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  • Leila E. Cole

Emmett Till: "The Business of Us All"

(The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. A gift of the Mamie Till Mobley family)

Every Summer during elementary school, we were tasked with reading a number of books, along with a biographical work. I can vividly recall that for at least 4 consecutive years, I did my biography portion on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now, in hindsight, clearly recognizing that my early education was very much framed from a Eurocentric perspective, it’s no wonder why what was taught about the Civil Rights movement, was always material I grasped tightly to. To quote Sara Salem in “Marxist Feminism as a Critique of Intersectionality”, “the Eurocentrism implicit in much of [the] work is and [was] problematic”. From sprinkled references to slavery, overshadowed by Christopher Columbus and the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria, and later the Founding Fathers, it was always incredibly meaningful when we reached the point on the timeline when the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou were our focal point. As a young creative myself, interested in painting and poetry, I was mesmerized by the artistry of that era, and the beautiful works it produced. The way the agony of mistreatment could inspire such powerful literary representations, was something that struck me very early on. Although the stories of the Civil Rights Movement were characterized by activism as the result of segregation, discrimination, and heinous attacks against Black people, one story in particular always leaves me more winded, every time I hear it. In this paper, I will discuss the experiences of Mamie Till-Mobley — mother of Emmett Till — and the ways this grieving mother was vilified and essentially put on trial, following the gruesome murder of her son.

Emmett Till was born in Chicago, to Mamie and Louis Till, on July 25th, 1941. His father was killed by the military while serving in Italy, four years after his birth. In August of 1955, his mother, her boyfriend and his grandmother, said goodbye to him, as he left for Mississippi to visit his cousins for a few weeks. The worst nightmare of any Black mother at the time was realized for Mamie. As a result of being accused of offending a white woman at her family store, Emmett was abducted from his uncle’s home early in the morning, beaten, tortured, mutilated and lynched. A cotton gin fan was tied around his neck and his body was dumped like waste, into the Tallahatchie River, where it was discovered a few days later. Insistent that the world see what was done to her son, Mamie had Emmett placed in a glass-top casket for a public viewing, and the burial. The open-coffin funeral held by Mamie exposed the world to more than her son Emmett Till’s bloated, mutilated body. Her decision focused attention on not only American racism and the barbarism of lynching but also the limitations and vulnerabilities of American democracy (White et al., 2013). Emmett’s death was a major catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.

I find “I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group,” a line from Audre Lorde’s “There is No Hierarchy of Oppressions”, reminiscent of these words by Mamie Till-Mobley, “Either freedom for everyone or freedom fails. What happens to any of us anywhere in the world had better be the business of us all.” The lynching of African Americans were not isolated incidents, they were systematic attempts by whites to maintain control over the race. What’s astonishing is that upon getting legal council to seek justice for her son, the council questioned Mamie about the number of times she’d been married. When addressed by Mamie, he went on to explain that he needed to know these details, in anticipation of the onslaught of scrutiny the white-led public, and media would unleash. Among the other cruel ways in which Mamie Till-Mobley was treated after Emmett’s death, included, being manhandled coming into the courthouse the first day of trial, being questioned on the stand about the uncertainty behind her identifying the body as Emmett’s, and witnessing firsthand the false testimony of Carolyn Bryant — giving a physical demonstration of the way she claimed Emmett forced himself on her.

There were institutional and societal norms that enabled the acquittal of the men responsible for Emmett Till’s murder. Not only did these systems enable a lack of justice, they resulted in the wrongful berating of his distraught mother. Social inequality [was] as durable as ever (Collins, 2019).

Works Cited:

  1. Salem, Sarah. (2013) “Marxist Feminism as a Critique of Intersectionality”, December 10, 2013. intersectionality/

  2. White, Deborah Gray; Bay, Mia; Martin, Waldo E. Jr. (2013). Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. p. 637. ISBN 978-0-312-64884-8.

  3. Lorde, Audre. “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions.” Homophobia and Education. New York: Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1983.

  4. Collins, Patricia Hill. (2019). Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. Duke University Press.


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