President Joe Biden on Tuesday will create a new national monument to commemorate Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy whose killing in the Mississippi Delta in 1955 helped spark the modern civil rights movement.
The monument will be unusual, featuring three sites in two states linked to Till’s death. It will also be the first designated by Biden to advance Black history.
Under the White House plan, Biden will mark the 82nd anniversary of Till’s birth to sign a proclamation establishing the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Illinois and Mississippi.
It will be named after both Till and his mother, who chose to display the body of her mutilated son in an open casket at a Chicago church after he was lynched by two white men.
The monument will include two sites in Mississippi: Graball Landing in the small town of Glendora, where Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, where Till’s murderers were tried by an all-white jury and acquitted.
It will also include the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, where thousands of people attended Till’s funeral in September of 1955.
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity Saturday, said the new monument “will protect places that tell the story of Emmett Till’s too-short life and racially motivated murder, the unjust acquittal of his murderers, and the activism of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who courageously brought the world’s attention to the brutal injustices and racism of the time, catalyzing the civil rights movement.”
The National Park Service included both Graball Landing and the Tallahatchie County courthouse as potential sites to include in a new park site in December when it sent a report to Congress on Mississippi civil rights sites.
While Congress ordered NPS to conduct the study in 2017, backers of the monument had already spent years promoting the idea.
“After 15 years of hard work, we have finally achieved a designation that we believe is pivotal to our nation’s story,” Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, said Monday.
Four monuments, nine months
The monument will be the fourth created by Biden, all of them in the last nine months.
The first came in October of last year when Biden designated the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in Colorado, commemorating a former military site in the Rocky Mountains that served as training ground for the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
In March of this year, he established two more: Avi Kwa Ame in Nevada and Castner Range in Texas.
The White House official said the new designation “reflects the Biden-Harris administration’s work to advance civil rights and commitment to protecting places that help tell a more complete story of our nation’s history.”
Alan Spears, the senior director for cultural resources for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the designation will “ensure that this story is protected and interpreted in perpetuity for the benefit and inspiration of the American public and all people.”
“I think the importance of designating this new National Park Service site cannot be overstated,” he said. “The tragedy of Emmett’s lynching and the courage and determination of his mother to seek justice for her murdered son were the catalysts that helped launch the modern civil rights movement in this country.”
Biden hosted a screening of the 2022 movie “Till” at the White House during Black History Month in February. It starred Whoopi Goldberg as Till’s grandmother in a film she helped produce, telling the story of how Till, who lived in Chicago, went to visit relatives in Mississippi and then was tortured and killed after a white woman said he had whistled at her at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Miss.
Till was shot in the head and had an eye gouged out before he was dumped into the Tallahatchie River, his naked body tied with barbed wire to a 75-pound cotton gin fan that he had been forced to carry to the river. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who were acquitted of the killing at trial, later confessed in a 1956 Look magazine article.
Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said “there are few stories as heart-wrenching as the murder of Emmett Till” in the nation’s history.
“But with this new national park site, our leaders are bringing this story back into the light so that we may all continue to learn and grow from it as a country,” she said.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) said that establishing the new monument represents “a much-deserved honor for the Till-Mobley family and their contributions to the civil right movement” and added that it will complement efforts in the state to highlight civil rights achievements and its history.
“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.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) agreed that the monument will be significant for her constituents.
“The Roberts Temple Church is of both extraordinary and incredibly heartbreaking historical importance to Chicago, our state and to this country,” said Duckworth. “With this designation, we will help ensure that generations of Americans have more opportunity to remember Mamie and Emmett’s stories.”
As part of its study, NPS said an agency team evaluated more than 220 sites in Mississippi over a four-year period, consulting with a wide range of historians, professors, museum directors and activists. The park service also held many public forums and meetings on the subject.
A move to ‘whitewash history’
Vangela Wade, president of the Mississippi Center for Justice, who’s expected to attend a signing ceremony at the White House on Tuesday, said the monument will help address deep-rooted issues of inequity in Mississippi and across the nation “by confronting the darkest moments of our past.”
“This new national monument will be a ray of hope and a symbol of progress in the face of a national movement to whitewash history,” she said. “Justice is a constant struggle, and this significant step marks a critical milestone.”
Biden’s monument designation also comes at a time when the history of Black people in this country is getting increased attention in the 2024 presidential race.
Democrats are taking aim at Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s running second in polls behind former President Donald Trump in his bid for his party’s presidential nomination.
DeSantis came under fire last week after he defended a new curriculum approved by the Florida State Board of Education that, in part, calls for teaching students that slaves “developed skills, which in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
On Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris went to Jacksonville, Fla., to denounce the standards.
“How is it that anyone could suggest in the midst of these atrocities that there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?” she said.
Former Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd, another GOP presidential candidate, also criticized the standards, saying that “slavery wasn’t a jobs program that taught beneficial skills.”
DeSantis told reporters Friday that the curriculum would show “some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”
In a tweet, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) thanked Biden for the designation, calling Till-Mobley a true civil rights icon who had “the moral courage to force America into a visual confrontation with its own barbarity toward Black bodies.” He said her decision to display her son’s body in an open casket also “held up a mirror to the cold-blooded cruelty of Jim Crow.”
“There are politicians, like Ron DeSantis, who would prefer you to learn a feel-good whitewashed G-rated version of American history,” Torres said.
Reporter Alex Hargrave contributed.