It’s been two decades since her passing.
Mamie Till-Mobley was born Mamie Elizabeth Carthan on November 23, 1921 near Webb, Mississippi, PBS.org reports. Her parents planned to leave the South, heading to Argo, Illinois near Chicago when she was still a toddler. She was the only child of John and Alma Carthan, John finding work at the Argo Corn Products Refining Company before Alma joined him in Illinois with two-year-old Mamie. She had a good life, and the family settled in a predominantly Black neighborhood where Till-Mobley was encouraged to focus on her education.
At the age of 13, her parents divorced; she stayed focused on school and became the first Black student to make the A-Honor Roll and the fourth Black student to graduate from her predominantly white high school.
Her mother, a devout member of the fundamentalist Church of God in Christ, was strict with Till-Mobley and kept her on the straight and narrow. Till-Mobley once recalled not being able to hang out with friends often and being forced to give a detailed account of her whereabouts when not in school. That’s why she began to look forward to summers in Mississippi when she would visit relatives and let her hair down.
When she was 18, she met Louis Till, a fellow worker at the Argo Corn Company. An amateur boxer and charismatic man, the two fell for each other despite her parents’ disapproval. On October 14, 1940, the couple married at just 18 years old. Nine months later, they had their only child, Emmett Louis Till, aka “Bobo.” The child was a joy and, despite a stint with polio at the age of five that left him with a mild stutter, he was completely healthy. However, Emmett never knew his father, the elder Till being shipped out to Europe as an Army private when he was still a baby. Till-Mobley and Till would later separate in 1942 and three years later, she received a letter from the Department of Defense notifying her that he was killed in Italy due to “willful misconduct.” No further details were given.
In the 1950s, Till-Mobley moved with Emmett to the South Side of Chicago after both her parents moved from Argo and remarried, her mother to Chicago and father to Detroit. Till-Mobley also remarried, this time to Gene “Pink” Bradley, but the marriage only lasted two years. In 1955, Till-Mobley decided she would take a vacation to Nebraska to visit relatives. While she wanted her son to join her, Emmett insisted on spending his last bit of summer in Mississippi with relatives, a sentiment Till-Mobley understood from her days as a child.
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While she was hesitant and cautious because of the pervasive racism in the South, she eventually agreed and allowed young Emmett to travel to Mississippi. Little did she know, it was the last time she would see her only child alive.
Emmett was brutally murdered after being falsely accused of inappropriate conduct with a white woman by the name of Carolyn Bryant. On August 28th, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. kidnapped Emmett from the home of Moses Wright, murdering and disfiguring him then dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. He was found days later, his body only identifiable by an initialed ring that had belonged to his father, Louis Till. It was then that Mamie Till-Mobley was thrust into the national spotlight and became a symbol for all mothers of the struggle.
“When I began to make the announcement that Emmett had been found and how he was found, the whole house began to scream and to cry. And that’s when I realized that this was a load that I was going to have to carry. I wouldn’t get any help carrying this load,” Till-Mobley previously told reporters.
After seeing her son’s mangled body, Till-Mobley made the gut-wrenching decision to have an open-casket funeral. “I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till,” she said.
The homegoing service brought in some 50,000 attendees and the grotesque nature of the boy’s body made headlines, causing an international condemning of Mississippi. When two of Emmett’s killers were acquitted, the media firestorm only continued, shining a light on the injustices in America. Through it all, Till-Mobley became a celebrated activist, pushing through her hurt and pain to get some sort of justice for her son’s murder and ensure that it would never happen again to another Black child. A second charge of kidnapping was also denied with Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland leaking information about Emmett’s father Louis Till to the press, causing the grand jury to refuse charges.
Till-Mobley sought the help of the government, with President Dwight Eisenhower refusing to meet with her, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issuing a memo stating Emmett had not been deprived of any right or privilege. The miscarriage of justice only further aggravated the Black community and Till-Mobley took her fight to the streets, galvanizing Black people all over the country as membership in the NAACP soared. Till-Mobley’s relentlessness in the face of such enormous heartache was commendable and served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.
When NAACP member Rosa Parks was arrested in December 1955 for her refusal to give up her seat and 26-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a city-wide bus boycott, the movement already had more than enough ammo to see their mission through. Years passed and Till-Mobley kept her son’s name alive, scholars taking a renewed interest in Till’s story some 30 years later. Till-Mobley began working on a memoir, and a television premiere movie was set to debut about her and her son’s story when the educator and activist passed away on January 6, 2003, at the age of 81.
Today, Till and Till-Mobley’s legacy lives on with new films, television projects, and historical awards popping up almost annually. Last year alone, a statue in honor of young Emmett was unveiled in Greenwood, Mississippi and Congress announced that Till and his mother Till-Mobley would both be posthumously honored with Congressional Gold Medals. Two years prior, Till’s childhood home in Chicago was granted preliminary landmark status.
“If people travel to this site, they can imagine a 14-year-old boy playing and enjoying life. Emmett Till’s legacy will always be visible, and his spirit can be felt when visiting this place. This home represents a tangible piece of important American history, and it is important to keep Emmett Till’s and Mamie Till-Mobley’s story alive through this place,” said Ollie Gordon, Till’s cousin.
It has officially been twenty years since the passing of Ms. Mamie Till-Mobley, but her work was not in vain and her legacy lives on. Because of her, we can.
Here’s why we should talk about Mamie Till-Mobley more often. Photo Courtesy of Getty Images