Mamie Till-Mobley never wanted her son to go to Money, Mississippi.
In fact, she said no, many times over. It was the summer of 1955, and Emmett—she called him Bobo—had just turned 14. His cousins would soon be heading south to spend a week with their uncle. He wanted to go, too.
Eventually, Mamie relented, but her permission came with caveats. Mississippi had certain unspoken rules, she told him, rules that didn’t exist in Chicago, where he’d grown up. He would need to follow them at all times. For instance: He shouldn’t speak to white people unless spoken to. If a white woman was walking toward him, he should lower his head and never look her in the eye.
“Everything Emmett had come to believe all his life had to be unlearned as he prepared for the trip,” Mamie later wrote in her autobiography, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. Her son listened to her precautions and agreed to follow them. Still, he imagined she must be exaggerating.
“Oh, mama,” she recalled him saying, “it can’t be that bad.”
“Bo, it’s worse than that.”
Mamie’s fears were well founded. Between 1877 and 1950, as documented by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the vast majority of the 4,000-plus lynchings took place in the American South. Elsewhere, lynchings happened in smaller numbers; Illinois, where Emmett lived, recorded 56. But even compared to other Southern states, Mississippi was something of a hate crime capital. During that same time period, more than 600 Black victims were lynched there—the highest number of any state nationwide.
Still, Mamie found herself struggling to convey these dangers to her son.
“After all,” she wrote, “how do you give a crash course in hatred to a boy who has only ever known love?”
Soon after Emmett’s arrival in Mississippi, a white woman named Carolyn Bryant accused him of whistling at her in a grocery store. Her husband and brother-in-law, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, respectively, abducted Emmett from his great-uncle’s house, beat him, killed him and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. On September 23, 1955, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted the murderers after deliberating for just 67 minutes. In a January 1956 interview with Look magazine, both men admitted to the crime, no longer fearing prosecution.
Mamie Till-Mobley gets her due
In the years that followed, Emmett’s killing became one of the galvanizing events of the civil rights movement. The brutal murder is detailed in history books; many Americans know Emmett’s name. And that’s mostly because of Mamie.
Till, a new film from director Chinonye Chukwu, tells Emmett’s story, but at its heart, the narrative is about Mamie, a mother who refused to carry the weight of her son’s death in silence, fighting instead for the world to face its unspeakable brutality.
“I knew that the way that I needed to tell this story was through the emotional journey of Mamie,” said Chuckwu at a July press conference. “We’ve got to keep it focused on Mamie and her relationship with Emmett. Once everybody was on board, I started a very intense research journey.”
Till doesn’t directly depict Emmett’s murder. Instead, the movie focuses on his mother’s activism. As Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, says, “She illuminated the dark side of America, and illuminated it in a way to demand change, to demand America to be a country that lives up to its stated ideals. So much of what has happened, really since the 1960s, can be traced to people like Mamie Till sacrificing it all for the greater good.”
Unlike Emmett, his mother understood the American South. Born Mamie Carthan in 1921, she spent her infancy in Webb, Mississippi, just two miles from Sumner, where her son’s trial would take place more than 30 years later. When she was two, her family moved to Chicago. They were among the six million Black Americans who left the South between the 1910s and the 1970s, during the mass movement now known as the Great Migration. Growing up in Chicago, Mamie watched firsthand as more family members slowly moved north and adjusted to a new way of life. Mamie was studious, becoming the fourth Black student to graduate from Argo Community High School. She spent the summers visiting family back in Mississippi.
Mamie married Louis Till in the fall of 1940 and gave birth to Emmett the following summer. The couple separated soon after. As a single mother, Mamie worked long hours, and Emmett took care of all the household chores—cleaning, cooking, laundry. As Mamie later wrote, her son “developed a sense of dignity, pride, confidence, self-assuredness.”
This is how Till depicts him, too: a boy who is self-assured, charismatic, upstanding and funny, with a knack for breaking the tension if the mood gets too tense. In an early scene, Emmett (Jalyn Hall) speaks with Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) in his childhood bedroom. Illustrations of planes, trains and boats repeat across the wallpaper. “Be small down there [in Mississippi],” she tells him. He flashes a smile, assuming an exaggerated crouch. “Like this?”
Later, Mamie is shown back in Emmett’s bedroom, mourning her son. After this moment, her story is about asking the world to mourn alongside her.
“Mamie Till refused to let her son die in vain,” says Tafeni English, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center. “Her bravery ensured that we will never forget Emmett, while giving us the strength to continue fighting for justice for him and countless others.”
The choice that galvanized the civil rights movement
In the days before Emmett’s death was confirmed, Mamie knew only that her son was missing. Gathered at Mamie’s mother’s house in Chicago, the family couldn’t reach anyone in Mississippi. Instead, they called the Chicago newspapers. As Mamie recalled in her autobiography, reporters came to the house, and she told them everything she knew. She wished that her own mother knew what to say. Looking at her, however, Mamie “began to realize that she had already given up hope. Mama had lived in Mississippi. Mama knew what it meant when white men came in the middle of the night in Mississippi.”
Mamie kept making calls. Through a family connection, she set up a meeting with the Chicago NAACP on August 29. After that, the story quickly spread. Soon, the mayor of Chicago and the governor of Illinois joined the effort to find her son. Back at her mother’s house, the family added a second phone line.
On August 31, Emmett’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River.
“Mama broke down,” wrote Mamie. “I started taking notes.”
