More than sixty years ago, Mamie Till-Mobley made the bold choice to have an open-casket funeral for her 14-year-old son. His body was unrecognizable after being beaten, lynched and thrown in a river. Years later, Emmett Till’s name remains in the news. Recently, people carrying a white nationalist flag were recorded on security cameras trying to film in front of a new memorial erected in Till's honor. As MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports, continued activism by Till’s family continues decades later.
It’s a Saturday morning and about a hundred people are gathered at Graball Landing in Tallahatchie Country for the unveiling of a new sign dedicated to Emmett Till.
Individuals from around the state and country listen to Till’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, give a speech.
“We’re here because of Emmett Till,” Parker says to a crowd gathered on the side of the road of the Mississippi Delta. “We all have purposes, but where there’s progress and success, somebody always plays a price. Some pay a greater price than others."
Ollie Gordon (L) and Wheeler Parker at Graball Landing. Parker was there the night Till was kidnapped and murdered.
Parker is not the only Till relative in attendance. Till’s cousins, Ollie Gordon and her daughter Airickca Gordon-Taylor, also give speeches as his cousin, Deborah Watts, sits in the audience.
Till’s name resonates years after his untimely death — from the news of his case being reopened to the various acts of vandalism done to previous signs. And this summer, a photo went viral of three people standing with weapons in front of the previous bullet-ridden sign.
“I wasn't so much angry as I was hurt," Airickca Gordon-Taylor said when she saw the photo. “But my first thought was, what was their logic behind it? What made them feel like, ‘Oh, this is what we want to do. This is something we need to do…’
Ten years ago, Gordon-Taylor and her mother started the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation in memory of Till’s mother. The organization states by “remembering the past while educating the future,” individuals can learn about Till’s legacy.
Today, both are wearing pink shirts that read “Lynching Still Exists."
Airickca Gordon-Taylor's foundation is named after Till's mother and continues to advocate for social justice issues.
“Lynching just doesn’t come by form of hanging. A lot of our children are being lynched daily [and] weekly across the country. Whether it’s through police violence or gun violence, we are losing our babies,” Gordon-Taylor said.
Another Till relative, Priscilla Sterling, sits in the audience wearing a shirt that reads “A Mother’s Love Never Dies.” Sterling is part of The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, which works to fight violence and provide educational assistance.
The family wants to keep Till’s story alive, to encourage others to speak out about current injustices.
“I experienced a racial ordeal, and it made me talk to Mamie,” Sterling said, as she stood near the river where Till’s body was found. “I asked her a question about, ‘Out of all the years of being around, Mamie…’ how did she deal with racism? How? And she just told me I need to be a warrior, I need to be able to hold up.”
Priscilla Sterling holds a sign reading "Never Again."
Till-Mobley’s name and memory come up multiple times today. After her son’s death, Till-Mobley became a teacher in Chicago and continued advocating for the Civil Rights Movement her son’s murder and her activism inspired.
"No matter how small it might seem. I want to keep making a difference,” Till-Mobley wrote in her posthumously published book, “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America."
One of the ways Till-Mobley made a difference was by educating children. “I have left something of myself in all the children I have touched,” she wrote.
“When Emmett was murdered, young people got involved in the movement,” Gordon-Taylor said. “When Trayvon Martin was murdered, young people got up and all across the nation, you had marches and the young people out and about calling for justice, because they felt that that was someone else that they could identify with what happened to Trayvon, you know, as a kid like them.”
Teaching younger people about Till has also evolved in recent years, according to Patrick Weems of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Mississippi.
“For the most part, this story was told in households, especially within the black community of parents and family members telling their children [about] Emmett Till almost as a warning story — don’t act up or this is what happens," Weems said.
"I pledge to NEVER AGAIN allow the ugly parts of our past history, to become the present..."
Deborah Watts holds a sign with a pledge from the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation.
The center also includes a museum. Walking through the building, you can readsuperimposed press coverage from the 1950s and see one of the previous bullet-ridden signs. If you look out the front window, you can see the courthouse where Till’s murderers were found not guilty by an all-white jury.
“Every time we see a racially sensitive act, whether it be somebody being shot and killed or whether it be the vandalism of a Civil Rights marker,” Weems said in the courthouse.
Weeks after the unveiling, a group of white supremacists were seen filming at the site of the new sign. They were later scared away by an alarm.
“Emmett Till gives us context that this behavior doesn’t happen out of random. This is a deliberate part of our past and unless we understand our past, we’re going to continue to repeat it.”
"No matter how small it might seem. I want to keep making a difference."
Mamie Till-Mobley continued to make sure her son was remembered in the years following his death. Till-Mobley remained active in the Civil Rights Movement.
The courthouse has been restored to how it looked in the 1950s. Dave Tell, a University of Kansas communications professor who wrote the book, “Remembering Emmett Till” is showing an app he developed to a husband and wife from Chicago who both knew Mamie Till Mobley later in life.
Tell’s app is part of the Emmett Till Memory Project. It is a guide to Till-related locations across the Mississippi Delta.
“Till’s story is not a story of 1955, it’s a story that started in 1955 and is now 64 years old and growing,” Tell said.
Till-Mobley passed away in 2003, but she worked until her last days on behalf of her son.
“She went to dialysis the day she died, and she was to leave dialysis and get on a plane…still fighting on the battleground to get some closure [and] some justice for the lynching of her son,” Till’s cousin Ollie Gordon said in a speech.
Although this event has brought people here today, the family has been active since 1955.
“That’s what his mother wanted,” Gordon-Taylor said. “She wanted the Till name to ring for all eternity. She didn’t want anybody to forget what happened to her son in Mississippi. Emmett was an only child, she was an only child, and we’re all cousins. It’s up to our children and their children to keep the legacy alive in our family.”
Emmett Till’s memory lived on through his mother. And now, his memory and her persistence live on generations later.