Mary Irvine’s Blog: Black History Month

emmtt hill memorial highwa

In Recognition of Black history month –  Remembering Emmett Till

The racially motivated murder of Emmett Till proved a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights’ Movement. Why Emmett? My attempt to find an answer led to a 10,000 word essay, following much research! The prose below lays out the basic facts of Emmett’s story.                       

How far have we come?

On July 25th 1941 a baby boy is born in Chicago, in the North. He is the first and only child of Mamie and Louis Till, married a year, parents in their late teens. Louis leaves with his army unit to join the war raging in Europe. In 1945 Mamie hears of his death in Italy. She receives a parcel containing his few personal possessions. Among them is his signet ring with the initials L.T. Mamie keeps the ring safe so it can be given to their son when he grows up. She doesn’t hear the truth of her husband’s death until 1955; that her husband was hanged for the rape of two women and the murder of a third.

Mamie dotes on her son, known affectionately as Bobo. He develops a form of non-paralytic polio from which he recovers. But it leaves him with a slight speech defect – an occasional whistling on certain sounds. Bobo has a good childhood. He is popular, makes friends easily. He enjoys life, is happy and has a reputation as a joker. Most of all he is a snappy dresser. Mamie has a secure, well-paid job, working as a clerk for the military. Life is good for both, in the North.

A Family Visit

It is 1955 and the summer vacation is approaching. Mamie plans to take Bobo to Nebraska to visit relatives. Bobo wants to visit cousins who live in Money, Mississippi, in the South. Mamie is reluctant to let him do this. Although she was born in Mississippi at the age of two she left, with her parents, to live in the North. She knows how life is different in the South. She worries that Bobo, a boy born in the North, does not fully understand the horror of segregation or of the hatred that exists in the South.  She worries that her son is not fully aware of the ‘rules’ that separate the white and black communities. Bobo is fourteen.  He tells his mother he’ll be fine. He does understand. Reluctantly, not wanting to disappoint her son, Mamie agrees. Bobo is overjoyed. She never sees her son alive again.

A Day Out

On August 20th Bobo arrives in Money, Mississippi, in the South and settles into the house of his Uncle Mose. Money is not a big place. There is none of the entertainments such as Bobo and his friends can enjoy in Chicago. But he is with his cousins who are used to making their own fun. They go fishing and eat what they catch. They climb trees, chase around, kick a rolled up ball of old clothes, with sticks spaced for goal posts. One of the things teenage boys do in Money is hang out near Bryant’s Store, a store patronised by the black community. The store is owned by Roy Bryant. It doesn’t make a lot of money. Bryant and his half-brother, John Milam, go trucking to make ends meet.

A Misunderstanding?

On August 24th the two men are away on a trucking job. Bryant’s young, attractive wife, Carolyn, is in charge of the store. August 24th is the day the cousins decide to go to the store. It is not clear why, perhaps only he has money, but Bobo goes into the store alone. Only Carolyn is now alive to say what happens and she remains silent. Some say he whistles at her, calls her babe, propositions her, touches her hand when taking change.  Something that breaks the rules between black and white. Whatever it is Carolyn tells her husband nothing when he returns home. Does nothing happen? Is she afraid?

A Kidnapping

On August 27th Bryant hears some story from a black worker. In the early hours of August 28th Bryant and Milam go to Mose’s house. They demand to see Bobo. Mose knows how things work in the South. He cannot refuse, expecting Bobo would be ‘whupped’ and then let go. A woman’s voice is heard. Bobo is taken.

A Mother’s Grief

Bobo does not return. Mose reports his nephew missing. On August 31st Bobo’s body is pulled from the Tallahatchie River. There is evidence of severe torture and mutilation. There is a bullet wound in his head. A gin fan is tied round his neck with barbed wire. He can only be identified by the signet ring he is wearing. The ring bears the initials L.T.

The authorities in the South want to bury the body quickly. Mose wants the body to be returned to the boy’s mother. He is told he can only do this if a promise is made to keep the coffin closed. Mose promises. The body is sent in a wooden box. The lid is nailed down.

