BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Christopher Benson, what is "Death of Innocence" about?
CHRISTOPHER BENSON, CO-AUTHOR, "DEATH OF INNOCENCE": "Death of Innocence" is the story of Mamie Till Mobley and her son, Emmett Till. At its heart, it is a mother-and-son story, and it`s one that takes a horribly tragic turn. But at the same time, it`s the story of a mother`s journey, the journey for redemption, the journey to find justice in the horrible, brutal murder of her son.
Emmett Till was 14 years old in 1955 when he traveled from Chicago, his Chicago home, to the Mississippi delta to spend a couple of weeks with relatives. You know, this was going to be the adventure of a lifetime for a kid who is so full of energy and life, the wide, open spaces of the delta and all the wonderful adventures he had heard about.
Within a few days of his arrival, there was an incident that occurred at store in Money, Mississippi. A few days after that, he was kidnapped by white racists in the middle of the night and brutalized over the course of several hours. His body was found several days after that in the Tallahatchie River. And this story really would have ended at that point, as so many other lynchings had ended throughout history, except for the courage of his mother and several key decisions that she made that kept this story alive and shared it with the entire country.
LAMB: How did you get involved in the story?
BENSON: Well, I was introduced to Mamie Till Mobley by a mutual friend. I had grown up knowing something about the story. I was a journalist, and as any journal journalist, I was inquisitive. I wanted to know something about her. I just wanted to meet her. She`s an icon. And so in the course of our discussion at her house, she just blurted out, I want to write a book. I want to write a book.
And I had done a novel already, and my friend knew that. And he said, Well if you want to write a book, maybe you should talk to this guy. He writes books. And that`s how it started. This was June, 2002. And within a month, we were talking seriously about her story. And even before we completed all the legal things that you have to do, we had started working on it in earnest. And six months later, she had died. And thankfully, we had covered the story and were able to move forward with the book that had meant so much to her over the course of nearly 50 years.
LAMB: Why did the name Emmett Till mean something to you?
BENSON: Well, I was 10 years old when I first saw the picture of Emmett Till, the famous picture that was published in a number of periodicals, starting with "Jet" magazine -- they carried it nationally -- and then "The Chicago Defender." The picture of the brutalized body of Emmett Till was publicized around the country and I think left an impression on me. At 10 years old, I was horrified. I mean, I was 10, he was 14. You know, he was so close to my age that it occurred to me that something that had happened that was so horrible to this kid could happen to me.
And in my 10-year-old consciousness, what I saw was that this child had been brutalized, had been murdered, because he was black and that there were people out there who could hate me just because I was black and hurt me. So in a way, the murderers of Emmett Till not only hurt him, his mother and so many people who were close to him, but they victimized so many other people, as well. I mean, looking at that picture has been something of a rite of passage for so many black kids over the course of a couple of generations. It certainly affect my life. It horrified me. And in a way, it stripped away the protection of my childhood.
LAMB: Where did you live?
BENSON: I lived in Chicago. And he was from Chicago, so I felt a commonality there.
LAMB: What were -- how old are you today?
BENSON: I`m 50.
LAMB: And what were your circumstances growing up?
BENSON: Well, you know, we had a difficult set of circumstances. My mother was raising us by herself, and she had to work. So you know, we learned something about what it was like to have to really work hard to succeed. And it wasn`t unlike the experience that Emmett had with his mother, who for many years was -- you know, was the only parent he knew.
LAMB: Now, before I show the picture, for someone who hasn`t seen it, describe what we`re going to see. Where was this picture taken and approximately what date?
BENSON: OK. Emmett`s body was returned to Chicago on the 2nd of September, 1955. And his mother, as I said, made several critical decisions. One was to insist that his body be returned to Chicago. Mississippi authorities wanted his body buried immediately in Mississippi to, I guess, put an end to this story. She insisted that he be returned. So that was the first critical decision. They moved heaven and earth to get his body back.
It came under lock and seal from the state of Mississippi. The box was sealed, and there were orders not to open the box. She insisted that the box be opened because she wanted to look at her son one more time before she buried him. So that was the second critical decision.
And then in the course of looking at the body, she decided that there should be an open-casket funeral, that the world should see the horrible face of race hatred on what had been the beautiful face of her son. So the picture that we included in the book is a picture that was shot of Emmett in the casket by "Jet" magazine and by "The Chicago Defender" that was shared with readers around the country. And what it shows is the condition that Emmett was returned to his mother in, after being in the Tallahatchie River for several days. He was horribly disfigured. He was brutalized. And she, in a very painful way, describes what she saw in the book. But the picture, of course, speaks to that, as well.
LAMB: At the time, who published this picture?
BENSON: It was published in "Jet" magazine and it was also published in "The Chicago Defender," and I think other publications picked it up after that.
LAMB: And since that time, as you went through the research on this, how often did you find it?
BENSON: Well, it`s on the Web. You can look at it on line. Other publications haven`t shown this precise picture. Some have shown a picture of Emmett in the casket from a -- at a distance, and we have that picture, as well, from the balcony of the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, where his funeral was held. So there are different angles on the casket.
LAMB: And you say in the book they had plexiglass around the casket?
BENSON: Yes. It was glass-enclosed.
LAMB: And how many people walked by this casket?
BENSON: It was reported that at least 100,000 people walked by the casket in Chicago. Mother Mobley made a decision, after viewing his body, that she wanted to let him lie in state for four days. And he did. And during the course of the four days, at least 100,000 people filed by. And they were visibly moved. I mean, I`ve seen a documentary since then, and you see the looks on the faces of the people who are about to enter. You see the reaction as they leave. And as Mother Mobley writes, every fifth person needed assistance just to get out of the church. People were fainting. People were crying. They were visibly moved at the sight of his body.
