Interview with Mamie Till-Mobley
December 3, 1996
Conducted by Devery S. Anderson
DSA: What kind of a
boy was Emmett Till?
MTM: I would say that
to me, Emmett was very ordinary. But as I look at today’s youth,
I realize that Emmett was very extraordinary. I was a working mother,
and at the time that Emmett was killed, I was a single parent. His step-father
and I had gone our separate ways, and it was just the two of us. I worked
all kinds of hours. I worked for the United States Air Force, and I was
a clerk in charge of secret and confidential files. I was the only one
with the combination to the files outside of the officer in charge, which
meant that I had to go to work–I didn’t fool around. And I
would work sometimes six or seven days in a row. I would work from 8 to13
hours a day, and that meant that Emmett had all the house responsibility.
I mean everything was really on his shoulders, and Emmett took it upon
himself. He told me if I would work, and make the money, he would take
care of everything else. He cleaned, and he cooked quite a bit. And he
even took over the laundry–so much so that I’d been relieved
of the laundry for so long, that when Emmett was killed, and I went down
for the first time to operate the washing machine, I called my mother
crying, telling her that Emmett had broken the machine and he hadn’t
told me (it wouldn’t ring for me–I had a wringer washer). I
was just so carried away in grief that I guess I was glad to even be able
to call her and tell her something about Emmett even if it was something
that I thought was negative–breaking the wringer and not telling
me. And my mother asked, “Did you engage the wringer?” And
I wanted to know, “What do you mean?” She said, “Honey,
you have to tighten the wringer.” I ran all the way from the second
floor down to the basement. I had to go outside and down, tighten the
wringer, ran back upstairs, and I really cried. I said, “Mama, it’s
not broken, it’s ok.” And I don’t know, it was just
such an emotional moment with me.
DSA: Was this right
after his death, or before you had gone to Mississippi?
MTM: No, I had been
to Mississippi. It looks like to me it was summertime. I don’t know
what in the world was going on, but I hadn’t washed in all this
length of time, but it had to be summertime. You know, you kind of lose
details, but it was after the house had quieted down, and the house didn’t
quiet down until I think, about November. And so it could have been one
of the Indian Summer days in November. But I know it was time that I had
to go downstairs and wash. When I returned home, my mother came home with
me, and I didn’t have to worry about any laundry until she returned
to her home, and that was sometime about mid-November. So this could well
have been November.
DSA: Now, being from
Chicago, did you have direct experience with southern racism yourself
before Emmett’s death?
MTM: I had heard people
talk about it, but no direct encounter.
DSA: So when Emmett
went down to visit, did you have some concerns about the way life was
MTM: Yes, I did, because
I had been reading in Jet magazine about all the killings that had been
going on, and I was aware that tension was high. But in talking to my
uncle, Preacher Mose Wright, I was also assured by him that “things
were getting much better, and you are unduly concerned.”
DSA: How were you first
informed that something had happened?
MTM: Mose Wright’s
oldest daughter called me that Sunday morning about 9:30 to let me know
that Emmett had been taken from her dad’s house.
DSA: At this point
they hadn’t found him yet, right?
MTM: Oh, no, they didn’t
find him until Wednesday.
DSA: Now, the case
received national attention. Did this surprise you?
MTM: It really did,
because what happened to a black person in the United States of America
was “ho-hum.” Whole families disappeared and nobody raised
an eyebrow. The black people were afraid to talk about it because they
knew that if they opened their big mouths, they would disappear as well.
DSA: What was it like
for you to go down there for the trial? What was the climate–the
emotion in the air there?
MTM: I could really
describe my own feelings. I knew that for me to attend that trial did
not mean that I was going to get back alive, and so I had to make a decision.
Was it more important for me to be alive, or was it more important for
me to attend the trial? And I made the decision that I had business in
Mississippi, and my coming back dead or alive was of less importance than
my being there on the scene alive as long as I could maintain life. And
it was on that basis that I went. It left my mother devastated, but I
was compelled to go. I had to go to Mississippi.