Just as she had fought to locate Emmett, she fought at each step that followed his death. A grave was being dug in Mississippi, so Mamie battled to return his body to Chicago. She even had to fight to view the body; unbeknownst to her, the local sheriff’s office only returned the casket on the condition that it would never be opened.
As was her way, Mamie insisted on looking at brutality rather than turning from it. But the reason her story is remembered, the reason that Emmett’s name became a galvanizing force, was her insistence that everyone else look brutality head on, too.
On September 3, Mamie held an open-casket funeral for Emmett. She dressed in a suit she’d bought him for Christmas but otherwise asked that his appearance not be touched up. She selected a few photos of Emmett to be displayed inside the open casket, all from that same Christmas. In defiance of Mississippi officials, his mutilated body was viewed not only by close family, but by anyone who chose to see what had been done to him.
“[People] would not be able to visualize what had happened, unless they were allowed to see the results of what had happened,” Mamie wrote. “They had to see what I had seen. The whole nation had to bear witness to this.”
Tens of thousands of people came to see Emmett’s body at Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God. In footage from that day, crowds outside the church are calm and solemn-faced. But inside, as people file past the casket, which is covered by a sheet of glass, their reactions are visceral. Some pass out. A significant number are so rattled they need help walking out of the building.
From the start, Mamie knew Emmett’s story needed to be told outside Chicago. She famously allowed his body to be photographed by Jet magazine, one of the largest publications focused on Black life in America. The caption under one photo published by Jet read, “Mutilated face of victim was left unretouched by mortician at mother’s request. She said she wanted ‘all the world’ to witness the atrocity.”
“The images were really, really challenging,” Bryan Stevenson, the EJI’s executive director, told Time magazine in 2016. “It was the kind of visual that you didn’t typically see. You certainly didn’t see it outside of a war zone, and you certainly didn’t see it with children.”
After Jet printed the photos, several other publications followed. Just like at the open-casket viewing, Mamie provided a few snapshots of Emmett smiling at Christmas, offering a stark contrast to the images of his disfigured face.
The violence inflicted on Emmett was viscerally shocking, but it wasn’t unique. Dave Tell, a communication studies expert at the University of Kansas and the author of Remembering Emmett Till, points out that two other Black victims were lynched in Mississippi that summer—George Lee and Lamar Smith—but their stories are often overlooked. Mamie made sure that Emmett’s wouldn’t be.
“I often tell students that Mamie was the true hero of the story,” Tell says. “It’s her insistence on an open casket—and the David Jackson photograph of the body in the casket—that transformed the murder from one more forgotten Mississippi lynching in 1955 … to the spark of the civil rights movement.”
A mother’s painful legacy
Weeks after the funeral, Mamie traveled to Mississippi to testify against Emmett’s murderers, defying her own mother’s wishes. Emmett’s great-uncle, Moses Wright, testified too, identifying Bryant and Milam as the men who knocked on his door in the middle of the night.
After the jury returned its verdict, Wright, no longer safe in Mississippi, moved to Chicago. Mamie, with the help of the NAACP, traveled across the country, telling crowds of supporters about her son. In the wake of these speeches, the NAACP received an influx of new members and donations.
“Mamie opened that casket and opened our eyes,” says Christopher Benson, the journalist who co-wrote Mamie’s 2003 autobiography. “We could never turn away again from our responsibility. Everyone had to be accountable: everyone who had committed acts of racial violence, everyone who had stood by to let it happen. She made sure that, for an entire nation, there no longer could be any innocent bystanders.”
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She later told Mamie that she’d been thinking about Emmett. Days later, Martin Luther King Jr. helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott.
All the while, Mamie developed a parallel local legacy. She enrolled at Chicago Teachers College in 1956, eventually graduating cum laude, and earned her master’s in administration and supervision from Loyola University in the early 1970s. For over two decades, she worked as an elementary school teacher.
On the national level, Mamie never stopped reciting Emmett’s story. “People have told me to let this thing die, even people in my own family,” she told the Associated Press in 2002. “But people need to be aware.”
Mamie’s legacy continues to resonate. In March, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, officially designating lynching as a federal hate crime.
Bunch, who previously served as founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), first met Mamie in the early 2000s. She came to his office for lunch, which was supposed to last about an hour. Instead, he recalls, “she spent seven hours telling me everything that happened from the time she kissed her son goodbye to the time she buried him. It was one of the most moving, powerful things that I [have] ever experienced in my life.”
In 2007, a sign went up on the shore of the Tallahatchie River, memorializing the boy pulled from its waters more than 50 years prior. In 2008, the marker was stolen. Its replacement, which is housed in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, was pierced with 317 bullets. A third sign went up in 2018 but was shot at again after just 35 days. A fourth replacement, which Tell wrote the words for, is bulletproof.
“The bullet holes that fill these signs are simple, affectively charged reminders that we have not yet put behind us the racism that cost Till his life,” wrote Tell for the New York Times in 2019.
In recent decades, officials have made several attempts to reopen Emmett’s murder case, though none have amounted to much. During one of those attempts, officials exhumed his body to prove its identity, then reburied him in a new casket. The family donated the original casket to NMAAHC, where it still resides today.
“That exhibit is probably the most sacred space in the museum,” says Bunch. “… We focus so much on Emmett’s broken body, but we don’t focus enough on Mamie Till. So the key was to do an exhibition that would, yes, tell the story of Emmett but really talk about the impact that this had on the mother, how it transformed her and how through her efforts it transformed the nation.”