Revisiting the Life and Murder of Emmett Till

We can never forget of the anguish and terror Mamie Till Mobley felt as she went through the horrific details of identifying the body of her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till. It is in those details that should serve as a constant reminder what it was like to be black and living in America when the value of African Americans as human beings were construed to be nothing more than the earthly soil they walked on.

In “Death of Innocence,” the book Mamie Till Mobley wrote about the surroundings of her son’s death, upon seeing the body the first time, she said it didn’t even seem to be human and “looked like something out of a horror movie.” To this day, the veil left by the brutal death of Till has not been completely lifted. Till’s accused killers got off, acquitted by an all-white jury.

Life for African Americans in 1955, particularly those who lived in the South, was much different than it is today. Interracial dating has become a woven fabric in today’s society. Back when the Chicago-born Till lived, a black man would pay dearly if he was even caught looking at a white woman, let alone date one.

In Till’s case, the burly black teenager paid the ultimate penalty for being born with the wrong skin color, visiting the wrong place in time, and doing wrong thing in the eyes of his killers. And that would be, allegedly, publicly displaying some sort of affection towards a white woman.

Till’s story has always fascinated noted playwright Ifa Bayeza. A child of the civil rights movement, Bayeza took all this into consideration when she began to develop a play about the life of the teenager.

The aftermath of hate crime left Emmett Till's body unrecognizable.
The aftermath of hate crime left Emmett Till’s body unrecognizable.

She wanted to know who Emmett Till was. What was he like as a young man? Bayeza felt none this had been explored before when folks thought about Till. All they saw was a picture of a young black teenager who was inhumanely beaten and shot to death. There was no real examination of Till as a young person. Bayeza wanted to share that side of Till to the public. Thus, the idea for Bayeza’s play “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” was born.

“Emmett’s death was a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement,” Bayeza said.

Bayeza grew up in the time period where racist Jim Crow laws reigned high and wide. Segregation, seen through the prism of separate dining areas, restrooms and water fountains for black and white folks, ruled the country, particularly in the South. This is where cross-burning, degradation, lynching and the killing of blacks either went ignored or brushed over. This was a time period where blacks hopped off the sidewalk to make room for any whites wanting to occupy that space. It was also a time where black men were forbidden from taking up with a white woman, let alone look at one in a lustful way.

If they did, death or a brutal beating at the hands of white men was as sure as the unequal laws that governed the land. Emmett Till was not aware of those consequences. It would turn out to be his fate.

By now, people are familiar with the story of Till, whose gruesome death at the hands of white vigilantes jump started the Civil Rights Movement months before Rosa Parks made her decision not to move to the back of the bus. Most folks don’t know that the young Till was just a freewheeling teenager who knew no boundaries, even when it came to adhering to the racist and segregated Jim Crow laws of the South.

A lot of people do know that Till made the mistake of allegedly whistling or speaking at a white woman. He was later kidnapped from his uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi and brutally murdered with his naked body badly decomposing in the Tallahatchie River.

Everybody knows how his mother sparked outrage into the killing by valiantly refusing to close her son’s casket during the funeral. She wanted the world to share her pain. The world felt that pain. But in the telling of the Emmett Till story, the teenager’s voice is usually drowned out by the racial background of exclusion and hate.

That’s not the case with Bayeza’s stage play, “The Ballad OF Emmett Till,” which has crissed-crossed the country to play in different venues the last couple of years. Bayeza does a masterful job of telling Till’s story through his own voice. In order to share this unique perspective with audiences, Bayeza went and did her homework, interviewing over two dozen of relatives and friends who knew Till.

The consensus of those people told Bayeza that Till loved to talk and tell jokes. “I done a lot of research and talked with a lot of his relatives,” Bayeza said in an interview prior to the showing’s opening in Los Angeles last year. “I spoke with some of his friends, cousins and classmates. Everybody said he had a great, great sense of humor. He liked to tell jokes. I am telling Emmett’s story. This project has taught me so much. I am confident that this is something that I am supposed to do. I’ve chosen to tell the story of the son, not the mother.”

Bayeza’s superb storytelling of Till’s young life allows audience to intimately get to know more about the young man than his tragic demise. The “Ballad of Emmett Till,” which picked up several acting awards, is not a play you can forget. The play takes you on such an emotional roller coaster, once it ends, you’re not sure if you want to cry, laugh or applaud at the same time.

Bayeza was three-years-old at the time of Till’s death. Growing up during the era of segregation, Bayeza knows all too well the story of a black person having to justify their existence. She recalls going from a segregated all-black school to an interracial classroom and what that felt like.

“I literally felt that anxiety of being different,” Bayeza said. “I went through that transition of going from segregation to integration.”

Bayeza also stated that the life and death of Emmett Till is simply an American story that should never be forgotten.

“He became that story your parents talked about and what we were battling against,” Bayeza said. “What happened to Emmett (Till) was a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement. [Right now] There’s not an appreciation of what our people went through.”

This article was originally written and published by Dennis J. Freeman in 2011. The article was re-posted to mark the 60th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder. Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s home on Aug. 28, 1955. His body was found a couple of days later. “The Ballad of Emmett Till” is scheduled to play at the Renaissance Theaterworks in Milwaukee, WI from October 23 to November 15, 2015.

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