#KnowTheirNames – Mamie Till

United States, 1955

An activist well-known in America was Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama. But Ms. Parks, it turns out, may not be known to any of us if not for a decision, made a thousand miles away, by someone she didn’t know—Ms. Mamie Till of Chicago. In the summer of 1955, Mamie’s son Emmett, having just turned 14, begged her to let him travel with his older cousin Wheeler down south to visit relatives in rural Mississippi. Mamie agreed, but warned young Emmett that the rules for Black people down that way were different than in the big city up north. Bobo, as his friends called him, assured his mother that he understood.

The pair made their way south to stay with their great-uncle Mose Wright, a preacher known to all in his little town. Just a few days after arriving, on a blazing hot summer day  hanging out with some of the local kids, Emmett decided to buy a piece of candy. He crossed the street to a sundry store in the tiny town of Money, Mississippi. Whether due to his being an obvious outsider, or not truly understanding the depth of import in the warnings of his mother, as well as his cousins, that you dare not mess with Jim Crow down south, or whether the young, white shopkeeper was simply afraid of a stranger, we may never know. But after Emmett left Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, Mrs. Carolyn Bryant came out onto the street to accuse Emmett of being ‘impertinent’ in his manners towards her, and she then and there did publicly announce said ‘offense.’ Bobo’s friends knew all-too-well the serious trouble that had just landed on his head, and so they swept him up and hastily fled town.

A few days later, Carolyn’s husband Roy returned from a shrimping trip and learned of the event. Roy and his half-brother JW got their guns and drove the three or so miles it was up to Mose Wright’s house, in the dead of night, whereupon they broke open the preacher’s two-room cabin and kidnapped the boy. They tied him up in the back of their car and drove through the night and into the next county, where JW’s family had a cotton plantation. In the blackness of 3am they rolled up the dirt road to a small shed out in the fields, pulled Emmett inside and proceeded to beating and whipping him. After a while they loaded up the car with an old cotton gin fan blade, a length of barbed wire, and Emmett. They drove upriver some 10 miles, toward Glendora. They pulled off the road and onto the riverbank, hauled Emmett out of the car, wrapped the barbed wire round his neck, tied the other end to the 75-pound steel fan blade, shot him in the head and threw Emmett Till into the Tallahatchie River.

After a day or two passed, on the strength of preacher Wright’s testimony, Roy and JW were arrested by the local sheriff for kidnapping. The men admitted they had taken Emmett out for a ‘night ride,’ but claimed they had dropped him off, alive, at the front of Bryant’s store.[1] Things changed when, a few days later, Emmett’s grotesquely bloated body washed up on shore. The men were charged with murder. Mamie came down to Mississippi to claim Emmett’s body and take it back up to Chicago. There, she told the undertaker she wanted an open casket for the funeral, and that under no circumstances was he to improve Emmett’s appearance in any way. She wanted “all the world to witness the atrocity.”[2]  As it happens, a single photograph did exactly that.

The lynching of Emmett Till quickly became national news, partly because Emmett was from up north. There was an outpouring of shock; though, if you were Black in America, you weren’t so much shocked as enraged, yet again. You knew Jim Crow all too well. You’d seen it and felt it before, too many times. In Chicago, some 60,000 people, mostly Black, stood in line for what came to be an all-day procession past Emmett’s open casket. A young photographer by the name of David Jackson took pictures for Jet magazine, a brand new publication out of Chicago intended for a predominantly Black readership. He created unflinching images of the mutilated corpse. Emmett’s contorted face, one eye socket laid open and empty, was fixed in unspeakable anguish for all eternity by the heinous disfigurement wrought by barbed wire and race hate, the tumefaction of river water and sociopathy. When published in Jet, this picture was set in stark juxtaposition to an image of young Emmett smiling alongside his mother, in his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. A nation recoiled in horror.[3]

Not long after, on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks was instructed to give up her seat on the city bus to a white man. This was by no means the first time she had confronted the local laws of riding the city bus while Black. The first four rows of every bus were reserved for whites only, no matter what. But every bus driver had a sign that he could post at any row he wanted, in order to cordon off more rows for whites whenever the need, or whim, might arise. This required all Blacks to sit or, more often, to stand somewhere behind the sign, in the back of the bus, or else get off the bus altogether.

