The remains of Bryant's Grocery as captured in 2009. Photo by WhisperToMe is in the public domain. Photo transformation by Emerald staff.

FICTION: The Murder of Emmett Till

by Kathya Alexander

The day that the modern Civil Rights movement begin was the day when them white men kill Emmett Till. His mama, Mamie, was sitting on the sofa in her little house on the South Side of Chicago when the call come in that would change her life. Her child was missing from her granddaddy’s house. 

It was Willie Mae who called, not Mr. Mose. The white men who took Emmett had told Mose not to report a thing he seen or heard. So it was Curtis Jones who call the Leflore County Sheriff. And then Willie Mae call Mamie at 9:30 that morning to tell her what had happen to her only son.

Willie Mae said some white men had come and took him about 2:30 a.m. that Sunday morning. Mamie was still in the bed and was fast asleep, but what Willie Mae was saying sho’ did wake her up quick.

“They done got Bo,” Willie Mae had said. 

“What you say?” Mamie said, trying to clear her head.

“They come and took him out of the bed. It was Mr. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. Bryant claim Bo whistled at Miz Carolyn, his wife. So they took him out in the middle of the night.”

“Tell Daddy Mose to call Mama. I’m going over there now.” 

And Mamie went and fell into her mama’s arms. She say every bad thing that ever happen in her life, her mama got her out of. And so this time, she couldn’t think of nothing else to do. So she put on her dress and she put on her shoes and high tail it over to Miz Irma’s house. She call her first and tell her what’s going down. By the time that Mamie get to her mama’s, Irma was on the phone and had a pot of coffee brewing on the stove. 

Soon as Mamie walk in the door, Miz Irma folded her daughter in both of her arms. Mamie say she could feel her mama’s virtue leave her. Just like the woman who had touched Jesus had felt when she touch the hem of His garment. Like her mama was letting her suck her life out of her. So Mamie would have the strength she needed to do all the things her mama knowed she was facing. 

After she hug her mama, Mamie was ready to work. Her first call was to the NAACP. She get ahold of Mr. Medgar Evers. He was over the NAACP in Mississippi. What happen over them next three days was like a blur. But Mamie gave all of her energy into finding that boy. 

Mr. Medgar Evers put in a call to Mr. Amzie Moore. He was the leader of the NAACP chapter in Bolivar County. They find Emmett’s 14-year-old body three days later in the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River. He had a cotton gin fan wrapped in barb wire and tied around his neck to hold him down. 

Curtis Jones call and tell his mama, Mamie, they had found her child dead in Money, Mississippi. She’d been waiting for the call for three days. Ever since Willie Mae first call and tell her Bo was missing. 

You could hear her scream all over the building. She dropped the phone. Didn’t want to hold it no more. This instrument of pain and death. She realize she had been holding out hope that maybe they would find him alive. Even tho she knew the chances was that her child was dead. 

But as a mother you can’t bring yourself to even have a thought like that. Maybe they put him out on a road somewhere, she’d thought those three days to herself. And because he didn’t know the surrounding area, she thought he was out there somewhere wandering alone in the dark. Tired, hungry, and scared. That was bad enough but to think he was dead was too much for her exhausted brain to even fathom. 

Her mama come into the room she sitting in and grab her chile in both her arms. She didn’t need to ask. She knowed what was wrong. Unlike her daughter, she’d growed up in the south. So she knowed it wasn’t a snowball chance in hell that Emmett was still alive. She’d tried to prepare Mamie. But, quite natural, her daughter didn’t want to believe that her child was dead. 

Mamie drop down to the floor. She was in a heap. Curled up in a ball, her tears was soaking into her mama’s shag carpet. She kept pulling her hair and saying, no no no, Lord. 

The sheriff, he wanted to bury Emmett right off. 

“You have no authority to bury my son,” Mamie told the sheriff. And she stopped the funeral. They was trying to bury him before the Pullman Porters could get his body on the train to Chicago. 

The grave was dug. The body in a pine box. But Mamie said, “I want the whole world to see what they did to my son.” And Jet Magazine run a picture in the paper of his mutilated body. Miz Mamie said when she seen the coffin, she dropped to the floor. Her legs wouldn’t hold her. 

They had took the body to A.A. Rayner Funeral Home when he got to Chicago. Mr. Rayner told her that he could not open up the coffin. 

“Can’t open the coffin?” Miz Mamie said. “After all the money that I done spent getting my child back home? I got to see. If you won’t open it, then just give me a hammer and I will open it for myself.”

“I’ll call you when he ready,” Mr. Rayner said. Two hours later, Mr. Rayner call back. He tell her to come. She could see him now. 

The odor met her three blocks away. It was so strong she couldn’t hardly take it. “What in the world is that?” Miz Mamie said. Never once ever thinking that it was her child.

First she looked at his eyes, and one of them was gone. The other one was hanging by skin and bone to a place that was right around his cheek. The next thing she check was her child’s teeth. He had the prettiest teeth that you ever seen. But when she looked, there was only two teeth in his head. 

Then she looked at his ears. They ears was the same. Curled up at the end and not attached to any thang. But Mamie say she didn’t see his ear. 

“I wonder what could have happened there,” Miz Mamie thought. All she seen was a hole. And then Mamie see daylight shining bold thru from the other side. They had took a axe and went straight down from the top of his head. His face and the back of his head was separate. 

Mr. Rayner ask if she want a open casket. 

And she said, “Yes.” 

And that’s what started the Civil Rights Movement as we know it. When photographs of his mutilated corpse circulated around the country, thousands would come and stand outside the mortuary. And thousands more attended Emmett Till’s funeral. 

According to Newsweek and The Nation, his funeral aroused Chicago’s Black community like nothing else had ever done. Now it wasn’t just Black men. It was our sons that was being lynched and burned and killed. The NAACP got a anti-lynching bill passed. Now this was in 1955. All because of a woman who let her son — no, let herself — be shown at her most vulnerable. It touched people’s hearts and it changed the nation. 

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home
A long way from home

Editors’ Note: A previous version stated that Emmett Till was killed in 1951. The article was updated on 11/12/2021 with the correct year of 1955.

Kathya Alexander is a writer, actor, storyteller, and teaching artist. Her writing has appeared in various publications like ColorsNW Magazine and Arkana Magazine. She has won multiple awards including the Jack Straw Artist Support Program Award. Her collection of short stories, Angel In The Outhouse, is available on Amazon.

📸 Featured Image: The remains of Bryant’s Grocery as captured in 2009. Photo by WhisperToMe is in the public domain. Photo transformation by Emerald staff.

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