Mamie Elizabeth Carthan was born on 23 November 1921 in Webb, Mississippi. In January 1924 her mother, Alma Smith Carthan, took her north to the Chicago suburb of Argo, where they reunited with the girl’s father, Willy Nash Carthan. In 1940 Mamie Carthan became the fourth black graduate of Argo Community High School and the first to graduate at the top of her class. She went on to work with the Social Security Administration and for the US Air Force.
Carthan married Louis Till on 14 October 1940 and gave birth to her only biological child, Emmett Louis Till, on 25 July 1941. By the following year she had separated from her husband, who was convicted of rape and murder while serving in the US Army in Italy and executed in 1945. She was married to Pink Bradley (1951–53) and later Gene Mobley (1957–2000).
On 31 August 1955 Emmett Till’s bludgeoned body was found in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. After her son’s body was returned to Chicago, Bradley insisted that the casket be opened. After carefully inspecting the body and confirming that it was her son, she decided to let the world see the results of this lynching by holding an open-casket viewing at Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. So enormous was the outpouring of public sympathy and support that Till’s burial had to be delayed for four days: as many as one hundred thousand people came to the church to view the body. Media outlets from around the world covered her son’s death, and Bradley authorized the publication of photographs of her son’s body in Jet magazine and the Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
On 20 September 1955 Bradley traveled to Sumner, Mississippi, to testify in the trial of her son’s accused murderers, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant. Refused a room at the segregated hotel in Sumner and forced to view the trial from the segregated seating reserved for the black press, Bradley nevertheless delivered poignant testimony confirming the identity of the body. Despite her efforts, along with those of several other witnesses who provided damning evidence against the accused, an all-white male jury acquitted the defendants after deliberating for just sixty-seven minutes.
Bradley continued to press for justice, writing letters to Pres. Dwight Eisenhower and speaking under the auspices of the NAACP and various labor unions. Miscommunication and financial disagreements strained her relationship with the NAACP by November 1955, and executive secretary Roy Wilkins dropped her from subsequent speaking engagements.
Bradley dedicated the remainder of her life to helping children and preserving her son’s memory. She graduated from the Chicago Teachers College in 1956 and taught in Chicago’s public schools until her 1983 retirement. Till-Mobley also earned a master’s degree in administration and supervision from Loyola University in Chicago, and in 1973 she founded the Emmett Till Players, a group of student actors devoted to educating the masses about the civil rights movement. Throughout her life Till-Mobley spoke out against acts of injustice across the country, including the 1998 lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. She died on 6 January 2003, just prior to the release of a book she authored with Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. In large part as a result of her efforts, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reopened the Till case in 2004, though no further prosecutions occurred, and in 2005 Congress passed antilynching legislation and called on the Bureau to investigate cold cases from the civil rights era. Today, streets, bridges, highways, schools, placards, statues, and legislation honor her son’s memory.
- Keith Beauchamp, The Untold Story of Emmett Till (film, 2006)
- Emmett Till Murder website, www.emmetttillmurder.com; Ruth Feldstein, Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930–1965 (2000)
- Clenora Hudson-Weems, Emmett Till: Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement (1994)
- Darryl Mace, “Regional Identities and Racial Messages: The Print Media’s Stories of Emmett Till” (PhD dissertation, Temple University, 2007)
- Christopher Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (2002)
- Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (1988)