Tribute to Mamie Till-Mobley

Mamie Till-Mobley

My life changed for the better after my first conversation with Mamie Till-Mobley. At that moment I learned what real goodness was.

Losing a child is something I hope I never experience. However, the way she lost her son, Emmett Till, would be unbearable beyond words. She triumphed over that loss, although she made the realization of justice for his murder her life-long goal. She told me once: “I cry everyday. But I cry as I move.” From that first act of putting her son’s mutilated body on display to show the world the ugliness of race hatred, until the day she took her last breath nearly 48 years later, she never stopped moving. The world is a better place because of that.

She also told me once that her mother was a homebody, and that before Emmett's death she (Mrs. Mobley) was headed in the same direction. She had preferred a quiet life for herself, and envisioned that as her future. Emmett’s death changed all that. She became an advocate, something she never would have foreseen. She traveled and spoke, and kept her son’s case before the public as best she could. She became a teacher of children by profession, but was a teacher to everyone she spoke to. Those of us who listened will never forget her.

In 1973, she began teaching groups of children who would eventually become the Emmett Till Players. These children – hundreds of them over the years – look to her with gratitude for what she did for them. She inspired them to become better. They learned from her as she instilled in them the message of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches. That message took root and grew in their souls. Many have gone on to great things and they credit her for that. She lost a child, but gained a world of children. Emmett’s death and Mamie’s life – together, advanced the cause of freedom in ways that can never be measured.

I once asked Mrs. Mobley if she would like a chance to meet and sit down with Carolyn Bryant, the woman whom Emmett whistled at in Money, Mississippi in August 1955—the event that led to his death. “Oh, that would be wonderful,” she said. “Just to sit down as mother to mother.” Surely Mrs. Mobley would have had questions for Carolyn. Decades long questions. However, she had no bitterness in her heart as she thought about what such a meeting would be like. She saw it more for Carolyn’s benefit. Surely anyone with a conscience would want to seek forgiveness, if not for anything she did to provoke Emmett’s death, but at least to apologize for her husband’s and brother-in-law’s actions. That moment would have benefited Carolyn. She would have found in Mamie Till-Mobley a person ready to forgive. That it never took place was certainly Carolyn’s loss.

I cherish my last conversation with Mrs. Mobley, held in December 2002 -- a month before her death. She was excited. She caught me up on all the news. A new documentary by Stanley Nelson, The Murder of Emmett Till, was going to premier on PBS the following month. It was also going to play at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, close to my home. She also told me that there was a good chance that her son’s case would be reopened. I hadn’t talked to her for a few months before this last conversation, but I promised to call more often. She was happy to hear that, and gave me her dialysis schedule so that I would be sure to call when she was home. I regret that we did not talk again. I regret that I did not write down every word she said to me for the six years that I knew her. But I cherish the memories of a remarkable woman. My life is truly better because of her.

I learned of Mrs. Mobley's death during a happy moment. I had just purchased a new cell phone that day, and it had access to the internet. As I lie in bed, I was playing with the phone and all of its fancy features. I decided to log on to the day’s headlines. Because each headline was too long to fit on the screen, it was necessary to click on the one I was interested in and let it scroll by in its entirety. I noticed one headline in particular, and all I could see before scrolling was “Emmett Till’s…” I feared what the rest of the headline would say, and it took me over ten minutes to get the nerve to click on it and read the rest. When I did, my greatest fear was realized: “Emmett Till’s Mother Dies.” I didn’t sleep that night. I got up the next morning, feeling sad and a sense of tremendous loss. Less than two weeks later I attended the Sundance Film Festival, and the premier of Stanley Nelson’s documentary. It wasn’t quite the same.

As a historian, I am doing my best to be objective as I write about the Emmett Till case and its large cast of characters. As I write my book, I find that here and there, I am critical of even the "good guys," Mamie Till-Mobley included. Everyone involved made mistakes in judgment or in things they said at the time of the murder, and in the years since. In my book, I wear my historian's hat. But here, I wear another hat. One that allows me to be a little more biased toward someone I considered a friend and example.

I miss you Mrs. Mobley. Thanks for the memories.

Emmett Till