LAMB: So the picture is on the screen. At this stage, he`s how old?
BENSON: He`s 14. He had just made 14, as a matter of fact. He was murdered in August of 1955, and his birthday is in July. So in July of 1955, he had just turned 14.
LAMB: Now, what his mother describes as seeing at the time is not quite what we`re seeing in this picture.
BENSON: Right. He was -- he was brought back to Chicago by A.A. Rayner Funeral Home in the city. And even though she wanted Emmett`s body to be viewed untouched, she wanted the world to see what she had seen, the funeral director there did do something to at least try to prepare him for viewing. But what you see is the best that they could do, apparently.
LAMB: What impact did this have?
BENSON: Well, as I said, people were horrified. I think that -- what you see on the faces of the people who are about to enter the church is a revolve. In some cases, you see anger. You see great pain. But you see a resolve. It`s as if, you know, people are saying, OK, this is where we draw the line. And from what I understand and what she writes about in the book that she heard from so many people is that this is the single event that energized them, that activated so many people to become involved in the Civil Rights movement. And as we know, in 1955, the modern Civil Rights movement was just really taking hold. This was a year after the Brown versus Board of Education decision and the summer that the second part of that decision came down. So people were ready to take a stand as a result of seeing Emmett`s body.
They said, This is as bad as it can possibly get, and we`re going to -- we are determined not to let it get any worse than this. So it energized an entire movement, according to the people who participated. Rosa Parks would later tell Mother Mobley, when they became good friends, that, you know, she was thinking about a good many things when she decided not to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery only three months after the trial of Emmett`s murderers. She was thinking about a good many things, but she was thinking about Emmett Till, as well, and she couldn`t be moved. And so many people have said that they were energized by this and became involved.
There were many people who were Emmett`s age at the time of his murder who came of age at the peak of the Civil Rights movement. As we know, the Civil Rights movement is characterized by the youth, by the young people who participated in the sit-ins and the freedom rides.
LAMB: In the law, was a killer ever found?
BENSON: The -- yes. Two people were put on trial. As I say, an incident occurred at a store in Money, Mississippi. We`re not entirely clear on what happened. But Emmett and some friends and some cousins were at the store.
LAMB: What`s the name of the store?
BENSON: It`s Bryant`s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi.
LAMB: Where is Money?
BENSON: Money is in the Mississippi delta, and Emmett was staying near the town. And you call it a town, but it`s really, as somebody said, a wide place in the road. It was what we might call now a commercial strip, where people live near the city, the town, and Emmett`S relatives lived nearby.
LAMB: If you fly into Memphis -- and I know folks did to get there -- how far is it down I-55 to get there?
BENSON: It`s, from what I understand, about an hour-and-a-half, two hours.
LAMB: You ever been there?
BENSON: No. No. I wanted to go. I wanted to go in September of 2002, but we were working so hard on the book at that time that I didn`t have a chance to go. I wanted to go at that time because he was murdered in August. The trial occurred in September. And I wanted to be there somewhere in that period to experience what it must have been like for Emmett to be there at that time and for his mother to testify at the trial. It didn`t work out then.
After she passed, I was invited to go down again. And at that point, I decided I wouldn`t. I`d wait until after the book was done because I didn`t want my perception, at that point, to color the portrayal that we were putting together for the book. It had to be her story. It had to be her words.
But in answer to your question, there was a trial. The killers were apprehended, and they confessed right away to the county sheriff that they had taken Emmett from the home where he where was staying at 2:00 o`clock in the morning. They said they had come in, they had taken him away, and they wanted to identify him as the person who had done whatever had happened at the store. And they said he was not the right kid, so they let him go, and they let him walk the three miles from Money back to the farm home where he was staying. So they confessed to that much of it.
But they later confessed -- after they were acquitted, they later confessed to the killing, so -- they confessed in great detail to a journalist who wrote a story, a famous story now for "Look" magazine. They didn`t implicate any other people, but there were a number of people who have said since then that there were at least seven, maybe ten people who were involved in this killing, the abduction, the coverup. But there was a trial. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, his half brother, were put on trial for the murder of Emmett Till.
LAMB: And in this picture right here, which one`s which?
BENSON: To my left is Roy Bryant, and the person in the middle is his half brother, J.W. Milam. Roy Bryant owned the store with his wife, Bryant`s Grocery and Meat Market. And on the day Emmett his friends and cousins visited that store, within just a few days of arriving in Mississippi, he -- Roy Bryant was not there. His wife was. And something happened at the store that obviously changed the course of events in history.
It was reported that there was a whistle, and there had been people who have said, Well, Emmett was actually whistling at a checker move on the porch just outside. He was a checker player, and there was always a game going on on the porch outside. He saw a bold move, and he whistled at it. That was one version of the story. Another was that he whistled at the woman, at Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Roy Bryant, as a prank, never knowing what that would have meant in the Mississippi delta in 1955.
And the other version of the story is that he had a terrible stutter. And he had had polio when he was about 5 years old, and while he recovered the full use of his legs, he did have some muscle damage that affected his speech. So he had a stutter that his mother tried to help him work through. She did it in a number of ways, one of which was to get him to stop, steady his breathing by whistling. And there was at least one cousin who was there at the time who told a reporter that when he talked, he sometimes made a whistling sound.
