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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden to name national monument for Emmett Till and his mother

A statue of Emmett Till, not far from where he was kidnapped and killed, in Greenwood, Miss., on Feb. 17, 2023.

By Anna Betts

President Joe Biden will establish a national monument Tuesday honoring Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was brutally killed in 1955, and paying tribute to his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, according to White House officials.

Till’s murder and the subsequent activism of his mother helped propel the Civil Rights Movement, and Biden will memorialize both individuals when he signs a proclamation naming the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument.

As defined by the National Park Service, a national monument is a protected area similar to a national park. There are more than 100 national monuments in the country. The new monument will consist of three protected sites in Illinois, where Till was from, and Mississippi, where he was killed.

One site is the church where Till’s funeral was held, Roberts Temple Church of God, in a historically Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side known as Bronzeville. Another is Graball Landing in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where Till’s body is believed to have been pulled from the Tallahatchie River. A third site is the Tallahatchie County 2nd District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where an all-white jury acquitted Till’s killers.

Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, said Sunday that the news of the monument had brought tears to his eyes.

“I’m so happy for the Till family and also our community that has worked tirelessly to get these sites recognized,” he said. “It’s just a lot of emotion.”

The establishment of the new monument Tuesday — which would have been Till’s 82nd birthday — comes amid polarized debates in the country about the teaching of Black history in public schools. Last week in Florida, the state’s Board of Education came under heavy criticism after approving a new set of standards for the instruction of African American history that includes teaching middle schoolers that enslaved people developed skills in their servitude that benefited them.

Weems said monuments like the one for Till and his mother help tell America’s story, playing a role in educating the country. “If we are to grow as a society,” he said, “we have to process past pain, past wounds that have taken place in this country, and Emmett Till represents some of those wounds.”

“I think this allows us to say never again, that this is not who we are anymore,” he added. “This is not who we want to be.”

In August 1955, Till was 14 years old and visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he was kidnapped, tortured and killed after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, accused him of whistling at her at the store where she worked.

Her husband at the time, Roy Bryant, and J.W. Milam, his half brother, abducted Till at gunpoint and drove him to a barn about 45 minutes away. After torturing him, they shot him in the head and tied a 75-pound cotton gin fan to his neck with barbed wire and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Till’s body was eventually pulled from the river, although his remains could be identified only by the silver ring on one of his fingers. One eye was gouged out, both of his wrists were broken and parts of his skull were crushed.

His mother insisted on an open coffin at his funeral, asserting that “the whole nation had to bear witness to this.”

“They had to see what I had seen,” she wrote in her memoir. She went on to become a teacher and civil rights activist, and died in 2003.

An estimated 250,000 mourners came during four days of public viewings to witness the horror for themselves, according to the The Chicago Defender, and many more saw photographs of Till’s body in Jet magazine.

The case went to trial, but an all-white, all-male jury acquitted the two men, Bryant and Milam, who had been charged with murder. Later, a grand jury chose not to indict them on kidnapping charges. After the men were acquitted and immune from further prosecution, they confessed to the murder. Both are dead.

Last year, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Donham, whose accusations prompted the killing, on charges of kidnapping or manslaughter. She died in April.

In 2008, eight signs detailing Till’s story were installed in northwest Mississippi, including one in the area of Graball Landing. A year later, the sign at the spot on the river where Till’s body was discovered was stolen and thrown into the river. A replacement sign was soon marred with bullet holes. In 2018, another replacement was installed, but 35 days after it went up, it, too, was shot up. In 2019, a bulletproof sign was installed, along with a surveillance system.

The Rev. Willie Williams, the chair of the board of directors of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, said in a statement Sunday that the national monument would be a symbol of healing. It will remind people, he added, that “out of the ashes of tragedy, beauty can emerge and that through collective action, we can transform pain into progress.”

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