Mamie Till showed America the graphic reality of racial hatred after the death of her son, Emmett. Will another mother expose the cost of gun violence? (Iowa Capital Dispatch photo illustration. Till image courtesy of the Library of Congress; gun image via Canva)
Mamie Till came along at the right time in American history.
During the 1950s, in an era when many Americans were blind to the grotesque toll of racial hatred, this courageous Illinois mother stepped forward and opened America’s eyes.
What people saw outraged them — the mutilated body of her 14-year-old son, Emmett, lying in an open casket. His horribly disfigured face bore little resemblance to anything human. An ear was severed. An eye was missing. His teeth were gone. He had been wrapped with barbed wire, and his head was swollen like a deformed pumpkin.
The Black teenager had been kidnapped, tortured and killed for whistling at a white woman who was working in a tiny grocery store in Money, Miss., in August 1955. Mamie Till had allowed her only child to travel from Chicago with relatives to visit cousins on his great-uncle’s cotton farm not far from Money.
I was in Illinois a week ago for a family get-together. We were 20 miles and 67 years removed from where the Till family lived on the south side of Chicago and where Emmett’s funeral attracted thousands of mourners.
During our trip to Illinois, there was time to reflect on the pivotal role Mamie Till’s decision played in U.S. history. We watched the new “Till” movie in a bustling theater. We heard sobs and moaning from people in the audience at key moments in the powerful film.
I found myself wondering whether another mother might someday show similar courage the way Mamie Till did and decide to make public the horrific photographs of her child lying in a casket after being gunned down in one of the school shootings that are all too common.
Might such a mother decide that is a way to ensure her son or daughter makes a lasting contribution to a better society? Could such courage galvanize public action and lead our nation’s leaders to deal in a meaningful way with the rampant gun violence that is rotting away the notion of our schools being places of safety and security for children?
After the massacre in May of 19 children at a school in Uvalde, Texas, David Boardman, dean of communications at Temple University in Philadelphia, told the Los Angeles Times, “I can’t imagine that most Americans would look at a photograph of the damage that an assault weapon does to a child’s body and then not be horrified.”
Boardman said there is too wide a gap between “the horrendous reality” of gun violence and what the public comprehends when they only see photographs of the children’s smiling faces before their deaths.
Before Emmett Till’s death, the victims of racial violence often were invisible beyond their own families and their circle of friends. Then, just as now, the news quickly moves on to other events, but the families of victims rarely are able to move on.
Emmett Till’s was not the only racially motivated murder in Mississippi that summer in 1955. The Institute for Southern Studies notes that on May 7, 1955, the Rev. George Lee, the first Black person to register to vote since Reconstruction in Humphreys County, Miss., was shot to death for refusing to remove his name from the voter registration rolls. On Aug. 13, two weeks before Emmett’s murder, World War I veteran Lamar Smith was shot dead in front of the courthouse in Lincoln County, Miss., for encouraging other Black people to sign up to vote.
But Mamie Till’s decision to have an open casket for her son and to encourage a news photographer to make pictures of his mutilated corpse became a catalyst for the civil rights movement that transformed our nation.
Might another mother be able to break America out of its business-as-usual approach these days to dealing with mass murders?
Might another mother bring change to America by acting the way Mamie Till did when she said, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my boy”?
FOOTNOTE: There is an Iowa angle of sorts to the Emmett Till tragedy. Four months after a jury found two white men not guilty of his murder, “Look” magazine published the men’s confession that they had taken Till from his uncle’s home, beaten him, shot him and then thrown his weighted-down body into the nearby Tallahatchie River. The men were Roy Bryant, the husband of the store clerk Till whistled at, and the husband’s half -brother, J.W. Milam.
“Look” was a biweekly news magazine founded in Des Moines and published by brothers Gardner and John Cowles, longtime owners of The Des Moines Register. The magazine closed in 1971.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.