Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement” by Angela Joy

This book tells the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy who was brutally tortured and murdered in August, 1955, while visiting family in Mississippi.

Mamie was a single mom; her husband had gone into the army leaving Mamie a widow at the age of 23. Emmett contracted polio as a child and while he recovered, he developed a stutter. Mamie taught him to whistle to help him get the words out. As the author notes, “whistling calmed Emmett, steadied him, allowing him to finish what he started to say.” It may have been that whistling that cost him his life.

While in Mississippi, he was accused of offending Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman, allegedly by whistling at her in her family’s grocery store. Whether he whistled at her, or whistled to help him talk, or whether he did anything at all, is in dispute to this day. What is not disputed is what happened next. As a PBS account of the incident reports, “In the Deep South—where the separation between blacks and whites was defined by law, [Carolyn’s husband] Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam decided Emmett needed to be taught a lesson.”

Several nights later, Roy and J.W., who were armed, went to Till’s great-uncle’s house and abducted Emmett. They took him away, beat and mutilated him, shot him in the head, and sunk his body in the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, the boy’s very mutilated and bloated body was discovered and retrieved from the river. His eyes had been gouged out and his penis was cut off. His body was weighted by a fan blade fastened round his neck with barbed wire. His face was unrecognizable but he was able to be identified by the silver ring he was wearing.

Emmett’s body was returned to Chicago, where Mamie insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket, so the world could see what was done to her son. She said: “Let the people see what I have seen. We have averted our eyes far too long. Everybody needs to know what happened to Emmett Till.” Tens of thousands attended his funeral or viewed his open casket, and images of his mutilated body were published in black-oriented magazines and newspapers.

In September, 1955, an all-white jury found Bryant and Milam not guilty. (PBS observes that when Bryant and Milam could not afford a legal defense, five local lawyers volunteered to represent them pro bono.) Protected against double jeopardy, the two men publicly admitted in a 1956 interview with Look magazine that they had tortured and murdered the boy. No one ever went to jail for Emmett’s murder.

This book for children does dwell on gory details although it does state unequivocally that Emmett was murdered and that his body was “bruised, scarred, swollen.” Primarily, however, it focuses on the quest of Emmett’s mother to find justice for him as well as other African American victims of race violence.

Paper-cut illustrations by Janelle Washington seem like the perfect choice for this book. They too are not gory or detailed but expressive nevertheless and suggestive of what happened.

At the end of the story of Emmett, the author and illustrator have created a memorial panel to other young African American victims of race-hatred inspired violence, much of which was perpetrated by police in recent years. Back matter also includes an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, a suggested soundtrack, glossary, time line, and sources.

Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley

Discussion: Mamie spent years teaching about the failure of the justice system for African Americans and about other murders of Blacks that have never been resolved. After years of lobbying by Mamie and others, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which makes lynching a federal hate crime, was signed into law on March 29, 2022 by President Joe Biden. Decades of lawmakers’ systematic and shameful opposition to such a law had blocked more than 200 earlier attempts at similar bills.

As just two recent examples of how this new law would make a difference, points out that the three men convicted in 2021 of murdering Ahmaud Arbery could have been charged with lynching if the law were in effect. On top of the state-level charges that they were convicted of — among them malice murder, felony murder, and false imprisonment — their crime could have been tried as a ‘lynching’ at the federal level. In addition, the man who murdered Heather Heyer with his vehicle in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 could have also been charged under the new law.

Evaluation: This beautiful book for ages 8 and over is especially timely given the release of the film “Till,” which also focuses more on Mamie’s life than the gruesome fate of her son. One hopes this important event in American history will not be erased by those opposed to any history seen as “critical” of whites.

The vandalized memorial for Emmett Till marking the location his body was discovered had to be replaced with a bulletproof sign following outrage over a photograph of three University of Mississippi students posing with guns in front of the bullet-riddled marker.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2022

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