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Chris Benson has seen many things, had many exciting professional experiences and no doubt met many well-known people while working as a vice president and associate counsel for Johnson Publishing Company, as the Washington editor at Ebony magazine, and as a journalist in Chicago.
At the virtual Levy Lecture held on Aug. 25, he said it was the highlight of his professional career to meet Mamie Till-Mobley and work with her to tell her story.
He called her Mother Mobley. “Mother” signified “a special rank of responsibility and leadership” in her church, as she was a deeply religious woman. Mr. Benson and Mother Mobley worked for what would turn out to be the last six months of her life as she recounted her experiences before motherhood, her brief and tumultuous marriage, the birth of her son, Emmett, and his childhood and budding adolescence.
The heart of the book is about the lynching of young Emmett, what Mother Mobley did to tell the world about what had happened to her son, and how she was able to find purpose and meaning in the rest of her life.
Emmett, age 14, went by train to Mississippi for a two-week summer vacation to be with his cousins. Before he left Chicago, his mother gave him “the talk” that every Black parent had with their children if they were going down South to visit relatives.
“He had to understand that he would not be in Chicago and had to act differently. I wanted him to be aware of this at all times. That was so important. We went through the drill. Chicago and Mississippi were two very different places, and white people down South could be very mean to Blacks, even to Black kids. Don’t start up any conversations with white people. Only talk if you’re spoken to. And how do you respond? ‘Yes, sir’; ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ ‘No, sir’; ‘No, Ma’am.’ Put a handle on those answers. Don’t just say ‘Yes’ and No’ or ‘Naw.’ Don’t ever do that. If you’re walking down the street and a white woman is walking toward you, step off the sidewalk, lower your head. Don’t look her in the eye. Wait until she passes by, then get back on the sidewalk, keep going, don’t look back.”
Emmett tried to reassure her, saying “Mama, I know how to act. You taught me how to act.”
Mr. Benson spent a lot of time talking to Mother Mobley about the difficult memories of receiving the phone call that Emmett had been taken. He was abruptly awakened from a sound sleep at a room in his uncle’s home and kidnapped by two white vigilantes, who were later identified as Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam.
This was followed by three days of phone calls 24/7, calling in favors from anyone and everyone – even Mayor Richard J. Daley tried to help – trying desperately to find out what happened to her boy and to get him back home. Finding out he had been killed. Realizing that the trauma was only beginning even though the worst possible thing had already happened: Her only child was dead.
Mr. Benson said Mother Mobley made three critical decisions that forever changed the course of history. The first decision was to insist that Emmett’s body be returned to her in Chicago. Emmett’s great-uncle Crosby, with whom Emmett was staying and from whose house he was kidnapped, identified the body that was pulled from the Tallahatchie River as Emmett’s. The body had been released to a Black funeral home, and the police in Money, Miss., ordered Crosby to make sure the body was buried by sundown.
Mother Mobley got wind of this and insisted that her son be returned to her in Chicago. She called A. A. Rayner, a highly respected Black funeral director in Chicago, who worked out the arrangements with the funeral director in Mississippi. It would cost $3,300, an exorbitant sum at the time, but she got her way: A casket carrying her boy’s broken body was placed on a train to Chicago, accompanied by great-uncle Crosby.
The casket that was sent to Chicago was entombed in a large box, “locked up with the seal of the State of Mississippi.”
The box was heavy and difficult to get off the train once it arrived at Union Station. It was finally taken off and hoisted onto a wagon as Mother Mobley and others followed by car. Soon they became aware that box giving off a horrible odor.
As Mother Mobley says in the book, “It was the smell of death and it was everywhere. It seemed to cut a pathway right to the top of my skull. I will never forget that smell. It was Emmett.”
At the funeral home, Mother Mobley made the second critical decision. In spite of the seal on the box, in spite of promises made and forms signed by the undertaker in Mississippi, her relatives, and Mr. Rayner – forms swearing that the box would not be opened in Chicago – she had the box opened, saying she would do it herself if need be.
“You see, I didn’t sign any papers. I dare them to sue me. Let them come to Chicago and sue me.” She needed to make sure, she said, that whoever – or whatever – was in that box was her son.
The box was so large because it was filled with packing. The State of Mississippi had poured lime all around Emmett to help the body decompose faster. Mr. Rayner tried to wash as much of that off Emmett as possible. Mother Mobley insisted on seeing her son’s body. The funeral director tried to dissuade her, but she was as firm as she was insistent. Mr. Rayner shook his head and said to her, “You know, if you’re that determined, I will get the body ready and let you view it.”
