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About Mamie Till-Mobley

"I am so thankful for the bravery and courage Mamie demonstrated when she shared her only child with the world. The news of Emmett's death caused many people to participate in the cry for justice and equal rights, including myself. The respect I have felt for her since 1955 will always live with me. She was blessed among women to carry the mantle with grace and dignity." - Rosa Parks

 

"Mamie's courage unsettled people of conscience into action." - Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

 

Mamie Till-Mobley dedicated her life to seeking justice for her son Emmett and to supporting and educating young people.

Mamie Till-Mobley (née Carthan) was born in 1921 in Webb, MS. When she was two years old, her family became a part of the Great Migration and moved to Summit, IL (outside of Chicago) where her father had found a job working at Argo Corn Products. Though she grew up outside of Chicago, much of her family remained in Mississippi.

In 1940, at the age of 18, Mamie married Louis Till, who also worked for Argo Corn Products. On July 25, 1941, Mamie Till gave birth to Emmett Till. Mamie ended the relationship with Louis and divorced him in 1942. Louis Till joined the military shortly thereafter. 

In 1955, when Emmett asked to travel down to Mississippi with his cousin and best friend Wheeler Parker to visit family, Mamie first said no. Emmett was known for being a jokester and had never lived in the South. She worried that, because he didn't know the social norms in the South, his jovial nature could get him into serious trouble. However, Emmett was persistent, and she relented. Before sending Emmett on the train down to Mississippi, Mamie explained to him the way things were down South. "If you have to humble yourself, then just do it. Get on your knees if you have to." (1)

When Mamie heard that Emmett's body had been found in the Tallahatchie River, she immediately sent word to her Uncle Crosby that the body should be sent back to Chicago for a funeral service. She managed to prevent a hasty burial of Emmett at East Money Church of God in Christ, and the body was sent back by the same train that Emmett had taken down to Chicago, the City of New Orleans. The body was sent back under the condition that no one open the casket. 

However, Mamie Till had not agreed to leave the casket sealed, and once the body arrived in Chicago, she instructed the funeral home to open the casket or she would "take a hammer and open the box myself." (2) When the casket was opened, she was horrified by what she saw, but she knew it was her son. She then made the brave decision to hold an open-casket funeral and uttered the famous words, "Let the world see what I've seen." (3) 

Because of Mamie Till-Mobley's actions, over 100,000 mourners came to witness Emmett Till's body in the open casket at Roberts Temple. Photos of Emmett Till's face and of Mamie Till's grief circulated the country and the world, first in Jet magazine and in black publications then in international papers. The world met the murder with outrage.

During the murder trial, Mamie Till-Mobley braved death threats to travel down to the Mississippi Delta to testify that the body sent to Chicago was indeed her son's.  She stayed with Dr. TRM Howard in the all-black town of Mound Bayou with many of the other black people attending the trial. Dr.  Howard "left nothing to chance" and took great lengths to protect Mamie from the ever-present threats.

 

Following the murder of her son, Mamie Till-Mobley began a speaking tour with the NAACP, raising thousands of dollars for the organization. Even after a falling out with the NAACP, Mamie continued speaking publicly for most of her life.

 

A year after Emmett's murder, Mamie Till-Mobley enrolled in university courses to begin earning a degree in education. In 1960, Mamie began her teaching career at Carter Elementary, finding her passion in educating young people. In 1973, she formed the Emmett Till Players, a program in which youth memorized speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and performed them all over the country. Hundreds of young people benefited from this program. She married Gene Mobley in 1957, and they remained together until Gene's passing in 2000.

As the years went by, Mamie Till-Mobley still hoped for justice for her son. She died in 2003--just one year before the FBI reopened the investigation into Emmett's murder in May 2004. 

"For black people," she wrote, "every generation has had its cautionary tale. Emmett Till became that story for an entire generation coming of age in the fifties and sixties. But that's not what I wanted for my son. I didn't want Emmett to become a cautionary tale. I wanted people to know his story and learn from it. What I wanted them to learn was what I always thought my son should represent. I have wanted Emmett's name to stand for healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and hope." (4)

Footnotes

1. Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, One World Book, 2003, p. 101.

2. ibid, p. 131.

3. ibid, p. 139.

4. ibid, p. 268.