A Mourning Mother’s Unrelenting Love and Pain Still Penetrates Deep into America’s Soul

"Say Their Names," mural by Nick Sirotich at the Madrone Art Bar was part of the Paint the Void Project and has since moved. Photo by Kathy Drasky, courtesy of the Divisadero Corridor. July 20, 2020.

By Beth Lederer

bethlyn2020@gmail.com

 

Why is a mother’s love so profound? Why is the brutal murder of Mamie Till’s only child
(Emmett), so far reaching that it still resonates in the American consciousness today?
Mamie Till turned her sorrow for the unconscionable murder of her beloved fourteen
year old son, Emmett Till, into cries for justice. The year was 1955, her cries penetrated
far deep into the human soul, the soul of a nation and helped galvanize the emerging
Civil Rights Movement. Can her cries for justice still be heard echoing today-56 years
later? Can the strength of a mother’s love and her pain so deep bring about change
that is transformative? To all these questions, my answer is yes.

Mamie Till had all odds stacked against her in 1955, Mamie was a young black woman
who fiercely spoke out about the gruesome lynching of her son, Emmett. The murder
happened in Money, Mississippi in the Jim Crow South, during the years of segregation.
How was she able to transform the soul of a nation? Mamie found the strength and
courage to show the nation the brutally beaten, disfigured and almost unrecognizable
body of her son. Mamie’s strength and bravery allowed for the coffin to be opened and
the body to be viewed at the funeral. Mamie, a grieving mom, became a warrior for the
people. Mamie asked for the country to grieve with her so the nation knew what “those
white men did to her son”. Mamie turned this unconscionable killing of her only child
into national headlines and demanded the nation to be a witness to this atrocity. The
nation was informed through mass media (newspapers, TV, NAACP and her speeches)
about the most horrible mutilation of a human child.

How can a mother withstand the pain of being notified that her only child was kidnapped
in the middle of the night? How can a mother further hear the tragic news that three
days later his brutally beaten body was found in the Tallahatchie River? How does a
mother grieve for her only child? How can a mother’s grief be so powerful to help
galvanize a historic Civil Rights Movement? Mamie Till was that powerful grieving
mother who changed history. To her comfort, Mamie Till had the unwithering support
from the NAACP and her community. Mamie Till, could not and should never have had
to grieve alone. Her pain, grief and loss penetrated so deep after seeing Emmett’s
mutilated body. Mamie Till took it upon herself to make the historic decision that would
change the course of history.

 

Mamie’s pain and sorrow turned into a nation’s pain. Mamie’s speeches would echo
that Emmett’s murder was not in vain. “Emmett Till was a good kid and his life
mattered.” Her grief reverberated and was so raw penetrating the depths of the evil’s of
the Jim Crow South. For Mamie, she would not stop speaking about the murder and
she would do everything in her power to try to bring those two horrible white men to
justice (Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam).

The trial was exhausting and physically took a lot out of Mamie. The Southern Way of
life was so restrictive compared to her comfortable middle class life in Chicago. It was
difficult to witness the backwards laws and thinking of the South, the twelve panel all
white male jury and the mainly white courtroom onlookers who made her feel painfully
uncomfortable. How does Mamie find the strength to first deal with the brutal murder,
followed by the terrible lies in the courtroom and last the acquittal of the two white men?
Mamie wanted to believe with all her heart, there would be justice for Emmett Till. She
worked tirelessly and never stopped fighting for her son. Emmett’s death woke up the
world; it was a rallying cry to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and countless others
fighting in the Civil Rights Movement. Mamie turned the tragic lynching of her beloved
son both into a tragic loss for our nation and a fight for Civil Rights. Mamie’s pain was so
deep, her love so strong and her fight so vigorous.

I am a mother too. I am a white mother, Mamie Till is a black mother. Why should our
pain be any different? How much has really changed when it comes to Civil Rights? I
can feel the collective pain of the black mother. My heart is connected to Mamie’s fight,
feeling the pain of having her only child ripped away from her, the injustices of the
Mississippi law and the fate of White Supremacy that never seems to die. Mamie’s fight
for a little bit of humanity, her warrior strength and her undying love for Emmett really
moved me to want to continue Mamie Till’s fight to make our country a more equal and
just place for all.