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Let the World See: Reflections on the Leadership of Mamie Till

February 22, 2022 Eddie Turner

This article originally appeared in Eddie Turner’s newsletter, published on LinkedIn, which includes the latest leadership insights and news. Subscribe to Eddie’s newsletter to be among the first to read his regular insights.

In January, ABC released the docuseries Let the World See. I watched this historical drama about Mamie Till and her son Emmett Till. Mamie fought for justice (though not delivered) and for truth. I was riveted by what I saw. The docuseries is a shocking reminder of an important historical event. It evoked eerie parallels to recent events in the news. This illuminating series reminds us of the life and tragedy of Emmett Till, which was not very long ago. While we have made progress, we still have a long way to go.

I shared my thoughts about the series with friends and expressed embarrassment at how many details I found to be new or that I simply forgot. I remarked that if I, a person who had been reared with this story and studied it in school, could learn something new, what would that mean for those who have never known the story—especially as more places are removing this story from school textbooks and making it illegal even to discuss it.

I had the privilege to study under Dr. Robert Livingston at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I enrolled in his “Promoting Racial Equity in the Workplace” Executive Education Program. We had many riveting conversations that were deeply intellectual, yet raw and frank, during the program. People were allowed to be vulnerable while being honest, no matter their point of view.

During one lecture and facilitated conversation, a middle-aged Caucasian police officer shared he lived in a rural area and worked as a cop there. He never left his hometown and never interacted with people of color. He admitted he had never heard the story of Emmett Till until coming to the program. I admired his vulnerability and desire to help himself and his community by becoming more educated. It underscores the importance of education and having stories like Emmett Till’s told rather than be absconded from history.

The docuseries uses footage available from news sources at the time, showing the actual people from the events. Another series, Women of the Movement, also released this January, is a wonderful reenactment of the events of the time. While this series uses actors rather than historical footage, it adheres closely to the facts.

Mamie Till was simply a loving mother who was changed into a mourning mother and, in the process, became a leader in ways she never could have imagined. She was thrust onto the global stage and became an activist and heroine.

Mamie’s life is full of leadership lessons worth following. The first lesson emerges when Emmett is born with the umbilical cord wrapped around him. This causes complications, prompting the doctor to tell her it would be best for Emmett to be put in an institution because he “may never walk on his own.” Mamie rejected this advice and insisted on raising her son at home and doing whatever it took for him to “be free.” Because of her decisiveness and strength, Emmett overcame this early challenge and was walking, living the “free” life his mother wanted until his untimely death. At times, others may have our best interest in mind. They may even be experts in their field. However, there are times when it’s important to listen to the inner voice in our head and push beyond what others say. There is always someone who beats the odds—why not you?

Mamie’s decisiveness and confidence in making her own decisions would later surface and serve her when Emmett was mercilessly tortured to the point of disfiguration, then murdered, and thrown into a river in 1955, at the tender age of 14. She fought for his body to be brought back to the state of Illinois before it could be buried in Mississippi, where he had been killed. When the body arrived in Illinois, she defied the agreement to keep the casket closed and told the funeral director not to try to repair the damage done to his body. She then took the action that changed the course of history—she held an open casket funeral saying: “Let the world see!” She wanted the entire world to see the viciousness of the hatred toward people of color and what it looks like when acted upon. She showed the world what it looks like when a “way of life” is more important than human life.

Mamie Till’s courageous leadership in the face of unimaginable pain is credited with igniting the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement changed life for people of color and other historically disenfranchised people in a positive way that still reverberates today.

Mamie Till’s story about her son Emmett is a story of self-leadership transformed into informal leadership. Mamie was a loving mother who became a mourning mother and ultimately a leader who changed the course of history. She did not intend to become the leader she became. This story worth telling reminds us that many great leaders are ordinary people who are faced with extraordinary circumstances. It also reminds us that leadership is often informal before it becomes formal. The world sees the leader Mamie Till!

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