Biden creates monument to Emmett Till amid fights over Black history
Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks before President Joe Biden signs a proclamation to establish the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument inside the Indian Treaty Room at the White House in Washington, July 25, 2023.
By ERICA L. GREEN
In 1955, the mother of Emmett Till wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower pleading for justice for her 14-year-old son, whose murder galvanized the civil rights movement.
In a telegram sent to the White House, she asked that he personally see to it that “justice is meted out to all persons involved in the beastly lynching of my son.”
She never heard back.
Earlier this week, 68 years later, another president offered her and her son the attention she had sought. President Joe Biden established a national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, a fierce advocate for her son who insisted on an open coffin at his funeral so the country could bear witness to the brutality he suffered.
The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument includes three protected sites — in Illinois, where Emmett was born 82 years ago to the day on Tuesday, and in Mississippi, where he was tortured and killed after being accused of whistling at a white woman.
The monument comes as Biden has made the case for reckoning with the legacy of racism in America, even as some Republicans try to restrict how Black history is taught.
“At a time when there are those who seek to ban books, bury history, we’re making it clear — crystal, crystal clear: While darkness and denialism can hide much, they erase nothing,” he said during a ceremony at the White House, which was attended by Vice President Kamala Harris as well as members of the Till family.
Since Biden took office, more than 40 states have introduced or passed laws or taken other measures to restrict how issues of race and racism are taught in schools.
Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, came under fire after education officials in his state introduced new standards for teaching Black history.
The standards say that middle schoolers should be instructed that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The depiction drew widespread rebuke, including from Harris.
“Today, there are those in our nation who would prefer to erase or even rewrite the ugly parts of our past; those who attempt to teach that enslaved people benefited from slavery; those who insult us in an attempt to gaslight us,” she said at Tuesday’s ceremony.
Christopher Benson, president of the board of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Institute, said Mamie Till-Mobley was heartbroken at being ignored by Eisenhower. Her telegram to the president ended with a plea: “Awaiting a direct reply from you,” she wrote, signing her name Mamie E. Bradley, her married name at the time.
“She believed very strongly in the power of the government to intervene and bring some sense of justice to this case,” said Benson, who wrote Till-Mobley’s memoir with her before she died in 2003. “She really firmly believed that. And was only disappointed once again when the system didn’t deliver for her.”
The monument has been at least a year in the making. Its locations, which include more than 5 acres across three separate sites, mark critical points in the Till story and will be managed by the National Park Service.
One site is Graball Landing in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where Emmett’s body is believed to have been pulled from the Tallahatchie River. His body was so disfigured that it was identifiable only by a ring that his mother had given him before he left to visit relatives in Mississippi.
Another is the church in Chicago where Emmett’s funeral was held, Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. More than 100,000 people poured into the church over days of public viewings.
The third site is the Tallahatchie County 2nd District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where an all-white jury acquitted Emmett’s killers. They later confessed to the killing, and the white woman who accused Emmett of making crude advances toward her later recanted.
Biden, who was born just a year after Emmett, has taken pride in memorializing the impact of Emmett’s death and paying tribute to Till-Mobley’s courage and activism. On Tuesday, he recalled how he was 12 years old when the world saw “a story of a family’s promise and loss in the nation’s reckoning with hate, violence, racism, overwhelming abuse of power and brutality.”
During a White House screening of the movie “Till” in February, Biden told the crowd that he chose the movie because “history matters.” Biden also signed a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would posthumously award Emmett and Till-Mobley the Congressional Gold Medal, the body’s highest civilian honor.
He also said that signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which made lynching a federal hate crime, in March 2022, was “one of the great honors of my career.”
It was during the work to pass the anti-lynching law that the Till family felt Biden’s passion and sincerity, said the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett’s cousin and the last living witness to his abduction.
“It has been quite a journey for me,” he said, “from the darkness to the light, when I sat with my family on the night of terror when Emmett Till, our beloved ‘Bobo,’ was taken from us. Taken to be tortured and brutally murdered.”
He added, “Back then in the darkness, I couldn’t have imagined a moment like this, standing in the light of wisdom, grace and deliverance.”