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Death of Innocence: the Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.

Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson Random House, October 2003 $24.95, ISBN 1-400-06117-2

It's the photograph that we remember: a picture of the dead black boy in his casket, his face bloated, mutilated, no longer human. For nearly any African American of a certain age, seeing the photo of Emmett Till was a defining moment. Even now, nearly 50 years later, Emmett's name evokes a chill down the back, an abrupt pang of fear, and the discomforting knowledge that his fate might have been our own, or that of a son, brother, or friend.

It's the photograph that we remember. What's behind the photograph is harder to penetrate: the heroism of a woman who, faced with the worst tragedy any mother can imagine, had the clarity of purpose to place her grief in the public sphere--and force the world to come to grips with the reality that had created it.

I first met Mamie Till-Mobley during the production of the documentary film The Murder of Emmett Till, for which I wrote the script. After her aide opened the door of her tidy Chicago home and escorted us to the kitchen, Mrs. Till-Mobley quickly put me at ease with her kindness and hospitality. Then she proceeded to tell me the story of her son's life and death, the story she has now told so fully and eloquently in Death of Innocence.

In August of 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley put her 14-year-old son on a train bound for the Mississippi Delta, where he was to spend a few weeks with relatives. On his fourth night in Mississippi, Emmett Louis Till was kidnapped from his great uncle's home; three days later, his mangled body surfaced in the Tallahatchie River. He had been beaten and shot, and was so badly disfigured that he could be identified only by the ring on his finger. His body had been weighed down with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.

The young Till was known as loyal and responsible, a good-natured kid who loved to be the life of the party. But the boy from Chicago had committed the South's unpardonable sin: he had whistled at a white woman. Barely a week after arriving in Money, Mississippi, a town with the motto, "A good place to raise a boy," Emmett Till was dead.

If not for one extraordinary decision made by Mamie Till-Mobley, the story might have ended there. After all, Emmett was hardly the first African American to die at the hands of violent racists in the Delta. Till-Mobley, just 33 at the time, insisted that the casket at her son's funeral remain open. The undertaker asked if she wanted him to make Emmett more "presentable." "No," she replied. "Let the world see what I've seen."

By the time he was buried on September 3, 1955, 50,000 mourners had filed past Till's mangled corpse. Then, after gruesome images of his distorted face were published in Jet magazine and other publications, the Till case sparked international out rage.

Mamie Till-Mobley's bravery gave others the courage to step forward. Five African Americans testified at the trial, knowing that it might mean death. Mississippi black physician T.R.M. Howard protected witnesses and financed their resettlement in Chicago. NAACP leaders Medgar Evers and Ruby Hurley, along with African American journalists, launched their own search for witnesses, while the local authorities stonewalled. When Mamie Till-Mobley stood up, the community pulled in behind her.

In Death of Innocence, Till Mobley describes all of this and more, including the "show trial" at which two white men, who later admitted their crimes, were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. She describes her life after Emmett--how she returned to college and graduated at the top of her class; how she found comfort in children and in her church. Still, she lived with Emmett's death every day.

She didn't intend to be a heroine, or even an activist. But Mamie Till-Mobley started something: One hundred days after Emmett's death, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott--and the Civil Rights Movement--were on.

Though she herself died last year, the world can now read Mamie Till-Mobley's story in her own words. The Death of Innocence is an important document from an extraordinary woman.

--Reviewed by Marcia A. Smith Marcia A. Smith, executive director of Firelight Media, is the author of Black America: A Photographic tourney, Past to Present (Thunder Bay Press, October 2002).
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Author:Smith, Marcia A.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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