And so, Mamie Till Mobley went to her grave believing that that`s what happened, that in an effort to describe to his friends what he had bought in the store, 2 cents worth of bubble gum, that he had gotten stuck on the word, whistled to get his -- to work his way through it, and that Carolyn Bryant was offended by it, and everything else unfolded from there. And it`s a horrible thing for a mother to consider, that the one thing that she taught her son in the hopes that he would have a better life may have, in the end, have cost him his life. It was a terrible tension for her to carry with her forever.
LAMB: On page 185, when you have Carolyn Bryant recounting her story, you say, "When she held her hand out for the money, she claimed that he grabbed her arm and spoke to her." Quote, "How about a date, baby," unquote. "She said she broke free and that he came around and grabbed her by the waist and spoke again. Quote, "What`s the matter, baby? Can`t you take it? I`ve been with white women before," unquote.
You spend a lot of time leading up to that point describing what kind of a young man he was.
LAMB: Was there anything in his past that would lead anyone to believe he would say things like that?
BENSON: No, not according to what his mother had set out. And then, you know, as a journalist, I was curious about what other people might say, as well. So I talked to people who were there at the time, not that I wanted to question what she said about the story, but because I was curious and I wanted to make sure there were no credibility problems in going forward with the book.
And there were people who were there. I talked to them, cousins and friends. And they said he wasn`t in the store long enough to have done any of that. One cousin went into the store and made a purchase. He was leaving as Emmett came in. And while Emmett was there, another cousin stood at the door. And the cousin who stood at the door said that never happened. Other people who were around at the time said he wasn`t even in the store long enough for any of that to have happened.
So what we have here is the testimony of a woman at trial a month after the event and a belief on the part of many people that this story was enhanced to justify, if you can justify, what was done to this kid, that he had crossed the line of Southern, you know, custom at the time and that he deserved to be punished. That was the story that they had fed in the community there and the story that, from what I understand, the jurors had heard long before the trial ever occurred.
LAMB: Now, in 1955, when he was killed, you said that in Tallahatchie County, there were 11,000 whites and 19,000 blacks.
LAMB: What were the rights of blacks in that year in that state, Mississippi?
BENSON: Well, there was not a single black person who was registered to vote, and I think that pretty much says everything. At this time -- and again, this is a year after the initial decision of Brown versus Board of Education and just a couple of months after the implementation order that the Supreme Court had handed down, that school desegregation should proceed with all deliberate speed.
Well, that didn`t change everything immediately by way of law in this country, or at least as a practical matter. I mean, the schools took a long time, as we know, to start desegregating. It activated whites in the South, who were terribly afraid that their way of life was going to change, and they set out systematically to enforce the old way of the South. And that enforcement gained official sanction. So people were intimidated.
They were intimidated, you know, when they tried to register to vote, and obviously, it was effective, as you see in Tallahatchie County. People were not only subject to economic reprisal -- and it was severe. I mean, you had White Citizens Councils throughout Mississippi, who I heard described as the KKK in business suits, who would publish lists of registered voters, and if there were black who had attempted to register, they were fired from their jobs. Their home mortgages were foreclosed on, and they were not allowed to buy feed for seed for planting, if they were farmers. They could not get loans for equipment. They were driven out of business. And there was no forgiveness. Even after they would remove their names from the voter rolls, they still were not allowed to have a livelihood. So it was a horrible state, at that point.
But beyond the economic reprisals, people were actually murdered for attempting to exercise their rights. Just before Emmett arrived in Mississippi, Reverend George Lee, in nearby Belzoni, was murdered. He was an NAACP leader in the state. He was murdered for attempting to register people to vote. There was a major coverup of his murder. And you know, the sheriff said, Well, it wasn`t a shotgun blast, as everybody had determined, but it was, in fact, a car accident. He was shot as he was driving down the highway. And even though the lead pellets were retrieved, the sheriff denied that that ever happened.
Another person, Lamar Smith, was murdered in nearby Brookhaven, just two weeks before Emmett arrived in Mississippi. He was trying to pass out leaflets in the town square in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon. He was approached by several white citizens, who shot him in front of so many witnesses who never saw a thing.
So this was the condition of life for blacks in Mississippi. There were rights, but you could not exercise your rights.
LAMB: So after he was in the store, at Bryant`s, what happened then? What time of day was that?
BENSON: This was in the evening. This was at the beginning of cotton-picking season and...
LAMB: And he was just visiting there for a week.
BENSON: He was visiting, yes. And you know, he was having a lot of fun. This was several days after he had arrived in Mississippi. And a group of the kids went into -- went up town, as they called it, to buy some treats. That`s what they did at the end of the day, after picking cotton all day. They had supper, and in the early evening, they would drive up town and just sort of hang out. So this was about 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening.
LAMB: What happened next?
BENSON: Well, they went into the store, as I mentioned, one at a time, basically. And he made his purchase and left, as people have recounted. And there was the whistle. And at some point, somebody said, you know, that they were going to get in trouble because of that, because it looked like the woman, Carolyn Bryant, was offended. So they jumped in the car and drove away.
As they were driving, there`s a very dramatic scene that people had described to Mother Mobley of a light appearing behind them, headlights from a car. They thought they were being chased, and they all ran through the cotton fields. They stopped the car and ran through the cotton fields to hide. And as it turned out, it was just a car passing.
So within a few days of that, nothing had happened, and everybody felt that this whole thing would pass. There was no problem. And that`s when Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam came to the house of Emmett`s relatives and dragged him out.
LAMB: Where`d they take him?
BENSON: That is one of the questions that hasn`t fully been answered. They described a circuitous route through the -- Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam described the route that they took him on through the back roads of the Mississippi delta. There is at least a report by several witnesses that they stopped in a nearby county, Sunflower County, at a plantation that was managed by one of Milam`s brothers, Leslie (ph) Milam.
