“Two months ago, I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the negores 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 anyone, anywhere in the world had better be the business of us all.” – -Mamie Till-Mobley
After watching the Derek Chauvin trial in the death of George Floyd, I began putting pen to paper to record my thoughts about the trial hoping that by the time you finished reading that piece there wouldn’t be more deaths of people of color via the hands, chokeholds (knees), or firearms. But then came Brooklyn Center, MN., Columbus, OH and Elizabeth City, NC a short time later.
Now it’s a good thing that I didn’t hold my breath on that hope, that possibility. Not in America. Not in year 2021.
So I watched as much of the trial as time allowed and my anxiety level could withstand. And when the guilty verdicts – guilty on all three counts – were read, I slowly exhaled a sigh of relief while my mind took me to the significance of Mother’s Day that’s coming up shortly, to George Floyd’s late mother in particular, the one he cried out for in his final hour.
That mind also took me to the tragic deaths of Breanna Taylor, Philander Castille, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric (“I can’t breathe”) Garner, Walter Scott and the scores of other lives snuffed out unnecessarily and the pain of their mothers, living or no longer living.
And after the Chauvin guilty verdicts, my mind drifted inexplicably to the pain Mammie Till suffered hearing the not guilty verdict after her son Emmett was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955.
I thought about how Emmett Till and George Floyd, though separated by 66 years and totally different verdicts, were united in forcing a reckoning on race in America then and now.
Now to remind those who want to be reminded – and those who don’t – Mamie Till-Mobley became an American educator and activist in the aftermath of her son’s death. Let’s look at her background.
Born Mamie Elizabeth Carthan in 1921 in Webb, Mississippi, her family left the South during the period when millions of Black Southerners migrated to the industrial North in the Great Migration to escape racial violence and Jim Crow laws. Even though very few of Mamie’s peers even finished high school, she was the first Black student to make the “A” Honor roll and only the fourth Black student to graduate from the predominantly white Argo Community High School.
In 1955, when Emmett was fourteen, his mother put him on the train to spend the summer visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi. She never saw him alive again. Her son was abducted and brutally murdered on August 28, 1955, after being accused of interacting inappropriately with a white woman. The following month, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam faced a trial for Till’s kidnapping and murder but were acquitted by the all-white jury after a five-day trial and a 67-minute deliberation. Said one member of the jury, “If we hadn’t stopped for pop, it (the verdict) wouldn’t have taken that long.” Months later in an interview with Look magazine in 1956, protected against double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam admitted to killing Till.
For her son’s funeral, Mamie Till insisted that the coffin containing his badly mutilated body (below) be left open because, in her words, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Tens of thousands of people viewed Emmett’s body and photographs were circulated around the country. Through the constant attention it received, the Till case became emblematic of the disparity of justice for Blacks in the South.
Mamie went on to graduate from Chicago Teachers College in 1960 (now Chicago State University), remarried, became a teacher, changed her surname to Till-Mobley, and continued as an activist working to educate people about what happened to her son. She died in 2003 at age 81. The same year, her autobiography, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, was published. Till-Mobley was buried near her son in Burr Oak Cemetery, where her monument reads, “Her pain united a nation”.
I end with another smidgeon of hope, unrealistic as it may be. And that is that by the time you finish reading this piece, more lives of people of color will not be cut short unnecessarily.
But again, I won’t hold my breath waiting for that possibility.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, The BlackMarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org