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Mrs. Mobley lived with the pain of all black mothers

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


Mammie Till Mobley died in Chicago on Jan. 6. She was 81.

I was a one of the legion of journalists who tromped through Mrs. Mobley's modest living room over the years. For many of my colleagues and me, Mrs. Mobley was larger than life, and she came to represent the pain and suffering of all African-American mothers everywhere in the United States. For me, she is a greater civil rights figure than Rosa Parks.

Mammie Till Mobley was the mother of Emmett Till. Emmett was the 14-year-old black boy who was murdered in Money, Miss., in 1955 for allegedly talking and perhaps whistling at a white woman at a grocery store. A Chicago resident, Emmett was spending the summer in Mississippi with relatives when he was murdered and his body mutilated.

I was 10 years old and living in Crescent City -- in the heart of the Jim Crow South -- when Emmett was murdered.

Although we were more than 500 miles from Money, we black boys were especially afraid. The possibility of being lynched and mutilated for insulting a white woman always had had a vague presence in our lives. When news of Emmett's death swept through our communities, however, vague possibility became potent reality, and white woman became objects of dread and certain death.

After Mrs. Till permitted her son's body to be viewed in an open casket during funeral services, the entire nation was reminded all over again that Americans, especially Southern white men, were capable of unspeakable crimes in the name of race. Emmett's face was bludgeoned beyond recognition, and a bullet hole was in his head. Having been under water for several days, the body was badly decomposed.

When asked why she had allowed the open viewing, Mrs. Mobley said: "I want the world to see what they did to my body."

A few "Negro" publications, including Jet magazine, carried photographs of Emmett's body. The women in the lives of black boys in my community used those horrible photographs -- Emmett's innocence frozen in time as a testament to Jim Crow's intentional cruelty and inhumanity -- to scare their sons and grandsons into averting our eyes in the company of white women.

That tactic worked for a few years, until the civil rights movement took hold, when blacks in the South grew weary of white abuse, when courage and hope began to replace obsequiousness and fear, when thousands of good white people nationwide publicly voiced their outrage and openly joined hands with blacks.

The image of Emmett and that of his tearful mother never left me. One of the first things I did when I went back to Chicago to attend graduate school during the 1970s was to telephone Emmett's mother. Photographs of a young, happy Emmett decorated the walls. I had never seen this image of him before -- a happy, normal child on Chicago's Southside. Like many other people nationwide and abroad, I saw Emmett as a lifeless figure in a coffin. But, there, in his mother's home, Emmett, a 14-year-old, was a human being.

Mrs. Mobley mourned her son's death each day. But she did more than just mourn. She became a passionate spokeswoman for poor children in tough neighborhoods.

"How did you keep going after your only son's death?" I asked during our first talk, expecting a long answer.

"Justice," she said. "I want to see my Emmett's killers brought to justice. They took my heart, my life."

I left Mrs. Mobley's home in tears. The next day, I wrote an essay about her, which was published in the Chicago Defender, Chicago's most influential black newspaper at that time. During my years in Chicago, I visited Mrs. Mobley several more times and listened to her speak throughout the city and state.

Her message was always the same: Black people are American citizens who deserve simple justice.

For me, she was every black mother and grandmother who had lost children to the insanity of racism in the Land of the Free. Each time I saw Mrs. Mobley, I saw my own mother and grandmothers -- strong women who literally carried the burdens of protecting generations of black males.

But, for all her efforts, Mrs. Mobley did not live to see anyone convicted for her son's death. Roy Bryant, whose wife was the woman Emmett allegedly insulted, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were tried for the killing. A jury of 12 white men acquitted the duo.

The cruelest irony is that Mrs. Mobley knew that the South was a dangerous place for black males. It was a place where justice for blacks was left to the whims of white men. While putting her son on the bus in Chicago for the trip south, Mrs. Mobley warned: "Be careful, Emmett. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly."

Apparently, Emmett had too much pride -- a deadly trait for a black boy in Mississippi in 1955.

The New York Times reports that Mrs. Mobley was writing a book, Death of Innocence, when she died. It is to be published by Random House. Mrs. Mobley's life also will be the subject of an upcoming television documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.

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