Feature Film Portrays the Important Role of Mamie Till-Mobley in Igniting the Mass Civil Rights Movement

Mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 defied the fear imposed by generations of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

Film: Till
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Producers: Keith Beauchamp, Barbara Broccoli, Whoopi Goldberg, Thomas Levine, Michael Reilly, Frederick Zollo
Writers: Chinonye Chukwu, Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp
Star Actors: Danielle Deadwyler (Mamie Till-Bradley), Jalyn Hall (Emmett Till), Whoopi Goldberg (Alma Carthan, grandmother of Emmett Till), John Douglas Thompson (Moses Wright, great uncle of Emmett Till)

This feature film was the second representation during 2022 of the August 1955 lynching of young Emmett Till.

Earlier in the year, a made for television movie entitled “Women in the Movement” covered similar subject matter in relations to the brutal murder of this African American youth which deeply shocked and enraged the entire community nationwide.

Chinonye Chukwu, a young filmmaker who was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria in West Africa, sets out to retell the Emmett Till story along with the circumstances which led to the launching of the mass Civil Rights Movement. Keith Beauchamp, one of the producers and co-writers, had already directed a documentary on the Emmett Till case released in 2005.

The focus of the movie rightfully chronicles the journey of Mamie Till-Mobley who lived and worked in Chicago when she responded to an invitation from her uncle, Moses Wright, a cotton farmer in the Mississippi Delta, to allow her only son to visit during harvesting season. Emmett’s father had been killed in the Second World War while serving in the racially segregated United States military in Europe.

Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall in Till movie, 2022
Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall in Till movie, 2022.

Chicago in 1955 was a focal point of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural, small town and urban South to the Midwest and other northern municipalities. Till, in one of the opening scenes, illustrates the racism prevalent in Chicago when at a department store, Emmett is stopped by a security guard inquiring why he was in the establishment.

Mamie’s love and concern for her son are highlighted in several scenes throughout the film. Emmett seemed to be a well-kept and affable young man growing up in this vast city where African Americans, although subjected to institutional racism and residential segregation, were able to develop their own small businesses, newspapers, churches and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The African American people in Chicago had been attracted to the city during the course of the 20th century seeking better employment, housing, education and freedom from constant harassment and premature death. Unfortunately, many of the same social problems which they experienced in states such as Mississippi, were indeed very much in evidence in the northern metropolitan areas.

Young Emmett Till had been raised in Chicago and was not fully aware of the racial mores of the Jim Crow South. After the Civil War, the African American people, having gained a political base within the Republican Party of the 1860s and 1870s, were elected to local, state and federal governing bodies. They were direct beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by African people during the resistance to slavery prior to 1865 and the victory of the Union military forces. Nearly 200,000 Africans served in the Union army as troops, intelligence operatives and laborers in areas where the U.S. forces were stationed. After the war at the aegis of the Radical Republicans within Congress, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were passed along with several Civil Rights Acts beginning in 1865-1866 and extending to 1875.

Nonetheless, the Reconstruction project was overthrown in the decades after 1877 when the federal government withdrew all support for universal suffrage and civil rights. Mississippi had a reputation as one of the most repressive and socially backward states in the South. Hundreds of African Americans were lynched in the state between 1870s and the 1950s when Till met his fate by at least two white men.

The notion of “protecting the sanctity of white womanhood” aptly described the basis upon which Till was kidnapped and lynched in 1955. He was accused by Carolyn Bryant, the wife of a white store owner Roy Bryant, where it appeared as if the majority of their business came from African American sharecroppers, of speaking inappropriately to a Caucasian woman. Till was kidnapped in the middle of the night by the store owner and his brother-in-law and was never seen alive again.

However, Till-Mobley refused to acquiesce to the attempted cover up of the murder of her son. She utilized the connections in the African American community with political officials through the NAACP and the Black press. When Till’s body was returned to Chicago, the mother insisted upon an open casket so the world could view how evil racist violence was in the U.S. These actions led by Emmett’s mother, the NAACP and numerous African American churches across the country set the stage for the emergence of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which began just three months later. After Montgomery, there was the emergence of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of local and national leaders who provided the catalyst for the popular struggles against all vestiges of Jim Crow.

