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The Heroism and Activism of Mamie Till-Mobley

Mamie Till-Mobley during an interview outside the courthouse after Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted for the murder of her son.

Last week was the 60th anniversary of the murder of a young boy, a murder that changed the world. And, the reason we even know about the murder, the reason we know his name, is because of his mother.

Emmett Till was murdered on August 28, 1955 in Money, Mississippi. He was dragged out of his bed in the middle of the night, was beaten, eyes gouged out, shot in the head, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire to weigh him down.

Three days later, his badly bloated and disfigured body was pulled from the river. Yet, if this was like many of the hundreds of murdered and disappeared black bodies in Mississippi we would not know this story.

It is because of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, that we know the name Emmett Till. She insisted that her son's funeral service was a public one with an open casket. She wanted everyone to see the bloated, maimed body of Emmett. Fifty thousand people came to Chicago to view Emmett's body because she wanted everyone to know what happened. And, with that Ms. Till-Mobley was a key figure in the start of a movement.

Yet, less than a month later Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were found not guilty of the brutal murder. Still, Mamie did not give up. She asked the federal government and even President Eisenhower for help. When he and J. Edgar Hoover refused to assist her, she took to the people. She gave speeches across the country. Letters poured into the White House. African Americans throughout the country were angered by the injustice of what happened to Emmett Till and the suffering of the young mother. Many civil rights veterans vividly recall seeing the images of Emmett Till in Jet magazine and spoke of it as a catalyst for their activism.

Mamie Till-Mosley shows us, it was the everyday people, the women who were there, working and seeing what was happening to their children, their friends, their families, the women who found they needed to be activists and moved to change the world, who were the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.

As a mother, it is the activism and call for action of women such as Mamie Till-Mobley that calls me to take action. During one of her speeches, she declared, "Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, `That's their business, not mine.' Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all."

It is this call for activism, the belief that as a mother I must always look for ways to effect change in the world around me, change in the lives of my children and the children of others, that draws me to highlight the work of Mamie Till-Mobley today. It is important to remember the mothers, as well as those who are left behind, left alone, and because of this choose to take action.

We do not need to have tragedy in order to take action and to teach our children to be activists. 60 years later there is still work to be done. We should not accept a world of violence, of illiteracy, of injustice. We need to make the world a better place for our children and our grandchildren.

We should find the ways in our everyday lives that we can make positive changes in our world. For as Mamie Till-Mobley said, "We must teach our children to weather the hurricanes of life, pick up the pieces, and rebuild. We must impress upon our children that even when troubles rise to seven-point- one on life's Richter scale, they must be anchored so deeply that, though they sway, they will not topple."

As mothers, parents, and community members it is up to us to provide those anchors and show our community’s children how we fight to make changes in our world.

Rebekah Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.