Born in Mississippi, Till-Mobley moved with her parents to the Chicago area during the Great Migration. After her son's murder she became an educator and civil rights activist.
Born Mamie Elizabeth Carthan on November 23, 1921, in Webb, Mississippi, Mamie and her brother John along with her parents, Nash Carthan and Alma Carthan decided to leave the South. In 1922 her father moved to Argo, Illinois, near Chicago, shortly after her birth. In Argo, a small industrial town, he found work at the Argo Corn Products Refining Company. Alma Carthan joined her husband in January 1924, bringing two-year-old Mamie with her. They settled in a predominantly black and close-knit neighborhood in Argo. When Mamie was 13, her parents divorced. Devastated, she threw herself into her school work and excelled in her studies. Alma had high hopes for her only child, and although Alma Carthan said that in her day "the girls had one ambition -- to get married", she had encouraged Mamie in her studies. Even though very few of Mamie's peers even finished high school, Mamie was the first black student to make the "A" Honor roll and only the fourth black student to graduate from the predominantly white Argo Community High School.
Aged 18, she met a young man from New Madrid, Missouri named Louis Till. He worked at the Argo Corn Company, was an amateur boxer, and was popular with women. Her parents disapproved, thinking the charismatic Till was "too sophisticated" for their daughter. At her mother's insistence, she broke off their courtship. But the persistent Till won out, and they married on October 14, 1940. Both were 18 years old. Their only child, Emmett Louis Till, was born 9 months later. They separated in 1942 after Mamie found out he had been unfaithful, and later choked her to unconsciousness, to which she responded by throwing scalding water at him. Eventually, she obtained a restraining order against him. After violating this repeatedly, a judge forced him to choose between enlistment in the U.S. Army or facing jail time. Choosing the former, he joined the Army in 1943.
In 1945, Mamie received notice from the Department of Defense informing her, without a full explanation, that her husband had been killed during army service in Italy. She later said that she was only told that his death was due to "willful misconduct" and noted that bureaucracy had frustrated her attempts to learn anything more. In fact, Louis Till had been court-martialed on charges of the murder of an Italian woman and the rape of two others in Civitavecchia, in Italy. After a lengthy investigation, he was convicted and was executed by hanging near Pisa on July 2, 1945. But the details of Till's execution only fully emerged ten years later, after the murder of his son Emmett and the subsequent trial for that crime. By the early 1950s, Mamie and Emmett had moved to Chicago's South Side. Mamie met and married "Pink" Bradley, but they divorced two years later.
In 1955, when Emmett was fourteen, his mother put him on the train to spend the summer visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi. She never saw him alive again. Her son was abducted and brutally murdered on August 28, 1955, after being accused of interacting inappropriately with a white woman. The following month, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam faced trial for Till's kidnapping and murder but were acquitted by the all-white jury after a five-day trial and a 67-minute deliberation. One juror said, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long." Only months later, in an interview with Look magazine in 1956, protected against double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam admitted to killing Emmett Till.
For her son's funeral, Till insisted that the coffin containing his body be left open, because, in her words, "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby." Tens of thousands of people viewed Emmett's body, and photographs were circulated around the country. Through the constant attention it received, the Till case became emblematic of the disparity of justice for blacks in the South. The NAACP asked Mamie Till to tour the country relating the events of her son's life, death, and the trial of his murderers. It was one of the most successful fundraising campaigns the NAACP had ever known.
Mamie Till graduated from Chicago Teachers.College in 1960 (now Chicago State University, 1971). She remarried one last time, to Gene Mobley on June 24, 1957. She became a teacher, changed her surname to Till-Mobley, and continued her life as an activist working to educate people about what happened to her son. In 1976, she obtained a master's degree in administration at Loyola University Chicago. In 1992, Mamie Till-Mobley had the opportunity to listen while Roy Bryant was interviewed about his involvement in her son's murder. With Bryant unaware that Till-Mobley was listening, he asserted that Emmett Till had ruined his life. He expressed no remorse and stated, "Emmett Till is dead. I don't know why he can't just stay dead." Two years later, in 1994, Roy Bryant died of cancer, aged 63. Mamie and Gene Mobley were happily married until Gene's death from a stroke on March 18, 1999. Mamie Till-Mobley died of heart failure in 2003, aged 81. The same year, her autobiography (written with Christoper Benson), Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, was published.
Mamie's activism extended far beyond what she did in regards to her son's death. However, since her son's death became symbolic for many of the lynchings going on in the South during the mid-1950s, some history books only reference her in relation to him. Following Emmett's death she continued working as an activist.
A large part of her work centered around education. She worked throughout her life to help children living in poverty. Her activism in this field alone lasted over 40 years. Specifically, she spent 23 years teaching in the Chicago public school system. She also established a group called “The Emmett Till Players,” which worked with school children outside of the classroom. The members learned and performed famous speeches by civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.. The group still performs to this day. She also spent a great deal of time contributing to knowledge production. She was frequently interviewed for documentary films and began working on a book which was later published after she died.
Additionally, she was a very sought-after speaker. Mamie began holding speaking engagements soon after Emmett died. The NAACP even hired her to go on a speaking tour around the country and share what happened to Emmett to "overflowing crowds", making it one of the most successful fundraising tours in NAACP history. Despite the tour being a huge success, Mamie, and the NAACP quickly ended it due to a business dispute with executive secretary Roy Wilkins of the NAACP over payment for her being on tour. Even without the support of the NAACP, Mamie continued to be an influential speaker throughout her entire life. Mamie did speaking engagements as late as 2000.
She flew down to the South and gave testimony at her son's murder trial on his behalf. At the time the case was prominent news and she utilized that publicity to speak about the violence of lynching. Ever since Emmett's death she had a close relationship with many African-American media outlets. These media organizations were relatively new at the time of Emmett's murder yet she was able to enlist their support in her cause.
An important fixture of Mamie's activism was religion as she was a deeply religious person. Throughout her life she drew connections between what happened to Emmett and what happened to Christ. These connections helped to establish Emmett as a martyr figure.
Mamie was able to use her role as a mother to relate to other people, and gain support for her cause of racial justice. A few years after Emmett's death, many female activists united around motherhood and defending children in a similar fashion. Women uniting around motherhood became a unifying force for other social movements like the Women's Movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
Mamie Till coauthored with Christopher Benson her memoir Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, published by Random House in 2003, almost 50 years after the death of her son. Mamie Till's inspiration to write Death of Innocence came from the love for her son Emmett Till, the importance to herself to keep his story alive so that it could never happen again, and to bring to light just how racist white southerners were during those crucial times during the civil rights movement. She passed away just a few months before the final publication and release of her book.
Whoopi Goldberg announced in 2015 plans for a movie called Till, based on Mamie Till's book and her play, The Face of Emmett Till.