Mary Irvine’s Blog: Emmett Till – How Far Have We Come…

emmett till

(Emmett Till, 13-years-old, on Christmas Day, 1954. Photograph taken by Mamie Till Bradley Wikipedia)

How Far Have We Come…

Emmett Till was born in Chicago on July 25th 1941. His mother Mame (Mamie) was born in the small town of Weld, Mississippi but her family had moved to Chicago when she was two years old. His father was Louis Till. Louis was in the army in Italy during the war and was hanged for the murder of an Italian woman and the rape of two others. His personal possessions, including a signet ring bearing his initials, were returned to Mame.

Emmett, known affectionately as Bobo, contacted non-paralytic polio as a young child which left him with a slight speech defect.  But overall he had a good childhood. He was popular, had many friends and was known as a joker. He was a snappy dresser. Mame worked as a clerk for the military so there was a regular wage coming in.

In the Summer of 1955 he asked his mother if he could go to visit his cousins in Money, Mississippi. Mame was apprehensive about this trip. She knew how ‘things’ were different down south and tried to explain segregation and all that it entailed to her son. Emmett persuaded her he understood. He arrived in Money on August 20th. On 24th he and his cousins went to Bryant’s Store, possibly to buy sweets. Only Emmett entered the store where he was served by Carolyn Bryant, a young, attractive white woman. What actually happened in the store to set in motion the events which led to his death is not known. Some say he whistled at the woman, others that he flirted with her, boasted he had white girl-friends. Yet others that he touched her hand while taking his change. Only the woman is left to say and she remains silent to this day.

It is said that it was a black man who told the woman’s husband ‘what had happened’. But what is known is, in the early hours of August 28th,  the woman’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother Jon Milam knocked on the door of Mose Wright’s house and took Emmett away. He was never seen alive again. Later one of Emmett’s cousins, said he had heard a woman’s voice during the abduction.

Emmett was taken to a barn where he was tortured, shot through the head and then, with a gin fan tied round his neck with barbed wire,  thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Mose had expected Emmett to be ‘whupped’ and then let free. When Emmett did not return he reported his nephew missing. Beatings and lynchings were common in the South, even in the mid-fifties but Emmett was from the North. This was to be a high profile case for the NAACP. On a much more personal level Mame was not going to let the murder of her son pass without justice as so many murders of black people in the South did.

Emmett’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie three days after his kidnapping. He could only be identified by a signet ring he wore. The signet ring had the initials L.T., his father’s signet ring. His body was returned to his mother. Mame insisted on having an open coffin so people could see for themselves what had been done to her child. The photograph of Emmett’s body went round the world by wire bringing forth global condemnation.

Bryant and Milam were arrested and indicted for murder. At the trial the accused sat with their wives and children, The jurors were all twelve  white men who took around an hour to find both the accused not guilty. ‘It would have been a shorter time,’ one quipped, ‘but we stopped for a soda break.’

I first encountered Emmett whilst attending a course on Civil Rights in USA at Glasgow University. He touched me as he has many. I read everything I could find about him. I even contacted the FBI requesting a copy of the trial transcript. It appears the original had been lost! Only a copy of a copy of a copy exists. Dr Robert Hamilton was kind enough to go through my finished effort. Of all the information and photographs the most moving, and bravest, for me was that of Mose, standing up in court. He pointed firmly to the accused and said’ Thar he.’ A car, with engine running, was waiting outside the court room to whisk Mose away to safety in the north.

Sometime later I tried to write a short story about Emmett’s murder. It wouldn’t come and I finally wrote a poem. Although written  over twelve years ago I could never find a title for it – until the murder of George Floyd.

The tile is ‘How far have we come…’

And I fear that maybe the answer is ‘Not very far…

emmett tills funeral

Emmett Till’s Funeral – Attribute. David Mann/CCO

How far have we come…’ Extract of Poem by Mary Irvine

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…

Mary Irvine, July, 2020


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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.

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