There were witnesses who actually testified at trial, black witnesses who testified at trial that they saw Emmett in the back of a pick-up truck with two black men sitting there holding him and several white men in the cab. They saw the truck later parked at a shed on this plantation. They saw J.W. Milam coming out periodically with a gun strapped to his waist and taking water. They heard beating inside the shed, and they heard moans from what they believe was Emmett. And later, they saw the truck pull closer to the shed, put something in there and cover the back with a tarp. And everyone believed that was Emmett`s body.
LAMB: Where did they take him?
BENSON: They took him to the Tallahatchie River, where he was dumped.
Now, the version of the story that Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam told to "Look" magazine was that Emmett was defiant, that they had just roughed him up a little bit to teach him a lesson, but that he was defiant up to the point of standing at the edge of the Tallahatchie River, and in effect, dared them to kill him. And that would have been impossible, as you see the condition of his body. He was so savagely beaten that he likely couldn`t have even stood, at that point. And he very likely was already dead when he was carried to the river. They tied a gin fan around his neck with barbed wire.
LAMB: How heavy is a gin fan?
BENSON: It`s about 75 pounds. There were wide reports on the weight of it, 75 to 150 pounds. But it was about 75 pounds, according to most accounts. And they rolled it into the river and dragged his body there. And his body was discovered only a few days later, when another teenager was out in the river fishing, and one of Emmett`s legs had risen to the top and was seen. And that`s how he was discovered.
LAMB: When they discovered the body, what happened then?
BENSON: Well, he was pulled ashore, and he was not recognizable except for a ring that he wore on his -- the middle finger of his left hand. And as it turned out, that was a ring that his mother had given to him just before he left for Mississippi. It was a ring that had been left by his father, a soldier in Europe during World War II. And she had given to him. She had tried it on for -- you know, off and on for many years before that. It had never really fit. It was kind of a loose fit, even then. But he wanted to wear it. He wanted to show it off to his friends and cousins in Mississippi and brag about his father, who had been a soldier.
As it turns out, he allowed one of his cousins to wear that ring while they were playing around in the fields, and his cousin was able to help identify him through the ring.
LAMB: Before we move on, there is a story about his father, that Mother Mobley found out later -- his father -- you got a picture of him in here, Louis Till...
LAMB: And what was the story? And when did she find it out?
BENSON: The story was that when Emmett was about 4, his father was...
LAMB: He`s the bottom picture.
BENSON: He`s the bottom picture. And I don`t know if you can get close in. You can see the ring on his finger there. He`s in Italy at the time. And I believe this is 1943 or `44.
Emmett`s father, Louis Till, was killed during the war, as his mother believed, as Mamie Till Mobley believed. She got notice of that when Emmett was -- was 4. But as it turns out, he was executed after the war, and she had tried over the course of many years to find out what had happened. What she received was a notice from the military that this spousal allotment was being terminated. It actually was an allotment for Emmett. And she never really knew what the cause was, except that the language in the letter included the words "willful misconduct." It was only after the murder trial that the cause was publicized, and she discovered then that Louis Till was accused of murder, rape and murder in Italy, and that he was executed. The execution order was signed by General Dwight David Eisenhower. And it was a curious thing to her because after that -- I mean, it came as a shock to her, and it came after the murder trial but before the grand jury was to be convened to -- to consider a kidnapping charge, which was separate from the murder. And she believed always that this was a deliberate attempt to influence the grand jury, which didn`t hand down an indictment, as it turns out.
The reporters who covered that story, the revelation about Louis Till, admitted that they got the information they got, which they couldn`t have discovered from the Department of Defense -- they got that through the help of Senator James Eastland of Mississippi at the time, who was a staunch segregationist and one of the leaders in the movement to establish the White Citizens Councils in Mississippi and the effort to resist the enforcement of Brown versus Board of Education. So she always believed that that was a deliberate attempt to change the course of events.
As it turns out, Mother Mobley talked to a number of Louis Till`s Army buddies after this. She talked to her own brother-in-law. She later married, and her brother-in-law had also served in Europe during the war. And it seemed that this was a common thing that occurred among blacks in the military, who were marched out at, you know, 2:00 in the morning or so and told to line up, and identified by women in Europe as men they had had relations with or men they were accusing of something.
And there`s a book that`s going to be coming out soon that deals with this, that during the course of the war, there were many more black soldiers than whites who were accused of such crimes, even when they were unfounded, and court-martialed and executed. So we don`t know what really happened in this case.
LAMB: I want to come back to the situation with Emmett Till in just a second.
LAMB: And again, this was 1955. Couple of quick things. The Civil Rights bill of `57, and of `60 and of `64, were what? And how much did this incident have to do with moving the Civil Rights bill of `57 along?
BENSON: Well, primarily, the Civil Rights bill of `57 -- during the course of the congressional hearings, there was testimony about Emmett Till, the trial and the lack of justice in the case. And there are many who believe that that was influential in getting that first Civil Rights bill through. And as a result, the office of the assistant attorney general for Civil Rights was established and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was established, among other things. So there was probably the most tangible effect of this -- this event.
We talked to a number of Louis Till`s Army buddies after this. She talked to her own brother-in-law, she later married, and her brother-in-law had also served in Europe during the war. And it seemed that this was a common thing that occurred among blacks in the military, who were marched out at 2:00 in the morning or so, and told to line up, and identified by women in Europe as men they had had relations with or men they were accusing of something.
And there`s a book that`s going to be coming out soon that deals with this, that during the course of the war, there were many more black soldiers than whites who were accused of such crimes, even when they were unfounded, and court martialed and executed.
