Life Story: Mamie Till-Mobley (1921-2003)

Mother and Activist

The story of a grieving mother who insisted on informing the world about the horrifying lynching of her son, Emmett Till.

Content Warning: This resource addresses lynching and extreme and graphic violence.

Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till

Photograph. Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till, 1950, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers.

Emmett Till’s Funeral

Dave Mann (photographer), Till boy’s funeral, 1955. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Lauren and Michael Lee.

Suggested Activities

  • The Great Migration played a significant role in Mamie Till-Mobley’s life. Learn more about family and motherhood in the Great Migration by pairing this life story with these Great Migration photographs, as well as other related resources in WAMS.
  • Emmett Till was a victim of lynching. Learn more about this horrifying part of American history in the Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow curriculum guide.
  • By holding an open casket funeral, Mamie took a stance against lynching in America. Compare her life story with that of another famous Black Chicagoan and anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells.
  • Women played a critical role in the African American struggle for civil rights in this era. Combine this document with other resources about women in the Civil Rights Movement, including the life stories of Ella Baker, Pauli Murray, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary Church Terrell, and Dorothy Bolden, in addition to the resources on the Little Rock Nine, Loving v. Virginia, and Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony about voting rights.
  • If you feel it is appropriate for your students, show them a photograph of Mamie with Emmet’s body, which is available here. (PLEASE NOTE: This link will take you directly to deeply disturbing and graphic content.) Ask students to discuss how their understanding of Mamie’s story changed or deepened after seeing this painful photograph.
  • Most white Americans did not see Emmett Till’s body until the documentary Eyes on the Prize aired on national television in 1987. If you feel it is appropriate, show the section on Emmett Till part (Episode One, minutes 10:26-24:30, available for free through Facing History and Ourselves) and ask students to consider why this documentary was important and how Black Americans might have reacted to the shock white Americans faced over 30 years after Jet magazine published the same images. (PLEASE NOTE: The suggested clip includes graphic and disturbing images and potentially triggering information. We recommend viewing the entire clip before determining whether it is appropriate for your students.)
  • In 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture opened with a permanent display space for Emmett’s casket. It was the first time the casket was displayed since Emmett’s funeral in 1955. Invite students to research this topic. How did the museum acquire the casket? Why did they want to put it on view? What does this tell students about the importance of history and commemoration? How does Mamie’s life factor into all of this.
  • Mamie is just one of countless Black mothers who have lost their children to lynching and racial violence in the United States. Invite students to research other mothers who have faced similar tragedies, including Valerie Bell (mother of Sean Bell), Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin), Gwen Carr (mother of Eric Garner), Tanika Palmer (mother of Breonna Taylor), and many more.
  • Mamie’s life speaks to the particular challenge Black mothers face in raising children under the threat of racial violence and white supremacy. Explore the lived experience of Black mothers in the 20th century by connecting Mamie’s life story to a photograph of the Atlanta Neighborhood Union, an article about Black suffrage that discusses juvenile justice reform, and the Panther Sister document that includes an image of a militant Black mother.



Source Notes