Mamie Till-Mobley: the Spark That Ignited a Raging Fire
Mamie Till-Mobley was born on November 23, 1921, in a small town near Webb, Mississippi. She was a naturally intelligent young girl who worked hard to earn numerous awards while attending Argo Community High School. When she was eighteen, she met and married Louis Till, doing so without the support of her parents. Nine months after their marriage, Mamie gave birth to her only child, Emmett. She loved Emmett dearly and was heartbroken when his short and promising life was ended so abruptly.
In 1955, Mamie decided to take a long-awaited vacation to visit her relatives in Nebraska, while her son Emmett spent the summer in Mississippi with his cousins. Emmett and his cousins were having a wonderful time together, until the evening of August 24th. On that night, the boys entered a convenience store owned by Roy Bryant and his wife, Carolyn. Emmett’s cousins dared him to flirt with Carolyn, a young and attractive white woman, but accounts vary as to what Emmett did or said to her. The encounter ended when Carolyn ran out to her car and retrieved a pistol, causing the boys to flee. Carolyn reported the incident to her husband, who set out seeking revenge.
Four days after the encounter, Emmett was kidnapped by Roy and his accomplice. The two men proceeded to torture Emmett, both physically and mentally. They beat him, gouged his eyes out, and shot him in the back of the head. Next, they tied a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett’s horribly bloated and disfigured body was discovered three days later on August 31. Mamie was devastated, and her pain and anger fueled her to make a very bold decision: Emmett’s funeral would feature an open casket.
Mamie Till-Mobley wanted everyone to know the horrible injustice that had killed her only son. She wanted Emmett’s tragic story to make a difference and inspire change in others. That it most certainly did. Over 50,000 individuals came to view Emmett’s mutilated corpse, many of them leaving in tears or fainting at the sight and smell of the body. Emmett’s open casket funeral gained attention from the nation, but it was the trial of his murderers that kept America interested.
Over the course of two separate trials, Emmett’s murderers were acquitted of both murder and kidnapping. These verdicts outraged Mamie, civil rights leaders, and black individuals across the country. Thousands of letters protesting the verdicts flooded into the White House, and Mamie Till-Mobley elected to continue her fight for recognition and change. Mamie did, however, alter her approach, as she took her fight to the people.
While she could have easily stepped back into the shadows, Mamie chose to thrive in the spotlight. Mamie traveled around the country delivering speeches to overflowing crowds. Her speeches inspired many individuals around the nation. Blacks were galvanized and membership in the NAACP soared. African Americans around the country were angered by the injustice of Emmett’s murder, and moved by the story of a young mother who lost her only child. Emmett’s tragic murder and Mamie Till-Mobley’s inspiring speeches opened the eyes of the country. For once, racism really was as simple as black and white. No one could make excuses on the behalf of Emmett’s murderers; what happened was an injustice, plain and simple.
Mamie’s contributions to the civil rights movement may not be glaringly obvious, but they are incredibly important. Mamie Till-Mobley was the spark that ignited a raging fire. Her powerful words and meaningful story inspired many important activists, such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Many important civil rights activists spoke of Emmett Till’s murder and Mamie Till-Mobley’s bravery as a catalyst for their activism, inspiring them to take action against injustice. And so, as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, it should go without saying that Mamie Till-Mobley was an incredibly brave and courageous woman, the upstander of all upstanders.
Buchanan, Rebekah. “The Heroism and Activism of Mamie Till-Mobley.” Tri States Public Radio, 03 September 2015, https://www.tspr.org/post/heroism-and-activism-mamie-till-mobley. Accessed 07 January 2021.
Fowler, Sarah. “The Woman Behind The Movement: Emmett Till’s Mother.” Clarion Ledger, 02 September 2018, www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2018/08/29/mamie-till-emmett-tills-mother/898528002/. Accessed 07 January 2021.
“Mamie Till Mobley.” American Experience & PBS, 01 August 2019, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/emmett-biography-mamie-till-mobley/. Accessed 07 January 2021.
“Mamie Till: More Than A Mother.” National Center for Civil and Human Rights, 25 October 2020, https://www.civilandhumanrights.org/mamie-till/. Accessed 07 January 2021.