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  • Emmett Till’s Ring
  • Valerie Smith (bio)

On July 13, 1945, Mamie Till received a telegram at her home in Argo, Illinois, notifying her that her estranged husband, Private Louis Till, had been killed in Italy.1 The Department of Defense subsequently sent her his personal effects, including a silver ring he had bought in Casablanca, engraved with his initials and a date, May 25, 1943. During the following ten years, their son, Emmett Till, would occasionally try on his father’s ring. Since Emmett was only four when Louis Till was killed, the ring was always too large for him. But in mid-August 1955, as he packed for what was to have been a two-week visit with relatives in Money, Mississippi, he tried the ring on again. Still too big for his ring finger, it now fit the middle finger perfectly. Emmett and his mother agreed that he could wear the ring on his trip to show his cousins and his friends.

In her memoir, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, written with Christopher Benson, Mamie Till-Mobley recalls that during the conversation about the ring, Emmett asked her about his father:

We had talked about the fact that his father was a soldier in World War II and that he had been killed overseas. The only thing I could tell him at that point was the only thing I was told by the army. The cause of death, I explained to Emmett, was “willful misconduct.” I didn’t know what that meant, and when I tried to find out, I never got a satisfactory answer from the army. A lawyer and friend, Joseph Tobias, had tried to help in 1948. But he was told by the Department of the Army there would be no benefits for me due to the willful misconduct.

(Till-Mobley and Benson 2003, 103)

This incident occurs at the point in the narrative when Emmett’s mother has begun to realize that her little boy is becoming an adult. In [End Page 151] the preceding pages, she describes his heightened sense of responsibility, his first date, his impromptu driving lessons, his insistence on vacationing with his cousins instead of traveling with her, her hopes for his future. By giving Emmett his father’s ring, she thus acknowledges his growing independence and maturity. Furthermore, she binds him symbolically to his paternity and his patrimony, despite the fact that irreconcilable differences had torn his parents’ marriage apart.

As he boarded the train called the City of New Orleans on Saturday, August 20, at Central Station, Chicago, Emmett kissed his mother goodbye and gave her his wristwatch to keep, telling her he wouldn’t need it in Mississippi. Although he removed his watch, he decided to wear the ring.

Eleven days later, on Wednesday, August 31, Robert Hodges, a seventeen-year-old white fisher, discovered Emmett’s mutilated body floating in the Tallahatchie River, even though his murderers—J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant—had tied a cotton gin fan around his neck in hopes of weighing him down.2 For allegedly whistling at—or saying something inappropriate to—Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, in their store, Emmett had been killed. According to his mother’s description, his tongue had been choked out of his mouth and left hanging onto his chin. His right eyeball was resting on his cheek. Only two of his teeth remained in his mouth, and the bridge of his nose had been broken. His right ear had been cut almost in half and one of his murderers had taken a hatchet and cut through the top of his head from ear to ear. He had also been shot through the head (Till-Mobley and Benson 2003, 135–36).

Given its condition, it is thus little wonder that Tallahatchie County sheriff H.C. Strider scrambled to get Emmett’s body buried in Mississippi as quickly as possible. He and other local law enforcement officials wanted to try to minimize the impact of a heinous crime that had already captured national attention. Once Emmett’s mother, then known as Mamie Bradley, learned that plans were being made...


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pp. 151-161
Launched on MUSE
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