I can’t remember what was written in the tiny notebook, but I do remember the handwriting: large, child-like, mostly cursive, looping letters in slightly faded pencil.
I stood in a dim Chicago basement with my friend Mamie Till-Mobley, gently, respectfully, turning the pages of the palm-sized pad of paper she had just handed me.
“When the men took Bobo,” she said of her son, Emmett Till, “this was left behind on the dresser at his Uncle Moses’ house.”
I remember thinking: Why isn’t this in a museum somewhere?
There were other artifacts in that basement: Bobo’s bicycle, dusty but in mint condition, and a 1950s television set I recognized from a black-and-white photo I’d seen with the boy standing in front of it. This was the same television set that, over 40 years ago, had been broadcasting an episode of “I Love Lucy” when reports of the boy’s kidnapping and murder had interrupted the show.
Fascinated, I could have spent hours longer in that melancholy basement time capsule, but a delicious smell was wafting down from the tiny kitchen, and Mamie suddenly announced, “Seems like Gene’s almost done with that catfish.”
I closed the notebook and handed it ― gingerly, almost reverentially ― back to Mamie and then followed her up the stairs, which she climbed nimbly despite her advanced years.
Over that supper of fried catfish (with Louisiana Hot Sauce, which Mamie insisted I try) and collard greens, I found myself wanting to ask more questions about Emmett but restrained myself. Instead, we talked about more mundane topics: Southern cooking, her husband Gene’s starting-to-fail health, how different the Chicago weather was from the weather in my hometown of Los Angeles.
Tomorrow would be the day for questions, when my camera crew would arrive, and I’d begin my interview with Mamie. Tomorrow, I’d ask all the questions that still haunted me about her only son, 14-year-old Emmett ― nicknamed Bobo ― who had traveled from Chicago in 1955 to visit his cousins in rural Money, Mississippi, and had returned in a wooden box, his body tortured and disfigured beyond all recognition.
Mamie and I had been friends since 1992. I’d found her name in the Chicago telephone directory after watching the PBS civil rights documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.” I had been deeply touched by her story and, after dialing her number from my small office in Century City, I’d been surprised when she answered the phone with a warm “hello.”
“Hello,” I had stammered. “Is this Mamie Till-Mobley? You don’t know me ― my name is Andy and I just watched ‘Eyes on the Prize’ and I wanted to tell you how much your story touched me.”
I immediately felt ridiculous. I was a stranger ― a white stranger ― calling her out of the blue and reminding her that her 14-year-old son had been tortured and lynched almost 40 years ago for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
I expected her to say, “How did you get my number?” I expected her to hang up. But she didn’t.
Instead, she sweetly replied, “Well, that was very nice of you. Tell me your name again, honey?”
We talked a little bit about Emmett. We talked a bit about her life and her work with The Emmett Till Players, which over the years had taught hundreds of young Black children the speeches of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and performed them all over the country.
We also talked a little about my life: I was 27 years old and I knew very little about the state of race relations in the United States. What little I did know I had learned recently from that PBS documentary, which had shocked me to tears with its images of dogs and fire hoses being turned on people in the South. I’m ashamed to say that for much of my life I’d had only a scant idea of the savagery that occurred ― and continues to occur ― in this country.
Mamie was incredibly patient with me and my great, gaping pit of ignorance, and she took the time to answer my questions which, at the time, seemed logical to me, but now make me cringe.
“Did they really have separate drinking fountains for Black people and white people?” I had asked her.
Even typing such a stupid question now makes me blush with shame. How could I know so little about all this? Of course, I knew Black people had been, and frequently still were, treated abysmally ― I wasn’t a total idiot. But at that time, it had never seemed real to me because I’d never actually known a Black person when I was growing up in my all-white suburb in California’s Central Valley. It was all just stuff in the history books ― like the Pilgrims and the signing of the Declaration of Independence ― stuff that I foolishly believed happened a long time ago and was done and finished for the most part. I was taught it was simply history. My privilege let me believe it.
Mamie was patient, though, and after we hung up, I resolved to learn more. And I did. Periodically, I’d phone her with questions on any number of topics from Rosa Parks to Brown v. Board of Education to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She always picked up and she was always kind and told me what she knew of these things (and she knew much) and helped nurture the seed of indignation that “Eyes on the Prize” had planted in me. We grew close over the years and I was grateful not only for what she was telling and teaching me, but for her friendship as well.
All of this was before the internet made it possible to get anything instantly at any time, so I had to order a copy of Jet magazine from a rare books and magazine company to view the photos of Emmett’s mangled corpse and a much-younger Mamie standing beside the open coffin, her face contorted with pain. We discussed her insistence on an open-casket funeral so the world could see the hate that had been inflicted on her only child. (He’d been tortured, shot in the head, tied to a heavy piece of machinery and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, where his body remained for days before being discovered.) Tens of thousands of people viewed Emmett’s body in person and via the photos published in Jet, and the resulting national outrage is credited as being among the earliest galvanizing moments of the civil rights movement.
