A retired Chicago public school teacher. In 1955 her fourteen-year-old son, Emmett Till, was killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was her only child. Two white men, Roy Bryant and J. W. "Big" Milam, were accused of the murder. Though the evidence against them was overwhelming, they were acquitted by an all-white jury. The case had international repercussions and is still considered a significant prelude to the civil-rights movement. This conversation took place in September of 2000, forty-five years later.
"Emmett just barely got on that train to Mississippi. We could hear the whistle blowing. As he was running up the steps, I said, 'Bo,'—that's what I called him—'you didn't kiss me. How do I know I'll ever see you again?' He turned around and said, 'Oh, Mama.' Gently scolding me. He ran down those steps and gave me a kiss. As he turned to go up the steps again, he pulled his watch off and said, 'Take this, I won't need it.' I said, 'What about your ring?' He was wearing his father's ring for the first time. He said, 'I'm going to show this to my friends.' That's how we were able to identify him, by that ring. I think it was a Mason's ring.
"I got four letters from him in a week's time. My aunt in Mississippi wrote me a long letter in praise of him. How he helped her in her kitchen, with the washing machine, preparing the meals. The way he did things at home. He'd say, 'Mama, if you can go out and make the money, I can take care of the house.' He cleaned, he shopped for groceries, he washed. Do you remember when Tide came out? It was in 1953, two years before he went to Mississippi. He told me about the advertisement: 'Tide's in, dirt's out.' All the neighbors knew him.
"I didn't know what happened to him until the following Sunday.
"I'm a seventy-eight-year-old woman. I have lived all my life being brought up in the church. I feel that I'm a very strong woman. When I lost my son, that's when I found out that I really had two feet and I had to stand on my own feet. I had to stand and be a woman.
"There was nobody around who could really help me. Everybody was so in tears. I had to calm them down. They couldn't help me if they were going to be hollering and screaming. So I found out, in 1955, that I was very capable of getting the job done, even though I couldn't see for the tears.
"I was able to get it done.
"The spirit spoke to me and said, 'Go to school and be a teacher. I have taken one, but I shall give you thousands.' I have to identify that as a spirit being bigger than I am. I was the only one hearing that voice.
"I had ordered Emmett's body brought back to Chicago. It was in three boxes. He was in a box that was in a box that was in a box. Each had the Mississippi seal and a padlock on it. It was the biggest box I'd ever seen in my life.
"I said to the undertaker, 'Give me a hammer. I'm gonna break that seal. I'm gonna go into that box. I don't know what I'm burying. It could be a box full of rocks. It could be cement. It could be dirt. I've got to verify it is my son in that box.'
"They had laid him out on the cooling board. His body was still in the body bag. [She has difficulty, weeps. A long pause.] The undertaker unzipped the bag. And that's when I saw all that lime. They hosed him down. And, oh, my God, I knew what that odor was by then. It was not the lime. That was my son I was smelling.
"I glanced at his head and it was such a mess up there, I just had to turn away. I started at his feet. I knew certain characteristics about him. I knew how his knees looked. I knew how his ankles and feet looked. I made my trip from his feet up to his midsection, identifying what I could.
"And then I saw this long tongue hanging out of his mouth. What on earth? They were looking for me to fall out, and I told them, 'Turn me loose. I've got a job to do.' I said, 'I can't faint now.' I began a real minute examination. I looked at his teeth, and there were only about four of them left. He had such beautiful teeth. I moved on up to the nose. And it looked like somebody had taken a meat cleaver and had just chopped the bridge of his nose. Pieces had fallen out. When I went to look at his eyes, this one was lying on his cheek. But I saw the color of it. I said, 'That's my son's eye.' I looked over at the other and it was as if somebody had taken a nut picker and just picked it out. There was no eye. I went to examine his ears. If you'll notice, my ears are detached from my face and they kind of curl on the end. And his did too. There was no ear. It was gone. I was looking up the side of his face and I could see daylight on the other side. I said, 'Oh, my God.' The tears were falling and I was brushing tears away because I had to see.
"Later, I was reading the Scriptures. And it told how Jesus had been led from judgment hall to judgment hall all night long. How he had been beaten. And so much that no man would ever sustain the horror of his beating. That his face was just in ribbons. And I thought about it and I said, 'Lord, do you mean to tell me that Emmett's beating did not equal the one that was given to Jesus?' And I said, 'My God, what must Jesus have suffered?'
"And then I thought about some of the pictures we see, where he had this neat little crown of thorns and you see a few rivulets of blood coming down. But his face is intact. And according to Scriptures, that is not true. His visage was scarred more than any other man's had ever been or will be.
"And that's when I really was able to assess what Jesus had given for us, the love he had for us.
"And I saw Emmett and his scars. Lord, I saw the stigmata of Jesus. The spirit spoke to me plainly as I'm talking to you now. Jesus had come and died that we might have a right to eternal life or eternal hell or damnation. Emmett had died that men might have freedom here on earth. That we might have a right to life.
"That was my darkest moment, when I realized that that huge box had the remains of my son. I sent a very lovable boy on a vacation. Emmett, who knew everybody in the neighborhood. They'd call him whenever they wanted something done. 'Mom, I gotta go help Mrs. Bailey.' He was the block's messenger boy.
"What might have been? He's never far from my mind. If Jesus Christ died for our sins, Emmett Till bore our prejudices, so ..."