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Mamie Mobley, 81; Son's Killing Was a Civil Rights Symbol

January 08, 2003|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

The funeral of Mamie Till Mobley's son, Emmett Till, was open-casket. Despite the pleas of the morticians who handled the body of the badly beaten and mutilated teenager, his mother wouldn't have it any other way. She wanted the world to see what Southern racists had done to her only son. Nearly 50 years after her son's savage killing, which became a galvanizing symbol for the civil rights movement, Mobley has died. She was 81.

Mobley, who had been battling kidney disease, died at a Chicago hospital Monday afternoon of an apparent heart attack.

It was August 1955 that Mobley sent Emmett, 14, from his home in Chicago to vacation with her relatives in Mississippi.

Born and raised in Chicago, Emmett was unaccustomed to the mores of the segregated South. Before he left, his mother and grandmother cautioned him against looking whites straight in the eye and told him not to talk to whites unless he was first spoken to.

The incident that led to Emmett's killing occurred in the Mississippi town of Money. Emmett was with a group of children who went into a store run by a white woman to buy bubble gum and candy. Emmett allegedly whistled at the woman as he left the store.

Whether Emmett in fact whistled at the woman or whistled, as his mother taught him, to overcome a stutter, has never been determined. But four days later, Emmett was taken from his bed in the middle of the night by two white men.

His body was found three days later on a bank of the Tallahatchee River. His head was bashed in, an ear was missing and one of his eyes was detached. There was also a bullet wound in his head.

Mobley brought her son's body back to Chicago for burial. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times some years ago, she recalled going to the funeral home to see her son.

"I didn't have the nerve to start at his head and work down, so I started at the toes and worked up," she said, knowing full well the extent of the trauma to her son. "When I got to the knee, I said, 'Yes, yes, that's my boy's knee.' I finally got to his face. His nose, his eye. One eye was missing, but one eye was Emmett's eye. It was a hazel eye."

She decided then and there that the coffin lid would remain open for the wake.

"I wanted the world to see what I had seen," she recalled. "I wanted the world to see what had happened in Mississippi. I wanted the world to see what had happened in America."

The funeral of Emmett Till was a pivotal event in the still-formative civil rights movement. Thousands of people filed past his coffin in Chicago. Protest meetings were held in several cities, including Los Angeles. An estimated 20,000 people rallied in Harlem to demand that Congress pass an anti-lynching bill.

In his 1993 book "The Fifties," David Halberstam called the Till case "the first great media event of the civil rights movement."

Born in Tallahatchie County, Miss., Mobley moved to Chicago in the early 1940s. She married Louis Till, a private in the Army, and they had a son, Emmett. They divorced in 1943 when Emmett was 2.

Mobley was working at an Air Force procurement office the summer she sent her son to Mississippi. (She eventually married Gene Mobley, but that was after the death of her son.)

After Emmett's murder, Mobley attended the Mississippi trial of the two men -- one of them the husband of the woman running the store -- who were accused of killing her son. She recalled walking into the courthouse as young white boys fired cap guns at her and their fathers slapped their knees and laughed.

An all-white jury acquitted the defendants. The verdict was returned in an hour. A juror afterward told a reporter that it wouldn't have taken that long if the jury hadn't stopped to drink sodas.

Look magazine later published an article in which the two men confessed to the killing.

Three months after Emmett was killed, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She later told reporters she was thinking of Emmett Till.

After the burial of her son and the trial in Mississippi, Mobley traveled the country for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, telling crowds about the son she had lost and urging political determination to overcome segregation laws.

She remained a Chicago resident, working as an elementary school teacher. For the rest of her life, she continued to tell her son's story in the hope that it would inspire a renewed investigation into his killing. It never did.

She also became a forceful advocate for children's rights, and was known to visit the parents of other children killed in hate crimes.

Her book "The Death of Innocence" is due to be published in the fall. She also is featured in a current documentary: "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till."

"She was so amazingly articulate and eloquent," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Monday night outside Mobley's home. "She was a teacher, and she thought methodically and scientifically. She had a sharp mind and a compassionate heart. And she really sensed the place of her son in American history and her responsibility to keep that legacy alive."

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