Michelle Obama reflects on the Chicago politics that paved the way for Mamie Till-Mobley’s struggle for justice
Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, wrote in her memoir, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, that she had heard that more than 200,000 blacks, including hers, were part of the Great Migration own family. She went on to describe her mother’s home as “Ellis Island of Chicago” for Mississippi blacks.
“Emmett’s grandmother, Alma Spearman, was instrumental in moving many of our family members from the south to the Chicago area,” Ollie Gordon, one of Till’s cousins, told ABC News.
Those roots – and how her background made Mamie Till-Mobley a civil rights icon as a young single mother – are explored in the first episode of the three-part documentary series “Let the World See,” which explores the effects of Till-Mobley battling her son after Bring back Chicago and seek justice for his murder. The weekly episodes begin on Thursday, January 6th.
Mamie Till-Mobley’s extended family in a photo from 1932. Till-Mobley on the far left in the first row.
Like Till-Mobley, former first lady Michelle Obama was a child of the Great Migration.
“For me, on both my mother’s and my father’s side, the people came from the south,” she said in an interview for “Let the World See”. “They moved, like most southern blacks – for opportunity and security reasons.”
The former first lady spoke about her experience in Chicago.
“My family at the time was like most black families – we all lived around each other,” added Obama. “On my father’s side we lived with one of my great aunts, my grandfather’s sister. So we lived in a block, and my maternal grandmother lived around the corner with another sister, and my maternal grandfather lived around the corner from them.”
“There was a freedom and an openness and just kind of a sense of community that we were all trying to reproduce in Chicago, but when you were in the south you understood it was all coming,” she added.
Emmett Till, who grew up in these familiar surroundings in Chicago, was murdered in 1955 at the age of 14 while visiting family in Mississippi. He was accused of being Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who later remarried and is now known as Carolyn Bryant Donham.
Till was abducted and his severely beaten body was found in the Tallahatchie River, with a cotton gin fan around his neck to weigh him down. Bryant’s then-husband Roy Bryant and half-brother JW Milam were charged with Till’s murder but acquitted by an all-white jury.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaks for the ABC documentary series “Let the World See”.
After being notified that her son had been kidnapped, Till-Mobley relied on Chicago’s black political infrastructure. She contacted newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Chicago Tribune to initiate a search for her son, and a politically connected relative even caught up with officials like Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
“Politics was something that everyone was concerned with. Chicago was a political animal. It was a force,” Obama said of the atmosphere at the time. “Your city council represented your neighborhood – that represented you on the city council. So you knew who your councilor was. “
“It was one of my first direct experiences with politics because my father was a district captain and that meant he was working for a councilor in a community,” she added.
According to Ethan Michaeli, author of The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, Till-Mobley likely had a similar experience: “Mamie would have grown up in a community where she knew who the station manager was.”
After Till-Mobley discovered that their son had been killed, Till-Mobley pushed for his body to be returned to Chicago, despite a Mississippi sheriff ordering Till’s body to be buried immediately in that state.
Till’s body finally arrived in Chicago, but his great-uncle had signed an agreement with the Mississippi authorities that the coffin would remain sealed. Till-Mobley requested that it be opened so the world can see her son being beaten before he was killed.
Images of Till’s funeral have shaken the nation and sparked a new phase in the civil rights movement.
ABC News’ Jeanmarie Condon, Fatima Curry and Jarret Scantlebury contributed to this report.