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 ringer 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 ringer and not telling me. And my mother asked, “Did you engage the ringer?” And I wanted to know, “What do you mean?” She said, “Honey, you have to tighten the ringer.” I ran all the way from the second floor down to the basement. I had to go outside and down, tighten the ringer, 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 down there?
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 would prevail?
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 society.
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 have now?
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 whatsoever.
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 is 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 of it?
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 know that.
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.