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Utah writer recalls Emmett Till and the mother who made his life, and death, matter

LDS writer Devery Anderson’s landmark biography highlights the case of the slain 14-year-old and how it helped spur the civil rights movement.

Sumner, Miss. • One of the first sparks in the civil rights movement was ignited by a single decision born of the agony, angst and anger of a grieving mom.

Mamie Till-Mobley insisted on an open casket for her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till — an African-American from Chicago who had been brutally beaten, shot and thrown into Mississippi's Tallahatchie River, a cotton-gin fan tied around his neck.

Mamie, as she was called, wanted the world to see what the murderers had done to her only child for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

That move catapulted her son’s 1955 slaying onto the nation’s front pages and into America’s collective consciousness. It galvanized Black citizens across the country to take action.

Hundreds of thousands of horrified mourners filed by his remains, visible under a glass cover, and millions more saw the newspaper photo of the young man’s body, his head bashed in, eyes bulging, mouth twisted, limbs mutilated.

Till’s death became, writes the late Black activist Julian Bond, “a touchstone narrative of my generation.”

Folk singer and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan penned a ballad about it, James Baldwin crafted a play based on it, and legendary boxer Muhammad Ali became obsessed with it.

“I stood on the corner with a gang of boys, looking at pictures of him in the Black newspapers and magazines,” Ali wrote in memoirs. “[I] felt a deep kinship to him when I learned he was born the same year and day I was. My father talked about it at night and dramatized the crime. I couldn’t get Emmett out of my mind.”

Neither could Devery Anderson, a white Mormon studying history at the University of Utah.

For more than a dozen years, Anderson sought details about Till's murder, the trial of his killers, their confession in a national magazine and the subsequent silence.

Late last year, the University Press of Mississippi published Anderson’s massive book, “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement.”

Though there have been a dozen or more volumes about the crime, Anderson's is the most exhaustive, Bond says in the foreword.

The Utah-based researcher "tracked down every source; read every testimony, description, and transcript; interviewed every living witness; and read the memories of the departed," the activist writes. "He has searched every newspaper and magazine story, including the most obscure, and gathered every conflicting version."

Soon, there will be an HBO miniseries based on Anderson's book, with Steven Caple Jr. slated to write it, and Jay-Z, Will Smith, Casey Affleck and Aaron Kaplan as producers.

On Friday, Anderson received the Albert Fritz Civil Rights Worker of the Year Award from Utah’s branch of the NAACP.

Anderson discovered elements of the crime that others missed, and even more don't even know the basics of Till's story, says NAACP chapter president Jeanetta Williams. "We wanted to give him recognition for all of that work."

It’s so important to understand history, she says, and to continue to investigate “those old cases” from the civil rights era.

Though it happened decades ago, Till’s death still resonates in today’s divided society. It is impossible not to see parallels, Anderson says. Every time a Black man or woman’s death becomes news, Till’s name is invoked.

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. The drumbeat of individual Black names plays again and again on the national stage.

"We are still polarized on these issues," Anderson says. "We haven't gotten past that."

And Mobley-Till's open-casket decision?

Many people scolded Mamie, accusing her of exploiting publicity for gain — akin to what some critics say about contemporary Black activists.

"It was an in-your-face move," Anderson says, "that forced everyone to look at what was happening."

In fact, he calls it “a Black Lives Matter moment.”

Crime and no punishment • Mamie Till-Mobley was born and reared in Mississippi and eventually moved to Chicago with her husband, Louis Till, who died when Emmett was 4.

Young Emmett was friendly and outgoing, with a lively wit and a touch of mischief. He was at home in the more integrated urbanism of Chicago, but loved being with his Southern cousins, who lived in the Mississippi Delta.

On that fateful August night, after a day of cotton picking, Till and his cousins drove into "town" — a line of about six stores in Money — where they bought soda at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market.

Emmett went into the store alone, and when Carolyn Bryant, 21-year-old wife of Roy Bryant, emerged, he allegedly "did a wolf whistle at her," Anderson says. "He didn't understand the ways of the South. He was a fun-loving prankster."

