Editor’s note: This article was originally published on February 19, 2016
Recently, in an otherwise thoughtful column in The New York Times, noted journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson perpetuated a misconception about the mother of Emmett Till. Wilkerson writes that “Emmett had just turned 14, had been raised in the new world and was unschooled in the ‘yes, sir, no, sir’ ways of the Southern caste system.”
To suggest the Till’s mother did not teach him the lessons of a Jim Crow South and how to conduct himself is not accurate and makes it appear that she is somewhat to blame for what happened to her son. In preparation of her son’s visit to his relatives in Mississippi, she made sure he knew where he was going, what to expect and to behave. In her book the Death of Innocence, a whole chapter is devoted to his trip and the difference between Chicago and Mississippi.
“Don’t start up any conversation with white people,” she told her son. “Only talk when you’re spoken to. And how do you respond? ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Yes, ma’am.’ Put a handle on those answers. Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘naw.’ Don’t ever do that.”
The advice she gave Till was by no means an uncommon practice of African-American parents to their children on their trips to the South. “It was the talk every Black parent had with every child sent down South back then,” she added. “It might have been a time of great Black migration to the North, but in the summer, there were quite a few Black kids from cities in the North who went South to visit relatives … So I had to talk to Bo [Emmett] about strange things in a strange, new place, things that lay in wait for him.”
In his memoir “Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account to the Kidnapping of Emmett Till,” Simeon Wright, Emmett’s cousin, who was sleeping in the same bed with him when he was taken by the two white men, wrote that Till understood what his mother had drilled into him, but there was a kind of spunk and rebelliousness about him that made it difficult for him to go along with the way things were down South. Earlier during the visit—and another example of his audacity—Till had set off a bunch of firecrackers, which was against the law, Wright wrote.
It was not that Till’s mother did not teach her son about how to behave, but she had a son who was as rambunctious and defiant in Chicago as he was in Mississippi.
Wilkerson is not the first to suggest that Mamie Mobley Till failed to instruct her son about the folkways and mores of the South, but she of such stellar research and acclaim should not be among those dispensers of wrong and hurtful information.
Till’s mother did all she could to protect and prepare her son for the venture, everything but keep him home that fateful summer.