The sacrifice Mamie Till Mobley made when she decided to show the world exactly what hate and racism did to her son Emmett Till was motivated by such profound love for her child that its power altered the course of history.
Most recently, the flame of that legacy has been kept burning by the passage of a federal law named after her son, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, that, once and for all—and after 200 attempts—makes lynching a hate crime in the United States.
In an interview with Daily Kos, Congressman Al Green of Texas, a Democrat now 74 years old, choked back tears as he weighed the impact of Emmett’s life and what has happened in the decades since his death.
Much has changed, and much, as the nation witnessed with the murder of Ahamud Arbery, has not.
Green is an American. He is also Black. He was a child like Till when Till was killed in 1955. Green has sat on segregated busses and in segregated movie theaters. He drank from “coloreds only” water fountains. He has known what it is to hurriedly step off a sidewalk to clear the way for white people traveling the same concrete as himself lest he invite trouble, or something much worse, into his life.
So, when the Senate unanimously codified lynching as a crime motivated by hatred, this was no small or rhetorical distinction. Its meaning is not abstract.
As his tears fell, Green cast his eyes all the way back to 1857, a little under 100 years before Till would be mutilated and thrown into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River by two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam.
That year the Supreme Court decided Dred Scott v. Sandford and Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that Africans or Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
“The whole notion of due process did not apply to Black people, according to Taney,” Green said.
The Dred Scott case, he remarked, ultimately set the foundation for a deeply flawed belief to take root from the very top of the nation’s power structure on down among those who were racist or ignorant or both.
The door that Taney opened with his ruling has a through line that can be traced all the way to the Mississippi courtroom where defense attorney Sidney Carlton told an all-white, all male jury that if they did not free Milam and Bryant, their “Anglo-Saxon ancestors” would “turn over in their grave” in shame at the lack of their courage to acquit.
The jury did acquit and the men lit up cigars in the courtroom and kissed their wives to celebrate after the verdict came down.
Bryant admitted to the murder in 1956, recalling with bravado what he told Till after he abducted him.
“I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you -- just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand,” Bryant said.
He called Till ‘Chicago boy’ because the teenager had come to Mississippi from Illinois to visit his cousins. Emmett’s mother had reservations about her son traveling to the South.
Last December, the Justice Department announced it was renewing an investigation into Till’s murder. Witnesses said Till, just 14, whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Donham Bryant, at a store where she worked in Money, Mississippi.
A historian, Timothy Tyson, claimed in 2017 that Donham Bryant told him she lied about Till whistling at her. Relatives denied she recanted her remarks, according to the Associated Press, and Donham Bryant told the FBI she never went back on her original story. The DOJ asked Tyson for recordings or transcripts of the admission but he was never able to produce them.
“These two white men went into [Till’s great uncle’s] home and abducted him [at gunpoint]. Somehow, they thought that society expected this of them after this lady had been somehow abused without having been touched, without having any assault perpetrated upon her. So they took him out and brutalized him in ways we can’t imagine,” Green said.
When authorities pulled Till’s naked body from the river, his eye was dislodged from its socket. He was beaten about his hips and back. He had been shot above the right ear. Around his neck with barbed wire, his body had been weighted with a large fan blade.
Witnesses passing by where Bryant and Milam spent hours torturing Till before his death later said they heard Till crying: “Mama, save me. Please don't do it again.”
Mamie Till Mobley only recognized the body belonged to her young son because of a ring he wore that somehow, Milam and Bryant had left on Till before throwing him into the river.
As Green relived these abuses and specifically, how Till’s mother made the choice to expose the horrors of her son’s mutilated body at his funeral without censorship, Green’s voice cracked as he uttered each word thoughtfully.
“Even in the segregated South, there are some things that seem to have an impact beyond what’s anticipated. People saw his body. They saw the mutilation and when they saw it, they knew that there was something inherently wrong with what happened,” Green said. “It was a part of the spark that ignited the civil rights movement.”
Indeed, in the late 1980s the Rev. Jesse Jackson told Vanity Fair that Rosa Parks told him she was motivated by Emmett Till when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Till had been murdered just 100 days before.
Bryant and Milam acted with the permission Taney gave them a century ago, Green argued.
