‘Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See’

Installation view of “Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See” at the Spencer Museum of Art

Exhibit at the Spencer Museum revisits the murder and its aftermath

The murder of Emmett Till and its aftermath, a watershed moment in American history, is revisited in a moving, educational and hope-inspiring traveling exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art, “Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See.”

In recent years the light has been shed on Mamie Till-Mobley’s brave actions in the wake of her son’s murder — she insisted on an open casket so the world could see what was done to her son — and how those actions contributed to the civil rights movement. More attention is also being paid to the life of Emmett Till prior to his murder, introducing us to the bright, friendly 14-year-old whose life ended too soon.

“Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See,” made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Maddox Foundation, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the Historic Preservation Fund, is not just another restating of the tragic facts.

Here, we have the story of a young American mother and her son whose lives were thrust into the national spotlight and how that young mother’s protective nature led her to force the world to see what could happen to their children. Her bravery in her most vulnerable moment has inspired those who speak truth to power.

A section titled “Growing Up In Chicago” details Emmett’s early years. A highlighted text: “Fun-loving Emmett could barely wait for his Mississippi adventure,” is surrounded by photographs of a smiling Emmett and Mamie, quotes about Emmett’s childhood, and easy-to-read information boxes containing both well-known and not so well-known information.

A large purple sign marking the site where Emmett’s body was found is also included. Vandalized with four bullet holes in 2018, it replaced a sign riddled with dozens of bullet holes in 2016, which replaced the original marker after it was stolen. At first, a road sign among the exhibition’s plethora of photographs, videos and text seems out of place. However, it serves as a clarion call, reminding us that the same hateful forces that cost Emmett his life still exist in America.

There is some very strong imagery, both visual and literary, in the exhibition, which is recommended for ages 10 and up. The iconic photograph of Emmett in his casket is available for viewing by pulling out a display card. Graphic descriptions of racial violence, along with courtroom photographs of Till’s assailants celebrating their acquittal, are juxtaposed with images of his grieving family.

It is often said, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” This exhibition and others like it are our first line of defense in making sure we do not make that grave mistake.

“Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See” was on view at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas through May 19. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, 785.864.4710 or www.spencerart.ku.edu. Visit the exhibition website emmetttillexhibit.org to find guides for both parents and children, lesson plans for educators, reading lists and more.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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