Emmett Till and Me

Roundup: Talking About History

[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. Here he records the time he went to Akron's Antioch Baptist Church to hear Emmett Till's mother. It was the summer of 1955.]

... 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 ..."

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