Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America
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There are many heroes of the civil rights movement—men and women we can look to for inspiration. Each has a unique story, a path that led to a role as leader or activist. Death of Innocence is the heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring story of one such hero: Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till—an innocent fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who paid for it with his life. His outraged mother’s actions galvanized the civil rights movement, leaving an indelible mark on American racial consciousness.
Mamie Carthan was an ordinary African-American woman growing up in 1930s Chicago, living under the strong, steady influence of her mother’s care. She fell in love with and married Louis Till, and while the marriage didn’t last, they did have a beautiful baby boy, Emmett.
In August 1955, Emmett was visiting family in Mississippi when he was kidnapped from his bed in the middle of the night by two white men and brutally murdered. His crime: allegedly whistling at a white woman in a convenience store. His mother began her career of activism when she insisted on an open-casket viewing of her son’s gruesomely disfigured body. More than a hundred thousand people attended the service. The trial of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, accused of kidnapping and murdering Emmett (the two were eventually acquitted of the crime), was considered the first full-scale media event of the civil rights movement.
What followed altered the course of this country’s history, and it was all set in motion by the sheer will, determination, and courage of Mamie Till-Mobley—a woman who would pull herself back from the brink of suicide to become a teacher and inspire hundreds of black children throughout the country.
Mamie Till-Mobley, who died in 2003 just as she completed this memoir, has honored us with her full testimony: “I focused on my son while I considered this book. . . . The result is in your hands. . . . I am experienced, but not cynical. . . . I am hopeful that we all can be better than we are. I’ve been brokenhearted, but I still maintain an oversized capacity for love.” Death of Innocence is an essential document in the annals of American civil rights history, and a painful yet beautiful account of a mother’s ability to transform tragedy into boundless courage and hope.
From the Hardcover edition.
portrayed in the article. I had not raised a person like that. What had been written about Emmett was simply not true. And it hurt so badly. Eventually, that suit was dismissed. Libel is a personal claim, I was told. In the end, as God would have it, the only person who could have filed that lawsuit was Emmett. I had been asleep in my room up front one day and finally pulled myself up. I was groggy and tried to blink away what I thought I saw. It was a lump under my rug. Finally, after looking
run before me like credits on a screen, whether someone else had written the words or whether I had written them. It wasn’t exactly a photographic memory. It was more like intense concentration. When I focused on something, I mean, when I really zeroed in on it, there was nothing else in the world at that moment. Once I knew I could do that, I would write everything down, all my notes, review them, concentrate, then close my eyes and read every one of those notes. In my mind. Or every word in a
Kennedy, among others. Looking out at thousands who had turned out for the event. Looking down at the monument and the names etched in stone and the water that flowed liked so many tears. “We cannot afford the luxury of self-pity,” I said in my speech. We had responsibilities, all of us, the families of the victims of the movement. We had been chosen to bear the burdens we bore and I recognized that we had held on to our hope. I had found such peace in working with children, helping them “reach
so. But Mama’s favorite spot in the whole place was the monkey house. There always was a show with those monkeys. I’ll never forget the time Aunt Georgia came to visit us from Mississippi. I was pushing Bo and he kept trying to get out and walk. But I knew if I let him out in the monkey house, he’d wind up being one of the monkeys. I couldn’t take that chance. So, I kept him strapped in. Those monkeys were doing their monkeyshines that day. I mean, they were really showing their—well, what
that? Of all things. What was I thinking? Was I just trying to keep busy, keep from thinking? Lose myself in work to stop me from losing my mind? I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stay there. Not one minute longer. I got ready to leave, picked up Emmett’s watch, wound it, put it on. Gene drove up just as I was backing out of the garage. He parked and slid behind the wheel of my car. We had barely made it a mile when I had to take over. I just had to do it. I knew I was in no