In 1994, I left ABC Productions and began working as director of global production for a massive documentary project, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Founded by Steven Spielberg in the wake of “Schindler’s List,” the foundation’s mission was to record full-length interviews with survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Though it had been a bit of a culture shock transitioning from a gig where my most emotional requirement might be viewing dailies of the current episode of “My So-Called Life” to one in which every single interview (and we conducted almost 50,000 of them) could instigate an emotional breakdown, I loved the work. I felt like I was contributing to something that mattered. Our interview subjects were initially Jewish survivors, but almost immediately grew to include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romani, gay people, and others persecuted by Hitler’s army of hate.
It was while doing this work that I pitched the idea of interviewing my friend Mamie, as an example of how the cutting-edge protocols for conducting these interviews could be used by other groups seeking to document their history. My executive producers, James Moll and June Beallor ― both amazing people ― agreed to the idea, and before I traveled to Chicago, I began doing further research on Emmett’s case.
When I arrived at Mamie and Gene’s house on Wabash Avenue in Chicago, I was nervous about meeting her face to face for the first time.
I shouldn’t have been. Mamie and Gene made me feel at home, and the same warmth I’d experienced over the phone for six years was even warmer in person.
We spent the day together, reviewing artifacts of that hellish time in 1955 that would be filmed by our crew for posterity following the next day’s interview.
The interview itself went on for hours. Mamie patiently and bravely answered questions with a level of detail that required little probing from me. I saw tears begin to well up in her eyes as we began to discuss Emmett’s murder. She’d spoken about this for the past 40 years, determined to keep his memory alive, but the pain of her recall still seemed deep and immediate, as though the murder had happened only yesterday. She described in minute detail the arrival of the box containing her son’s body: the room, the emotions, the smell.
I returned to Los Angeles the following day with Emmett’s notebook safely tucked away in my briefcase. The small artifact was on the verge of decay, and Mamie had asked me if there was any way to preserve it. I told her the first thing that needed to be done was to have it digitally scanned, and she insisted I take it back with me and do so. It felt strange, carrying this small notebook that had been held by the hand of the young boy, so long ago, on the very last day of his life.
I saw Mamie only once after our interview, when she and Gene ― and a cadre of her young Emmett Till Players ― came to Los Angeles for an event and stopped by Universal Studios to tour the Shoah Foundation. We spoke on the phone a few more times before she died in 2003.
Mamie never saw justice for her son’s murder ― the all-white, all-male Southern jury had deliberated for slightly more than an hour (one juror was quoted as saying, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t even have taken that long”) before acquitting Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam of Emmett’s murder. A few months later, in an interview with Look Magazine, the pair openly admitted to ― and even bragged about ― killing him.
In addition to the many questions I remember asking Mamie, I also recall some incredibly ignorant and truly cringeworthy statements, one of which still stands out in my mind today: “It must make you feel good to know that you ... and Emmett ... played a part in making the world a better place today, knowing that what happened to Emmett couldn’t happen now.”
I remember, clear as day, the look that clouded her eyes, magnified behind her big glasses, as she responded, carefully, skillfully avoiding the condescension that my oblivious comment deserved.
“Some things are better,” she said. “But what happened to my boy still happens, honey. Don’t forget that.”
I haven’t forgotten: Daunte Wright, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are just a few of the other Black men who have lost their lives.
A few days ago, I went to the theater to see the film “Till” and found myself crying repeatedly watching the phenomenal Danielle Deadwyler so beautifully channel Mamie’s pain, courage and resilience. I am so grateful to the director, writers and producing team for so eloquently telling her story and making it known to a wider audience. I wish Mamie had lived to see it herself. I also wish she had lived to see the Emmett Till Antilynching Act signed into law just recently, though I’m saddened it took this long to do it, and I know that nothing could ease the pain of having her son taken from her.
While I feel deeply honored to have known Mamie, and I am incredibly grateful for the education she provided me with so much patience, I recognize now what my younger self who was still blissfully unaware of my white privilege did not: It was not her responsibility to educate me on the subject of race. It was my responsibility, and mine alone. I’m still learning.
Andy Nicastro is a writer and former producer living in Southern California with his husband of many years, actor Patrick Bristow. He is the former director of global production for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, and his writing has been published in The Fight Magazine, Top Agent Magazine and The Advocate. His blog detailing his experiences as a recovering crystal meth addict, “Shortly After Takeoff,” can be found at andynicastro.com.