Till Mobley, Mamie and Benson, Christopher. Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America

Article excerpt

New York: Random House, 2003.

Death of Innocence, written by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, details the events surrounding her son-Emmett Till's, murder. The book portrays the emotional and political condition of America throughout the Civil Rights Movement era. Mrs. Till-Mobley puts the murder and the subsequent trial in a greater context, showing the role those events had in inspiring participation, particularly by the younger generation, to the Civil Rights Movement.

One of the most evident contrasts of the book is that although it intends to tell "the story of the hate crime that changed America," the story is really divided into two parts which depict America before and after Emmett Till's death. The first part is a detailed account of the numerous loving relationships that encompassed both Mamie and Emmett's lives. The backdrop to the hateful acts of Emmett's perpetrators is the loving Chicago community in which he grew up -- a community filled with friends and family members who understood that those very relationships were the key to their survival. It was a community of playgrounds, and mud holes filled with rainwater that were just as alluring as wading pools when transformed by youthful imaginations. It was a community of familial neighbors who waited on their porches at 8:59 each night for their children to return home to meet the 9:00 PM curfew. It was a time filled with celebrations; one so wonderful that Mamie Till-Mobely described it as a "perfect light that you see sometimes just before darkness falls."

Powerful memories of Mamie and Emmett's last days together mark the transition of the story's focus from life in Chicago to the details of the events surrounding Emmett's death. Those memories reveal Mamie's guilt about allowing Emmett to visit Mississippi in spite of her own misgivings. For days before his trip she tried urgently to help Emmett to understand all the cruel conventions of race relations between southern blacks and whites. She reminded him of her generation's Mississippi "cautionary tale":

"...a black woman who brought her little girl to work with her when she cleaned,

cooked, and did laundry for a white family in the South. The little girl became a playmate of the daughter of this white family. One day something happened that upset the little white girl and she ran to her daddy as he came down the drive after work. The man listened to his daughter, then confronted the little black girl, and became so angry with her that he pushed her hard against a tree. Just slammed her. Now, that girl's mother had to finish her day's work before she could even look after her daughter, who was left there writhing in pain the rest of the day. Eventually, the little girl died from her injuries" (19).

Emmett was also impressed upon by others who warned him about the differences between Chicago and Mississippi. One of his cousins even refused to join Emmett on his journey stating, "He couldn't get past all the things he had heard about the South. He didn't want to go." Nothing shook Emmett's excitement and belief that everything would be fine. In those reflective passages Mamie reveals her understanding that it was impossible to "give a crash course in hatred to a boy who [had] only known love."

On August 20, 1955 Emmett boarded the City of New Orleans train to make his fateful trip to a place very different from the world that had become so familiar to him. Mamie Till-Mobley described Mississippi as a "mirror image of the rest of the world. Normal at a glance, until you realized it was all completely backward." The Mississippi that Emmett visited during the last summer of his life was filled with fear and hatred. Mississippi politicians were engaged in a concerted effort to intimidate black citizens and keep them from acting on the Supreme Court ruling that "separate was not equal." In an effort to preserve the racist southern traditions, white politicians went to extreme lengths to prevent blacks from exercising their right to vote or to engage in any activity that might give voice to the idea that the right to vote even existed for blacks. …