Emmett Till and Me
I was front and center to record the remarks of a grieving Mamie Till at Akron's Antioch Baptist Church. The memory haunts me still.
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Robert C. Lape
Reading about the newest documentary film on the murder of Emmett Louis Till in Mississippi 50 years ago brings back memories of a scoop -- no, three of them -- that I scored as a young radio reporter in Akron. They have haunted me since.
It takes the broad sweep of history to reveal that what seemed at the time to be unusual and interesting -- news -- may have been much more than that. If anything were required to hammer home the obvious, it was this summer's FBI exhumation in Chicago of the body of the 14-year-old Chicago native who had been brutally slain while visiting an uncle in the Deep South in 1955. Till's murder and the sham trial that followed were cataclysmic events, the tinder that inflamed the civil rights movement across the country.
Having just graduated from Kent State, I was working for WCUE in Akron. As the junior staff member, I was often the guy who would chase the news at night, after the station signed off. If notables were speaking in town, I would lug the 40-pound, reel-to-reel Magnacorder tape equipment to the scene and harvest sound bites for the next morning's newscasts. Afterward, I would return to the studio, isolate, re-run and time the comments, and write introductions and "outros" for them. The morning newscasters needed only to blend the overnight material into their half-hourly reports as they saw fit.
Early in the summer of '55, Opie Evans, a black friend I'd met when he was producing programs at the station, stopped in the newsroom to inquire if we had any interest in a speaker coming to his church a few days later. The luminary, Opie said, was the new executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "Sure," I answered. "Can we record in the church?" Opie assured me we would be welcome.
And so I made my first visit to the Antioch Baptist Church. The large, handsome red-brick house of worship has a bold modern cross of white in front of it, facing Wooster Avenue in the epicenter of Akron's black neighborhoods. Well-dressed people were moving into the sanctuary as I arrived. It took several trips from my car to carry the two boxes of recording gear and heavy stand-up microphone into the church.
I had been provided a small table directly under the lectern and set up the equipment, positioning the microphone base on the stage a foot over my head. I extended the mike so it was at a perfect pickup point, squarely in front of the speaker. It was the only microphone visible in the church. The WCUE call letters were boldly embossed on it, which gave me a moment of pride to think it was being seen by -- how many? Looking around, it was immediately clear that
Antioch Baptist Church would fill to capacity that summer night.
There were 2,000 black faces in the audience, and one white reporter. They'd come to hear Roy Wilkins, himself a newspaperman and editor who was 54 when tapped to lead the NAACP in 1955. On that night in Akron, as in all the years of his distinguished life, Wilkins would be a reasoned and articulate spokesman for legislative redress of civil rights imbalance. He opposed militancy in the movement. I met him briefly before packing up my equipment. He struck me as a true gentleman, a determined one.
Driving back to the station, I pondered the fact that there were not only no other white people in the church for his remarks, but also no other reporters -- radio, TV or newspaper. I thought it strange, but all the better for our side. We had the story in ideal sound reproduction, and nobody else had a word or syllable of it. Wilkins' pithier comments, as I perceived them, were sprinkled through the next morning's newscasts.
Emmett Till died horribly that August in Money, Mississippi. Despite his mother's warnings that things were very different in the South, the teenager either whistled at or commented about an attractive white woman in a local store. That night they came for him.
He was dragged from his uncle's home, tied to a tree, beaten, shot, weighted down with the heavy fan of a cotton gin and dumped into the Tallahatchie River. It gave up his corpse three days later. The owner of the store and his brother-in-law would be tried for murder and acquitted. Two months later, they would tell Look magazine that they did it.
Against this backdrop, my friend Opie Evans came into the WCUE newsroom to tell me Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was coming to the church. I pounced on the invitation to cover the appearance faster than a frog on a June bug.
Reverend Powell, the fiery pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, was in his fifth of eleven terms he would serve in Congress. He was a freewheeling, flamboyant spirit and a brilliant orator.
My second visit to Antioch Baptist was a carbon copy of the first in terms of getting there and preparing to record the speaker. The difference was a palpable air of excitement among the congregation as it swelled to fill every seat and line the side aisles. His fellow Baptists were well acquainted with Powell's renown as a spellbinding, stem-winding speaker.
As Powell strode to the podium amid great applause, I glanced around to discover that once again mine was the only white face in the church, and I was the only newsperson present.
As the clergyman-congressman gripped both sides of the lectern and gazed with flashing eyes at a point somewhere beyond the room, he roared: "America, be ashamed! Mississippi, be mortally ashamed! For look at what you have done. Not just to poor, young Emmett Till. But to the fiber and fabric of these United States!"
As the charismatic leader's honeyed voice ranged from outrage to scathing sarcasm, he painted a searing picture of how America now looked to the world.
"Those white men in Mississippi," he intoned, "have lynched the Statue of
His audience chorused "Amens!" back to Powell. I did my best to disappear. Yet there I was, directly in front of the impassioned orator, my earphones clamped on, head bent over my notebook. Given the circumstances, it was impossible to disagree with this man, and oh, could he make you feel bad!
I thrust small pieces of paper into the whirling reels of tape, marking the good spots for later retrieval. The Powell speech tape looked like a picket fence. It was all good.
After such an emotional exchange between speaker and audience, the evening left all in attendance a bit spent. But as I gathered my gear to leave, a number of members of the congregation stopped to say hello and quietly ask when I thought any of the recordings might be heard. It was clear I was more than welcome.
Returning to WCUE, I again patted myself on the back for having had whatever sense it took to go report on the speech. And I again wondered why I was the only newsman there. My station broadcast seven of Adam Clayton Powell's sound bites in the next day's half-hourly news programs.
A few weeks later, Emmett Till's mother came to Antioch Baptist Church. By this time, Opie Evans knew our news department would want in on the event.
I was front and center to record the remarks of the grieving Mamie Till, an attractive, articulate woman who wore a fur stole for her church appearance. She was as quiet as Adam Powell had been dramatic, but no less fervent in her plea for justice -- in America and, most particularly, in Mississippi. Mrs. Till called the trial of the two accused murderers "the biggest farce" she had ever seen.
Her strength had been sorely tested when Mississippi officials sought to bury the body there literally as well as figuratively. A funeral director sought to speed up the process by putting quick lime on the corpse, for whatever reasons. Mrs. Till angrily demanded her son be returned to Chicago where he was given an open casket funeral. Jet magazine published pictures of the boy's destroyed face.
To my continuing amazement and professional gratitude, I was the only reporter to cover Mamie Till's anger and sorrow-steeped comments to the Antioch audience.
I can't say when the other local news-gatherers realized what was unfolding at the Wooster Avenue church because my career in broadcast news took me East after that summer.
In retrospect, it was not yet clear to white America that black churches were the spine, sinew and nerve center for the civil rights movement. The Underground Railway that transported slaves from the South to freedom in Northeastern Ohio in Civil War times was carrying a new cargo of communication and inspiration in 1955.
This was the year newly minted community leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would urge the blacks of Montgomery, Alabama, to boycott segregated buses, and on one of them, Rosa Parks, who died last week, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man.
Eight years later, I was in the back of a bus carrying black leaders from Boston to Washington. As correspondent for WBZ, Boston's premier radio station, I provided news and interviews about the pilgrimage to hear King, whose small resistance had become a national juggernaut.
Near the impromptu speaker's platform, I would look in awe over the quarter-million people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, and put small pieces of paper into a tape reel to mark the segment that began, "I have a dream ..."
Akron native Robert C. Lape is a veteran of 52 years in journalism, the past 20 for Crain's New York Business and WCBS Radio in New York. He may be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.