Till Lynching Was Not an Isolated Incident

The most recent film does provide the historical context under which the national response to the Till murder took place. As referenced in the film, there were two other murders of civil rights leaders in Mississippi prior to the death of Till. Rev. George W. Lee, a leader within the Belzoni, Mississippi NAACP was ambushed after refusing to remove his name from a voter registration list in Humphreys County.

One source on the killing of Rev. Lee says:

“He was also the first African American to register to vote since Reconstruction in Humphreys County, where Black people were a majority of the population. In 1953, Lee and Gus Courts co-founded the Belzoni branch of the NAACP. As early as 1954, Rev. Lee was heavily involved in the local voter registration drives. Working alongside Courts, who was elected NAACP president, they successfully registered 92 new African American voters. Both Courts and Lee also ran small grocery stores.”

No one was ever arrested in the death of Lee. The local police described the death as being accidental.

Just three months later and only two weeks prior to the murder of Emmett Till, Lamar Smith, a farmer and member of the NAACP along with the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), was subjected to threats for his efforts aimed at registering African Americans to vote. The same source cited above pointed out that:

“On August 13, 1955, Lamar Smith, 63-year-old farmer and WWI veteran, was shot dead in cold blood on the crowded courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Mississippi, for urging African Americans to vote in a local run-off election. No one was prosecuted.

“Smith, a locally known voting rights advocate, had been threatened and warned to stop trying to register and organize African American voters in the community. These threats were realized when Smith was murdered on the courthouse lawn in front of dozens of witnesses, including Sheriff Robert E. Case, who permitted one of the alleged assailants to leave the crime scene covered in blood. Days later, that man and two others were arrested in connection with the shooting. All three suspects were white.

“In September 1955, a grand jury composed of 20 white men declined to indict the three suspects for murder after witnesses failed to come forward to testify.”

The RCNL was formed in 1951 by Dr. T.R.M Howard, a physician based in the all-African American town of Mound Bayou in the lower Delta. Howard was a key supporter of Mamie Till-Mobley and hosted her during the trial which acquitted the two white men that had murdered Emmett.

Gus Courts, a co-leader of the Belzoni NAACP at the time of the murder of George Lee, was shot and severely wounded in November 1955. He miraculously survived after being driven to a hospital that served African Americans. Understanding the threats to his life, Courts would move to Chicago in 1957.

Dr. Howard would also leave Mississippi several months after the trial of the two white men for the lynching of Emmett Till. Moving to Chicago, he remained active in politics and worked as a physician. During the mid-1960s, he was charged but never convicted of performing abortions, which were illegal at the time. Howard viewed reproductive rights as a component of the acquisition of civil rights.

This film features characters who portrayed other leading NAACP organizers such as Amzie Moore (Euseph Messiah), who served as president of the Cleveland, Mississippi chapter; Ruby Hurley (Princess Elmore), a regional coordinator for the organization based in Birmingham and later Atlanta; as well as Medgar Evers (Josin Cole) and his wife Myrlie Evers (Jayme Lawson), who served as the state field secretary.

Medgar Evers was later assassinated in June 1963 outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. It would take many years for his killer to be convicted of murder.

Justice Has Never Been Achieved for the Family of Emmett Till

Mamie Till-Mobley died in 2003 while still living in Chicago. She had become an educator and continued to speak out in documentary films about the murder of her son.

Members of the family of Emmett Till are demanding that the State of Mississippi reopen an investigation in light of the fact that Carolyn Bryant is still alive. The state and federal governments had launched an inquiry in the early 2000s and subsequently closed the investigations saying there was no new evidence.

The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill was finally adopted by Congress in March 2022 making such extrajudicial killings a federal crime. This was the only anti-lynching bill passed by Congress since the first attempts were made during the late 19th century.

A monument to Till in Money, Mississippi where the initial incident at the grocery store took place, has been vandalized on many occasions. Another monument was recently inaugurated in Greenwood, some 40 miles from where the actual lynching occurred. It is a 9-foot bronze statue in the likeness of Till that is located at Rail Pike Park downtown.

However, the irony of the anti-lynching bill and the monuments is that the racist violence in which Till was the victim continues in 21st century. It will take a revolutionary movement to overthrow institutional racism and national oppression in order to win justice and end lynching in the U.S.

Emmett Till statue in Greenwood opened in Oct. 2022
Emmett Till statue in Greenwood opened in Oct. 2022.

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