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Biden designates a national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother

Surrounded by members of Congress, civil rights leaders and members of the Till family, President Biden signed a proclamation establishing the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument.
Mandel Ngan
/
AFP via Getty Images
Surrounded by members of Congress, civil rights leaders and members of the Till family, President Biden signed a proclamation establishing the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument.

Updated July 25, 2023 at 2:24 PM ET

On what would have been Emmett Till's 82nd birthday, President Biden signed a proclamation designating a national monument to honor the child who was abducted, tortured, and murdered in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman.

The national monument, which will include sites in Illinois and Mississippi, will also honor Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who was instrumental in keeping the story of Till's murder alive, and whose fierce advocacy was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Biden said it was hard to hold back his emotions when he was preparing his remarks for the White House ceremony, attended by members of the Till family, Congressional lawmakers, and civil rights leaders.

"I found myself trying to temper my anger," Biden said.

"I can't fathom what it must have been like," Biden added, noting he was 12 years old at the time of Till's murder. "I know no matter how much time has passed, how many birthdays, how many events, how many anniversaries, it's hard to relive this."

The new monument, Biden's fourth since taking office, will be managed by the National Park Service. It will include more than 5 acres spread across three distinct sites, and is aimed at protecting spaces that tell the story of Till's life and death.

Emmett Till, from Chicago, had traveled to Mississippi to visit his relatives when he was killed.
/ AP
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AP
Emmett Till, from Chicago, had traveled to Mississippi to visit his relatives when he was killed.

"It has been quite a journey for me from the darkness to the light," said Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr. of the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ in Summit, Ill., who spoke at the ceremony. Parker was 16 years old when Till, his cousin, was killed. He is the last surviving witness to Till's abduction.

"Back then in the darkness, I could never imagine a moment like this — standing in the light of wisdom, grace and deliverance," he said, thanking Biden for "all you have done, and will do, to preserve our history."

Biden, who signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in 2020, making lynching a federal hate crime, emphasized the importance of telling the "truth and full history of our nation," nodding to a larger national conversation about how to teach history.

"We can't just choose to learn what we want to know. We have to learn what we should know," he said. "At a time when there are those who seek to ban books, bury history — we're making it clear, crystal crystal clear."

Till's murder galvanized civil rights movement

In August 1955, Till, a 14-year old Black boy from Chicago who was visiting family in the Mississippi Delta, was accused of making inappropriate advances toward a white female grocery clerk. Till's friends and cousins, who were with him at the time, disputed her allegation.

Till was kidnapped, beaten to the point of disfigurement, and shot by two white men — the clerk's husband and his half-brother. The pair was acquitted by an all-white jury, but later confessed to the killing in a paid magazine interview. Fifty years after the crime, the clerk — Carolyn Bryant Donham — told a civil rights historian that she had lied about Till touching her.

Till's brutal murder spurred a national reckoning about the horrors and violence of the Jim Crow South.

One hundred days after the murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger. Rev. Jesse Jackson would later tell Vanity Fairthat Parks "thought about going to the back of the bus, but then she thought about Emmett Till and she couldn't do it."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked Till's killing when decrying "the evil of racial injustice." His famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. was delivered on the eighth anniversary of Till's murder.

"The incredible bravery of Mamie Till-Mobley helped fuel the movement for civil rights in America," said Vice President Harris during the ceremony establishing a new national monument.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
"The incredible bravery of Mamie Till-Mobley helped fuel the movement for civil rights in America," said Vice President Harris during the ceremony establishing a new national monument.

The monument will preserve areas critical to telling the story of Till's life and death

One of the sites preserved by the new monument is Graball Landing in Mississippi – the location where Till's body, weighed down by a cotton-gin fan attached to his neck, was discovered in the Tallahatchie River.

In 2008, the community installed a memorial signat the site. But over the years, the sign was routinely stolen, vandalized or shot. A bulletproof editionwas erected in 2019.

The second monument site is Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, where Till's funeral service was held.

"Let the people see what they did to my boy," said Mamie Till-Mobleyafter viewing her son's body. She insisted on holding an open-casket funeral for her son, defying Mississippi authorities who wanted Till to be buried quickly in Mississippi.

The church was filled to capacity, with thousands standing outside, listening to the service over loudspeakers. More than 100,000 mourners attended the visitation and funeral.

The third monument location is the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse, also in Mississippi, where Till's killers were tried and wrongly acquitted by an all-white jury. In October 2007, Till's family visited the courthouse to receive an apologyfrom the town's leaders.

Alan Spears, senior director of cultural resources for the National Parks Conservation Association, told Maya Miller of Gulf States Newsroom the monument will play a critical role in preserving the history of Till and his mother.

"As long as their names are spoken, they will never be forgotten," Spears said. "We do that by saying Emmett's name and by saying Mamie's and by remembering. That gets us there. It doesn't get us all the way, but it gets us there, or at least a little bit closer."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.

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