Every Black passenger had to enter and exit the bus through the rear door. That is to say, Jim Crow laws required that a Black person, in order to ride the public bus, had to first wait at the front door for all the whites to board, then step up just far enough to pay their fare to the driver, then turn around, get off the bus, walk back and re-enter through the back door. This, of course, was to keep Black people from walking down the aisle inside the bus, lest they might discomfit the white folk already seated up front.

Any Black person refusing to follow any of these rules was subject to arrest. Miss Rosa knew this all too well. So, on December 1st, 1995, when the white bus driver saw fit to move the sign from in front of her row to one behind, and then demand she move to the back of the bus, Rosa Parks just said “no.” She said this, knowing all too well what would happen next. So why, after years of compliance in the face of daily indignities, did Rosa choose this day, this moment, to defy the law and suffer arrest? Because, as she would later tell Mamie Till herself, she had recently seen the pictures of Emmett in Jet, and it gave her the courage to take a stand for what she knew was right and just.

Two separate events, it turns out, had a direct causal relation. Though Mrs. Till could hardly have imagined the length of the chain, it was her action back in Chicago, to not close her son’s casket, that created the opportunity for the photographer Mr. Jackson to act, in the form of a creating the starkest of images of Emmett’s corpse. And his action created an opportunity for the editors of Jet to act. The action of 60,000 Chicagoans, lining up for hours on end to pass by Emmett’s body, brought national attention to the horrors of lynching and the institutionalized Jim Crow racism in the South. Each individual, and all of them together – activists every one – did their part, each taking an action “highly aligned yet loosely coupled” with each of the others’ actions, to create and deliver the searing image of Emmett Till’s body to Rosa Parks’ home.

Likewise, Rosa Parks likely could not have foreseen that her act of disobedience, motivated by young Emmett, would verily ignite the US Civil Rights Movement. After her arrest, two fellow citizens of Montgomery, Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon, developed the plan to demand a one-day boycott of all the city buses. They aimed to have it happen in just four days, on Monday, December 5th, because that was Rosa’s day in court. A meeting was convened immediately, to discuss the boycott. The meeting was held at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where a new pastor had just arrived from Boston. As a result of that meeting, the Montgomery Improvement Association (“MIA”) was born, and its members worked all weekend to ignite a one-day boycott.

Come Monday, virtually every Black person in Montgomery acted in solidarity with Rosa. Some shared rides, some took the taxis whose fares were reduced to the price of the bus, and many walked, upwards of 20 miles, to work that day. The unity of the Black population of Montgomery was visceral and visible, the impact tangible. Momentum developed to continue their boycott. And they did. It went on for another week, then a month, and beyond a year. It ended on December 20, 1956, and only then because the United States Supreme Court that day issued its final ruling, that the segregated busing laws of Montgomery Alabama were unconstitutional.[4]

The most famous activist for racial equality and justice in this instance became, of course, Ms. Parks. But it was Ms. Robinson and Mr. Nixon who had the idea for the boycott, and it was they who created and printed some 30,000 flyers across two weekend days. Without their swift action, there would be no meeting of a dozen or so people, many anonymous to this day, debating how best to implement a bus boycott. It was, by the way, this first group of activists-in-the-moment who ultimately decided that the first demand to Montgomery city officials would be, simply, to stop moving the ‘whites only’ line on the buses. Some argued vehemently that this was far too weak. But the group ultimately came to consensus, under the guidance of their leadership, because this simple ask was strategically calculated to set the table for further demands. That leader was Dr. King and, yes, stronger demands indeed did follow, and not just in Alabama.