So we don`t know what really happened in this case.
LAMB: I want to come back to the situation with Emmett Till in just a second ...
LAMB: Again, this was 1955. A couple of quick things. The civil rights bill of `57, and of `60 and of `64 were what, and how much did this incident have to do with moving the civil rights bill of `57 along?
BENSON: Well, primarily, the civil rights bill of `57 - during the course of the congressional hearings, there was testimony about Emmett Till, the trial and the lack of justice in the case. And there are many who believe that that was influential in getting that first civil rights bill through. And as a result, the Office of the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights was established, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was established, among other things.
So there was probably the most tangible effect of this event. The later civil rights acts really were by and large a result of the Civil Rights Movement, starting with Brown vs. Board of Education and the movement that was energized as a result of a series of events, really. Brown certainly told us all that progress could be made. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted for more than a year helped to encourage people to demonstrate, to participate in the movement. And they were in fact, as many people have said, energized by what they saw during the course of events with Emmett`s murder and the trial and the courage that so many people showed as a result of coming forward to testify.
LAMB: The sequence, though. Fifty-four was Brown, `55 was this murder, and then how about the march to Selma, the Birmingham bombing and ...
BENSON: Those were all during the `60s.
LAMB: Rosa Parks happened when?
BENSON: Also in `55. The murder of Emmett Till occurred in August of `55, August 28th. The trial was in late September, and the Montgomery bus boycott started in effect in December of `55.
LAMB: And, again, before we return to the story, your background. Where did you - you say you grew up in Chicago. How many kids in the family?
BENSON: There are two of us, my sister, who is a children`s book writer and illustrator.
LAMB: And your mother did what for a living?
BENSON: She was - well, she was in show business many years ago. She was a dancer, but while we were coming up, she was a secretary.
LAMB: Did you ever know your dad?
LAMB: And you went where to school?
BENSON: Well, we lived in Chicago for the most part, so I went to school through grade school in Chicago. We also lived in Los Angeles, so I attended school there, and then we moved to New York, where I attended high school.
LAMB: How about college? Where`d you go, what`d you study?
BENSON: College, we moved back to Illinois, so I studied at the University of Illinois. I earned my bachelor`s and my master`s degrees in journalism there. And then I became a journalist, was writing for "Ebony" magazine for years, and transferred to Washington. I was the Washington editor, and then took leave to attend Georgetown to study law.
LAMB: Did you get your law degree?
BENSON: Yes, I did.
LAMB: Are you practicing law?
BENSON: I`m not practicing now. Immediately after law school, I thought, actually, I was going to continue writing. My intention was to return to the Washington bureau of "Ebony" and to write with this substantive foundation. But I was returned to Chicago. I went on corporate side for the company and I was in-house counsel for about 13 years, and then returned to writing after that.
LAMB: How big is the Johnson publishing operation, now, with "Ebony."
BENSON: Well, "Ebony" is probably the largest-circulation black magazine in the country. It is, actually. It`s got 1.8 million paid circulation, a total readership of about 11 million. And "JET Magazine" is roughly a million and a multiple of about five times for pass along, so the magazines reach a good number of people.
LAMB: Who runs it now?
BENSON: Well, John H. Johnson is the founder, the publisher and the chairman of the board. His daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, is the CEO now.
LAMB: And this book was finished when? What date?
BENSON: It was finished in April of 2003, and it was published in October.
LAMB: And when, again, did she die?
BENSON: She died in January of that year, January, 2003.
LAMB: So she never saw the publication.
BENSON: She never saw the actual book. She saw the progress that we were making, though, and she took great joy in that.
LAMB: And where do you get the name Mother Mobley?
BENSON: Well, partly because she inspires that in you when you meet her. So many people looked upon her as a mother. She never had another biological child, but she embraced so many children during the course of the remaining years that she had after Emmett`s murder. She was a schoolteacher for 23 years. She was an active church member during that entire period. And she formed the Emmett Till Players during the course of her years as a teacher.
The Emmett Till Players were groups of students who she taught speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior to. And so she wanted to teach them a sense of history. She wanted to teach them the connection to Emmett Till, and all of these students, hundreds of students she was able to reach and touch, looked upon her as a mother figure.
She became a church mother. It`s a rank in the church where you reach a certain level where you can influence and guide other women in the church. So she was proud of the fact that she had become a church mother. So it`s also an official title that she carried.
LAMB: This is a picture of her hand at the Civil Rights Memorial in ...
BENSON: Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery at the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center. She was there for the dedication, and she - part of the memorial, it`s a Maya Lin sculpture, black granite ...
LAMB: Same woman that did the Vietnam Memorial.
BENSON: The Vietnam Memorial.
There`s a table with a fountain that flows over the table, and it`s a continuum of all the - or many of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, and Emmett Till`s name is engraved there. So that was a picture of her actually touching his name, and it was quite a moving experience for her.
LAMB: And she was born where?
BENSON: She was born in Mississippi, not far from where this occurred, in Hazelhurst.
LAMB: And when did she leave there?
BENSON: She left there when she was two years old.
LAMB: To Chicago?
BENSON: Her family moved to Chicago, and as was the case with so many families moving out of Mississippi, her mother and she left first. Her father stayed on to just tie up some business, farming, accounting for the sharecropping crops that they had processed. So they left in the early fall, he left in December and they settled near Chicago, in Argo.
LAMB: Who`s Papa Mose?
BENSON: Papa Mose is Emmett`s great uncle, and the person he was staying with in Money, Mississippi. Papa Mose is quite a hero in this story. He was the person who tried to stand his ground when these two men came in with guns at 2:00 in the morning and took Emmett away. He later stayed on to testify at the trial, and had the courage to stand in a courtroom in the Mississippi Delta in 1955 and point to two white men and accuse them of a crime.