Mamie receives the body. She wants to give her son a decent funeral, with a proper casket. The box is opened. A brave mother makes the decision to allow people to see what has been done to her son, a boy of fourteen. Thousands file by the coffin. She wants the world to see. And they do. She allows a photo to be taken of the open coffin. The photo goes round the world by wire.

A Trial, of sorts, is Held

Back in the South Bryant and Milam are arrested and indicted for murder. The trial date nears. It is held in the county seat of Sumner whose slogan is ‘A Good Place to Raise a Boy’. The world media descends. Local people object to the influx of Northerners who are interfering in Southern affairs. Black Congressman Charlie Diggs is refused entry.  The judge orders Diggs be allowed in. The courtroom is strictly segregated. Supporters of the Till family and members of the NAACP have to sit at the back of the courtroom. Reporters sympathetic to the family are offered a card table to work on. Mr Diggs is told to sit at the card table.

The courtroom is packed. Bryant and Milam sit with their wives at the defence table. Sometimes they bring in their children. There is much joking. The jury comprises twelve, white men, all favoured towards the two defendants.

A Brave Uncle

Mose gives his evidence, bravely pointing out who had taken Bobo that night. He leaves the courtroom immediately after and gets into the car waiting, with engine running, to whisk him away to safety in the North. He never returns to the South.

An Inevitable Verdict

After five days the jury retire to consider their verdict. They return in just over an hour, which includes a break for refreshments. The verdict is inevitable. Not guilty. The two men are never tried for the crime of kidnapping. No-one is ever convicted for the murder.

The lynching of Emmett Till still resonates today. Thousands and thousands of words are still being written about him. Will the whole truth about Emmet’s visit to Bryant’s Store ever be known? Doubtful…

(Mary Irvine)

And the answer to the title?

Not as far as we would like to think…

I couldn’t ‘shake’ Emmett from my mind. I felt he wanted more from me. I gave him the poem below. The poem below remained untitled for several years after being written. Recent events around the world suggested the title.

A Lesson Not learned

The boy was born in 1941

In Chicago

In the North

The boy was one when his father left

And four when his father died

The boy received his signet ring

A signet ring with the initials LT

The boy was happy and fun-loving

In Chicago

In the North

The boy and his mother had a good life together

In Chicago

In the North

In 1955 the boy was fourteen

In August he went for a visit

A visit to see his relations

His relations

In the South

His mother came from the South

She told her boy how to behave

She told him how things were different

In the South

But her boy knew only Chicago

In the North

The boy dressed smartly

He flirted   

He was fun-loving

In Chicago

In the North

This boy was different from

The boys in the South

Bobo wasn’t like a Southern Boy

Bobo came from Chicago

In the North

Bobo was just a boy like the Southern boys

All the boys were fun-loving

But Bobo came from Chicago

In the North

The boy did nothing wrong

But the wrong he did

Down South

Cost him his life

A boy taken by night from his uncle’s house

In the South

A boy’s body pulled from the Tallahatchie

In the South

A river full of niggers*

In the South

A signet ring with the initials LT

Only a ring told us it was Bobo

A mother crying

In the North

A brave mother shows her boy’s body to the world

A brave uncle points to the guilty

In the South

‘Thar he’

Yet still they walked free

In the South

Two men walking free

In the South

Two men laughing

In the South

But Bobo lit a spark

Which grew into a roaring flame

In the North

And in the South

* The Emmett Till Book p 5, M Susan Klopfer, 2005.

(Image. Creative Common:Deisenbe, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Talks, The Hunterian, Black History Month 2021
African Wall Art and Stories by Lantern Light

This section: Black History Month Glasgow, Mary Irvine: Writer and Philhellene

Written by :

Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

Comments are closed.

Copyright Glasgow Westend 2009 thru 2017

Contact Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End | About Pat Byrne | Privacy Policy | Design by Jim Byrne Website Design