Emmett Till’s dilapidated casket, Mother Mobley’s courage

Mamie Till Mobley's book provides context for the recent discovery of her son's dilapidated casket at Oak Burr Cemetery.

Mamie Till Mobley's book provides context for the recent discovery of her son's dilapidated casket at Burr Oak Cemetery.

People throughout the Chicago region and even the country have read with horror this week about the desecration and attempt to resell more than 150 graves at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

In addition, the casket of Emmett Louis Till, whose gruesome 1955 murder in Mississippi has been credited by many as being a significant spark to the modern civil rights movement, was found in a dilapidated garage on the cemetery grounds with wildlife living in it, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

Till’s death at the hands of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant after having been forcibly removed from the home of his great-uncle Mose Wright was just one of thousands of lynchings that occurred to black men, many of whom had been accused of having interest in, or being intimate with, white women.

After Till’s mangled body was found in the Tallahatchie River attached to a cotton by barbed wire, his mother Mamie Till Mobley made a remarkably brave decision: to let the world see what her son’s murderers’ racism and hatred had led them to do.

Tens of thousands of people filed past the  body of the nearly unrecognizable Till as he lay in state at A.A. Rayner & Sons funeral home on Chicago’s South Side.  The pictures of Till, published in Jet magazine, literally shocked the world.

Toward the end of her life, Mamie Till Mobley told the story of her life, her son’s death and how she found the courage both to expose what had happened and to continue to go on in Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.

Mother Mobley, as many people in the community, collaborated with University of Illinois journalism professor and friend Christopher Benson on the project, which was published shortly after her death in January 2003.

The story is a moving account that gets behind the iconic images that propelled many into resistance the South’s apartheid system and into a zestful, energetic and self-possessed boy who gave his mother great joy.  Told in a straightforward first-person style, the narrative is particularly poignant in Mobley’s description of her ominous premonition before Till embarked on his fateful journey-a trip for which she warned him to watch his manners with white people.

The section in which she describes seeing her son’s distorted face and body is also moving and draining. 

Yet a major part of the book’s power comes from Mobley and Benson’s portrait of an entire life of community service and of loving relationships, rather than being defined simply by her son’s murder and her courageous decision to show the world what had happened. 

Till’s family has talked about moving his grave site after the happening at Burr Oak; readers would do well to read this book to gain a fuller understanding of who Till and his mother were, how fortunate we are that she lived, and what was lost that steam night more than half a century ago.

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