The Mother Who Mobilised the Civil Rights Movement: Who Was Mamie Till-Mobley? | History Hit

The Mother Who Mobilised the Civil Rights Movement: Who Was Mamie Till-Mobley?

Peta Stamper

10 Mar 2023
Emmett Louis Till, 14, with his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, at home in Chicago.
Image Credit: McClatchy / Chicago Tribune file photo / TNS / Alamy

Mamie Till-Mobley (sometimes referred to as Mamie Till-Bradley) was an African American woman who became an iconic figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s following the brutal murder of her young son, Emmett Till. Her courageous decision to have an open-casket funeral for her son, which showed the world the brutality of racism and sparked a national conversation about civil rights, helped to galvanise the movement for racial justice in the United States.

The name of Emmett Till is widely known across the United States, something that would not have been possible without the perseverance of his mother Mamie, who refused to endure the atrocity of her son’s death in silence.

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Who was Mamie Till-Mobley?

Born on 23 November 1921 in Webb, Mississippi at the height of the Jim Crow era in the southern states, Mamie was the only child of Alma and John Carthan. The family followed the Great Migration in 1924, a period when hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved to the northern states, when John got a job at the Corn Products Refining Company in Illinois.

At the age of 12, Mamie’s parents divorced. This news devastated Mamie, who threw herself into school work as a distraction. Excelling in her studies and encouraged by her mother, who worked as a nurse, Mamie became the first African American student to make the ‘A’ honour roll and the fourth to graduate her mostly white school.

Louis Till

In 1940, Mamie met Louis Till. Louis was an amateur boxer working for the Argo Corn Company. He was also charismatic and popular with other women, and because of this Mamie’s parents disapproved of the match. But Louis was persistent and on 14 October that year, they were married. Just 9 months later on 25 July 1941, their only child was born: Emmett Louis Till.

However, the family did not stay together for long. Louis was repeatedly unfaithful to Mamie and their relationship grew increasingly violent. Eventually, Mamie had a restraining order placed against Louis, which he ignored leading a judge to force him to choose between time in prison or enlistment in the US Army. Louis chose enlistment.

Several years later, towards the end of World War Two, Mamie received a letter from the War Department. The letter said Louis Till had been executed by the army for “wilful misconduct”. Despite trying to wrestle more information from the army bureaucracy, it was only 10 years later that Mamie learned Louis had been executed for the rape and murder of an Italian woman, a crime he vehemently denied committing.

Emmett was just four years old at the time of his father’s execution. Now a single parent, Mamie worked a series of jobs to support her small family.

The murder of Emmet Till

Emmett Till was a bright, curious and funny child who loved to learn. In August of 1955, Mamie made the difficult decision to allow Emmett to travel from Chicago to Mississippi to visit his great-uncle, Moses Wright. Emmet’s cousins were also travelling south, but Mamie was reluctant to let her son (who she nicknamed ‘Bobo’) go with them.

The southern states had unwritten rules about race relations that Emmet would not have been familiar with growing up in Chicago. Mississippi in particular had a long, terrible history of violence against its black population. Between 1877 and 1950, as documented by the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 600 black victims were lynched in Mississippi – the highest number of any state nationwide.

Mamie’s worst fears were realised on 24 August 1955. Emmett was kidnapped from his great-uncle’s home in the middle of the night by two white men. The men beat Emmett, gouged out his eye and shot him in the head before throwing his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Shortly after arriving in Mississippi, a white woman called Carolyn Bryant accused Emmett of whistling at her in her family grocery store. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law J. W. Milam, abducted and killed Emmett, a crime they later admitted to in an 1956 interview with Look magazine, then protected by double jeopardy.

When Emmett’s body was recovered from the river three days later, it was terribly mutilated and unrecognisable. Mamie courageously decided to have an open-casket funeral for her son, despite the advice of friends and family who urged her to keep the casket closed. She wanted to show the brutal reality of racism in the United States; “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby”.

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What is Mamie Till-Mobley remembered for?

The photographs of Emmett’s mutilated body, which were published in newspapers and magazines across the country, sparked outrage and horror. Mamie’s decision to have an open-casket funeral helped to galvanise the Civil Rights Movement, as people across the country were moved by the brutality of the crime and the courage of Emmett’s mother.

Mamie became a public figure in the aftermath of her son’s murder, giving interviews to newspapers and television programmes and speaking at rallies and protests. She worked tirelessly to seek justice for her son, testifying at the trial of Bryant and Milam and travelling to Washington, DC to meet with government officials and civil rights leaders.

Despite the overwhelming evidence against them, Bryant and Milam were acquitted of Emmett’s murder by an all-white jury after just 67 minutes of deliberation. Mamie’s quest for justice did not end with the trial, however. She continued to speak out against racism and injustice for the rest of her life, working with civil rights organisations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), who asked Mamie to tour the country relating the events of her son’s life, death and the trial of his murderers. It was one of the NAACP’s most successful fundraising campaigns.

When in 1956, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat for a white man, she later said in that moment she thought of Emmett and his mother’s courage.

“Her pain united a nation”

Mamie Till-Mobley’s bravery and determination made her a hero of the Civil Rights Movement. A large part of her work and activism centred around education, including establishing ‘The Emmett Till Players’, a theatre group that encouraged children to learn and perform famous speeches by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

On 6 January 2003, Mamie Till-Mobley died of heart failure aged 81. She was buried near her son in Burr Oak Cemetery, where her monument reads, “Her pain united a nation.” In the years since her death, Mamie has been recognised across the United States for her courage. Till, a 2022 film from director Chinonye Chukwu, spotlights Mamie’s decision to have an open-casket funeral for her son as a turning point in the struggle for racial justice, mobilising the movement and bringing the issue of racism to the forefront of American consciousness.

Congress awarded Mamie and Emmett Till a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal in 2022, which will be displayed at the National Museum of African American History. In 2023, a statue of and dedicated to Mamie Till-Mobley is planned to be unveiled in front of the Argo Community High School, where she graduated as an honour roll student and her passion for education began.

Mamie’s legacy endures as the movement for racial justice in the United States and beyond continues.

Peta Stamper