This is America: Becoming Mamie
On summer vacation in Mississippi from Illinois, a fourteen year old boy, too young to help his older relatives pick cotton in the fields, hopped in a car with his cousins to go into town and buy stuff with their day's earnings. This was 1955. Jim Crow was law and the accompanying decorum was understood. But Emmett Till was from Chicago. And he was known as a prankster - haphazardly mischievous. Maybe Emmett thought it would be impressive to throw a whistle at a white woman, so he did. Seven days later his body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River.
"Sheriff Strider wanted an immediate burial because he knew it wouldn't be good for the state of Mississippi. And the only way you could stop people from seeing was to bury it...get it out of sight. I don't know what authority he had to bury my son, but he took that authority." - Mamie Till
Mamie snatched that authority back and rallied for her son's body to be brought home to Chicago. It arrived with a seal from the state of Mississippi ordering the box that carried her son to remain locked. She saw the edict and demanded a hammer. Not only did Ms. Mamie open the casket, she kept it open for the entire country to witness.
"I saw his tongue had been choked out and it was lying down on his chin. I saw that his [right] eye was out and it was lying about midway to cheek. I looked at his [left] eye and it was gone. I looked at the bridge of his nose and it looked like someone had taken a meat chopper and chopped it. And I looked at his teeth because I had taken so much pride in his teeth. His teeth were the prettiest things I had ever seen. I only saw two...where are the rest of them? They had just been knocked out. I was looking at his ears. His ears were like mine. They curled. They're not attached and they curl up, the same way mine are. And I didn't see the ear. Where's the ear? And that's when I discovered a hole...and I could see daylight on the other side. I said, 'Now was it necessary to shoot him? If that's a bullet hole, was that necessary?' I also discovered that they had taken an axe and they had gone straight down across his head. The face and the back of the head were separate."
When the event made national news, Mamie received hate "mail by the bushel" including pictures of castrated male sexual organs and bomb threats. When she appeared in Mississippi for the trial, children pointed toy guns at her from the windowsills of their homes shouting, "Bang! Bang! Bang" while their fathers smirked. On trial, the defense insisted that the death of Emmett Till was a conspiracy of Mamie's own making, in order for her to cash in on an insurance policy. This grotesque circus of racism ended in a "not guilty' verdict for the two men accused of, and who later who confessed to, the lynching Emmett Till.
Additional Reading Recommendation: Death of Innocence by Mamie Till-Mobley.
The Back Story is a photo essay series documenting performers in process across Amsterdam. Words & Pictures by Malika Ali Harding.