THE BLOG

Mother of a Martyr: What I Learned From Mamie Till Mobley

07/17/2013 05:16 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2013

I had the incredible privilege, as a young reporter, to interview Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till.

My story, the story, of course, was about the incredible courage and strength she showed in forcing the world to acknowledge what had been done to her son. After his death, she insisted that his lynched, brutalized body be put on display in his hometown of Chicago and, with this singular act of defiance, she convicted the entire state of Mississippi -- the whole pre-Civil Rights American South, really -- of crimes against humanity.

It was a mystery to me that Mrs. Mobley, a tiny woman with a soft voice, found in herself the ability to do something so bold, so transcendent from her grief.

As a mother of sons now myself, I understand her decision a bit more. You give your baby life and, should the unthinkable happen, should he be taken from you, you find a way to give him another life. She made him a martyr. He became a kind of icon and, in that way, transcended death. She brought him back, as best she could, even if it was as a vessel into which others could pour their frustrations and outrage.

As I think about it now, though, there is another mystery, one I never had the chance to ask her about. The decision of hers that I'd really like to understand is how she found the courage to send her son down to Mississippi in the first place.

Bo Till, as he was called, had begged to go. That's what his mother told everyone. He loved his Mississippi cousins, after all, and loved his hot, barefoot summers with them, loved the air and space around him there, so different from the urban confines of Chicago, where everything was paved and crowded. And he loved that he was their city slicker relative. He loved fine clothes (which his mother loved to buy him) and smart talk. He loved beating them at checkers.

He was a good boy, let's be clear, and, even if he wasn't an angel, he was still only 14. A child.

And yet.

She knew Mississippi. She'd grown up there. She knew there were folks there, even the tiny town he'd be visiting, who were, as she put it, "death on black people."

She had to have known that there was some chance her son might find himself in trouble. It must have occurred to her, in the same way, I know, that it occurs everyday to the parents of young black men, even now.

Did she have some version of "the talk" with him? Tell him to keep his down and call everyone "sir"? Did she inform him of the very really possibility that the police could not be trusted?

I think she did. She alluded, when we spoke, to the sense of foreboding she had when she put him on the train.

When I think back on it now, that was the singular moment of courage in Mamie Till Mobley's life. She let him go.

She did not say that things were too tense down south, right then. She did not say that it might not be safe for her son, with his Chicago manners and his only-child penchant for showing off, to be in Mississippi that summer. She did not say that he had to stay only where she could see him.

He wanted to go and she let him.

How simple an act that is and, yet, how remarkable it seems to me now, as I fret over the safety of my kids' schools and the parks where they play. The temptation to hold them close is nearly overwhelming.

But as dangerous a world as we are living in -- and the epidemic of violence in Chicago's streets is real, just as lynchings were real -- it is still vital that we do actually live in it, that we do not allow ourselves to become prisoners of all the horrible things that could happen.

We must make the world safe for our boys, rather than fencing them in, in an attempt to keep them safe from the world.

We remember Emmett Till, as, I suspect, we will one day remember Trayvon Martin: as figures within tragedies. But we should remember them, too, as what they actually were: just boys, out walking in the fresh, evening air.