As Mother’s Day approaches, NCRP’s Suhasini Yeeda reflects on the heroism of Mamie Till-Mobley and asks how are we honoring the sacrifices of leaders like her?
The recent passing of Carolyn Bryant Donham had many in this country angrily recount the denied justice in the racist murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. It also inspired many to reflect on the heroism of his mother.
Yet the truth is that Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley’s leadership deserves to be discussed year-round. It’s not just because of the way her response helped galvanize others during the civil rights movement. It’s also because any discussion of her resiliency and achievements through trauma should also bring to light what so many Black mothers are facing, especially those on the frontlines of the movement.
This Mother’s Day, I want to hold a special space for those mothers, who are entrusted with the echoing cries of their children while facing unremitting disparity in justice. In 2020, George Floyd cried out to his momma. In 2023, Tyre Nichols’ dying words were, ‘Mom, mom, mom.’
It is often left to the mothers of those who fall under injustice to carry out the mission of resetting the scales so that no parent has to face what they have gone through.
They often do it so well. But who is crying – and looking out for them?
“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”
It was Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley’s decision to hold an open casket so that the world could see up close what hatred could do to a child. Yes, I imagine, she would always hold dear the photo of her son during the holidays, the Christmas portrait with Emmett wearing his hat, tie, white oxford shirt, and a smile.
But for the world to be shamed into action, they needed to see what the mere accusation of a Black boy whistling at a white woman could to a child in the Jim Crow South. The nation needed photographer David Jackson and Jet magazine to publish his face mutilated and unrecognizable.
After Emmett’s death, Mamie became a spokesperson and activist using her lived experience and pain to garner attention and support for racial justice. A talented public speaker, Mamie was hired by the NAACP to tour the country sharing her story. It was said that “her pain united a nation,” but it also inspired people to empty out their wallets, providing important resources to the NAACP and the movement. This became one of the most successful fundraising tours in NAACP history.
Unsurprisingly, Mamie’s activism continued beyond Emmett’s story. She focused on education working in the Chicago Public School system for over forty years and even started her own touring theatre group, “The Emmett Till Players.” Mamie hoped by performing the speeches of famous civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., her students and the attending audiences would learn and understand the sacrifices these leaders who came before them made so they could have freedom and opportunity.
Through it all, she earned a degree from Chicago Teachers College and a master’s degree in educational administration from Loyola University Chicago. She also co-authored a memoir, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America.
Yet, before spurring a nationwide moment for civil rights, Mamie’s life was like so many people’s today. Her parents settled new in Chicago, part of the hundreds of thousands of Black Americans who moved from the South to the North in The Great Migration. She was a high-achieving student in a community that did always see her as belonging, the first African American to make the A Honor Roll at her predominantly white high school, Argo Community High. She was a young mother, a survivor of domestic abuse, and someone whose life had been impacted by the violence she saw and experienced.
Even with all those experiences, she never intended to be an activist or in the media spotlight. As once shared at a rally in Cleveland, Ohio, Mamie thought that what was on the news was someone else’s issue. Until it wasn’t.
“Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago . . . .I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to Negroes in the South, I said: ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ . . . Now I know how wrong I was.
At a time where censorship is being placed on the civil rights movement, queer and trans history, the history of Black and White Americans, the history of abuse and power by law enforcement and this history is being pulled from public school classrooms, how would it look if we all remembered Mamie Till-Mobley’s lesson?
The Constant Pressure of Violence on Black Motherhood
While there have been countless advances in the last sixty years, the obstacles, dangers, and pressures on women – especially Black women, have only grown since the civil rights movement. Our criminal justice system is increasingly targeting Black women and women of color all while putting a tremendous burden on them to live up to the heroism that women like Mamie exemplify. It is not fair to ask this of any person, particularly the one that is experiencing alarming levels of harm and control.
