November 23rd marks the 100th birthday of Mamie Till-Mobley, American teacher and civil rights activist. The 1955 lynching of her 14-year-old son Emmett Till was a catalyst for the 20th century Civil Rights Movement, and her own activism was no small part of the dissemination of Emmett’s story. Arguably, every word written or publicly spoken about Emmett Till since his funeral owes a debt to Mamie Till-Mobley. Read on to learn more about a remarkable woman of the movement.
Mamie Elizabeth Carthan was born near Webb, Mississippi in 1921. In 1923, the Carthans relocated to Argo, Illinois, moving north as many other Great Migration families did. Mamie had mostly positive experiences attending predominantly white schools in Argo, claiming later “it hadn’t occurred to me that I was darker than some of the other people that were in my class.” She was one of the first Black graduates of Argo Community High School. Soon after high school Mamie Carthan met Louis Till, and they married in 1940. Mamie Till gave birth to their only child, Emmett Louis Till, in 1941.
By 1953, Mamie was a single parent. She told author Devery Anderson in 1996 that she “would work 8 to 13 hours a day, and that meant that Emmett had all the house responsibility…He told me that if I would work, and make the money, he would take care of everything else. He cleaned, and he cooked quite a bit. And he even took over the laundry.”
In August 1955, Emmett Till visited relatives in Mississippi. He was kidnapped and killed after allegedly flirting with a white woman in Money, Mississippi. His young age and the savagery of his killers made the crime newsworthy nationwide. Mamie famously declared that his funeral in Chicago would be open-casket, to demonstrate to the public how mutilated he was at the hands of his killers. Till-Mobley later said “I didn’t even think of the benefits to society. The main thing I thought about was ‘Let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this.’” Photographs of Emmett’s body circulated widely in the American Black press, and Mamie later estimated that over half a million attended Emmett’s funeral and procession.
Despite the mortal danger, Mamie traveled to Sumner, Mississippi in September 1955 to serve as state’s witness in the trial of Emmett’s accused killers Roy Byant and J.W. Milam. In her own words,
“I knew that for me to attend that trial did not mean that I was going to get back alive, and so I had to make a decision: was it more important for me to be alive, or was it more important for me to attend the trial? And I made the decision that I had business in Mississippi, and my coming back dead or alive was of less importance than my being there on the scene alive as long as I could maintain life. And it was on that basis I went…I never thought about it as being brave. It was just something I had to do, and if there was anything I could do to help the prosecuting attorney, then I had to do that. I just had to do it.”
Till-Mobley’s activism did not end with the press generated by the funeral and trial. In October and November of 1955, she spoke at many events organized by the NAACP, telling Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins that she desired to “trade the blood of my child for the betterment of my race.” By one estimate, she spoke to over 100,000 people in late 1955. Her own story was published in the Chicago Defender in 1955.
Till-Mobley eventually shared her story much more widely. In 1955 she was the subject of a series of articles in the Chicago Defender newspaper. Starting that same year, she pursued arrangements with filmmakers and publishers. Despite the infamy and timeliness of her story, no book or movie project materialized in her lifetime. Her own memoir was finally published in late 2003, a few months after Mamie Till-Mobley passed away on January 6. Nineteen years to the date from her death, a television miniseries devoted to her story will premiere January 6, 2022 on ABC and Hulu.
Update 2pm 11/23: This video has recently become available on YouTube, and may be of interest to readers:
“In Spring 2021, FSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives hosted the Emmett Till Archives Internship. Interns interviewed local educators to gather perspectives on the life, death, and legacy of Emmett Till. Interviews were conducted by Zoom, and later edited into short videos. This video compiles perspectives on Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, known as Mamie Bradley at the time of Emmett Till’s murder. Till-Mobley was a key figure in popularizing her son’s story, both immediately after his 1955 lynching and for decades afterwards.”
Sources and Further Reading
Devery Anderson Papers, MSS 2015-009, Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, Florida. https://purl.lib.fsu.edu/fa/MSS_2015-009
Devery S. Anderson. (2015). Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. https://fsu.catalog.fcla.edu/permalink.jsp?23FS038009709
Joseph Tobias Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, Florida. https://purl.lib.fsu.edu/fa/MSS_2017-002
Mamie Till-Mobley and Chris Benson. (2003). Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. New York: Random House. https://fsu-flvc.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01FALSC_FSU/pag4dr/alma990203394830306576
FSU Libraries. “Emmett Till Archives.” https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/Till