The Clarion-Ledger
Jackson Daily News
August 25, 1985

Memories sketch varied portraits of Emmett Till

Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

CHICAGO – Mamie Till Mobley remembers her son Emmett as a disciplined 14-year-old who dreamed of becoming a minister and building a church.

Lindsey Hill, a childhood companion remembers him as “Bobo,” who fed on attention and bullied others when he didn’t get his way.

To Phyllis Hambrick, Emmett Louis Till was a pudgy, bashful, seventh-grade classmate who stuttered and used to follow her home from school.

Those 30-year-old recollections sketch a portrait of Till, a model child to adults, overbearing and comical around his chums, and timid with girls.

Till was killed in 1955 after apparently whistling at a white woman in the Mississippi Delta during a summer trip to the state. His death triggered a spate of national publicity that focused attention on the early stages of the civil rights movement in America.

Till looked and acted more mature than other 14-year-olds. He stood 5 feet 2 inches tall, weighed 160 pounds and had brown hair and hazel eyes, his mother said during a recent interview at her Chicago home. When not in school, where he was an average student, he often hung around with his older cousins.

Till was born July 25, 1941, in the Argo community on Chicago’s south-western edge. Today, that neighborhood is a fusion of working-class families whose children still spend summer afternoons racing tricycles on sidewalks or playing games in the Argo Elementary School yard, just as Till and his cronies did more than three decades ago.

Across from the school on 64th Street is a vacant black-and-white, wood-frame residence, the house Till called home the first 10 years of his life.

“This is his beginning,” said 71-year-old Marie Carthan as she pointed out of her living-room window next door to Till’s old house. “He played around the school and in the streets, too. We didn’t have a fence then, so he would just crawl from his back yard right over here. He stuttered a lot, but I thought he was going to grow up and be a good fellow. I believed he was going to stand for something.”

Three blocks away is Argo Temple Church of God in Christ, where Till was a member and where he sometimes was overcome with emotion during church services, said his mother.

“He was very religious, “ said Mobley, 63, a retired schoolteacher with the Chicago Pubic Schools. “One of the promises that he made to my mother was that he would build her a church.”

Despite Till’s strong spiritual upbringing, Mobley had some inkling that her son wasn’t perfect.
“I caught him dancing one day. He was doing the bunny hop. I didn’t even know he could dance. He always went to church, and in our church, we didn’t dance. I knew he could shout in church, but I didn’t know he could dance,” Mobley said with a broad smile. 

Mobley said her son never knew his father, Louis Till, whom she divorced when Emmett was 2. Louis Till died in 1943. Mobley is now married to a Cadillac car salesman and lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood.

Hill remembers when Till threw his weight around while playing marbles. 

“He was a kind of a tough guy,” Hill said. “We played marbles together. If he lost, he took all the marbles. I guess you could call him the neighborhood bully. He was bigger than most of us.
“He was kind of advanced for his time. He thought a little different than most kids our age. He would try some things that we wouldn’t try,” said Hill, a pipe fitter for CPC International Corn Products Inc.

Curtis Jones, a cousin who was visiting Mississippi with Till that summer, said Till often sought attention.

“He liked to be seen. He liked the spotlight,” said Jones, now a 19-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. “He was a real jolly guy, always laughing and having fun. You’d say something to him about his stuttering and he’d act like he didn’t hear you or he’d laugh it off.”

Wheeler Parker, another cousin who accompanied Till to Mississippi, agreed. “Anytime he was around, he was the center of attention. He had that natural-born-leader instinct,” said Parker, a barber and an elder at Argo Temple.

When he was 10, Till moved into a maroon-and-white house 10 miles away on St. Lawrence Street, then a middle-class area but now deteriorating. It was in this neighborhood that he met Hambrick, one of the first girls to catch Till’s eye. She said Till, often shunned by other classmates because of his weight, seemed to lack self-confidence because of his stuttering.

“They made fun of him,” she said. “He was a quiet person. I think his stuttering was one of the things that made him shy. Sometimes it took him forever to get a word out.

“When it came to talking to me, I don’t remember him being as forward as some of the other boys. He used to come around, not to sit on the porch but more to stand at the end of the sidewalk and talk.

“He and Marvin Childress used to walk me home from school. Marvin was kind of his float-mate. If Emmett couldn’t say it, Marvin was there to say it for him,” Hambrick said.

Most acquaintances say it wasn’t like Till to whistle at Carolyn Bryant, who was minding the grocery store in Money the day Till reportedly whistled at her, and that he wouldn’t have had he known the implications.

But Till’s cousin Jones said he wasn’t surprised by the whistle.

“I think he was capable of doing it, with the coaxing from the boys,” said Jones, who arrived in Mississippi from Chicago a day after the incident but was with Till the night he was abducted from the house of his great-uncle, Moses Wright. “The boys had dared him. He was trying to show them that he wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t the type that scared easily.

“The women here wouldn’t have paid any attention to it other than maybe to look at him like he was crazy,” said Jones, a native of Slaughter who moved to Chicago when he was 3.

Mobley insisted that her son wasn’t flirting but was trying to stop his stuttering.

“He had particular trouble with b’s and m’s. I taught him that when he got stuck to whistle. When be came out of the store, somebody asked him what he bought. At the same time, he was being asked how did he like that white girl. He was trying to say bubblegum, but he got stuck. So he whistled,” she said.

“I had never known Emmett to be a flirt, but I do know that he was becoming aware of girls. It would have been strange for Emmett to whistle at anybody, because if he did I would have killed him,” Mobley said.

However, Simeon Wright, Moses Wright’s son who was with Till when the incident occurred, tells a different story.

“He was definitely whistling at that girl,” said Wright, a pipe fitter with Reynolds Metals. “After he whistled, we jumped in the car and went down the road about two miles. A car was behind us. We thought it was following us. We stopped and everybody jumped out and hid in a cornfield except me. I hid on the back seat.

“Emmett begged us not to tell my dad what he had done. My dad would have sent him back home,” said Wright, now 42.

Jones said Till had pictures of white people in his wallet, including photos of what Till said were two white girlfriends from Chicago.

“I had just bought Emmett a wallet,” Mobley said. “Back in the 50s, when you buy a wallet, a picture of a movie star was always in it. That was Hedy Lamarr. I don’t know what other pictures he had, other than family. He did go to school with whites in Argo.”

When Till moved to Chicago, he attended an all-black school.

Ruby Coleman, Mobley’s cousin, was expecting Till to visit her in Kalamazoo, Mich., during that summer of 1955 and became upset when she found out that he was going to Mississippi instead. 
“I called Mamie and told her that a child like that shouldn’t go to a place like Mississippi,” said Coleman, who now lives in Chicago. “He didn’t know anything about ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am.’

“That always sticks out in my mind,” Coleman said. “Maybe if he had come to visit us in Michigan, he would still be alive.”