The re-opening of the Emmett Till case (particularly the exhumation of his grave this week) has me thinking about the song “In the Mississippi River:” It was written in 1964 (during Freedom Summer) by Marshall Jones and Matthew Jones, two civil rights workers working for SNCC. The Jones brothers were members of the Freedom Singers. You can hear them sing it on Let My People Go! A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom, among other places.
The song refers to the bodies of black men law enforcement officers discovered as they dragged rivers in search of missing civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. (If anyone can find lyrics online, please comment).
“In the Mississippi River” has a haunting quality, apart from its subject matter. You hear a lone voice raise the beginning of the song, then it’s joined by another, bringing harmony but also bearing witness in a way that reminds me of the court testimony of Till’s uncle, Mose Wright, who bravely pointed at the defendants when asked who had killed Till: What he is saying is true. I have seen that too. There he is.
Then, backing vocals join for the counting, which is straightforward:
You can count them, one by one
It could be your son
Count them, two by two
It could be me or you
These counting lines have a solemn, repetitive, plodding movement to them—as sense of rolling inevitability, like slow-moving pallbearers. It's clear that the singers were acknowledging the reality: in some times and some places, a black person was only a misunderstanding, a perceived transgression, or a mere whim’s distance from a violent death. The music has a spare urgency to it, a testament in part to its rural roots, but also to the plainness of the truth. There are ad-libbed references to the Tallahatchie River. That’s a reference to Till’s murder.
The Emmett Till story is one that I’ve always felt deeply connected to. Although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this might be, I’m still not completely sure. The obvious reason is that Till was killed when he was 14, and I was a child when I first encountered the story. I don’t think there’s a good age to discover things like this, but I was probably a little too young when I first read about Till—younger than 10. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and as a result I could read and understand things I didn’t necessarily have the emotional maturity to process (although I don’t think I’ll ever be able to process this).
As I got older, I saw how my handsome, quick-witted and charming brothers interacted with people of all races—and how that contrasted with my Southern-bred grandfather, and the care he took to address everyone with titles, even in informal settings and among young people. (My brother pointed out that Grandpa had called his friends “sir.”) It made me think of how precious little margin for error there was for people my grandfather’s age, when it came to interacting with White people.
Later, as a college student, I went to the site of the store where the incident began. I know people who have a very keen sense of spiritual discernment—who can perceive the presence of spiritual forces. I wouldn’t describe myself this way, but I did sense the presence of evil while I was there—and I honestly believe I would have been able to sense it even if I didn’t know the story behind this small, unmarked abandoned building with rusted metal signage. When I visited Chicago, I saw The State of Mississippi and the Face of Emmett Till, the play Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley wrote with David Barr III. Years later, I found myself in an unfamiliar part of Chicago and ended up crossing Emmett Till Road on my way to someplace else. For some reason, this story has never let me go. I’m fascinated with it, even as I try to keep myself from looking at the photos of Till’s mangled face.
I had hoped to interview Mrs. Till-Mobley someday, but she passed away in 2003. Her insistence that her son have an open-casket funeral forced the world to see what racism could cause people to do, even to a child. The news coverage of this story was instrumental in helping people reach the “breaking point” that led to the Civil Rights movement in the south. Her bravery in attending the murder “trial” and even giving press comments about it was striking. She continued to share her son’s story until her death. Her gravesite is next to her son’s. I can’t help but think of Mary when I think of the struggles Mrs. Till-Mobley faced and the strength she displayed. May her struggle and the story of her son Emmett Louis Till never be forgotten.
Folk singer Bob Dylan wrote and recorded a song about Emmett Till. Lyrics are posted here.
Information about Keith Beauchamp’s documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, which has been instrumental in the reopening of the case. Here’s an interview with Beauchamp.