Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till
Vangela M. Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, commemorates the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, writing that our nation should permanently preserve this unjust history within American History. “We cannot afford to ignore or erase our history,” Wade writes. “We must learn from it and heal from it.” Photo courtesy National Museum of African American History and Culture 

From Open Caskets to Closed Textbooks: Honor Emmett Till, Mamie Till-Mobley and American History

Every August 28, we honor the life and legacy of Emmett Till, who was murdered 68 years ago on this day. The general public could have overlooked his death at the tender age of 14, like countless other racially motivated murders throughout our country before him.

Thanks to the bravery of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, it did not. The whole nation bore witness to the horrors of anti-Black violence prevalent in the South and across our country during that time in the world because Mamie chose to lay her only child in an open casket. And thanks to the advocacy of leaders like Congressman Bennie Thompson, the late Senator Thad Cochran, Latham & Watkins law firm and so many others, Mamie’s decision and the sites vital to the Civil Rights Movement will be permanently preserved in Mississippi.

Mamie insisted on “letting the world see,” but too many people want to look away from the harsh, brutal aspects of our collective past and present. Sadly, if it were up to some political leaders, the stories of Emmett, Mamie and countless others would remain untold and bastardized.

Black and white photo of Mamie Bradley at her son Emmett Till's funeral (Emmett Till movie)
Mrs. Mamie Bradley (center) reacts as the body of her son, Emmett Till, is lowered into his grave during the funeral, September 1955. Her son, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, was shot and murdered in Greenwood, Miss. Photo by The Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Across our country, there is a race to the bottom and a political project to whitewash our nation’s history. Under the banner of patriotism and American exceptionalism, fundamental truths about our nation’s often ugly history are now being sanitized or even wholeheartedly ignored. Instead of truth, lawmakers and policymakers chose to, in the eloquent words of Vice President Kamala Harris, “gaslight” their fellow Americans.

Elected leaders’ historical gaslighting in our country takes shape in many forms. Mere weeks ago, Arkansas moved to cancel the AP African American Studies course from classrooms, citing indoctrination. In Oklahoma, State Superintendent Ryan Walters downplayed the role of “skin color” in the Tulsa Race Massacre.

But it doesn’t stop there. In my home state, the nation’s Blackest state and where we should be leading in civil rights education, political leaders have different aims. They justify censorship under the guise of “protecting” students from the boogeyman of critical race theory. Even worse, they enacted vague legislation to erase true and transparent teaching and preservation of history, enforcing this perverse protection.

The actions of Florida are perhaps even more egregious than these examples of whitewashing in other states. Just recently, the Florida Department of Education enacted a new history curriculum that has become awash in controversy due to the inclusion of lessons on how enslaved people developed skills for their “personal benefit.

Shine the Light of Truth

As the CEO and President of the Mississippi Center for Justice, Mississippi’s only home-grown, nonprofit public-interest law firm, I feel deeply connected to Emmett and Mamie’s stories. They remind me of the dark and painful history of my home state, where a pathology of injustice has persisted for far too long and continues today.

Instead of weaponizing our shared history for cynical political gain, we must address the significant racial inequality and anti-Black violence that continues to disproportionately affect Black Americans.

A photo of Governor Tate Reeves at his desk
In a pre-taped message announcing that he had signed Senate Bill 2113, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves claimed on March 14, 2022, that critical race theory “threatens the integrity of our kids’ education and aims only to humiliate and indoctrinate.” Despite the bill’s title, “Critical Race Theory; prohibit,” its text neither describes nor prohibits the teaching of critical race theory. Screencap courtesy Mississippi Governor

In the 68 years since Emmett’s murder, change has come, but there is still much needed progress to be gained. This urgent need for progress is why the Biden administration’s move last month to federally protect three sites under the National Park System tied to the legacies of Emmett and Mamie, including where Emmett’s body was recovered, compelled me.

As the old saying goes, acknowledging a problem is the first step in recovery. And those who continually push the whitewashing of history fail this basic tenet. Ultimately, we cannot afford to ignore or erase our history. We must learn from it and heal from it.

As we commemorate this sad, but pivotal day in American history, we must recognize its significance. To do right by the legacies of Emmett, Mamie and so many others, we must take further action. This work begins with acknowledging their history, not running away from it. In the words of Ida B. Wells, “the way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.”

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to azia@mississippifreepress.org. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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