Nobody had ever heard of that happening in Mississippi, and he did it at great risk to his life and is considered one of the many unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement because of that. So many people saw the image you just showed and were encouraged by it. They were inspired by it. That bravery, that courage that he showed in doing that helped so many other people to gain the courage they needed to do sometimes the most simple things.
I mean, people talk about the stand that Rosa Parks took, as Mother Mobley would say, she took a stand by keeping her seat. So many people say, such a simple act, but it was a simple act of great courage, great bravery, because at the time, you risked your life in taking that kind of stand. I don`t think enough people understand that now.
LAMB: Because we`re in the courtroom for the moment, just a couple of things. You point out in your book that there were 22 seats for white reporters and four for black reporters.
BENSON: Initially, yes.
LAMB: Initially - what was that about? Why so few for black reporters?
BENSON: Well, people didn`t understand that at that time, the sheriff of the county had all the power in the county. And the sheriff at this time, H.C. Strider, was a horrible racist. He made no bones about that. And he was determined that during the course of this huge media event, what David Halberstam would call later the first big media event of the Civil Rights Movement - Strider was determined that black and white reporters were into going to commingle. He was going to enforce segregation in his courtroom, and he considered it to be his courtroom, even though the judge was presiding. He was in charge of every institution in that community.
And so he had set aside four seats for black reporters off to the side. As it turned out, the event of the trial gained so much notoriety that there were something like 100 news reporters and photographers who had come down to Sumner, Mississippi where the trial was held, and it was difficult to accommodate this great number. There wound up being about 12 black reporters and photographers who came, and so they wound up fashioning a table for the black reporters to be seated at. And it was quite a rough table, as Mother Mobley described it. It was so rough that she tore her skirt on the splinters as she tried to scoot her seat up to it.
This was not just the Jim Crow table for the reporters, it turned out, but it was the table where some of the witnesses, like Mother Mobley, were seated, and, in fact, a U.S. congressman. White people in Mississippi were astounded when Congressman Charles Diggs from Detroit showed up to observe the trial, and they didn`t believe at the time that there was any such thing as a black congressman. In fact, one sheriff`s deputy remarked, and these are his words that were reported, "A nigger congressman, it`s not possible. It`s not even legal."
Finally, he was able to convince them that he was a congressman, and he also was seated at the Jim Crow table.
LAMB: In this picture also is Simeon Booker here, with the glasses, I believe ...
LAMB: ... who was "JET Magazine," and right here is Mamie Till.
LAMB: How old was she then?
BENSON: She was 33.
LAMB: Go back to the riverside where they find his body. Who picks him up, by the way, and moves him to the funeral home?
BENSON: Sheriff Strider was there. One of his deputies was there. They brought a black undertaker there to handle the body, and Papa Mose was summoned to identify him, because the word - obviously it was out that this kid was missing, so the first call went to him. And he identified the body, and then Sheriff Strider ordered that the body be buried immediately, that day.
LAMB: What happened?
BENSON: Mother Mobley insisted when she got news that they were preparing to bury Emmett in Mississippi, she insisted that he be returned to her in Chicago, and Papa Mose worked with one of Mother Mobley`s cousins, Crosby Smith, to make sure that he was brought back to Chicago. And Crosby Smith, who is one of her closest cousins, vowed that he would bring Emmett back if he had to drive a truck and pack him in ice and drive him himself.
But they were able to get the body released. As I mentioned, it was released under seal and orders not to open the box, and her cousin, Crosby, rode the train back with Emmett`s body, the City of New Orleans train, which brought him back on Friday, September 2nd. And she was there at the train station to greet the body.
One of the pictures you showed earlier was her reaction to the box that was unloaded there. And at this point, it all became so real to her, and as she described that box, it was huge. And she`s such a little woman - she`s barely five feet tall, but she nearly collapsed at that moment. And there behind her is the man she would later marry, Gene Mobley, who was there to comfort her throughout, and the two ministers who helped her through the grieving and the funeral.
LAMB: Married to Gene Mobley for - with him, at least, 42 years. I don`t know if she was (INAUDIBLE) that long.
When did the public first hear about this, and how much did the black press - what kind of role did the black press play, the "Chicago Defender" and "JET Magazine" and things like that, in this story?
BENSON: Well, the "Chicago Defender" had been covering horrible crimes like this for some time. It was probably one of the few places where you could actually see coverage of lynchings. The black press was determined to carry pictures. The "Atlanta Daily World," the "Chicago Defender," all of the black newspapers covered these stories.
So, the reporters were used to covering this kind of story. "JET Magazine" also did its part in covering the crimes against blacks. So a number of black newspapers and "JET Magazine" sent reporters down to Sumner to cover the trial. In fact, "JET Magazine" and "Ebony" sent a team of reporters, and so did the "Defender." The "Defender" had several editions, including a tri-state "Defender" that was published out of Memphis.
LAMB: Did you say that "JET Magazine" sent a black reporter and a white photographer?
LAMB: Why was that?
BENSON: Well, the publisher, John H. Johnson, believed that a white photographer would be able to get into places that a black photographer wouldn`t, and he was right about that. The black reporters were there, as you saw, there were restrictions on their movement in the courtroom, but there were also restrictions on their movement in the larger community.
One of the incredible stories that came out of this story was how black reporters were determined to move beyond the boundaries that had been sent for them. They were there to cover a story, but they were also black people who knew what we all were confronting at that time and in that place. And there was a problem that the investigation of this crime ran into. A number of witnesses were disclosed in the black community, but they had not been brought forward.
