And the way the jury chose to believe the ridiculous stories of the defense….
— Mamie Till, 1955.
… with truth absent, hypocrisy and myth have flourished….
— Look Magazine, January 1956
The sheriff says it wasn’t Till we pulled from the river,
that man was as white as I am, white as cotton
blowed by the cotton gin fan that weighed him down,
looked like he’d lain there weeks, not a kid at all.
He was a stranger just out of Money, recalled
by a store clerk, a hobo, and a crossroad guitarist.
The reporter finds them at the once abandoned crossing.
They say it’s like the sheriff says, came up one night,
headed Clarksdale way, another one, hat pulled down,
right behind. Three days later, the bluesman says,
a plague of starlings gathered into little boys
those who fished and found the dead man’s foot.
The reporter stares into his cataracted, cotton eyes.
He cannot find them, no matter where he looks.
The sheriff says this man’s killer is on the loose
and a killer emerges, a child watching from a sleeping porch
catches a rustle in the bushes and soon everyone
is on the hunt while in the courtroom someone
is wondering about this poor murdered’s family,
who’s missing him, and the next day his father appears
unknown for work, his name on the payroll,
then gets to work at a machine no one’s ever seen,
and someone is weeping on the Tallahatchie’s bank,
a little girl who wished her mother would die,
whose mother died at the hands of this stranger
she’s followed till he stepped in the river and disappeared.
The reporter asks for Too-Tight Collins at Charlestown jail
and the sheriff says Who? The reporter asks why he’s got him
then sees the bullet on his tongue. Asks directions back
to Greenwood and finds himself down Greenville way instead.
Takes back roads back to Mound Bayou, wrong wrong turn
to Parchman Farm where guards rifle from the woods.
A change at the Eavesdrop Inn then he’s bent picking cotton
in a field. Come sundown, he hobos Sumner way and squats
at courthouse windows where the sheriff shuffles cards
for a blind man and the defense team. At a levee camp that night
he asks for whiskey and she gives him a cup of names.
He wires his paper that he’s gone catfish fishing
on the Tallahatchie, that he won’t be coming home.
The defense says Till’s alive and well on Detroit streets
and someone’s sure they’ve seen him, just off the train
from Memphis, porters sneaking him out the back
and now he’s walking incognito, a worn fedora raked
to shade the one eye. A cruiser eases through the streets,
searchlight in doorways, the driver white,
dressed like a cop but for the rope marks at his throat,
the bullet in his eye. He has a mushmouth accent,
talks water when he speaks, slept in a box from Greenville
to Chicago with another man’s name, a name
he’s ready to give up now. If Till is alive and well,
he can’t rest in Burr Oak Cemetery, will cruise
where he’s been said to be on the Detroit streets
where everyone knows he’s coming
since he whistles like a train on the way out of town.
They say it was darker than a thousand midnights
in the cabin, they couldn’t find him in the dark.
They say that Moses brought him out at last,
that someone else was in the truck to say
that it was him that did the talk at Money.
They say they took him for a ride, to rough him up,
scare him on a river bluff then let him go.
They say they let him off near Glendora,
never seen again. They say Ain’t it like a negro
to swim the river with a gin fan round his neck.
They say it was hog’s blood in the truck
what Too Tight washed. They say
they never burnt no shoes, it was a barbecue.
They say that Too Tight never worked for them,
they never heard of Willie Reed. They say
they never meant to harm the boy, they didn’t do a thing.
The defense says Mamie Till knows her son’s
alive and well, that she knows the body isn’t his.
That her lawyers came in weeks ago and dug a body up
and used it for their own. That they’ve found fresh graves.
That a Yazoo City widow found her husband’s gone
and Lazarus ain’t walking back through Eden,
Greenwood, Itta Bena. That Jesus Christ ain’t come.
Every Leflore County lawyer can’t be wrong.
One juror says he knows it, seen rights workers
take their shovels out along the roads at night.
That Sheriff Strider’s right. That it’s the northern poison
got this all stirred up. That though a black might be
fool enough to swim with a gin fan round his neck,
this one wasn’t one. That they should sit a while
and drink a pop, to make it look right, look real.
In the nervous ward, Reed remembers Milam with the gun
asking did he hear anything. Reed remembers saying no,
he didn’t hear anything, anything. Remembers not hearing
the beating and the crying in the shed behind Milam’s.
Remembers not thinking, they beatin’ someone up there.
Remembers not passing the shed, not hearing the beating.
Remembers not remembering Milam not coming out,
not asking if he’d heard. Remembers not
not remembering on the stand, not not whispering
the court reporter not not recording his not
not remembered memory. Not not getting on the train.
Not hearing anything, anything. Such quiet now.
Now hypocrisy can be exposed; myth dispelled.
— Look, January 1956
The reporter hears Bryant’s been bragging
how he got away with murder. A few months back
no one could make them, and now they’re seen
at the cabin, at the bridge, their alibis are gone.
The stranger emerges from the river then disappears.
The little girl’s mother rises from her grave, home
just in time for dinner. Emmett Till boards a freight
in Detroit and hobos to his grave outside Chicago.
The crossroads station and its clerk disappear again
and the hat disappears. Anywhere else, the reporter
would have been called to the disappearing,
but here there’s nothing left to say. Bryant’s smile
broadens as he retells it, how they were heroes,
how they murdered Till. When the Look comes out,
the town already knows. No one ever speaks to them again.
When the contractor guts the courthouse basement,
the fan and the transcript are laid out on the street.
Junkmen salvage metal, and the papers warp and tear
in the rain. Starlings pick through the gutters’ wreck
and weave typescript fragments into their nests.
Emmett Till watches, enwreathes their broods.
Milam wakes up early each morning when the riot
in the pear trees begins, starlings wolf-whistling
for food, or just repeating what they’ve heard.
One pair has woven strips of Look Bryant spreads
throughout the woods. In twenty years no one’s come.
He opens a shotgun on the starlings’ calls each morning
and they spray like smoke or blood. But they regather
and whistle overhead, shit back shot as they fly.
Jake Adam York
"Substantiation" is from A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008).