Remembering Mamie Till Mobley, Tireless Crusader for Civil Rights
When Mamie Till Mobley died on Jan. 6 in Chicago at the age of 81, we lost a tireless crusader for civil rights and racial justice.
Her public passion was fueled, however, by a very personal pain. Mobley was the mother of Emmet Till, the young man whose death at the hands of southern racists in 1955 was one of the sparks for the early civil-rights movement.
I was not even born when Emmet Till was brutally murdered in Money, Miss., but growing up in Detroit in the early 1960s, I knew his name well. When I took the long train ride to my mother's hometown of Greenwood, Miss., in 1967, I learned even more about him. I learned that he had violated the rigid rules of racial deference and hierarchy that governed the South, and had paid for it with his life. He had allegedly whistled at a white woman in a store. As a result -- and as a reminder to others -- he was kidnapped from his uncle's home and was mercilessly beaten and tortured to death. His lifeless body was then thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His killers (who confessed later to Look magazine to kidnapping and beating Till) were tried and set free by an all-white jury.
This story was told to me as an orientation for a northern black child traveling south in the era of Jim Crow segregation. The Emmet Till case instilled fear in me, of course, but it did something else. It steeled my determination to resist and defeat the kind of racial hatred and institutional inequality that had caused Till's death and given immunity to his murders. Even though I did not understand all the implications of the case at age 10, it left me angry and unsettled.
This was the effect that the Emmet Till murder had on an entire generation of African Americans and anti-racist whites. But we would not have even known of Emmet Till if not for the courage and commitment of his mother.
After the shock of her son's death, Mamie Till decided to use the tragedy to expose the savage violence that undergirded southern racism. She publicized the photograph of her son's body and insisted on an open-casket funeral because, as she put it, she wanted "the world to see" what had happened to him. The world saw and was outraged.
Participants in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and the student desegregation sit-ins cited the Till case as one of the motivations for their actions. For the rest of her life, Emmet Till's mother was determined that her child's death would not be in vain, it would be used to serve a higher purpose. In this effort, she succeeded.
By 2003, perhaps Mamie Till Mobley felt some sense of closure. She had just completed a book about the case and her life with author Chris Benson. Two documentaries were due to be released, including the PBS special by MacArthur Fellow Stanley Nelson that aired across the country on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Filmmaker Nelson is leading an effort to re-open the case. Noticing that it took decades to bring the assassin of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers to justice, Nelson is pushing for Mississippi authorities to take another look at the Till murder. New research by filmmakers and historians and the accused killers' own confession, published after their aquittal, make a strong case for exactly what Nelson and others are demanding.
Mamie Till Mobley did her part to eliminate the scourge of racial violence, but the work continues. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are more than 600 hate groups active in the United States today, and some 50,000 hate crimes, ranging from vandalism to murder, occur annually.
The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery was built in 1989 with Emmet Till's name prominently displayed. At the founding ceremony, Julian Bond honored those "who died so all might be free." He asked those at the dedication to gather "not in recrimination, but in reconciliation, remembrance and resolve." This would have been Mamie Till Mobley's wish, as well.
Barbara Ransby is an associate professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the executive director of The Public Square (www.thepublicsquare.org). Her biography of civil-rights activist Ella Baker, "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement," will be published by the University of North Carolina Press this year.