Three days later, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, showed up in the middle of the night asking for "the boy."

They abducted him at gunpoint, took him to a barn and mercilessly beat him, shot him and dumped him in the river. A few days later, a fisherman found the submerged body. He was identified by a ring on his finger that his dad had given him.

The two men confessed — and a month later would repeat their story for Look magazine — but were acquitted after only an hour by an all-white, all-male jury in Sumner's Tallahatchie County Courthouse, which became the center of a media frenzy during the five-day trial, attracting reporters from across the globe.

“There had been a lot of lynchings and killings of Blacks in the South, but they didn’t get this kind of coverage,” Anderson says. “He was a child from the North — and there were photos.”

One man who attended the trial was T.R.M. Howard of Mound Bayou, Miss. Howard traveled around to Black churches, repeating the tragic story, including at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.

Among the people who heard him that day? Pastor Martin Luther King Jr., who had recently taken a position at Dexter, and Rosa Parks, who just days later refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white man.

"The news of Emmett's death caused many people to participate in the cry for justice and equal rights," she later said, "including myself."

Taking up the cause • Anderson heard nothing of Till’s killing during his 1960s childhood in southern Washington, but he was deeply troubled by the LDS Church’s ban on Black men and boys being ordained to the faith’s all-male priesthood. He remembers clearly where he was as an 18-year-old in June 1978 — at a bookstore affiliated with the Mormon temple in Oakland, Calif. — when he heard the priesthood prohibition had been lifted.

"I remember this load lifted off of me," he recalls. "This [ban] is over. I never have to defend it again."

After Anderson’s two-year Mormon mission in London (where nearly all the converts he baptized in one area were Black), he returned to Washington, married and had children. By 1996, he and his family had moved to Salt Lake City, where he enrolled at the U.

He learned about Till’s case while watching the Public Broadcasting Service series “Eyes on the Prize,” about the civil rights movement. He took a class on American racism that fall and decided to write his term paper on Till.

With some trepidation, he looked up Till-Mobley in a Chicago phone book, found her number and started what would be a continuing conversation with the widow, who died in 2003.

After the acquittals, Mamie took on another life, becoming a schoolteacher for three decades. She mentioned many figures from the civil rights push and her son’s death, but she was never sought out by the national press, nor did she became a figure in the movement or remain in the spotlight.

In late December 2002, Alvin Sykes, a human-rights activist in Kansas City, met with Till-Mobley to create the Emmett Till Justice Campaign and discuss reopening the case.

"I can promise you an investigation but I can't promise a prosecution," Sykes recalls telling the boy's mother. "We want to pursue truth and, if possible, obtain justice."

The once-powerful mom agreed. Seven days later, she died.

Sykes continued on, eventually helping pass federal legislation in 2007 under the title Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Act — with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch among the bill’s sponsors — with funding for the FBI and attorney general to explore this and other cases.

It hasn't produced any convictions in the Till case — at least two others were believed to have been involved — but it has unearthed trial transcripts that added breadth and depth to Anderson's retelling.

“The result of that injustice is what has kept the case so powerful,” Anderson says. “And it has spawned a move to appropriate more money for cold civil rights cases.”

The Sumner courthouse recently underwent a $3 million renovation, returning it to the way it was in 1955.

Earlier, a resident had rammed into a historic marker erected outside the courthouse, asking, "Why should our town be remembered for this?"

Patrick Weems, who runs the Emmett Till Interpretive Center across from the building, reports that a board member had many conversations with the man, helping him see the value of remembering such a horrific crime.

"How old is your son?" the board member asked.

When he replied "14," she explained, "That's how old Emmett was."

The marker isn't about shaming the community, Weems says. "This is an important story to tell so it doesn't happen again. This is the Mississippi Delta, ground zero for American racism. If we can heal racial tensions here, it can fan across the state, the region, the nation and the globe."

Not a bad Till legacy, Weems says, hopefully.

pstack@sltrib.com

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