What Emmett Till's Mother Taught Me About Grief and Justice
Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of lynched teenager Emmett Till, delivers a speech, Baltimore, Md. in 1955. Credit - Getty Images
On Feb. 26, 2012, my entire life changed in ways that I could never imagine. Within an instant, after the brutal and inhumane killing of my son, Trayvon Martin, I found myself inducted into a circle I never knew existed—I became a “Mother of the Movement.”
It is quite hard to describe what it is like to be a part of this circle, of which none of us chose or ever imagined being a member. On one hand, there is a sense of honor to stand with such brave women, who despite facing the deepest pain and most grave injustices, choose to speak truth to power. On the other hand, we are all tied to each other because we have experienced a pain that is unlike any other—the pain of losing a child to racism, hate, and police violence. We go through these harrowing experiences as the world watches and judges, creating narratives of who our children were that are often unfamiliar to us.
Today, there are hundreds of mothers in our circle, and sadly, each year the numbers grow. When a mother is tragically forced into our community, we do not prescribe to her how she should feel or act. There is no instruction manual or resource guide on how a Black mother should grieve after losing a child to racism.
But there is one mother who I, and so many in our circle, identify with and seek guidance and inspiration from: the original “Mother of the Movement,” Mamie Till-Mobley.
Till-Mobley personified strength and action after the murder of her son, Emmett. I’ve learned so much in following her story, which is now beautifully depicted in the film TILL. I find myself reliving both my strength and my pain. I’m transported back to the day that I, much like her, questioned everything around me—when all went silent in my world as if I was living in a bad dream.
Read More: Till Arrives at a Moment When Emmett Till’s Story Seems to Be Everywhere. There’s a Reason Why
I remember the pain of reality setting in and the confirmation that I was not in a bad dream, but indeed the unthinkable had happened: My child had been shot and killed at the hands of someone who did so with hate and racism at the core of his motives. Through her story, I’m thrusted back to reliving the painful steps that one must take after the death of a loved one—planning arrangements, holding on to precious memories, and even providing strength to my family—all while processing why and how this happened to my child and family.
But equally as I recall my pain, Till-Mobley’s story also reminds me of my strength. I remember the moment that I decided that I would fight for justice for Trayvon. I remember my resolve to not shrink but to choose to stand in my power. I recall the times when I found the strength to lead a march, speak at a rally, or call another grieving mother to help ease her pain. It was, indeed, my strength that fueled my power.
The legacy of Mamie Till-Mobley reminds me that, although “Mothers of the Movement” never desire to be in the situations in which we find ourselves, we all similarly share a deep obligation to fight for justice—justice not only for our children, but for others as well, so that no mother would ever join our precarious circle.
Till-Mobley, through her power and actions, sets a powerful example in how to turn pain into power. Her decision to “show the world” the brutality of Emmett Till’s murder not only sparked a movement for civil rights, but also forever changed how images, however painful and graphic, can be a catalyst for change.
Equally, her determination to ensure that the world embraced the humanity of her child remains a constant reminder that we must always fight against the character assassination that is often hurled against victims of hate crimes and police violence.
Till-Mobley’s resolve to ensure that the world faced racism and hate directly in its face is a powerful lesson that still rings true today. We must never look away no matter how gruesome or how hard the fight is before us. We must continue to shed a light on racism and police violence. We must continue to fight for laws and policies aimed at ending hate crimes and police violence. We must vote to ensure that those elected into office protect our communities and not put them in harm’s way. And we must always protect the legacy and boldly say the names of our loved ones who have been taken from us because of racism, hate, and violence.
There is much for us all—not only us “Mothers of the Movement”—to learn from Mamie Till-Mobley’s story. Her unwavering commitment to speak truth to power should inspire everyone.
But particularly for Black mothers who’ve lost children to racial violence, her legacy helps us understand that one of the greatest showings of our love has always been our will to fight.