It is oft repeated lore that Emmett Till inappropriately whistled at a white woman. However, the excerpt from his mother’s tome, printed below, contains the seldom told history of what likely caused the “Emmett Till whistle.”
“Although it was a great relief to learn that Emmett hadn’t lost any of his motor skills, it wasn’t long before we noticed a related problem. It was devastating to us. Emmett’s bout with polio had caused some muscle damage after all. He was left with a speech defect. He sttutered. It was especially bad when he got excited or nervous. It could just take over at times in those early days. Nobody could understand him. Nobody but Mama and me. We knew what this could mean and we refused to accept it. We were very proud people, and we didn’t want anything to stand in the way of Emmett’s success. We didn’t want him held back because of people’s prejudices, because they might hear him speak and think he had limitations…
He could improve his speech by practicing, by memorizing and reciting. That would be my solution.
So that’s when the pileup began. Poor kid, I had him memorizing everything from the preamble to the Constitution to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to poetry, everything I knew he was going to encounter. That way, when he’d come across all of this material again, he would already be ahead of everybody else. I felt so sorry for him, because my list of stuff never ran out. I mean, by the time he had learned one, I was on him with another one. And I had him doing all the gestures, all the expressions. He was good, too.
I was working him so hard, he had to take a time-out. ‘Mama, you’re gonna have to let me come up and breathe,’ he would say.
He was very pleased with himself, though. And it seemed to help. It proved to him that, once he was certain of something, he could go ahead and execute. But there was something else. I noticed that in pacing himself for the recitation, he would have to control his breathing. That’s when it occurred to me to give him a bit of advice.
‘If you find yourself stuck on a word,’ I said, ‘take a breath, whistle, and then go ahead and speak.’ He tried it, and it seemed that when he whistled, it was almost a hypnotic cue that would calm him, steady his breathing, and allow him to finish what he had started to say.” -From, “Death Of Innocence: The Story Of The Hate Crime That Changed America” By: Mamie Till-Mobley