Emmett Till’s murder was proof the rules hadn’t really changed. But things didn’t stay the same.
Courtesy Ronne B. Hartfield
In the middle of our mother’s adult life, little Emmett Till was murdered. Barely 14 years old, he was still teetering on the precipice of adolescence. And it was that chubby, big-eyed brown boy from the South Side of Chicago who was beaten without mercy and thrown into a ditch down in Money, Mississippi, on the outskirts of Greenwood. Little Emmett Till was lynched just as that word was fading from our memory. Lynched in the most fearsome manner, just like old-time Negroes used to tell stories about. For flirting, “taking liberties,” with a young white woman, is what the newspapers said.
When it happened in the summer of 1955 I was 19 years old, and I had known Emmett. His family lived almost next door to my aunt Nettie, one of the Lehmann cousins, and her husband, my uncle Bennie Ransom, had watched over him along with our rambunctious cousin Junior, who had been a constant playmate of Emmett’s. They were two of a kind, those boys. Those who knew him well believed the story that Emmett had whistled at a white girl. Why not? Emmett was saucy, insouciant, what we called, with a twinkle, “mannish.” He had the kind of audacity people like us applauded. What Emmett’s mother said was that she had taught her son to whistle as a means of coping with his stammering problem—when he couldn’t form a consonant, he would whistle. What none of us realized was that the rules in the South hadn’t changed as much as anybody thought, and those rules still did not allow for audacity in a black boy. Especially when it came to whistling—whether intentional or not—near a white woman.
Things had been in an uproar since Thurgood Marshall’s 1954 victory in Brown v. Board of Education. Indeed a thin thread of “What will they do now?” anxiety lurked beneath the triumph felt in communities of color when the seminal Supreme Court decision came down, ordering the desegregation of all schools in this country, those in Mississippi included. People wondered whether the astonished white population of the South would do something crazy in retaliation or just sit it out and hope that what they characterized as an outrage would somehow go away.
But for the people in our neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, the murder of little Louis Emmett Till was not simply about civil rights or desegregation or anybody’s court case. This was personal. This was a little black boy whose hard-working parents had made a home in a nice neighborhood in the North. They had left behind night riders and Jim Crow, but they sent their children Down Home every summer just like everybody did, to be coddled by grandparents and praised by extended family, and to keep in touch with the old, nurturing ways. Just like everybody. This is why the terrible newspaper and television images of Emmett’s bloated, massacred little body sent shock waves through all of our homes and churches, and why the massive response that ensued sent so many thousands to the funeral home and to their own neighborhood churches to grieve and to rage. My mother said flatly that we all had a part in it because as colored people we had let Emmett down, because we hadn’t cautioned him or counseled him, because we had nearly forgotten the dark terrors of the South we had left behind.
People, especially the young, spoke of a possible riot, and workplaces where black and white worked side by side pretty comfortably grew tense and silent—it was understood that the least wrong word could inflame somebody. My own white friends were social and political liberals, and they joined us in anger, deploring what had happened, but the horror and pain suffered by people of color was different—Emmett’s murder was rooted in collective memory. It was Billie Holiday’s “strange fruit,” it was the Scottsboro Boys, it was lived stories choked at the backs of the throats of men like my own father. Dray Rone had fled Louisiana in dread of what the persistent and unwanted attentions of a local white girl might bring down upon him. It was all of this darkness and all of this helpless terror to be lived out yet again.
Those with deep remembrance just shook their heads and said, “Uh-huh.” Too many people had lulled themselves into thinking such things would never happen again. I had just graduated from the University of Chicago and was working downtown in a sophisticated publishing company. Like many young black college graduates of my time, I had thought myself en route to an enlightened, color-free existence. Emmett’s murder changed that. My parents and their friends spoke of little else for weeks. Gradually, though, even that atrocity receded from kitchen-table conversation, because by the end of the year all talk was now riveted on Montgomery, Alabama.
Just before the year was out, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a dignified colored lady in that profoundly segregated city, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, igniting more than a decade of radical change. Something called the civil-rights movement was formally begun, and it swept through the nation, with Chicago in its wake. Our mother and father were puzzled by the growing unrest among what they still called colored people. They admired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because of the brilliance of his speech, both formal and informal, and because of what conveyed itself as true conviction, an encomium reserved for only a few in Day’s world. Malcolm X’s obvious thoughtful, informed intelligence impressed them as well. They were the kind of people who thought Islam, no matter what brand, a profoundly foreign construct, but even the televised sit-ins and marches and the huge church-based protests were startlingly new to their thinking.
These were people who had been raised to pursue their own paths and to take care of their family, not to join mass movements. The civil-rights movement attracted so many people of all ages and colors, who found hope, meaning, and power in binding their individual lives to the group struggle, but Day could never sway with the prevailing winds of collective possibility. She harbored a fundamental distrust that her individual interests would be clearly perceived, not to mention well served, by any group. This was the same woman who had trusted her intuitive thinking enough to marry the man she loved, contravening the advice and judgment of even her closest family. As well, this was the same woman whose father had obstinately created another way home for his colored family, in opposition to his mother’s will and to the mores of his community. Day Shepherd Rone was a radical individualist by heritage as well as inclination.
