In honor of Mamie Till-Mobley’s birthday this week — Nov. 23, 1921 — here’s a look back at the activist’s role in the murder trial of her son, Emmett Till.
As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:
No one expected Mamie Till-Mobley (Bradley at the time) to testify at her son’s murder trial. But who could identify the body better than the boy’s mother?
“In a dramatic appearance on the witness stand earlier Thursday,” reporter Baker Marsh for the Chicago Daily News wrote on Sept. 22, 1955, from Sumner, Mississippi, “Till’s mother, Mrs. Mamie Bradley of Chicago, positively identified the body taken from the river as that of her son.”
On Aug. 31, authorities found Till’s mutilated body in the Tallahatchie River near Drew, Mississippi, where Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam dumped it after they lynched the 14-year-old Black boy. Till, who lived with his mother on the South Side, allegedly “whistled” at Bryant’s wife while visiting relatives in the state. The incident led to the teen’s death.
After the boy’s body was found, his mother, who was born this week on Nov. 23, 1921, became his biggest advocate. She insisted the body would be returned to Chicago for a proper funeral and burial, and she left his casket open so the country could see what had happened to her son. Finally, she came down to Mississippi to identify her son’s body during Bryant and Milam’s murder trial.
On the stand, Bradley told jurors her son had “never been in trouble in Chicago,” Marsh wrote, but she warned him how to act in the South “based on her own knowledge of the segregated way of life practiced in Mississippi.”
“She said she did tell the boy that he must always say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ and must be careful how he walked down the street; that he should be ‘humble’ and not get in fights with white boys,” he reported.
On cross-examination, Till’s mother never faltered in her identification of the body, the reporter said. When it arrived in Chicago, she studied “the hairline, nose, lips chin — there is not a shadow of a doubt.” She also pointed to the ring found on the body, the one Till had been wearing when he left Chicago. It belonged to his father, who was killed while serving in the military during World War II, and was engraved with his father’s initials.
The next day during closing statements, district attorney Gerald Chatham called Bradley the “God’s given witness” to identify the mutilated body.
“If you were going to get a body identified, you wouldn’t go to a doctor or an embalmer who didn’t know the person, but to his mother,” Chatham told the jury, according to Marsh.
For all of Bradley’s bravery, the jury did not convict either man. According to a Sept. 24 article, Till’s mother refused to stay in Mississippi to hear the verdict.
“I expected it,” she told an unnamed reporter back in Chicago. “I knew it was going to happen.”
She added: “I was sure enough of the verdict to get out of there before it came out.”
She heard of the acquittal on a car radio.