By Mamie Till Mobley and Christopher Benson. Foreword by the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. (New York: Random House, 2003, xxiii, 293 pp.).
Nearly 50 years after the death of her son Emmett Till, Mamie Till-Mobley was finishing work on her memoirs. Long in the making and widely anticipated by those interested in the Emmett Till case, her book was published just months after her January 2003 death. As a mother’s story, Mobley offers a perspective and valuable information that could not come to light from any other source.
Many writers have published facts on the Emmett Till murder, but only Mobley provides significant details about her son prior to his fateful trip to Mississippi. We now know Emmett the boy, who, for fourteen years, was the apple of his mother’s eye. The first 116 pages of the book detail Mobley’s birth and upbringing, as well as her and Emmett’s life together. We learn for the first time about her life with Louis Till, and later Pink Bradley, two men she married before finally meeting Gene Mobley—the man with whom she would remain with for over 43 years. We learn of Mobley’s relationship with her overly protective mother, Alma, and the influence she played in both her and Emmett’s life. We learn of Emmett’s bout with polio, and that as a young boy, he made two other trips to Mississippi with his grandmother before the third one that led to his death. Something that I did not know before, was that Mobley had become estranged from her father as a child, but as an adult became reconciled. She and Emmett moved briefly to his home in Detroit, and there, she met and married Bradley. With no real father figure in his life, but through the influence of his mother and grandmother, Emmett became well-disciplined and talented in household chores, and took care of the cooking, cleaning, and even stubbornly took on household repairs that he seemed to have little knowledge in undertaking. By the time Mamie sent him off to Mississippi, never to see him again, it seemed that she had raised a happy, well-adjusted young man.
This memoir was not an easy project for Mobley, and an earlier draft in the 1980s was scrapped because she felt it wasn’t good enough. Also, she told me that after she had picked up the project again, one intended co-writer, whom she trusted, hurt her badly when he backed out but kept some of her cherished material. In the end, however, at least for her, the memoir come at the right time, under the right circumstances--and waiting was worth it. Unfortunately, that wait meant that she would not live to see it in print. The co-author who ultimately saw the book through to the end, Christopher Benson, helped her throughout the process and also penned the afterward just four months after Mobley’s death. His voice is seen throughout the work, especially where information and details provided by other published works are given. Benson did well in aiding Mobley’s memory in this way and filling in some gaps.
Some of the detail seemed tedious and I found myself tempted on more than one occasion to skip past some of the narrative and get to the parts that interested me. Seemingly irrelevant information is not unusual in memoirs, and on the whole, Mobley may be forgiven for those few instances. However, the events of Emmett’s life, laid out in such detail, makes the story of his abduction and murder even more difficult to read. This is, after all, a mother’s story. While she keeps the reader informed of the events going on in Mississippi, we also learn about the effect of the tragedy at home as she learns of the kidnapping, and then three days later of the discovery of her son’s body. She recounts her painful trip to the mortuary to examine the disfigured remains for identification purposes, and her trip to Mississippi to attend the murder trial. She also provides the reader with information of her unfortunate break with the NAACP, which came about because of differences regarding payment for her sponsored speaking tour. NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins accused her of wanting to capitalize on her son’s death. As Mobley tells the story, that episode was painful but she felt no bitterness. For years afterward, by her own admission, the civil rights movement went on without her. Not until much later did she re-emerge as a speaker and activist, speaking to audiences outside of Chicago, and making a new name for herself in seeking justice and educating the public about her son’s case. In the years after Emmett’s murder, she taught school and founded the Emmett Till players. A few years before her death, co-authored a play, The State of Mississippi vs. Emmett Till, and saw it performed in Chicago and L. A. Hers was a life transformed–all because her son whistled at a pretty woman in a country store five decades earlier. In all, Mobley tells that story well.
With the appearance of Mobley’s book, the Emmett Till case is seen in a fresh new light, a light that the public had been denied for nearly 50 years. Mobley helps us remember that the death of her son was more than just a historical event that scholars may debate about, as they try to place his death in the context of the civil rights movement. Emmett Till was, after all, a mother’s son. He was loved, and because of that, Mobley remained heartbroken thereafter for nearly 50 years. Her story helps us to remember that no matter how scholars write about the case, we can’t lose sight of that.