If you ever saw that picture of Emmett Till, you never forgot it.
Not the one that shows a handsome brown teenager, hat tipped up slightly off his forehead. Not,
in other words, the "before" picture.
No, I'm talking about the picture that was taken after. After he went from Chicago to visit
family in Mississippi in the late summer of 1955. After he accepted a schoolboy dare to flirt with a
white woman working behind the counter of the general store. After he called her "baby" and
allegedly gave a wolf whistle. After her husband and his half-brother came for him in the dead of
night. After his body was fished from the Tallahatchie River.
The picture of him that was taken then, published in Jet magazine and flashed around the world,
was stomach-turning. A lively and prankish boy had become a bloated grotesquerie - an ear missing,
an eye gouged out, a bullet hole in his head. You looked at that picture and you felt that here was
the reason coffins have lids.
But his mother refused onlookers that mercy, refused to give him a closed-casket funeral. She
delayed the burial for four days, keeping her son's mutilated body on display as thousands came to
pay their respects. "I wanted the world to see what I had seen," she later explained. "I wanted the
world to see what had happened in Mississippi. I wanted the world to see what had happened in
The world saw and was electrified.
Mamie Till Mobley died in Chicago on Monday of an apparent heart attack. And if one were seeking
to sum up her life, it might be enough to say that she spent 47 years keeping the casket open,
speaking, writing and agitating in the name of her murdered son. Indeed, her book, The Death of
Innocence, is due for release this year.
I met her once, maybe 30 years after her son's death, by which point she must have told his story
a million times. And she still welled up as she spoke, her voice stammering and turning gray.
At the time, I was writing and producing a radio documentary tracing over 500 years of African
and African-American history. I'll never forget my narrator's response when he reviewed a script
that recounted Emmett's ordeal and the ordeals of other black men and women who were hanged, burned
or hacked to pieces for the crime of being. He jokingly dubbed me "the Stephen King of black
history" for my insistence on including the grisly details.
But I happen to believe Mamie Till Mobley was right to keep the casket open.
We're always so eager to hide the horror. Close the casket, turn your eyes, use euphemism to
obscure truths too obscene.
Consider Trent Lott's first attempt at apology, when he blithely described segregation as "the
discarded policies of the past." If you didn't know any better, you might have thought he was
talking about farm subsidies or tax codes, so bloodless and opaque was the language.
But segregation wasn't opaque and it surely wasn't bloodless. It was a Mississippi courtroom
where the sheriff sauntered in every day and greeted spectators in the colored section with a
cheery, "Hello, niggers." It was two white men freely admitting that they had kidnapped a black
Chicago boy. It was witnesses who placed the men at a barn inside which they heard a child being
And it was a jury of white men who heard this evidence, then deliberated for less than an hour
before returning an acquittal. As one of them told a reporter, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop,
it wouldn't have took that long."
This is the fetid truth behind the flowery words, the stinking fact much of the nation would
prefer not to know.
But by her very presence, a murdered boy's mother demanded that we be better than that, demanded
that we be, at least and at last, brave enough to face the horrors we have made and that have, in
turn, made us.
Mamie Till Mobley was 81 years old at the time of her death. Her only child was 14 at the time of