How Emmett Till's Lynching Launched a Civil Rights Drive
This article was printed in Jet magazine, Vol. 68, No. 14 (June 17, 1985). Its focus was on the 30th anniversary of Emmett Till’s slaying. Each section is divided and numbered with the original pagination.
30 Years Ago
How Emmett Till’s
Civil Rights Drive
By SIMEON BOOKER
JET Washington Bureau Chief
Thirty years ago, when seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to budge from the White section of a Montgomery, Ala., bus, the incident was labeled the birth of the modern civil rights revolution.
It marked the first public focus on the man who engineered the historic Montgomery bus boycott and who later became the foremost leader of the civil rights movement – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Ironically, four months before Rosa Parks took the personal stand against segregation, a Black Chicago mother, Mrs.
Mamie Till Mobley unknowingly, but decisively jolted “the sleeping giant of Black people.” Hurt and angered by the lynching of her only child, 14-year-old Emmett Till during a summer trip to Mississippi, Mrs. Mobley defied pressure from local authorities to immediately bury Till by demanding that his battered, mutilated body be brought back to the Windy City.
Screamed the distraught mother, “Open it up. Let the people see what they did to my boy.” Her face wet with tears, she leaned over the body, just removed from a rubber bag in a Chicago funeral home, and cried out, “Darling, you have not died in vain. Your life has been sacrificed for something.”
That pledge became a battle cry for a new corps of politicians, news people, civil rights leaders, and thousands of “little” people who were sick and tired of being “beaten down” and denied their rights.
Pictures of the youth – a face swollen and disfigured – were front page in publications throughout the country and world. Making the Chicago school boy, who was accused of whistling at a White woman, a martyr comparable to the young Jewish holocaust victim, Anne Frank.
Almost a quarter of a million people lined up for blocks outside of a Chicago funeral home to see the body and pay homage to a fallen teenager. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected by organizations nationally.
Telegrams avalanched state capitols and city halls, while Chicago editor Gus Savage led ministers in picketing the White House and demanding federal intervention.
Mississippi officials were forced to hold a mock trial in Sumner, further publicizing the deplorable
and inhumane conditions, by quickly acquitting the two murder suspects – Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam.
What happened during the intervening years is not a story of endurance and perseverance in continuing the civil rights heritage in the Black community.
Today, only one statue of Emmett Till exists in the entire nation. That being, in a city park in Denver. The Black mother who changed the course of history is almost forgotten – except for a three-part series on the lynching, broadcast by Chicago’s WMAQ-TV station’s Rich Samuels.
Yet the current apathy and lack of concern will not dull the significance and the meaning of the front line Till case, in that for the first time, Black people showed that they could be motivated to contribute monies and volunteer services in support of civil rights causes.
The nation’s news media, prodded by coverage of such events in the Black press, pioneered in reporting the aftermath of the lynching and the trial, where Sheriff H. C. Strider greeted Black reporters with “good morning, Niggers.”
And in an inaugural shore, frosh [sp?] Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr (D., Mich), personally spotlighted more attention by attending the trial, affording an opportunity for hundreds of poor sharecroppers to see a living example of the value of the ballot. “I felt that I had to go,” said Diggs, now a Maryland undertaker. “My parents came from Mississippi and I
wanted to help and inspire those folk.”
“Mrs. Mobley didn’t realize the importance of what she did,” explained Mrs. Arlene Brigham, a retired Chicago businesswoman who served as a personal aide during the family’s bereavement. She praised the mother for being courageous during the trying times and encouraging her family both in Mississippi and Chicago. “Her love of her boy and her efforts to strike a blow for freedom awakened the world. Folks here in Chicago rallied behind her to give that son a massive funeral,” Mrs. Brigham continued, “but she wasn’t backed up by any national organization and she didn’t have the resources to keep any campaign going to honor her son. Rev. King came along and put his act together and the momentum from the Till case vanished.”
Now after such a long oversight, contributions for other heroes of the Till case well could be lost to history if Mrs. Mobley fails to write a book.
Of the three Chicago boys who made the Mississippi trip, only Curtis Jones, now a Chicago policeman, dared to stay at Moses Wright’s home after Emmett Till was whisked away during the
night. The trio were staying at Mr. Wright’s home during the incident.
Jones is credited by the family for influencing Moses Wright, a lifelong Mississippi resident and family member not to “bury Till’s body” as demanded by Mississippi law enforcers. Instead, he somehow made a call to Chicago and alerted the family about the situation. It was his bravery that stiffened Moses Wright enough to go on the witness stand at the trial and in one unforgettable scene, point out the White killers – an act unknown at that time in the racist state.
Organizing Chicago forces to demand justice was one of the first civic actions of Gus Savage, who later became one of the city’s three Black congressmen. Editor of the American Negro, billed as a magazine of protest, in Chicago, Savage quickly compiled and printed a special edition with 16 pages of pictures devoted to the murder.
In a stirring letter to “Bo” – Till’s nickname, Savage wrote, “A monument to serve as a shrine has been suggested in your memory; but we know the only monument not decayed by time is freedom. So we shall fight for freedom in your memory.”
Dismayed by the lack of recognition to Till’s niche in civil rights history, Savage wrote Mayor Harold Washington to “establish a lasting memorial to Emmett Till,” described as the victim of one of the most horrible and publicized atrocities of racism in the U. S.
Monument or not, recognition or not, Mrs. Mobley feels that she has carried out her pledge to honor her only son. Now retired after 29 years as a teacher in Chicago’s public schools, and married to a Cadillac salesman, she still works with a youth group named in honor of Emmett Till. Last year, a unit of the group performed in Mississippi.
Deeply religious, she believes that “the Lord knows best.” When the Till case was revived on Chicago television, she pictured herself as encased in a “block of ice” because of the sudden onslaught of the past memories. “But then I had a dream,” she told Jet. “I was standing on a bridge as high as any building in Chicago. I looked down at the raging waters far below me. Then, I heard the Lord say, ‘I have kept you far above the troubled waters.’”