The murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago, was murdered this week (Aug. 28) in 1955 in one of the most heinous, brutal — and ultimately famous — racial crimes in American history. A native of Chicago who was visiting family in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. That night her husband, Roy Bryant, and a companion went to the Till home, kidnapped him and beat him so badly that when his body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River three days later, it was unrecognizable.
But this lesson is not about Emmett Till. It is about his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who allowed him to visit his Mississippi relatives with great misgivings because she knew of the racial hatred in the Deep South and the impunity with which whites harmed, and even murdered blacks. If you have to, she told her son, “humble yourself” before southern whites. To anger them for any reason was to put yourself in danger.
Her worst nightmare having come true, Mamie Till-Mobley decided to share the story of her son’s death with the world. Although Emmett’s remains were shipped to Chicago under a Mississippi government seal with orders to bury the box “unopened,” his mother insisted on an open casket at his funeral so that all could see a teenage boy whose face was so mutilated he was only recognized by his hair and a family ring on his hand. And when the black magazine Jet subsequently published a photo of Till, which was reprinted many times, the outcry was worldwide — and soon would swell again when the all-white jury at Roy Bryant’s trial deliberated for 67 minutes before finding him not guilty of murder.
From then on Mamie Till-Mobley dedicated her life to keeping alive the story of her son’s death, and her fight to preserve his memory even inspired the budding civil rights movement — Rosa Parks once told Till-Mobley that Emmett’s death had hardened her resolve to join the fight against segregation in Alabama.
Mamie Till-Mobley also dedicated her life to helping others, subsequently becoming a teacher, and the story goes that during a course she took at the Chicago Teachers College in 1957, where she was the oldest student in the class, she chose her son as the subject of an assigned speech. After giving the speech, there was a long silence in the classroom until someone meekly asked the professor what grade he thought her speech deserved. “To grade it would be to diminish it,” he replied.
Just so, but there is no diminishing the courage that Mamie Till-Mobley possessed and the testament to the human spirit that was her life.