Those dangers can arise in the most common or unlikeliest of places. In my hometown of Dallas, Texas this spring, life quickly unraveled for Temecia and Rodney Jackson soon after carrying out a successful home birth with the support of their midwife, Cheryl Edinbyr. A newborn checkup discovered that newborn Mila Jackson had jaundice leading Dr. Anand Bhatt to encourage the Jacksons to bring Mila to the hospital for treatment.
However, those instructions contradicted the advice of their midwife. When interviewed by CBS News, Midwife Edinbyr explained that while the bilirubin levels related to the jaundice were high, they were not critical. She provided a blanket and goggles to provide light therapy, an option of treatment as well as an enhanced nutrition plan.
Nonetheless, Dr. Bhatt called Child Protect Services on the couple. They arrested the father, Rodney, took his house keys, and then entered their home to take Mila away.
“This baby, who was born to a family who invested their money and their time into hiring a licensed midwife to have a legal and safe home birth in a state where home birth is legal — they are being punished because this family chose to act on their rights and use their midwife to continue their baby’s health care,” Qiana Lewis-Arnold, birth justice associate with the Afiya Center, said Thursday.
These realities speak to the struggle that Black mothers face when engaging in the health care system. Many Black doulas go into Birth Justice work to provide the kind of help and advocacy that they didn’t get in their own pregnancies. Their personal journeys often augment their professional skills as they learn to serve other couples. Yet, no amount of education can prepare them for the systematic ways that Black knowledge is devalued and criminalized by many local health, hospital and child welfare agencies.
This is the part of the reproductive justice movement that often gets lost in the binary focus of the media spotlight. Fighting — and funding — full bodily autonomy does not only mean ensuring on demand abortions for all. It also means supporting any person’s decision to provide their family with the healthcare they feel best fit for their children after they are born.
All people should be able to choose when, how, and if they become pregnant. Yet why does justice end there. Shouldn’t our dedication to justice extend beyond the early stages of crawling, teething and motor skills?
That is why the work being done in this country by midwives, doulas, and lactation consultants, is such a crucial element in bringing about a safe, equitable and just world. If we recognize that some of the very first individual and systematic threats to Black life start in the womb, then funding the various tiers of birth justice work more often and more directly can move us closer to the outcomes and opportunities we all deserve.
Building on Legacies of Love Towards Healthier Change
Nearly 70 years after Emmett Till’s death and 125 miles north of Money, Mississippi, America once again was faced with another unbearable imagery of unjustified violence in the beating death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols by police in Memphis, Tennessee.
For many, the two weeks of protests amid the onslaught of viral body cam images of Memphis police’s punishment for “allegedly driving recklessly“ should be shocking leaders, legislators and other policymakers into action. But we also live in a different world — when graphic images of Black and brown pain going viral has become so common.
That’s why some activists and organizers in the Movement for Black Lives movement chose instead to share a photo of Tyre with a red backwards baseball cap, earrings, and a smile. Others chose to share his photography, while still others shared images of Tyre skateboarding. Amidst all the pain, they wanted to hold space for Tyre’s best moments, not just his last one.
The realities of today’s traditional and social media world only make the importance – really, the necessity — of funders who are actively funding change campaigns to funding spaces for both Black joy and Black pain. If our ultimate goal is the kind of Black liberation that frees us all from the shackles of exploitation and white supremacy, then safeguarding the mental health of those doing the work must be prioritize as much as the messages that we depend on to influence conversations and policymakers.
That vision of liberation includes doing more than just checking in on abortion workers and doulas on the frontlines of the Reproductive Justice Movement. Let’s provide them with resources necessary to managing the trauma that undoubtably fuels much of their work. Let’s value their full personhood by making their daily sacrifices acts of love rather than requirements for our own survival.
This Mother’s Day, lets honor the mothers that have transitioned, the current ones on the frontlines, and all future caregivers by providing a safer and more equitable world for them and their children to be born into and to live in. Let’s follow through on Mamie’s wish that we all commit to not turning our eyes – or hearts – away until we have achieved liberation for all.
Suhasini Yeeda is the Communications and Marketing Associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.