DSA: It must have been
a brave thing for you, as well as Mose Wright, who pointed these men out
in the courtroom. What a risk you took!
MTM: Yes, indeed. I
never thought about it as being brave. It was just something I had to
do, and if there was anything I could do to help the prosecuting attorney,
then I had to do that. I just had to do it.
DSA: One of the things
you said in a segment shown on Eyes on the Prize was that the verdict
was the one you had expected. With that in mind, how did you view the
trial? It was obviously a farce from the beginning.
MTM: Definitely, and
that was the way I described it.
DSA: But was there a point where you had some hope that maybe justice
MTM: Oh my goodness,
as I listened to the testimonies that I was allowed to listen to, it was
an open and shut case that the men would be convicted. But I guess what
I really did, I was gauging the outcome by the actions of the outside
crowd. And I knew when that jury retired, it was time for us to get out
of the area. And I also noticed the black people who were attending the
trial. They stayed until the jury retired. When the jury retired, they
retired. And I spoke to my party, and I told them, “I would like
for us to leave now.” And congressman Diggs said, “What, and
miss the verdict?” I said, “This is one you will want to miss.
The verdict is ‘not guilty.’ “ And they looked at me
like they thought I was nuts. But because of their concern for me, the
two carloads of us started back to Mt. Bayou, Mississippi. And about 45
minutes out of Sumner, the verdict came: “Not Guilty.” And
they were just stunned. I mean, nobody said a word. It was just as if
someone had taken our voices. But you could hear the cheering and the
uproar in the little town. And we knew that had we been there, we could
have been lynched.
DSA: What has been
your feeling for the killers, Milam and Bryant, over the years?
MTM: Mercifully, the
Lord just erased them out of my mind, out of my sight, with no conscious
feelings toward them. Not hate, not love. I’ve occasionally wondered
what their lot in life was like. But I have heard enough, that I know
they suffered more than I’ve suffered. Because they suffered not
only from guilt, but to the people for whom they had been such heroes,
they were now curses. And they became friendless, family-less, homeless,
jobless. I mean, they lost it all. And at least I have gained a world
of friends. I have a home, I had a job, I had something to look forward
to because I work with children constantly. Our lives just went in opposite
directions. I became a benefactor to society, they became a scourge to
DSA: So in a sense,
they have been in a prison for the last forty years.
MTM: Oh yes.
DSA: One of them has
passed away I believe, right?
MTM: Both of them.
DSA: Oh, they both
DSA: Oh, ok.
MTM: I think one passed
sometime in 1994. That was Bryant.
DSA: Ok. I knew Milam
had died around 1981, and one of the books I had read was written a few
years ago, so it must have been before Bryant’s death. Has anyone
in their family, or any of their friends ever tried to contact you to
apologize on their behalf or anything like that?
MTM: No. No contact
DSA: Considering how
much racism–including lynching–had been tolerated in the South,
and then to have the killers ostracized for what they did, do you see
that as the turning point then, as far as people saying, “enough
MTM: Well, I think
the fact that I was able to get Emmett’s body out of Mississippi,
and then to put that body on display for five days, and people could walk
by and see what racism had really generated. I mean, to hear that they
hung people on a tree, that they cut their fingers off and passed them
out for souvenirs, to hear that, to read it, that is one thing. But to
actually see it with your eyes, that is a different thing. And 600,000
people, which is a conservative estimate, walked by and looked at Emmett.
People from all over the world came and attended the trail and they also
passed by and looked at Emmett. It was something that was unprecedented,
and people really didn’t know that things this horrible could take
place, and the fact that it happened to a child, that make all the difference
in the world.
DSA: Was that hard
for you to have him on display like that?
MTM: It was very hard.
DSA: Were you thinking
of the benefits to society, and what this would do for America?
MTM: I didn’t
even think of the benefits to society. The main thing I thought about
was: “Let the world see what has happened, because there is no way
I could describe this.” And I needed somebody to help me tell what
it was like.