The prosecution had no resources with which to investigate the crime and to carry it forward. So, close to the time of trial, there were - it looked like there were only going to be two witnesses for the prosecution, Papa Mose, who could testify and identify the people who had come into his home - so he could testify to the kidnapping - and his son, Simeon, who was 12 at the time. They were going to bring him in to establish that the ring identified Emmett`s body. And that was it.
But there were people who had seen various aspects of this crime unfolding. As I mentioned, people who had identified Roy Bryant and JW Milam at the Sheridan Plantation in Sunflower County had seen Emmett in the back of a truck, had heard the beating.
There were people out there who had these stories to tell, and the issue at the time was to bring them forward to make sure that they testified, and the black reporters participated in that search. At the time, there were many people who worked in the cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta, and they of course didn`t trust white people. So, to have a sheriff`s deputy come out into the field and ask them to come forward was something that terrified them, and they wouldn`t have come, thinking that they would be in great peril themselves. So the black reporters helped to bring them out.
LAMB: The trial was held in what city?
BENSON: In Sumner.
LAMB: That was ...
BENSON: In Tallahatchie County.
LAMB: In Tallahatchie County. What kind of a court was it? County, state?
BENSON: It was the county court.
LAMB: The jury, how many people in the jury?
BENSON: There were 12 white men.
LAMB: Were women allowed to sit in the jury then?
BENSON: Not at that time, no.
LAMB: Twelve white men - the judge was a white man?
BENSON: Yes. All of the principals in this case were white - the judge, the prosecutors, and the defense attorneys, obviously. It`s interesting - there were five lawyers practicing in Tallahatchie County at this time, and all five of them volunteered to work for the defense.
That`s one of the defense attorneys.
LAMB: The defense attorney`s on the right of your screen there.
BENSON: Yes, J.W. Kellam (ph).
LAMB: Kellam (ph) - not Kellam (ph), but Milam is in the middle ...
LAMB: ... and Bryant is on the left-hand side.
LAMB: The trial lasted how long?
BENSON: It lasted four days?
LAMB: How long were those days?
BENSON: Well, some of them were shorter, because on what was to the first day of trial after the jury was selected, there was a postponement, because word had reached the judge that there was a belief there was some witnesses out there who could come forward and offer very helpful testimony. So they postponed until the next day. That was a short day.
Generally, it was from about 9:00 in the morning until later afternoon.
LAMB: The temperature?
BENSON: Very hot. Apparently, the temperature was in the 90s outside, but as Mother Mobley described, in the court, it felt like 118 degrees, and even hotter when you considered the tension, the terrible tension, that existed in that courtroom.
LAMB: Were there any live microphones in the room or television or film?
BENSON: No. There are pictures that I`ve seen published of different parts of the interior, but the judge had ordered early on that there would be no more photography after the initial stages of jury selection. There would be no more photography in the courtroom during the proceeding.
The picture that you saw of Mose Wright, pointing out the murderers in the case was a picture that was taken secretly by one of the black photographers, Ernest Withers, who was quite a hero throughout the Civil Rights Movement himself, covering many, many important stories at great risk to his own life. He was there at the - the angle you see there is from the Jim Crow table, and that`s a cropped picture. But when you see the full image, you can see that he`s shooting between some people at the table and he just sort of pops off a shot instantly at that precise moment. And to show you how important that photo was, one of the wire services apparently saw him do that and bought the film right out of his camera.
LAMB: And there`s a lot of details that we`re not going to have time to go into in the trial, but the jury met for how long after this trial was over?
BENSON: Just a little more than an hour, 67 minutes, and during that period of 67 minutes, they took a Coke break because they were asked to make it look good.
LAMB: You said that Cokes could not be bought by blacks?
BENSON: The vendors who moved in and out of the courtroom would not sell to blacks.
BENSON: Because they were discriminating against blacks. It was a horrible period of race hatred, and so Mother Mobley made the mistake of trying to buy something at one point and she was insulted as a result.
LAMB: Now, when the verdict was announced, what was it, and what happened?
BENSON: The verdict was not guilty, but even before that, as Mother Mobley had recalled, when the jury was sent out to deliberate, she looked around the courtroom, she heard the closing arguments, she was quite moved by what the prosecution had put out there. But she looked around and she saw the expressions on the faces of the black people, in particular, who were standing around at the rear of this packed courtroom, and she realized then that they were starting to move out of the courtroom because they didn`t want to be around when the inevitable verdict came in.
She knew that it was going to be not guilty, and she turned to Congressman Diggs and said, I think it`s time for us to go. And she remembers that the congressman said, well, you want to leave now, you don`t want to hear the verdict? She said, I don`t think this is a verdict we want to be around to hear.
And all of the black principals who came down for the trial were staying in nearby Mount Bayou, which was an all-black town. They all got in the cars and left to return to Mount Bayou, and just before they hit - it was about an hour away, an hour`s drive. Just at the time they were approaching Mount Bayou, she said she heard the report on the radio, and it sounded like the Fourth of July, because it was such a celebration among the whites in town that these two men were acquitted.
LAMB: This is only because of time, but I want to jump totally out of context of the story to this quote. It`s by Roy Wilkins, former head of the NAACP, "You`re trying to capitalize on the death of your son," end quote, page 207. That tells a whole story that you actually - I was interested in why she went into all this story about what happened to her afterwards and the whole issue of money.
Again, I`ll read it, "You`re trying to capitalize on the death of your son." What`s that about?