Dr. King’s rise into leadership of the national civil rights movement drove him to leave Montgomery for Atlanta. In his parting address, he said:

“I will never forget Montgomery, for how can one forget a group of people who took their passionate yearnings and deep aspirations and filtered them into their own souls and fashioned them into a creative protest, which gave meaning to people and gave inspiration to individuals all over the nation and all over the world.”[5]

It is impossible to identify all the activists who rose up, some spontaneously, in the story of Emmett, Mamie, and Rosa. There were, after all, 60,000 individuals in procession past Emmett’s body. Over 40,000 uttered a simple “no” to the bus on the very first day of the boycott; each individual ‘no’ was multiplied day-after-day for over a year thereafter. Each person who said ‘no’ surely had “passionate yearnings” as all-consuming as Mamie, or Rosa, or Martin. Each had “deep aspirations,” like photojournalist David Jackson. His skill with imagery was his activism. He could have softened the lighting, muted the focus, used less-shocking angles or employed the vagueness of distance. He did not. And the editors of Jet could have altered Jackson’s pictures, reduced their size, blurred the horror, or not run them at all. They did none of these things. Their decisions—their mindsets—were their activism.

These activists, each of them, fashioned their feelings into a personal and unique form of creative protest. These actions ‘gave meaning’ to their personal selves, each in their own way, and together they “gave inspiration to individuals all over the nation and all over the world.” An algorithm, if you will, for the emergent property of coordinated activism that began with the single decision of a heartbroken mother, Mamie Till.

*  *  *

As for his own role, Dr. King stated it this way: “Martin Luther King didn’t bring about the hour. Martin Luther King happened to be on the scene when the hour came.[6] Our work as social activists will be well-served by this part of King’s guidance. Yes, we have deep passion for the cause, and aspiration for our success. Yes, we filter those feelings into our very souls, sometimes more deeply than might be healthy. And, yes, we can and do fashion them into creative protest, and imaginative action, perchance thereby positioning ourselves to be ‘on the scene when the hour comes.’

One truth from this astonishing real-life story is that even the smallest of individual actions – lining up for Emmett, walking to work, distributing flyers– can deliver the enormous impact of collective action and an outsized dose of authentic personal meaning for each individual participant. This taste of authentic meaning in our lives is all too rare in our daily world, a world all too limited by the institutional power impinging on us.  It is this spark of meaning that can move us, each and every one, from observer to participant, from supporter to activist.


[1] “Night riding” was code for a method of terror inflicted on Blacks in the deep south, usually by members of the racist, all-white Ku Klux Klan (“KKK”). That term as well as the moniker “Jim Crow” are well-described by Jasmine Williams: “Jim Crow got its name in 1830 when minstrel show performer Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice appeared onstage in blackface made from burnt cork and charcoal, dancing a jig and singing. The Jim Crow character became a staple in minstrel shows and a degrading symbol for blacks. … Jim Crow meant legal segregation. Blacks could now legally be treated in any way, without reprieve. … The late 1800s through 1960 saw the most vicious cruelty. … It didn’t take much to get lynched – a wrong look, misinterpreted gesture or mere speculation was enough. Nearly 4,000 African- American men women and children were lynched. Additionally, the racist group, the Ku Klux Klan also called the ‘night riders,’ terrorized blacks, bombing their homes and churches, burning fiery crosses and lynching them at will. The government did nothing to stop it.” Jasmine Williams, “The Plague of Jim Crow” The New York Post, February 14, 2006. See, https://nypost.com/2006/02/14/the-plague-of-jim-crow/

[2] Jet Magazine, July 23, 1964.

[3] “For almost a century, African Americans were lynched with regularity and impunity. Now, thanks to a mother’s determination to expose the barbarousness of the crime, the public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see.” Time magazine, July 10, 2016

[4] The origin of the decision was Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (1956). The Browder court’s 2-1 decision finding the laws unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment was appealed, ultimately to the US Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.

[5] Address Delivered at the Montgomery Improvement Association’s “Testimonial of Love and Loyalty” See, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/address-delivered-montgomery-improvement-associations-testimonial-love-and. Coretta King also spoke to that same audience. She thanked them for their inspiration, saying: “For when I see you stand up with courage and face the things that you have had to face, it has given me courage to do my little bit.”

[6] The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., address delivered at the Montgomery Improvement Association’s “Testimonial of Love and Loyalty” See, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/address-delivered-montgomery-improvement-associations-testimonial-love-and