Preface to Emmett , Down in My Heart
In August 1955 Emmett Till, a fourteen year old African-American Chicago boy, rode south on the shiny locomotive, “The City of New Orleans,” to visit his cousins in the Mississippi Delta. At Money, the tiny whistlestop, when his eager feet raced down the train steps, Emmett Till landed on the ground of a rigidly segregated police state. White supremacists ruled. They were in an ugly, angry, fearful mood that summer.
On May 17, 1954 The Supreme Court of the United States pledged to end segregation with the resounding Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Robert “Tut” Patterson of Clarksdale, Mississippi, immediately founded the first White Citizens’ Councils to stop anyone who tried to challenge their privilege or change their way of life. The whites in power governed with brutality from Mississippi’s white supremacist Governor Ross Barnett, to Sunflower County’s rabid segregationist planter Senator James O. Eastland on down to Sheriff Harold Clarence Strider of Tallahatchie County. They were determined to do whatever was necessary to prevent integration. They were determined to keep the Delta’s majority black sharecropper population deep in poverty, living in substandard housing with substandard schools, dependent and in debt to the feudal cotton plantation owner system and its company stores.
Bold actions for equality and justice brought cold blooded daytime fully witnessed murders to the Delta, that triangle of fertile land between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, about two hundred miles long and up to eighty-five miles wide. On May 7th the Reverend George Lee, a grocery owner and NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) field worker in Belzoni, Mississippi was gunned down at point blank range while driving his car after helping black citizens register to vote. On August 13, two weeks before Emmett Till’s murder, in front of the county courthouse in Brookhaven, Mississippi, Lamar Smith, a farmer and World War II veteran, was shot and killed before witnesses after passing out voter registration leaflets. No one was arrested in either case.
This is the world Emmett Till entered. In spite of his mother’s warnings and lessons on how a young high-spirited black boy must observe “race etiquette” in the South, he had no point of reference to fathom the depths of hatred, insane treachery and danger. He did not understand how any contact or alleged transgression with a white woman could compromise and threaten an entire social order.
Accused of wolf-whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a twenty-one year old white woman storekeeper, he was abducted three days later at midnight from his great uncle’s home. Emmett Till was tortured, murdered, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River weighted down by a hundred pound cotton gin fan. His naked body snagged on a drift of brush. A white teenage boy fishing off a bridge saw his feet bobbing up above the water.
Emmett Till’s mother, Mrs. Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket so the world could witness the horror of her son’s destroyed face and head. Her courageous decision cast a floodlight of attention on the lynching of a child, and on the trial at the Sunflower County courthouse in Sumner.
Roy Bryant, husband of Carolyn Bryant, and his half-brother J.W.“Big” Milam, were charged with kidnapping Emmett Till. For the first time in Mississippi history, an African-American man, Moses Wright, Emmett’s great uncle, took the stand to identify the two white brothers who had abducted his nephew. The brothers were released on a technicality. The all-white male jury agreed a crime committed in one county could not be tried in another county. In addition, the jury concluded the corpse was not Emmett Till, despite his mother’s positive identification of his body and the fact that her son was wearing his father’s initialed silver ring. On January 24, 1956 Look Magazine published an interview article by Alabama journalist William Bradford Huie in which Bryant and Milam, paid four thousand dollars to talk, arrogantly boasted about how they killed Emmett Till. They claimed there was no sense letting him get bigger since he intended to “continue to date” white girls. In spite of Huie’s nationally read and shocking article, these two men were never brought to justice.
The savagery committed against Emmett Till and the easy acquittal of his murderers was seen as the white south’s answer to the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The lead local white prosecutor, Robert B. Smith, made an honest effort to gather witnesses and evidence. But white officials and townspeople put up extraordinary obstacles and a wall of silence and hostility in response. In Washington, D.C. Senator James O. Eastland was chair of the Committee on Civil Rights. His subcommittee refused to schedule a hearing. President Dwight D. Eisenhower never answered Mrs. Till-Mobley’s telegram requesting a federal investigation. No one from his administration had time to meet with her. Eisenhower allowed the state to fail its responsibility.
The next year, March 1956, Mississippi’s state legislature voted for a bill to create the Sovereignty Commission “to fight integration.” The cruel gruesome lynching of a black child had fortified white resolve to reinforce segregation. J.P. Coleman, the new governor, signed the bill into law. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were transferred to white Citizens’ Councils to ruin businesses, pay for informants, hire the Ku Klux Klan’s services - all to stop integration.
Mrs. Till-Mobley’s refusal to privatize her grief, her testimony in the face of terror, her decision to have an open casket, engraved her son’s life and death into the nation’s collective memory. The trial was reported on television, radio, in newspapers and magazines. Jet magazine published photos of a happy mother and son taken at Christmas, juxtaposed with the image of Till’s mutilated bloated face and head. His open coffin lay in state for three days in A.A. Rayner’s Chicago funeral home. A hundred thousand people filed by, to see “what they did to my boy.” Pinned on the coffin’s satin lining were three photos showing a confident smiling youngster. African-American newspapers and magazines carried both images and full coverage of the story.
Black communities across the country held rallies and demonstrations to protest the torture and murder of a child and the release of his murderers. Three months later in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks said Emmett Till was on her mind when she refused to move to the back of the bus.
Emmett Till, lying broken in his open coffin, was never supposed to be seen again. The river, the drift, the boy fishing on the bridge, his mother’s decision compose haunting images of Emmett that continue to speak and underscore the need to heal the divided soul of our country. The Reverend Jesse Jackson says his lynching “broke the emotional chains of Jim Crow.” Over fifty years later, the little tumbledown store in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant crossed paths, is now referred to as Ground Zero for the Civil Rights Movement.
-- Clare Coss, 2015