Black Motherhood in the Cause for Civil Rights

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund's victory in Brown v. Board of Education was a national, public expression of grassroots movements throughout the South for the cause of Black civil rights. Brown served as a catalyst to inspire those standing in resistance to Jim Crow throughout the American South to continue. Fresh from the win, the NAACP urged its southern members to push for desegregation locally. Segregation was no more deeply entrenched in the South than in Mississippi. When the Mississippi Statehouse convened in November of 1954, it resolved to actively block school desegregation. To ensure its intention, White men formed Citizens' Councils to organize their extrajudicial violence against the Black population who called it to account. Between July 1954 and October 1954, the number of Citizens' Councils grew to twenty. In his December 1954 field report, the young NAACP assistant field secretary Medgar Evers noted that among the top racial issues facing the state of Mississippi was the continued growth of Citizens' Councils. Evers explained that these Councils were known as the " uptown' Ku Klux Klan" because "[p]ossibly four (4) out of five (5) bank officials, presidents or vice, hold a key position in the Councils." The main goal of each Council was " Keeping the Negro in his place"' by blocking access to schools, the franchise, and otherwise assuring financial dependence. When Evers along with his wife, Myrlie, opened an NAACP field office in Jackson, Mississippi in 1955, a Citizens' Council was there to greet it. The NAACP would report that out of Mississippi's eighty-two counties, sixty-five had Citizens' Councils with a total estimated membership of 60,000 by August of the same year. It was on August 28, 1955 that fourteen-year old Emmett Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi for allegedly whistling at Mrs. Carolyn Bryant, a White woman.

At the time of Emmett's murder, Mamie Till Bradley was divorced; Emmett's father, Louis Till, had died just before Emmett had turned four. Employed and raising Emmett on her own, Ms. Bradley was the matriarch of a female-headed household; Emmett was the son "abandoned" by one father at death, the other by indifference. Her motherhood was that imagined by postemancipation courts and retold through the white gaze in the histories written about slave families in her era. However, pastor, activist, scholar, and father Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would speak differently about motherhood from his pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on the Mother's Day before Emmett's death. In his sermon, Crisis Facing Present-Day Family Life in America, King addressed the breakdown of the American family and offered the following solution to his Black congregants:

The first thing that can be done to restore the family to a harmonious unit is for each individual to respect the dignity and worth of every other individual in the family [.] The parents must respect each other, and the children must respect and be respected by the parents [.] Men must accept the fact that the day has passed when the man can stand over the wife with an iron rod asserting his authority as "boss[.]" This does not mean that women no longer respect masculinity, ie [sic], strong, dynamic manliness, women will always respect that [.] But it does mean that the day has passed when women will be trampled over and treated as some slave subject to the dictates of a despotic husband [.] One of the great contributions that Christianity has made to the world is that of lifting the status of womanhood from that of an insignificant child-bearer to a position of dignity and honor and respect [.] Women must be respected as human beings and not treated as mere means [.] Strictly speaking, there is no boss in the home; it is no lord-servant relationship [.] The family should be a cooperative enterprise [strikeout illegible] { where} all members are working together for a common goal[.

In contrast, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson's words to the overwhelmingly White, all-female audience of nascent college graduates at Smith College in May of 1955 gives a different account of the function of women as wives and mothers in a familial structure. He admonished:

I think there is much you can do about our crisis in the humble role of housewife. The peoples of the West are still struggling with the problems of a free society and just now are in dire trouble. For to create a free society is at all times a precarious and audacious experiment. Its bedrock is the concept of man as an end in himself. But violent pressures are constantly battering away at this concept, reducing man once again to subordinate status, limiting his range of choice, abrogating his responsibility and returning him to his primitive status of anonymity in the social group. I think you can be more helpful in identifying, isolating and combating these pressures, this virus, than you perhaps realize .... [The] typical Western man, or typical Western husband, operates well in the realm of means, as the Romans did before him. But outside his specialty, in the realm of ends, he is apt to operate poorly or not at all. ... And here's where you come in: to restore valid, meaningful purpose to life in your home .... You may be hitched to one of these creatures we call "Western man" and I think part of your job is to keep him Western, to keep him truly purposeful, to keep him whole.

