Today marks 62 years since fourteen-year old Emmett Till was abducted and violently murdered by two white men who never served time after a white woman lied about Emmett's actions towards her. This week would have been his 75 birthday.
His brutal murder while visiting relatives in Mississippi from his hometown of Chicago is widely credited with helping invigorate the Civil Rights Movement.
I've been thinking about Emmett all year. First, came the news reports that the woman at the center of his murder had lied. Then came the controversy over the white artist who portrayed him, laying in his coffin, unrecognizable. Was she profiting off Black pain? Then recently, the historical marker at Bryant's Grocery that tells the story of his abduction and murder was defaced. It was rededicated a few days ago on his birthday.
In honor of Mamie Till's statement that the men who murdered her son "became inconsequential" to her and that "they didn't even exist," I will not name them here.
As I've reflected on Emmett, it's brought me to reflect on his mama, Mamie, who courageously demanded an open casket at his funeral. She provided photos of his disfigured, bloated body to the media. She wanted people to truly see what had happened to her beloved boy. With Mamie, there was no turning away from the horror experienced by Black people in 1950s Jim Crow Mississippi. There was no sanitizing the truth.
Mamie Elizabeth Carthan was born in a small town in Mississippi in 1921. Shortly after her birth, her father moved the family to a town outside Chicago. The "Great Migration" of African Americans from the South to the North brought six million to cities like Chicago. She entered an abusive marriage at age 18, became a widow at age 24, and at 34 became the grieving mother of her son Emmett. Often, that is all we remember-- the photo of Mamie at her son's funeral, eyes shut tight in pain.
It was not the end of her life nor the end of her love as a mama.
Iconic Associate Press photo of Mamie Till at her son's funeral.
Following the trial, the NAACP asked Mamie to tour the country lecturing about her son's murder. In 1960, she graduated from Chicago Teacher's College, became a teacher, and in 1975 earned an MA in Administration at Loyola College in Chicago. She organized against the death penalty. She fought for racial equality. In Chicago public schools, she created the "Emmett Till Players," a student group that continue today performing speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights Leaders.
When Emmett was murdered, Mamie said "When people saw what happened to my son, men stood up who had never stood up before." His murder, the biggest tragedy of her life, made her stand as well. She said she found her peace in working with children, in helping them achieve the extraordinary. "We must impress upon our children that even when troubles rise to 7.1 on life's Richter Scale, they must be anchored so deeply, that though they sway, they will not topple."
That is radical love. To face the unspeakable horror of hatred and dedicate your life to love. It is not turning the other cheek. That would allow things to remain the same. It is to meet inequality with hope and action. It is to lose your only son and still find it in your heart to mother generations of other children.
Today, on the anniversary of Emmett Till's abduction, I honor the memory and the work of his mama, Mamie Till-Mobley.