During the 1990’s I was moved to write about Emmett Till because his cold case seemed lost from historical memory. Except for his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and her steady team of justice seekers, most people did not know of the kidnap, torture, murder of her fourteen year old son for “wolf-whistling” at a white woman in Mississippi. Most folks did not know how Mamie Till Mobley’s decision to have an open casket galvanized the modern Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks said her thoughts were on Emmett Till when she kept her seat in the front of that Montgomery bus.
I was a student at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge when Till was murdered a few miles upriver. The white community had closed ranks and allowed the two killers to go free. This brutal event and the failure of justice lived deep in my heart for decades.
Where do folks who speak out find the courage? Who is willing to take a stand that can cause one’s life to change? Who is willing to take time and be inconvenienced? Who is willing to risk his or her life in the cause of justice?
As the play began to evolve around these questions the character of teacher Roanne Taylor took shape in my imagination along with the theme of white silence and responsibility.
In 2007 the State of Mississippi passed a bill that officially apologized for the murder of Emmett Till and called for reconciliation. Later that year, in front of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, the biracial Emmett Till Memorial Commission presented to the Till family a Resolution of Apology for the miscarriage of justice with a call to nurture reconciliation. The South’s Jim Crow laws are gone; new laws protect equal rights. Mississippi State Senator David Jordan said: “We have the laws, now we have to change the hearts.”
Currently a wave of intolerance sweeps across our land. Twenty four states have passed vigilante “Stand Your Ground” laws. Cold blooded lynchings of teenagers Trayvon Martin , Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Jessica Hernandez, Tony Robinson, and so many others, inevitably call up the name of Emmett Till. More recently the Till tragedy has inspired countless works of art in films, poems, plays, novels, music, essays. Emmett, Down in My Heart is dedicated to the quest to break the silences, to change the hearts; to protest and eliminate unjust laws that mock freedom and denigrate our democracy.
For the Emmett Till story line, I was guided by Mamie Till-Mobley’s narration as she told it over the years.
-- Clare Coss
March 23, 2015