Emmett Till at the Crossroads
Why an apology may help heal our nation.
Journalist and U of I professor Christopher Benson reflects on what Mamie Till-Mobley taught him about reconciliation.
Recently I found myself at an intersection on Chicago’s South Side, waiting for the light to change. Absently, I gazed from the traffic signal to the street sign. I had been in this place before and under pretty much the same circumstances, stopped at a red light at the corner of 71st Street and Stony Island Avenue in Chicago—just one part of a seven-mile stretch of 71st Street that in 1991 had been renamed in honor of Emmett Till.
As I sat there, I began to do what I always do at that spot. I began to think about Emmett, an African American from Chicago who, at age 14 in 1955, was lynched in Money, Miss., for whistling at a white woman. What captivated me about the intersection before me was not so much the crossing of two streets as it was the connection of two thoughts. Not long before this moment, the United States Senate had voted to issue an apology for slavery. The announcement of that decision, coming about a year after a similar decision by the House of Representatives, touched off a national conversation about whether an apology was nearly enough to make up for the atrocity of slavery. Or whether it was too much. A similar debate had been struck at one point over the plea by Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, that the state of Mississippi should issue an apology for young Emmett’s lynching.
The tension in both these cases is between those who believe we should move forward—forget about the past—and those who believe we cannot move forward until we come to terms with the past.
For Mother Mobley, there was crystal clarity on this issue as we worked together during the last six months of her life to document her story in the book Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. It was vitally important to her that her story would live beyond her. Certainly it is a compelling story of a mother’s love, tragic loss, and redemption. But the critical thing for her—and for me—was that her story would have a take-away value beyond the personal impact.
What she wanted was for coming generations to understand the true meaning of the great sacrifices that had been made in order to move our country forward. She believed that we could not fully appreciate the challenges we face in reaching racial reconciliation in this country unless we first came to appreciate the history of the last part of the 20th century. That we could not fully appreciate that history without understanding the Civil Rights Movement. That we could not possibly understand the Civil Rights Movement without coming to know Emmett Till.
For one thing, it is in learning the Emmett Till story that we come to grasp just what racism has cost us in this country. We see Emmett as a promising kid whose contributions to this country were cut short by a brutal lynching. By extension, we must recognize the effect of racism on so many other children—children who might not have been killed as Emmett was, but whose potential was cut short because of the insurmountable obstacles they faced resulting from racism.
Mother Mobley understood all this and I came to appreciate it all so much more fully in the brief time we spent together, plumbing the depths of a mother’s pain and guilt and duty. It is a sense of duty that is born of the pain she experienced for the remainder of her life, dedicated to helping people understand the context for hate crime. It is a fundamental point so few really appreciate even now. It is a point I share with students of my hate crime class here at Illinois. That hate crime is about bias more than hate. It is about power more than bias. It is about enforcing a power hierarchy based on socially constructed difference.
It is this deep sense of understanding that caused Mother Mobley to call on the state of Mississippi to apologize for the death of her son. She recognized the systemic nature of racism. Two white men were accused, tried, and acquitted of Emmett’s lynching. They confessed to their horrific crime in an infamous Look magazine article months after their acquittal, describing in graphic detail what they had done to her son in order to send a message to other African Americans.
Still, Mother Mobley recognized the context of the crime, the culture of hate that existed during a period of American apartheid in which people came to believe they could get away with the murder of a black person because black life had become so devalued. That is why, had she lived, Mother Mobley would not have viewed the 2007 apology issued by officials of Tallahatchie County, Miss., to have been enough. Not nearly enough. That apology addressed only the injustice resulting from the acquittal of Emmett’s murderers. Mother Mobley saw this as part of something much larger. It was the people in the highest positions of power in Mississippi during this period who could have led, but chose instead to incite. They are the ones, Mother Mobley believed, who had blood on their hands.
That is the basis of her call for an apology. She understood the great impact of an apology as did leaders in South Africa during that country’s truth and reconciliation hearings following the end of apartheid. She knew that it is in first recognizing wrong that we may begin to set things right. As my friend and colleague Gutgsell Professor James Anderson has observed, we never have had our moment of racial reconciliation in this country. Instead, we have been urged to accept that with the stroke of a pen and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that everything has been resolved, and that the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States stands as evidence a new post-racial America.
Mother Mobley would recognize the rich irony that only few have seen. Obama’s historic acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for president was delivered on August 28, 2008. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. Emmett Till was lynched on August 28, 1955. A connecting link. An arc of an American story that moves from the violent enforcement of difference to the vision of a better place, to the confirmation that that the realization of that vision just might be possible. One day, maybe.
Mother Mobley died on January 6, 2003, having never heard the apology she wanted for us all to hear. After her death, a cousin of hers told me that she once had asked him to drive her the full seven miles of 71st that had been designated in honor of Emmett Till. She wanted to count the street signs to make sure the City of Chicago had kept its promise to her. It says a lot about her determination, but also her recognition of the street sign as text for a story she believed we should never forget.
An apology, she believed, was not just about looking back. It is a step in our movement forward.
Christopher Benson is a journalist and an associate professor of African American studies and journalism at the University of Illinois. In 2003, he co-authored with Mamie Till-Mobley her memoir Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America. He recently completed a screenplay based on the book.
By Christopher Benson