Viewing her son’s body and studying the extensive harm that had come to him nearly broke her, especially when she realized, “At some point during his ordeal, in the last moments of his precious little life, Emmett must have cried out. Two names. ‘God’ and ‘Mama.’ And no one answered the call.”
But from the depths of that sorrow and pain, there was also anger. The anger fueled the third critical decision: She insisted on an open-casket funeral. She did not want him retouched or made more presentable. She wanted the world to see what she had seen.
Mr. Benson elaborated on the power dynamics of the time. The entire system in Mississippi was rigged to exert power over and dehumanize Blacks; making them less human makes it easier to justify killing them.
Mother Mobley’s insisting that her son be returned to her in Chicago, opening the box and identifying her son’s body, and then inviting the rest of the world see what she had seen, was turning the Mississippi power dynamic on its head. That state was no longer calling the shots; she was.
Mother Mobley explained, “They would not be able to visualize what had happened, unless they were allowed to see the results of what had happened. They had to see what I had seen. The whole nation had to bear witness to this.” She also allowed a photographer from Jet magazine to photograph Emmett’s body in the casket and share those photos with other Black publications. Photographs of Emmett’s mutilated body would not be seen by mainstream white audiences for another 30 years.
The glass-enclosed casket was on view for four days. The Chicago Defender estimated that more than 100,000 people passed by the casket. The funeral service for Emmett Till was held on a Saturday in a church packed with 2,000 people, with another 5,000 waiting outside.
He was buried on Sept. 6, 1955, the same day that Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were indicted by the Tallahatchie grand jury for murder.
The murder trial itself was a sham trial. It began on Sept. 19, 1955, less than two weeks after Emmett was buried. The woman to whom Emmett supposedly whistled said in court that Emmett had grabbed her, asked her out on a date, and wolf whistled at her.
None of that was true, as she recanted years later.
Emmett did whistle when he came out of the store where he had gone to buy gum, but his cousins were playing chess on the porch and the whistle could have been in response to a particular move.
Emmett also stuttered, and his mother had taught him to whistle when he started to stutter. Whatever happened, he did not try to approach her. In the end, the jury felt unsure the body pulled out of the river was Emmett’s. The men were found not guilty in 67 minutes.
A few months later, the Jan. 24, 1956, issue of Look magazine included an interview with Mssrs. Milam and Bryant. They told their side of the story about what happened the night Emmett was kidnapped. Although they left many things out and the story in Look is factually inaccurate – they admitted to killing him to “teach him a lesson” and also to send a message to others. Mother Mobley somberly remembers, “Whatever happened in that story in Money, 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 idea of “teaching him a lesson” is part of dehumanization, Mr. Benson noted.
Double jeopardy insured that they could never be tried again for the same crime.
Mr. Benson put the torture and murder of Emmett Till in the context of the times. On May 17, 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision in a landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ruling that, “separate but equal” had no place in education, and that segregated schools are inherently unequal.
Many men and woman in the South saw this as an affront to their way of life, not realizing or not caring that their “normal behavior and policies” were harmful and detrimental to all Blacks, and that their way of life was inherently racist.
After the murder and the sham trial, in December of 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, which led to the Black community’s boycott of public transportation.
Mr. Benson sees Emmett Till as the bridge between Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks. Emmett is the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. His trial was also the first big media trial with daily reports on television and journalists from across the country as well as other part of the world. His story came into people’s living rooms and it was impossible to turn away.
The Emmett Till story inspired many people. The late John Lewis said he was 16 years old when he heard the news about Emmett, and referred to him as “his George Floyd.”
Many reporters from publications in the Eastern U.S. could not believe the bigotry and racism they observed in the South, and reported on those stories.
In telling her story to Mr. Benson, her co-author, Mother Mobley said she knew she was leaving an accurate record of her legacy; that she had been blessed to find her purpose in life; and that she had spent more than 20 years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, working with children, and discouraging racism and bigotry.
Mr. Benson said she was at peace when she died. She could look back and know that at the worst possible time in her life, she had dug deep and found the internal and spiritual resources that gave her the courage and the strength to continue.
Chris Benson and Mamie Till-Mobley co-authored “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America.” Booked Evanston has signed copies available.