By Nic Brown
In its original religious context, Easter is the transition between death and rebirth. As serendipity has followed us on this journey of Emmett and Maime Till-Mobley beginning in 2006, it’s only fitting that it continues to follow us today. On the Easter weekend of 2010, I took part—along with 3 others—in an isolated spell of a long journey, one that proved to be a singularly redefining experience for everyone involved. A journey executed in the name of, well essentially, rebirth: Fifty-five years since Emmett Till’s lynching, four years after English teacher Chris Maly presented the public with the orignial Lincoln High play “This Unsafe Star,” six years after Emmett’s case was officially reopened by the FBI, three years since it was closed once again without anyone brought to justice, and seven years after the passing of Mamie Till-Mobley… the story continues.
Now we’re here once again, studying the same facts, and searching for the same answers. Down the Eastern edge of the Mississippi River, we revisited sites of interest; some in decay, some renovated and/or simply maintained, some that would be unidentifiable if not marked individually by a sole, summative placard. We met people who—past and present—are leaders in their own right. Overall, we took an opportunity dying in the sunset to view some of these things we’ve spoken of so much in person. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but to see an artifact with your own eyes is penultimate to, well, having been there.
We started the active portion of our trip on Easter Sunday, en route to various sites along the timeline of Emmett’s abduction, murder, and trial. All of note, certain locations stood out. The courthouse where Emmett’s murderers (Roy Bryant & JW Milam) went on trial was an experience, from my perspective, only to be had in person. If you look up any sort of visual document from the trial itself, you can practically feel the heat off the images. People leaning out of the windows, tossing hate at all the incoming participants, notably Emmett’s mother. Inside the courthouse, the no-speech-needed photo was taken of Moses Wright, (Emmett’s uncle), pointing deliberately at the murderers. And only yards away, a placard indicating the former presence of the hotel, where the jurors who barely attempted to make any sort of effort, before acquitting Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of a murder well supported in evidence, stayed during the trial.
And yet, in light of all this feverous history, it is eerily quiet in person. Surrounded squarely by businesses that are long out of service, it seemed essentially like the vivid definition of a “ghost town.” The energy remains though—I’m not sure I know another way to describe it, other than its one of those kinds of moments where you’ve got to voluntarily remember to breathe. Seeing the inside of the courthouse would’ve been something else, but being as though it was Easter Sunday, we settled for the outside and it’s surrounding scene. I had a memorable moment speaking to my father during our minutes there, when he observed rather matter-of-factly; “I don’t see how anything could thrive here, after something so negative.”
At other points in the day, we visited the cotton gin factory, where the two men stole the cotton gin used in an attempt to hide Emmett’s body at the bottom of the river. We also went to the home (or rather the existent decaying foundation of the home) of Roy Bryant. At the time, when we reached the house, my father didn’t get out of the car. Initially I wondered why. Back at the hotel hours later, in a phone conversation, I heard him explain rather bluntly—“I didn’t want my feet to touch the ground.”
And then there’s the store.
The infamous interaction between Emmett and Carolyn Bryant occurred in a now dilapidated grocery store, in Money, Mississippi—“Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market.” The store was in even more decay than I had anticipated. As noted by Maly numerous times within earshot, it most likely will not exist for his children. (Let alone mine.) Standing only feet away from the remains of its boarded storefront, a stunning amalgamation of powerful emotions come to the fore. Anger, confusion, bewilderment, sadness, and that oh-so indescribable emotion of plain “wow” are all in there. You know it means something that you’re standing here, yet you don’t want to trivialize the moment with speech. And yet there’s still more questions to be asked. It’s a flashpoint frozen in time. Emmett Till walked into that store, with no indication that he was nearing the end of his life, and with no indication that he would be iconicized in consensus as the spark that set off the Civil Rights movement. “Although it was boisterous behavior,” I said to Maly as we stood there, “nothing warrants that amount of hate.”
The story of what exactly transpired in that store has been told and twisted in a number of ways, few of them true. For some people, the fruits of this documentary may be the first time they hear correct firsthand accounts of what happened that summer. 55 years after the fact. Falsehood is often propagated via time and ignorance, and to undo it requires a lot of people to admit that they were wrong. It’ll be interesting to see how such a process unfolds, especially since even some who know the truth about Emmett Till have decided to remain in denial for years. For myself, I can only say that, having been presented with the truth, I see only one option—passing it forward.
April 4th also commemorated 42 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On this day, people congregated at the Lorraine Motel, which has now been conjoined with the annexing National Civil Rights Museum. Even at a relatively dull roar, there was already a clear observation to be made: straight, gay, black, white, Latino, Asian—there was no demographic that wasn’t here. The scenery was relatively quiet until the dedication of the new wreath, which is ceremoniously placed onto the banister where King was shot, every year. But the real highlight of the day came when I met Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles.
Kyles, 75, is one of the few living witnesses to the assassination of Dr. King, and the only living person to have spent Dr. King’s final hour in the company of the man himself. At the ceremony, he greeted a few, and luckily, I was one. Even more so, I was lucky to hear him explain his life stance. He spoke of the deep questioning that followed the death of his friend, as to why he was witness to his final moments, as well as his physical demise. He then explained it all simply and profoundly: “Every crucifixion needs a witness.”
The day after, on our way to another point of interest, Maly expressed interest in laying eyes on the Mason Temple, the site of King’s last speech. (Commonly known as the “Mountaintop” speech.) Paying intermittent attention to the clock, we had intended to link up with Wheeler Parker (who we had previously met up with and filmed in March at his Chicago church) at our final stop later in the day at a Mississippi high school. As we pulled into the lot, serendipity arrived once again, as Wheeler strolled off the front pavement of the Temple. One could say that at this point, chance happenings of incredible circumstance were almost par for the course within this ongoing creative process.
After initial chat (as well as shock), Wheeler invited us into the Temple, where he had just taken part in a conference affiliated with his church. He brought us on a tour throughout nearly every nook and cranny of the building, before one of the most bizarrely gratifying moments arrived. He invited me to come stand where King stood, before he addressed his final roaring audience—only hours before his death. There are many events that happened during this entire concept that I feel weakened summarizing in words. This is one of them. In some sort of distorted parallel to the courthouse, you can hear all the noise that’s not there…it’s a different kind of noise, but its still vaguely present, ringing from the rafters, before you snap back, and it fades off.
Our final stop ended on a note of forward movement. In 2006, Maly, along with myself amongst an incredibly talented roster of actors, embarked onto the debut production of “This Unsafe Star.” And now, four years later, a young group of high school students in DeSoto County, Mississippi, are embarking on the same journey. Accompanied once again by Wheeler Parker, we traveled to this Mississippi school to speak forth and back about our paralleling experiences. And the parallels were bright in nature: shock, emotionally trying performances/readings, and a bond held together by the collective learning experience, of which, likely, all would come out better as people. It was a sense of coming full circle, and yet, if a simple sign-up on an audition sheet in 2006 caused all this…I can only imagine what lies ahead for them.
Me, my father, and Maly went on our long way back to Lincoln the next day in a collective mental haze. What did it all mean? What do we do now? Maybe, after the technical laboring over this project is complete, we can present it to thousands more, as Maime Till-Mobley had intended. And future students can help answer or make sense of this brutal history. Where I stand at this minute and I ths juncture in my life, I can tell all who will listen that I have been entrusted with experiences, moments, and stories that must be preserved and remembered. And I am forever thankful.