National monument will honor Emmett Till and his mother in Mississippi and Chicago

National monument will honor Emmett Till and his mother in Mississippi and Chicago

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President Joe Biden is expected to sign documents Tuesday to create a national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother, according to National Park Service officials.

“The Till story is a vital part of the American story, and it’s fitting that it’s recognized and protected by the federal government,” said Dave Tell, author of “Remembering Emmett Till.”

After he was killed in Mississippi, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on opening his casket so “the world could see what they did to my boy.” Photographs of his brutalized body ran in Jet magazine and around the world, provoking international outrage.

In September 1955, an all-white jury acquitted half-brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam — only for them to confess months later to Look magazine that they had killed the 14-year-old from Chicago.

Less than 10 weeks after the acquittal, Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refused to give up her seat. She was quoted later as saying she was thinking about Till the whole time.

To this day, he remains a flashpoint for civil rights activities. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned his name in the same breath with the 1963 assassination of his friend, Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

In the decades since, Till’s name and photographs have appeared in protests alongside those of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

Among the sites making up the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument:

  • Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago where Till’s funeral was held.
  • Graball Landing, near where Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River.
  • The Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, where the jury acquitted his killers.

Noticeably missing from the list is the former Bryant Grocery, where Till reportedly wolf-whistled at a white woman.

The store’s owners — the children of the late Ray Tribble, who voted with other jurors to acquit Till’s killers — have repeatedly refused to sell the store, demanding $4 million for the crumbling structure. That price tag prompted the late Alvin Sykes, the force behind the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act, to remark that the family was “holding history hostage.”

The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., the last living witness of Emmett Till’s kidnapping, said it’s been his life’s work “to tell the truth of what happened to Emmett.”

“This national monument designation makes certain that Emmett Till’s life and legacy, along with his mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s social action and impact, will live on and be used to inspire others to create a more just and equitable society,” Parker said. “We thank President Biden for codifying the national monument and are heartened to know these places will foster empathy, understanding and healing for years to come.”

Veteran state Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, says the action of President Joe Biden to designate the national monument to honor Emmett Till is the culmination of hard work by local people.

“We had people in Tallahatchie County work together to form the Emmett Till Commission. It was half white and half Black. A lot of people worked to preserve the sites and deserve credit. They worked together,” said Reynolds, who represents much of the area in the Mississippi House and is the attorney for the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors. He will be present at the Tuesday ceremonies at the White House and at the Department of Interior.

“This is going to be well received in our area. And it is appropriate to be remembered in hopes it will not happen again. We are all Americans and should have the right to life, liberty and happiness.”

Reynolds said the federal, state and local governments contributed to restoring the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner to its 1955 condition. In 1955 two white men were tried and acquitted by an all white jury for the murder of the teen-ager Till. The men later confessed to the murder.

The Mississippi Legislature passed a bill to allow Tallahatchie County to convey the deed to the courthouse to the federal government.

Money also has been raised to provide a new location to replace the historic Tallahatchie County Courthouse where routine business can be conducted. Under the agreement, the historic courthouse can still be used by the county until the new location is ready.

The center’s executive director, Patrick Weems, said the designation represents 15 years of hard work for a story that is pivotal in our nation’s history.

“The lynching of Emmett Till and the courage of Mamie Till Mobley served as a springboard to the modern Civil Rights Movement, and preserving this history in perpetuity will serve as a continual act of restorative justice,” Weems said. “We extend our deepest gratitude to the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors, and Congressman Bennie Thompson for championing this vision of reconciliation, which has now become a national monument.”

Rev. Willie Williams, chair of the board of directors of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, praised the decision to designate a national monument.

“Out of the tragedy of Emmett Till’s brutal murder, a national monument has risen as a symbol of hope, healing, and reconciliation,” he said. “Through this designation, we affirm that what man intended for evil, God can indeed use for good. We honor the memory of Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, whose courageous actions sparked a civil rights movement and continue to inspire us today. We are grateful to the local people of Tallahatchie County who have tirelessly worked to make this monument a reality. Their efforts remind us that out of the ashes of tragedy, beauty can emerge, and that through collective action, we can transform pain into progress.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and the Mellon Foundation are investing $5 million to help preserve the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ for future generations.

Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of National Parks Conservation Association, said throughout our nation’s history, “There are few stories as heart wrenching as the murder of Emmett Till. It is a story that lays bare the brutality of systemic racism and injustice for the world to see.

“But it is also a story of determination,” Pierno said. “This is a story of a brave young mother who experienced a parent’s worst nightmare, but found the strength and power to rise up and shine a light on injustice as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Mamie Till-Mobley galvanized a movement and inspired a nation.

“Yet despite the progress we have made since 1955, the work is not done. The America we live in still bears many of the scars of the past, and some of our darkest history repeats itself. We still see echoes of Emmett’s story and blatant racial injustice in our society today, and as national park advocates, we are committed to doing our part to fight it. Black Lives Matter. They matter in our homes, they matter in our stores, our cities, and yes, in our national parks.”

Mississippi Today political reporter Bobby Harrison contributed to this report.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.