“Their actions were indicative of people who felt they were not bound to respect [Emmett Till’s] life,” he said before reflecting back on Emmett’s mother.
The legislation written in Till’s name and first introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois evokes Mamie in a similar way. It calls out the criminality of hate for what it is and does not seek to dull or hide this abject failure in the nation’s history.
Fast-forwarding to 2019, the Department of Justice reported over 3,900 hate crimes or crimes motivated by race or ethnicity. In 2020 that number shot up to over 5,200 hate crimes.
Green believes the U.S. is now experiencing the outflows of what he calls the “Trump Effect.”
“One of the great mistakes of contemporary times was our failure to indict, or more appropriately, impeach President Trump for the hate that he engendered and caused to rear its ugly head in ways that it hasn’t for some time,” Green said as he let out a heavy sigh.
Green, who has been in office for eight terms, was the first lawmaker in Congress to call for accountability of Trump’s conduct. Long before Trump was impeached for abuse of power, obstruction of Congress, and later, incitement of insurrection, Green was the canary in the coal mine and called for Trump to be impeached no less than three times.
He demanded Trump be impeached for obstruction of justice when Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Then, Green demanded Trump be impeached after the 45th president lashed out at Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley on Twitter with a series of racist messages.
Trump had already exhibited a "long history of abusing his office for the unconstitutional purpose of promoting racism and bigotry,” Green said at the time.
“He gave people reason to believe that Black people, people of color, women, they had no rights bound to respect,” Green told Daily Kos before reflecting on the white nationalist rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Trump gave racists “reason to believe they could march through the streets with tiki torches and say ‘Jews will not replace us’ as their mantra,” Green lamented.
Trump’s conduct accelerated bad behavior and hateful acts came out more into the open because there was a nod of approval from on high.
Green reflected on men like George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in Minnesota by a police officer when that officer, Derek Chauvin, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck despite Floyd’s protests and pleas of being unable to breathe.
“That police officers could put a knee on the neck of a person and watch the life evaporate … I sincerely believe in my soul that they did it because they wanted to teach those who were watching a lesson and let them know that they had no rights that they were bound to respect,” Green said.
Till, Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery—who Green called a “modern day Emmett Till”—were all accosted by white men who believed they were above the law and above the Black human beings before them.
If they didn’t say it with their words, they did not need to. Their actions spoke for them and juries, this time, have agreed.
“We do have rights,” Green said, crying. “We do have rights that they are bound to respect. Dr. Martin Luther King was right. The moral arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice.”
The passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act does not solve racism. It does not solve violent, racially motivated crimes. But it is a change for the better, for the good. And it is a change made for a world that Green acknowledged he may not be around to see.
He reflected on the words of Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle, who Martin Luther King once employed in a speech of his own.
“’No lie can live forever,’” Green said before then reciting poet William Cullen Bryant. “Truth crashed to earth shall rise again.”
The anti-lynching bill will officially be enshrined into law with President Joe Biden’s signature.
Green hopes one day the U.S. will find a way to reconcile its past more completely.
He has called for the formation of a cabinet-level Department of Reconciliation that would ensure efforts to “achieve racial harmony are never abandoned.” He has also called for a Slavery Remembrance Day, akin to Holocaust Remembrance day, and he has called for the Russell Senate office building to be renamed given Richard B. Russell’s self-proclaimed position as a white supremacist.
Green delivered his letter to President Biden in late February and has not yet heard back.
“I won’t give up,” he told Daily Kos. “As long as I’ve got pen and paper, I won’t give up.”
“My hope is that one day, maybe not in my lifetime, we’ll have a Department of Reconciliation because we have not reconciled, we have not dealt with the hate, in a very transparent and candid way and it is needed,” he said. “Things don't always happen as quickly, in my opinion, as they should. But I hope that at some point, in somebody’s lifetime, we will reconcile. We won't have perfect harmony but we will know that women, people of color and persons who know their gender better than persons who encounter them, will have rights that all people are bound to respect.”
And there are signs of hope.
On Monday, officials in Indiana announced that they were formally updating the death record for George Tompkins, a young Black man found hanging from a tree in Indiana a century ago with his hands bound behind his back.
Police ruled it a suicide. No one was arrested.
After much pushing from activists, authorities changed the death record from suicide to lynching and homicide.