DSA: Being 41 years
since the murder, do you feel America still remembers this case? Do you
feel much more needs to be said about it?
MTM: I certainly do.
DSA: And what could
someone like me, as an up-and-coming historian do to help remind people
MTM: Well, what you
are doing. You are writing, you are talking. I often ask people to send
letters to the Justice Department, because justice has not been done.
And I am yet trying to bring about justice in this case. Not necessarily
against the perpetrators, but the state, in the trial of these men. They
made no effort whatsoever to see to it that justice was done. In fact,
it was a conspiracy to make sure that justice was not done–even
to the fact that they destroyed the case records–the transcripts
of the trial.
DSA: I didn’t
DSA: Are you happy
with the books that have been written– A Death in the Delta and
Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement?
MTM: I am happier with
Clenora Hudson Weems, because I sat with her for–I don’t know–over
a period of two years, telling her everything I knew, and helping her
to find the material, and even then there are some things that are incorrect.
A Death in the Delta, is less accurate, and the one thing that I did not
like was that the author said that he had tried to contact me and I refused
to answer. Now, I don’t know where his letters went, but I’ve
been here at 8434 since January 1961, and I didn’t receive any correspondence
from him. I would have gladly cooperated, because it is an advantage to
me to know that people are talking about and thinking about Emmett Till.
Stephen Whitfield, I believe it was.
DSA: Yes. So, tell
me a little bit about the “Emmett Till Players” that you founded.
MTM: These are boys
and girls that I have taught. I began teaching them to do Dr. King’s
speeches. I started in 1973 quite by accident. I was a Freed Assistant
at the Carter Elementary School. We were told to do a commemorative program
honoring Dr. King on his birthday. And, the time was passing, time was
passing, and nothing was happening. I went to the principal and I asked
him, “What are we going to do?” He said, “Mrs. Mobley,
I don’t know what you are going to do.” And that’s when
I found out it was up to me, and I had about three weeks. I had no children.
I had no classroom. And I said, “I don’t have any children.”
And he said, “The teachers will give you children.” So I went
to the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers and asked them for assistance.
“Give me some of your children.” But before that I went to
the library, and I asked our librarian, “What do you have? She said,
“I have three records.” And I persuaded her to let me take
those records out. I listened to those records. And I became so engrossed
with what Dr. King was saying, until when I went to school the next morning,
I had not been to bed. I had put those records on cassette tapes, and
then I transcribed them on the typewriter. I would be working with one
(I had more than one tape recorder–I’ve always had two and
three of everything) and while one was recording a record I would be transcribing
record number one. I think I finished up about 5:30 that morning, and
got myself ready to go to school. And I knew exactly what I was going
to do. I was going to go through those speeches and select certain ones
for the children to recite during an assembly program. I took all of that
day and wrote out what I wanted them to do. Then I went to my teachers
and I asked them to send me some children. And they sent me the worst
they had; the non-learners, the ones with problems. But they performed
and did it beautifully. My God, those kids worried about their ability
to do it. But I did everything I could for them so that they could get
up in front of that school. They worried that they would forget their
speeches. I gave them multiple copies and had them place them on their
mirrors, on the door to their bedroom, and on the refrigerator. They wouldn’t
have a chance to forget those speeches because they would be everywhere
they went. And when they delivered them, they did it like they had known
those speeches all their lives. I was proud of them and they were proud
of themselves. When they were on that stage it was as though they suddenly
became someone new. That was the beginning. They continued to perform
at assemblies, and my church sponsored many events that allowed them to
continue to perform. Over the years there have been hundreds of these
kids, the Emmett Till Players. And so many have gone on to become such
benefactors to society. I have some who are now preachers. I still hear
from them and they thank me for the opportunity I gave them.
DSA: That’s great.
So, do you still have a lot of contact with them?
MTM: Yes. Yes, I hear
from just about every one of them.
DSA: It sounds like
you have made a difference in a lot of lives. Mrs. Mobley, I thank you
so much for your time today, and for sharing your story with me.
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