BENSON: Well, she went out on a speaking tour immediately after the trial. This was a period of great financial strain for the Civil Rights Movement. The NAACP had spent all of its resources, human resources and money, on the Brown decision. There were several cases that were decided with Brown. They had been building these cases for years.
The NAACP was strapped at the time, and as a result of the speaking tour, they were able to raise quite a bit of money. And we saw this in reports that other newspapers had put out, thousands and thousands of dollars were raised at these rallies where she attended. They negotiated a deal where she was to receive, I guess, $100, $150 per speaking engagement. It was quite a bit of money. There`s no question about it.
There was at one point the proposal that she do a tour out west in California, and by this time, there were a number of people, as I learned, who were representing her, who were negotiating for her.
She had struck a deal with Roy Wilkins. She had met him and was engaged by him, there was no question about that. But then, at a certain point, there were other people representing her. And I don`t know that they were representing her best interest. I even read reports about this from the time, that there were people who were trying to negotiate, I guess, for more money. They had convinced her that if she did the tour, she would not have enough money to pay all of her own expenses, and she needed to ask for more money.
So, with her authorization, I guess, they pressed for that. And I guess a dispute developed, and at a certain point, Roy Willkins called her himself, and that`s when he made that comment that she recalled, and it was quite hurtful to her. I mean, it broke her heart - for a couple of reasons. One, because she was not trying to pursue the money issue herself, but other people were pursuing it on her behalf. She offered to forget about the money, which leads to the second reason it was so hurtful to her.
At this time, she was still grieving the loss of her son. It was a terribly painful experience, one that we can`t even imagine. And at a certain point, when you`re grieving, people kind of expect that you`re going to move on. So she couldn`t really talk to friends and family after a certain point, but in making these public addresses that she made, speaking of crowds of up to 10,000 people at a time, she was able to continue to grieve. It was cathartic for her.
And she knew now that that was going to be cut off, and that hurt her deeply, because she had to contain all of it. And, as you see in the book, at a certain point after this, she reached the brink of considering suicide.
LAMB: Did she make a lot of money off this?
BENSON: Not that I know of. She never described a great deal of money that she made, and other people who knew about her at the time couldn`t see a lot of money that she was making. And, of course, $150 a speech was quite a bit of money at that time, but she left her job and she had other expenses. She was also providing for her father, who would accompany her. So I don`t know that she netted a great deal of money ...
LAMB: How long did it take you all to talk this out?
BENSON: We talked for the six months that she was around after we met, starting in June ...
LAMB: Was she on dialysis then, by the way?
BENSON: She was on dialysis three times a week. It was a great strain on her, and she still was trying to maintain an active speaking engagements. So we fit it in whenever we could. And at a certain point, we were talking three or four days a week, formally and in between those sessions, so quite a few hours during the midst of ...
LAMB: What was she like?
BENSON: She was a beautiful person. She had the most incredible aura that surrounded her, that you saw immediately when you met her, and she was so full of love. That was one of the most incredible things that you noticed when you first met her. She had no bitterness at all, and it was one of the most interesting things that I saw, was that she was opposed to capital punishment.
She never wanted the murderers of her son to be executed, she only wanted them to be sorry for what they had done. She only wanted the state of Mississippi to express its apology as well. So those were the things that were striking about her.
LAMB: When did she die, and under what circumstances?
BENSON: She died in January of 2003 of a massive heart attack. She was preparing to go to Atlanta for a speaking engagement, and she died before the day she was to leave.
LAMB: What impact did this whole thing have on you?
BENSON: Well, certainly, as I mentioned, the story of Emmett Till has been with me most of my life, so I thought it was an incredible experience to have the chance to just meet Emmett Till`s mother. But then to have the chance to help her tell her story was irresistible. She mentioned - as I told you, she mentioned that she wanted to do a book, and it took me all of two seconds to decide that I wanted to help her with it. And we worked that out immediately.
To have had a hand in telling this story, I think, is quite a unique experience. I was too young to take part in the Civil Rights Movement, but now I feel that I have participated in telling this story. You can`t really understand where we are now without knowing something of this country in the latter part of the 20th century, and you can`t understand that story without knowing the Civil Rights Movement. And you really don`t fully appreciate the Civil Rights Movement without knowing the Emmett Till story. So now I understand that, and it`s been quite a moving experience for me, and one that helped me to renew my own personal commitment.
This is a woman who lived a committed life. She lived on purpose, every moment of her life, following the murder of her son, and she inspired that in so many other people who were touched by her, and I certainly was one of those people.
LAMB: And this photograph on the cover of the book - how old was he, and where was this taken? Do you know?
BENSON: He was 13 years old at the time that photo was taken, and that was taken at their last Christmas celebration together. She, for some reason, was moved to make that Christmas the most special one ever, not knowing that it would be their last one together. So she spent an awful lot of money on gifts and a big dinner, and then she decided she wanted to memorialize it by having pictures made.
She had had no pictures made of Emmett when he was growing up, after his childhood, and he was 13 at that time, so she decided to have pictures made. That`s one of the famous shots of him and her together. The other one you showed of her, leaning on the television, was shot at that time as well, and there`s another famous shot of him with a wide-brim hat on. That was a Christmas gift that he had received at the time. So she was quite proud of that Christmas celebration and wanted to memorialize it, not knowing that those would be the last photographs ever taken of him alive. They were also posted on his casket, so as people filed by, they saw his body, but they saw what he had been like before he was brutalized.
LAMB: Christopher Benson has been our guest, and the story, told to him by Mamie Till Mobley, the cover of the book again, "Death of Innocence."
Thank you very much for joining us.
BENSON: It`s been my pleasure.
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