Television brought the change right into all of our homes, and for perhaps the first time in their experience, our parents had to rely on their children to help make sense of the world, rather than vice versa. The slogans of Black Power that later swept through the land seemed radically unrealistic to these Southerners, who only knew the path of gradual improvement of one’s lot by means of private endeavor. They had never made the linguistic and political transition from the descriptive term colored to Negro, and they never did make the term black a part of their lexicon. Over many evenings we talked about this new world, building bridges with articles and books. Still, our mother and father remained permanently uncertain about activism as a strategy for freedom or dignity.
In the 1960s Chicago was one of the nation’s most kinetic hubs of civil-rights activity, arguably the single most important Northern center. Dr. King was in and out of the city regularly until he finally moved his family here in the middle of the decade. Ralph Abernathy, who was to be Dr. King’s successor as the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), came here for strategy meetings, as did Southern leaders like Andrew Young, C. T. Vivian, Jim Bevel, Ed Riddick, and others. I met many of these intense, impassioned young ministers on one occasion or another and was mesmerized by the power of their conviction. Northern activists with names that were to become legendary, Jesse Jackson, Al Raby, and Dick Gregory, were critical in breaking through the stony walls of corporate resistance to affirmative action, in forcing improvements in school conditions, and in demanding new jobs and contracts for black workers. They organized citizens’ associations such as Operation Push and Operation Breadbasket, and held strategy sessions at the Urban Training Center led by charismatic Episcopal priest James Morton, who later called many of these leaders to the pulpit at Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John. Their calls for justice attracted other white civil-rights workers, too, including Roman Catholic priests like Father Groppi from Milwaukee and antiwar activists like the Berrigan brothers from New York City.
Young people I knew were swept along by the brilliant, dedicated dynamism of these leaders, who convinced us that we could—and would—change our world. Here they all were, gathered right here in Chicago to crystallize what had come to be called simply the Movement. Our parents listened with interest to our recountings of what was happening in their city, but they never came to share our sense of the Movement’s promise.
Any incipient empathies Day might have had concerning the civil-rights movement were brought to an end by two traumatic events, one public and one private. First, in 1963 President John F. Kennedy was shot dead. He was the public figure who had helped to bridge the old world she had understood and this confusing new one with its organizing and marching and all those people singing out in the streets. Jack Kennedy was the first American president she had felt any connection to since FDR, and she thought he had some backbone. He had spoken out for civil rights, as had his spunky younger brother, whom she, like everyone else, called Bobby. She liked the Kennedy mystique, liked it that this president was a young man with a young family, and television images of his little son playing under his desk made her smile. Jack Kennedy had spoken out for many things she believed in, and then he got shot in the head, right there in Dallas, Texas, that city of rednecks, while he was riding in the parade car with his young wife sitting right next to him. The nation grieved, of course, but for Day the assassination had a personal weight to it. She sensed a connection between the events preceding Kennedy’s murder, with all of the marching and the singing, and the events in Dallas. To her way of thinking, if the whole country hadn’t been in so much disorder, the assassination would not have happened. Her political understandings were naive, but she believed firmly that chaos breeds chaos.
Then early the next year the order she worked so desperately to maintain within her private world was profoundly threatened. Our father was frighteningly sick with cancer. He had still been strong at 64, still a tease—he liked to call our mother Molly after Fibber McGee’s nagging wife in the radio program—and his slow dying left Day without an echoing voice to mirror her confusion over all of this newness, without a partner who would remember with her the way things used to be. Her children had embraced this changing world to which she would never find a key. Our mother had watched the television images of Bull Connor’s dogs and covered her eyes as fire hoses propelled black bodies into the air. In 1964, when the four little girls died in the bombing of their Birmingham Sunday school, our mother thought barbarism in this land had gone as low as it could go. She couldn’t understand why people couldn’t just stop all the craziness that had brought things to a point none of us could believe. The right to vote, the right to go to unsegregated schools, the opportunity for better jobs, none of it was worth the lives of little children. She determined to stop looking at the television news.
As our father’s life drained away, she was left with too many memories of days that for a long time had made some kind of sense, with leftover life to find a way through by herself, and this thing called the Movement seemed to be moving the whole world except for her. Ultimately she would settle herself with the changes, as she had managed to do in other times, but she was never to overcome the feelings of alienation and estrangement from those issues that were now a national obsession.
Ronne B. Hartfield, AB’55, AM’82, is a museum consultant
and the former women’s board endowed executive director of museum
education at the Art Institute of Chicago. This essay first appeared as
Chapter 17, “Strange Fruit,” in Another Way Home: The Tangled
Roots of Race in One Chicago Family. © 2004 by Ronne Hartfield.
With permission of the publisher, the University of Chicago Press.