Nearly a half-century ago, a woman named Mamie Till Mobley made a harrowing personal decision in a moment of unimaginable anguish, and from it came an important catalyst for the American civil rights movement.
Mrs. Till Mobley, who died this week at the age of 81, was the mother of Emmett Till, although she called her 14-year-old boy "Bobo." She never set out to be a civil rights leader, but the way she handled her son's barbaric death at the hands of two white Mississippi men on Aug. 28, 1955, did a great deal to arouse previously uninterested northern media in the plight of southern blacks.
Here are the last moments of Bobo's life, as recounted by the writer William Bradford Huie in 1956 for Look magazine. (Huie paid the 235-pound J.W. "Big" Milam, 36, and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, 24, for their story after a jury acquitted them. Double jeopardy laws prevented further prosecution.)
Milam: "Take off your clothes."
Slowly, Bobo sat down, pulled off his shoes, his socks. He stood up, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his pants, his shorts.
He stood there naked.
It was Sunday morning, a little before 7 a.m.
Milam: "You still as good as I am?"
Milam: "You still had white women?"
That big .45 jumped in Big Milam's hand. The youth turned to catch that big, expanding bullet at his right ear. He dropped.
They barb-wired the gin fan to his neck, rolled him into 20 feet of water.
For three hours that morning, there was a fire in Big Milam's back yard: Bobo's crepe soled shoes were hard to burn.
72 hours later -- 8 miles downstream -- boys were fishing. They saw feet sticking out of the water. Bobo.
When the news came, Mrs. Till Mobley, then 33, insisted deputies ship Emmett's corpse home on the Illinois Central. She called Jet and Ebony magazines and the Chicago Defender newspaper. She wanted the world to see what two white men had done to her only child. And she insisted that his casket be open.
Thousands lined the streets outside the Chicago funeral home. Thousands more walked past the open casket. They wept. They wailed. They seethed.
Photographers snapped close-ups of a boy's body so disfigured that the human eye instinctively turns away. Those hideous pictures galvanized a nation.
All but two of Bobo's teeth were missing. His ear was gone, an eye detached, his face and body horribly swollen after 72 hours in the Tallahatchie River.
His crime? This young black boy from Chicago spending the summer with relatives didn't really understand Jim Crow. To impress friends, he talked fresh or whistled at (it's disputed) a married white woman in Money, Miss.
"It is difficult to measure just how profound an effect the public viewing of Till's body created," Studs Terkel wrote in his 1992 book "Race." "But without question it moved black America in a way the Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation could not match. Contributions to the NAACP's 'fight fund,' the war chest to help victims of racial attacks, reached record levels."
The first time I heard Emmett Till's story, I was awestruck that a mother could fight through her grief to ensure that her son's death would serve a greater purpose. Emmett Till's life would not be tossed away like a candy wrapper.
Until about a year ago, Emmett Till's mother existed only in my pantheon of heroes. I never dreamed I would speak to her. But when my favorite niece asked for ideas for a school history paper, I mentioned the Till story. Why not call his mother, I suggested. "Isn't she dead?" asked Lydia, then 17. "Do you think she would really talk to me?"
I found Mrs. Till Mobley on the Internet, dialed directory information and called. She sounded lonely. Her husband, Gene Mobley, had died in 2000 from a stroke. Gene Mobley had gone with her to the train station back in 1955 to pick up Emmett's body. He was there when the young war widow collapsed, wailing: "Lord, take my soul."
If Emmett had been alive when I called, he would have been 60. He could have cared for his mother, who navigated her last years in a wheelchair and lived alone. "I'm still good from the neck up," she told me. "But I can't get around at all by myself. I have to have someone come and pick me up and take me places." She didn't eat much, and when she did, she used paper plates.
"But I have not spent one minute hating," she said. I cringed when she spoke the name "Big Milam," as if he were an old friend. While Milam and Bryant never apologized or even spoke to Mrs. Till Mobley, their shadows followed her.
She agreed to talk with Lydia. But only if I made a donation to the Emmett Till Foundation. Sewer water now flooded her son's Chicago grave and she wanted to move it. She asked how much I could donate. She'd been speaking all over the country about her son, she explained, and usually commanded $100 for a one-hour phone interview. I thought my niece might need 15 minutes, tops.
"Is $25 okay?" I asked gingerly.
"How about $50?" she shot back.
Sure. Fifty dollars wasn't too much for a hero.
The writer, a media critic, recently received a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, where she studied the influence of the press on the civil rights movement.