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Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley, 1950
Attribution
Library of Congress
Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley, 1950.

After more than 200 attempts to establish lynching as a federal hate crime since 1900, Congress finally passed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act (H.R.55) by unanimous consent on March 7, 2022.

As we celebrate the passage of this monumental piece of legislation into law—and observe Women’s History Month—I want to highlight the work of one of the original mothers of the movement: Mamie Till-Mobley. It is important to recognize how her activism led us to this moment.

Emmett Till’s murder and Mamie Till-Mobley’s strength are often credited as one of the inciting moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

Mamie Carthan was born in 1921 in Webb, Mississippi—just 25 miles from Money, Mississippi, where her only child was later murdered—before moving to Chicago with her family two years later. In 1955, she sent her son to Mississippi to spend the summer with family. In August, Emmett Till was kidnapped, beaten, mutilated, shot, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. He was murdered by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the husband and brother-in-law of Carolyn Bryant, with whom Till was accused of flirting. His body was found three days later.

Authorities returned his body to Chicago. Mamie Till-Mobley decided to show the world what was done to her son by having an open-casket funeral, saying, “Let the world see what I’ve seen.” She allowed photos of his bloated and mutilated body to be published in Black-oriented magazines and newspapers, such as Jet magazine. There, 8-year-old Bobby Rush—who would go on to serve as a member of Congress and introduce the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act—first saw the photos.

Emmett Till’s murder and Mamie Till-Mobley’s strength are often credited as one of the inciting moments of the Civil Rights Movement. When Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were found not guilty by an all-white jury a month after Till’s funeral, the country was forced to reckon with the violence of racism and white supremacy. Later Civil Rights leaders, such as Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hammer, and Myrlie Evers, credited seeing the photos of Till as a defining moment for them and the movement.

The world saw what was done to Mamie Till-Mobley’s baby, and we have never forgotten.

Till-Mobley toured the country with the NAACP to speak about what happened to her son. She raised thousands of dollars, helping fund the NAACP’s legal defense fund. She later became an educator and activist. She spent 23 years as a public-school teacher in Chicago, all the while working to lift children out of poverty and using her story to gain support for the movement. She passed away in 2003, a year before the FBI reopened its investigation into Till’s death and four years before Carolyn Bryant confessed to lying about her interaction with Till.

The passage of this bill into law is just one step in attaining justice for the more than 4,000 Black people who were lynched between 1882 and 1965. More than half a century later, members of Till’s generation, their children, and grandchildren continue to carry on the work Mamie Till-Mobley began.

The world saw what was done to Mamie Till-Mobley’s baby, and we have never forgotten.

Imani Bryant

Imani Bryant

Program Assistant, Justice Reform & Election Integrity (2021-2022)
Imani K. Bryant is FCNL’s 2021-2022 program assistant for justice reform and election integrity.