I knew that I could talk for the rest of my life about what had happened to my baby, I could explain it in great detail, I could describe what I saw laid out there on a slab… and people still would not get the full impact. They would not be able to visualize what had happened, unless they were allowed to see the results of what had happened. They had to see what I had seen. The whole nation had to bear witness to this. – Mamie Till-Mobly in The Death of Innocence
By the summer of 1955, Mamie Till was a hard-working single mother of a teenage boy. They lived in Chicago. Mamie often worked long hours and her son, Emmett, tried hard to help with errands and chores around the house. He wanted to spend the end of the summer in Money, Mississippi visiting his cousins. After lengthy discussions with other family members, Mamie—somewhat reluctantly, because of concern for her son’s safety—agreed.
On August 28, 1955, Mamie received a phone call: Emmett had been abducted in the middle of the night. No one knew where he was. Three days later she received another call: his body had been found. He was dead. Emmett had whistled and/or said, “Bye, baby!” to a white woman working in a grocery store. In response, Roy Bryant (the woman’s husband) and John Milam (Bryant’s half-brother) took Emmett from his uncle’s home, beat him beyond recognition, shot him in the head, tied his naked corpse to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire, and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. He had been identified only by the ring he was wearing.
The local sheriff wanted the body buried as quickly as possible. Mamie fought to have it returned to her in Chicago. It was returned in a sealed coffin, with orders that it remain sealed. Mamie insisted that it be opened. She wanted to see her son. She decided there must be an open casket funeral. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” she said.
This was not an easy decision for her. “I couldn’t bear the thought of people being horrified by the sight of my son,” she said in an interview many years later, “But, on the other hand, I felt that the alternative was even worse. After all, we had averted our eyes far too long, turning away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation.”
Tens of thousands of people walked past that open coffin and saw Emmett’s mutilated body, and in sharp contrast, a smiling photo of him the previous Christmas that his mother placed next to it. Photographs of Emmett’s body were published in magazines across the United States. People were outraged. Something had to be done.
Historians cite the story of Emmett Till as a major catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement in America. The face of one of the victims was made visible. The depth of the ugliness of the injustice that was so commonplace was brought to light, and people were motivated to work for change.
In the pro-life movement, we often tell this story to illustrate the power of images in helping people understand what otherwise would be incomprehensible, and the importance of exposing the ugly reality of injustice. But if it weren’t for Mamie Till, would we even know this story?
She could have grieved privately, with her family. She could have chosen not to horrify people by showing them what her son had endured. She could have said no to the media attention, which included outright lies published about Emmett, and people in the south arguing that nothing had been done. She might not have had to know that in interviews, after they had been acquitted, Bryant and Milam admitted to killing Emmett, but argued that they had done nothing wrong.
Instead, Mamie said yes to the pain of sharing her story. She “wanted the world to see what they did to [her] baby.” And the world saw. And the world changed because it saw.
Mamie went on to become a schoolteacher, and loved to teach children public speaking, especially the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. She continued to share Emmett’s story and advocate for change. She died in 2003 at the age of 81