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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
On ‘Death’ and awakening

Remembering Emmett Louis Till

By Leigh E. Rich

Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America
By Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson
One World/Ballantine
December 2004
320 pages

In 1976, Mamie Till-Mobley witnessed the unveiling of a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Denver’s City Park.

In the sculpture, King and Companion, which would grace the park for nearly three decades, King’s outstretched hand rested on the shoulder of a 14-year-old boy, but his gaze looked ahead to a world that one day might embrace his dream in which “even the state of Mississippi, … sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

This, too, was Mamie Till-Mobley’s hope on Aug. 28, 1955, when her son was dredged from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River; and when, 21 years later, she came to Denver to dedicate the statue of King and her son, Emmett Louis Till.

King and Companion no longer prevails in City Park, having been replaced in 2002, but the world hasn’t forgotten the appalling kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

Mother Mobley has seen to that.

Death of Innocence, co-written with writer and lawyer Christopher Benson, is the capstone of Mobley’s efforts to open the eyes of a nation whose history is marred by slavery, segregation and racial intolerance. The memoir, documenting Mobley’s life from childhood to her death this year, is a reminder that King’s dream is far from culminated.

But Death of Innocence is not necessarily a political narrative or a documentary of the civil rights movement. Instead, it’s a mother’s story of anguish, activism and personal growth in the aftermath of the unthinkable.

Though she was one of the few black females to complete high school in 1940, Mobley led a sheltered childhood, so much so that she didn’t know what a banana split was or where babies came from even by the time she married Louis Till.

With her mother always by her side, however, she survived the breech birth of Emmett, the separation from and subsequent death of her husband, single motherhood and Emmett’s bout with polio when he was 6, which left him with a slight stutter.

After Emmett’s murder in 1955, Mobley would become an activist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, graduate cum laude from Chicago Teachers College and earn a master’s at Loyola University.

The first chapters of the book contain vignettes of Mobley’s life with her “Mama,” her son and a dizzying array of close-knit relatives. They also serve to flesh out Emmett’s memory—especially during her recounting of the Sumner, Miss., trial of Emmett’s accused kidnippers, torturers and killers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant.

The 14-year-old Chicago boy, visiting relatives at the time of his murder, was thought to have whistled at a white woman. Mobley explains that Emmett, while talking with friends in the vicinity of the woman, had merely whistled, as he always did, as a means to prevent himself from stuttering.

Though Bryant and Milan were acquitted at trial, they publicly boasted of the act and were widely believed to be the killers.

Mobley provides a thorough and heart-wrenching look at the racial hatred that allowed such an act to occur. Such prejudice was entrenched, even among the South’s leaders.

After Emmett’s body was recovered, Mobley writes, “Mississippi’s governor—with the ironic name Hugh White—shot back a telegram to the NAACP arguing that Emmett’s killing was not a lynching, but a ‘straight out murder.’ What a strange debate this was turning out to be. Lynching or murder. As if defining it one way or the other would make a difference. This was the vicious torture/killing of a defenseless boy, by men who had seemed to turn it into a good time.”

By the end of her memoir and her life, Mobley has a definitive lesson for Gov. White and others who struggle to know the distinction:

“Milam boasts about killing Emmett to teach him a lesson, and also to send a message to others. Whatever happened in that store in Money (Miss.), whatever was said to have happened, whatever grew out of the imagination of people who told the story over and over again—the fact remains that Milam saw it as his duty as a white man to send that message. And sending a message to black folks is one of the key factors that distinguishes a lynching from a murder.”

The Sumner court sent similar messages to the black community during Milam and Bryant’s trial. Mobley describes the trying conditions for blacks who testified at the trial. The courthouse had no black facilities, limited the number of black reporters covering the trial and prohibited blacks and women from serving as jurors.

Mobley describes a sort of “reverse Underground Railroad” leading from Chicago to Mound Bayou, Miss., where she stayed with other black witnesses at a local doctor’s house under armed guard. After Milam and Bryant’s acquittal, many of these witnesses fled North in fear of their lives.

Like any mother, Mobley only wanted Emmett “to be a good son.” Instead, he became the “sacrificial lamb of the civil rights movement.”

“Emmett’s death was not a personal experience for me to hug to myself and weep, but it was a worldwide awakening that would change the course of history,” she writes in Death of Innocence, all the while wishing for “Emmett to see what had been born of his death.”

Rich, L. E. (2003, October 31). On ‘Death’ and awakening. [Review of the book Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson.] Rocky Mountain News.

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