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he was dead. In the next few days, I noticed specifics that reminded me of Emmett Till, as Floyd’s relatives and friends described his warm, humor-loving personality.
Meanwhile, recently more than ever, I have also questioned the power of telling stories to change things. There are acts of commission and omission. Till was murdered in Leflore County, whose largely African-American population has long endured severe conditions that persist, contributing to rates of coronavirus infection and death today that have steadily outpaced other counties in the state. Mississippi’s Republican governor, though he has submitted some more to reality lately, showed a fatal slackness in his response.
Now, on the 65th anniversary of the Till murder, we have witnessed the shooting of Jacob Blake and how it came amid a grotesque wave of political encouragement of racist division unleashed by the president of the United States and his party.
I also realized as this anniversary of the Till murder approached, in the face of more and more searing news about the stranglehold racial injustice has on American progress and the upcoming election, how Mamie Till-Mobley remains a persuasive model for retelling the past to seek the future. One part of my interview with her that didn’t make it into my piece was her account of not being granted more of a part to play as the Civil Rights movement moved into the 1960s. After the trial, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People sent her to address crowds on a national tour to address big crowds: “You have cried enough tears for me. I have none left,” she declared in Harlem. Then, she revealed to me with anger, the men who led the movement refused to give her more of a guiding role, though she would find other ways to share her activist views.
Recalling the frustrated passion she showed for the larger possibilities for women leaves me little doubt that she would have been thrilled by Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate. She died in 2003, at 81, but surely would have admired Barack Obama.
In both of these leaders, I believe, she would have seen the fulfillment of unachieved possibilities that projected from her capacity for connection she saw in her son and in herself.