In reinforcing the primacy of male headed households, Stevenson recounted:

I have just returned from sub-Sahara [sic] Africa where the illiteracy of the African mother is a formidable obstacle to the education and advancement of her child and where polygamy and female labor are still the dominant system. The point is that whether we talk of Africa, Islam or Asia, women "never had it so good" as you do. And in spite of the difficulties of domesticity, you have a way to participate actively in the crisis in addition to keeping yourself and those about you straight on the difference between means and ends, mind and spirit, reason and emotion ... In modern America the home is not the boundary of a woman's life. There are outside activities aplenty. But even more important is the fact, surely, that what you have learned and can learn will fit you for the primary task of making homes and whole human beings in whom the rational values of freedom, tolerance, charity and freeinquiry [sic] can take root.

The differences in the roles of women as wives and mothers in Black and White communities, as described by King and Stevenson, presented a problem for the leaders of the first movement for Black lives as they designed advocacy efforts to bring national attention to the plague of white supremacy and its ever present danger for Black people. King could speak about Black people to Black people in terms of loving admiration, but as Du Bois and Frazier's work on the Black family illustrate, these were not terms that White America believed or cared to understand. Black women had existed beyond the boundaries of the home as female heads of house. Due to discriminatory hiring practices, limited employment opportunities, and stilted educational access for Black men, her labor contribution to the household was its financial lifeblood. Thus, to make their efforts effective, civil rights leaders engaged in the tricky dance of making the problems of Black America relevant through the white gaze by presenting them in patriarchal terms. By doing so, they appealed to popular notions of the victimhood and heroism of Black women, while simultaneously underscoring both the pitfalls and importance of patriarchy.

It was from a space of both victimhood and heroism that Mamie Till Bradley was able to focus national attention on the peril that had befallen her son by accessing the narrative of the Black family as it existed in the White imagination. Mamie Till Bradley was a mother of a murdered child, and her grief over the loss of a child was a universal sentiment. In her words: "I set out to trade the blood of my child for the betterment of my race, and I do not now wish to deviate from such course." On September 3, with the national press and upwards of 50,000 people in attendance, Mamie Till Bradley stood by Emmett's open casket and showed the world her son's body as "an exhibition of human bestiality, brutality[,] and barbarism." In the September 15, 1955 issue of Jet Magazine that reported the lynching to a national Black community, pictures of Emmett both before and after the lynching were featured prominently. An enlarged photo of Till's distorted face was adorned with the caption: "Close-up of lynch victim bares mute evidence of horrible slaying. Chicago undertaker A. A. Raynor said youth had not been castrated as was rumored. Mutilated face of victim was left unretouched by mortician at mother's request. She said she wanted all the world' to witness the atrocity." She appealed to the nation as a mother, a mother who raised her son to "know his place" in the segregated South. As a mother the nation heard her, although the jurors in Emmett Till's murder trial clung to pathological Black motherhood instead of its political counterpart. As the French newspaper L'Aurore would report: "What could a Black mother say [in court] that would be of any value?"

The trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for Till's murder would begin on September 19 and end five days later in an acquittal. In the weeks and months after the trial, Mamie Till Bradley attended rallies, spoke at churches, and made appearances at the NAACP's behest; her speaking engagements were to raise money for the organization to fund its civil rights efforts. Accompanied by her father, John M. Carthan, her cousin, Raymond Mooty, and sponsored by the weight of an overwhelmingly male NAACP under the leadership of Roy Wilkins, Mamie Till regained at her son's death the patriarchal figures of "husband" and "father" that both were denied during his life. As Moses Lacy had done for Sarah Pope just after emancipation, these men gave Mamie Till Bradley the authority to speak as a mother on behalf of her child and those countless children bloodied by the relentless blows thrown by Jim Crow. Carthan and Mooty legitimated Emmett, and by extension them all.