CHICAGO – Mrs. Mamie Till Mobley, mother of lynching victim Emmett Till, died here Jan. 6, at age 81. She was a quiet, unassuming and deeply religious fighter for civil rights. Her funeral was attended by national figures such as Dick Gregory and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

I saw and spoke briefly with Mrs. Mobley on Nov. 13, 2002. She was attending a charity fundraiser featuring singer and civil rights leader Harry Belafonte. Her health problems did not keep her away or daunt her, for she was a courageous woman, as her story shows.

In August 1955, her 14-year-old only son, Emmett, was in Money, Mississippi, to visit an uncle. While there, he entered a white-owned store. It was claimed that he had whistled at the storekeeper’s wife. Mrs. Mobley later related that she had taught him to use whistling as a means of overcoming a speech impediment.

Racists dragged young Till out of his bed, lynched him and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.

But Till was not to be just another of the thousands of victims of racist lynching in the American South. His mother saw to that. When his body was returned to her in Chicago, she was told that even she, his mother, should not look at it, so horrific was the disfigurement from the torture he had suffered. The funeral director, A.A. “Sammy” Rayner, who went on to be an important figure in the struggle against racism in Chicago himself, suggested a closed-casket funeral. Yet, Till Mobley insisted in an open casket, with full publicity.

The horrifying press photographs were thrust into the face of a nation in denial about racism. The two whites accused of killing Emmett were acquitted in a travesty of justice. An all-white jury acquitted half-brothers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, though Look magazine published an article with their confession four months later.

The national wave of anger, which followed the murder and Mrs. Mobley’s dramatic and courageous gesture, helped spark the civil rights movement of the 1950s. That same year, Rosa Parks declined to give up a bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.

“People have told me to let this thing die, even people in my own family. But people need to be aware,” Mobley told the Associated Press last month.

Jackson said, “She was a very articulate teacher who saw the pain of her son and did a profound, strategic thing. When they pulled his water-soaked body from the river, most people would have kept the casket closed. She kept it open.”

For much of her life, Till Mobley was an elementary school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, and in 1973 created the Emmett Till Players to tour the United States and recite speeches by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose logic and turns of phrase she adored. Survivors include daughters Lillian Gene Jackson, Yvonne Wright, Ollie Gordon and Airickca Gordon; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

“The Murder of Emmett Till,” which aired as part of PBS’ American Experience series, Jan. 20, had Till Mobley’s participation.

The film’s producer Stanley Nelson said the main message of the film “was trying to get people to understand that the civil rights movement was made up of everyday heroes. People like Mamie Till Mobley.

“People complain about things in our country, and they complain about things in the world, but I think that this film shows how everyday people can rise up and change things,” he said.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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