The Boy in the River

  • They found the body of the 14-year-old floating in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. His name was Emmett Till. It was August 1955. By that year, reports of lynchings had become shallow waters compared with the swollen river of death that claimed thousands during the post-Reconstruction period and into the first decades of this century. But the mid-century lynching of the child Emmett Till became one of the tributaries that fed into a different kind of river, the flood of the civil rights movement.

    Forty-three years separate the dead bodies of Emmett Till and James Byrd Jr., both black, both outnumbered by the white men who murdered them. Is there holy water to be drawn from this latest atrocity?

    Till was killed in Money, Miss. Visiting from Chicago and unused to the ways of the segregated South, the 14-year-old allegedly flirted with a white woman. He may simply have returned her gaze as she stared at a stranger's face, and not looked away as black men were supposed to do. Carolyn Bryant told her husband Roy about it. And Roy Bryant and his brother J.W. Milam seized Emmett from the home of his great-uncle in the middle of the night, drove off and proceeded to bludgeon and, finally, shoot him. Then they threw him into the river.

    What happened next was revolutionary, even though the verdict was not surprising for the apartheid South. Emmett's great-uncle Mose Wright testified against Bryant and Milam, a black man pointing out white men as the murderers of a black child. After his testimony, Wright fled Mississippi for his life. Bryant and Milam went on with theirs, acquitted of any crime. But the rest of the country looked at Mississippi justice and shuddered. America had seen a mother's sorrow. Mamie Till Mobley had shipped her son's battered body back to Chicago and allowed his open coffin to be put on display for four days so the world could see what "they did to my boy."

    What has changed since Emmett Till? There is a greater civility. In Jasper members of the families of the men accused of killing James Byrd have asked forgiveness of Byrd's relatives. One of the dead man's sisters has spoken of reconciliation. And there is cause for relief that a jury of 11 whites and one black in a small Southern town could come to the same moral conclusion, the same definition of justice. In 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were declared not guilty by an all-white jury in less time than it takes to watch a movie. A month later, at the behest of a journalist who paid for the story, Milam felt enough public approbation to confess to the murder with impunity.

    Things have changed--but not completely. Though whites and blacks now monitor their attitudes about race, racial terrorism lives on. Killers who were never charged for their hate crimes roam free. From recent cases one might even be led to surmise that the Klan has given up white uniforms for blue ones. And then there are cases in which there is still time to make good on history. Perhaps this one. Mamie Till Mobley is ailing but alive. She has mourned her only child these 44 years. She could never get his murderers indicted on lesser charges, never got their apologies. They are now dead. She has demanded reparations from the state of Mississippi. It has never responded. It should.

    CAMPBELL is the author of Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, a novel based on the Emmett Till lynching, and the more recent Singing in the Comeback Choir