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‘Our Highest Hope’: Emmett Till National Monument Follows Decades of Efforts

President Biden shown surrounded by clapping officials after the signing of a proclamation regarding Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley
President Joe Biden signed a proclamation on July 25, 2023, that established the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Monument Tuesday. It has two sites in Mississippi and one in Chicago. Photo courtesy Kamala Harris / Twitter 

On what would’ve been Emmett Till’s 82nd birthday, President Joe Biden established a national monument with three sites in Mississippi and Illinois to honor the slain boy and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.

“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,” Biden said at Tuesday’s ceremony.

Two white men killed Till, a 14-old Black child from Chicago, when he was visiting family in Money, Miss., in August 1955 after Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, claimed Till made sexual advances towards her. (She would admit decades later to lying about him grabbing her by the hips).

An all-white jury acquitted Till’s murderers, J.W. Millam and Roy Bryant, in the Tallahatchie County Courthouse. Both men later confessed to the killing in a 1956 Look magazine article.

Black and white photo of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till
President Joe Biden honored Emmett Till (left) and Mamie Till-Mobley with the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Monument. Photo courtesy National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr., Till’s cousin, is the last living witness to his kidnapping. He spoke of growing up as a sharecropper to now standing next to the president and vice president as they made a proclamation for his family.

“This is what America means to me: Promises made, promises kept,” Parker said at the ceremony.

Vice President Kamala Harris said Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, “helped fuel the movement for civil rights in America.”

“And their stories continue to inspire our collective fight for justice,” she said at Tuesday’s ceremony.

Historic Sites

Jerome Little, the first Black Tallahatchie County supervisor, had long wanted to restore the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, Miss., where Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted. In an effort to place landmarks on notable spots in the Mississippi Delta regarding Emmett Till’s story, he and the Board of Supervisors established the Emmett Till Memorial Commission in 2006.

Members of the commission gave an apology to Till’s family for the county’s wrongdoings during the 1955 trial while standing on the front steps of the courthouse in 2007.

The commission later became the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, and it works to promote “racial healing and reconciliation,” its website says. Little died in 2022, but Executive Director Patrick Weems said the center is continuing his mission.

“It was always our highest hope, even back in the mid-2000s, that a president would recognize this important American story—as difficult as it is—that needed to be told,” Weems told the Mississippi Free Press.

The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument’s Mississippi sites include the Tallahatchie County courthouse and Graball Landing beside the Tallahatchie River in Glendora, Miss., where many people believe Till’s body was found.

A sign at Graball Landing by the Tallahatchie River in Glendora, Miss.
Graball Landing by the Tallahatchie River in Glendora, Miss., pictured here, is believed to be the site where Emmett Till’s body was recovered. Photo courtesy Pablo Correa

Biden dedicated the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago as the third site. Till’s open-casket funeral was held there in August 1955.

The National Park Services says the monument is the country’s 425th national park. The Emmett Till Interpretive Center is a partner of the monument.

‘Do What’s Right’

Steve Benjamin, senior advisor to the president and director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House, said several departments in the White House talked with Mississippians and Chicago residents to find the best way to educate the public about “the brutal lynching of Emmett Till.”

“This new national monument is a key component of the (Biden) administration’s work to advance civil rights and tell a more complete story of our nation’s history,” he told the Mississippi Free Press.

Mississippi House Rep. Tommy Reynolds, whose district includes Tallahatchie County, told the Mississippi Free Press that the county will preserve the courthouse to look as it did in 1955. It houses the circuit and chancery clerks and a courtroom, all of which will be in a temporary facility while the courthouse is getting repaired.

He said the courthouse will be handicap-accessible and the “courtroom might even be bigger.”

“We’ll have new facilities for the justice court that we desperately need,” the Democratic representative told the Mississippi Free Press.

The representative was at the signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. He said it was a “big day”—one he’d never forget.

“You (will) remember this as long as you have capacity to have memory in your life,” Reynolds said.

The lawmaker said it is important to recognize Till and remember his story “so that these types of things are not repeated.”

President Biden embracing Reverent Wheeler Parker Jr
President Joe Biden, left, hugs Rev. Wheeler Parker at the signing of the proclamation establishing the Emmett Till National Monument on July 25, 2023. Photo courtesy POTUS Twitter

U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., attended the ceremony and posted a tweet for Till’s birthday.

“Today would have marked the 82nd birthday of Emmett Till. His legacy of bravery and courage lives on in the hearts of many,” he wrote on Tuesday, adding that Till’s “strength and spirit have made a positive mark on history and continue to inspire us all.”

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., said in an E&E News article that the monument is “a much-deserved honor for the Till-Mobley family and their contributions to the civil right movement.”

“This national monument, combined with other acts, will help ensure the atrocities done to Emmett Till and the heartbreak inflicted onto his family will never be forgotten,” she said.

Gov. Tate Reeves has not issued a statement nor posted on social media about the national monument or Till’s birthday.

Democratic candidate for governor Brandon Presley, who is currently a state public service commissioner, tweeted that civil rights work isn’t over in Mississippi.

“Emmett Till would’ve been 82 years old today, but he was murdered by racists when he was only 14. We’ve taken an important step to keep Emmett’s memory alive, but there’s more we have to do to fight for civil rights and equality here in Mississippi,” he wrote on Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Biden’s dedication will “help preserve the Till family’s legacy for future generations.”

“Emmett Till’s murder and the courage of Mamie Till-Mobley roused people of goodwill to action, leading to one of the most significant movements in American history,” he wrote in a tweet on Tuesday.

While Till’s story happened decades ago, Benjamin said the country should never forget what happened in August 1955.

“The time is always right to do what’s right,” he said.

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