Mrs. Mamie Till: A Motherís Courage; A Movementís Spark
The brutality of Jim Crow was widely experienced by Blacks in southern states during the 1950ís. There were few safe havens as churches were frequently torched, homes firebombed, and innocent citizens murdered, all to sustain white supremacy. And the culprits were widely known; from corrupt local police to hooded Ku Klux Klansmen to rogue mobs whose actions were blessed by ďrespectableĒ whites. It was a reign of terror that southern Blacks endured as a way of life.
One incident, however, focused the nationís attention on the bloody violence of Jim Crow: The August 1955 murder of Emmet Till.
The fourteen year old from Chicago, visiting relatives in Mississippi, became the tragic victim of southern racism. His unfortunate encounter with hostile whites, purportedly angry over the young boyís supposed disrespect of a white woman,ended in tragedy. The accusation levied against Till was a common device used by whites as an excuse to prey upon Blacks, particularly Black men. And it would regularly invite the worst displays of violence. The rumor of a white woman being violated was often enough to incite white mob violence.
Till paid the ultimate price for not knowing the ways of the south. He disappeared, vanishing into the darkness of the Mississippi night, like so many before him who had ďforgot their place.Ē Emmet Till was shot in the head, brutally beaten, disfigured and dumped in the Tallahatchie river. It was a horrendous and brutal crime even by the standards of Dixie. Till, like so many before him, could have become just another victim, another statistic of a racist system. A grieving and courageous mother would not let that happen.
Mamie Till refused to allow her sonís death to be in vain. She recognized that the suffering her son endured had meaning for an entire race. Her sonís killers were sending a message that white supremacy would be sustained, whatever the cost imposed upon Blacks. Mamie Till could not, and would not, accept her sonís death as just another loss. Displaying courage seldom seen at that time, the grieving mother challenged the world to see what they had done to her son. Rather than conceal her sonís mangled body, she dared the world to look at him and deny that Jim Crow had murdered him.
It was a turning point in a decade of significant events. The sight of the badly disfigured boy, so tortured that his face could hardly be recognized as a human form, sent shock waves across the nation and world. For the first time the brutality of white racism had been exposed. And it was a picture that anyone who saw could never forget.
Mamie Tillís courage ignited the civil rights movement. It was not long thereafter when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus. And the rest truly is history.
For her part Mamie Till never stopped fighting. She was a tireless champion of civil rights. Just weeks ago she was the keynote speaker at an event in Chicago. This past week she died. Her life serves as a testament to the strength of a generation of Black mothers who endured the pain of loss but maintained their dignity. She is a symbol of the righteousness of the civil rights struggle. Because of Mamie Till, Emmet Till did not die in vain.
Well done, Good and Faithful Servant, Well done.