The Emmett Till historical marker outside the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where Emmett Till’s murderers were tried by an all-white jury and acquitted. (National Parks Conservation Association)
WASHINGTON — On what would have been the 82nd birthday of Emmett Till, a Black boy kidnapped and murdered by two white men in Mississippi, President Joe Biden on Tuesday designated a new national monument at sites connected to the lynching that became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
“Telling the truth and the full history of our nation is important,” Biden said. “For only with truth comes healing, justice, repair, and another step forward toward forming a more perfect union. We’ve got a hell of a long way to go.”
The proclamation establishes 5.7 acres for the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument across three separate sites. Before signing it, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took aim at states dominated by Republican state legislatures that have passed laws banning the teaching of certain lessons related to race and diversity, as well as conservative campaigns to ban books about Black history in public schools and libraries.
Harris called out Florida, where earlier this month the State Board of Education rewrote African American history standards to conclude that Black people benefited from slavery because they learned skills.
“Today there are those in our nation who would prefer to erase or even rewrite the ugly parts of our past, those who attempt to teach that enslaved people benefited from slavery, those who insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, who tried to divide our nation with unnecessary debates,” she said. “Let us not be seduced into believing that somehow we will be better if we forget. We will be better if we remember.”
Harris visited Jacksonville, Florida, last week, where she slammed the new guidelines and told a crowd that Florida’s book bans, LGBTQ+ rights restrictions and Black history revisions are part of a coordinated national right-wing agenda.
Since 2021, thousands of books have been banned and removed from library shelves and classrooms after campaigns by conservative activists, particularly by Moms for Liberty. The White House named a book banning coordinator in response.
“At a time when there are those who seek to ban books, bury history, we’re making (it) clear, crystal, crystal, clear how darkness and denialism can hide much, (but) they erase nothing,” Biden said. “We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know, we have to learn what we should know … the good, the bad, the truth of who we are as a nation.”
Biden, who was 12 at the time Till was murdered in 1955 at the age of 14, said the three sites not only tell the story of Till, but his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who was an educator and activist. She died in 2003.
One of the sites is at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in the historic Black neighborhood of Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, where Till-Mobley demanded an open casket funeral to show how her son was brutalized.
The images of his unrecognizable face ran in newspapers and magazines, and his lynching became a driving force for the civil rights movement. Biden also commended the Black press for its work in reporting and deeply covering Till’s murder.
The other two sites are in Mississippi, one in Graball Landing, outside of Glendora on the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where it’s believed that Till’s body was found. The other site is the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, where the trials for the men accused of his murder were held.
Till was lynched after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, accused him of whistling at her and she told her husband, Roy Bryant, about it.
The two white men accused of his murder and torture, Roy Bryant and his brother J.W. Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury.
In 2008, the community of Graball Landing established a sign, known as the Emmett Till memorial, to mark where it’s believed his body was found, but the sign has been replaced several times due to people vandalizing the sign and even shooting at it. The sign is now bulletproof, made of steel and weighs 500 pounds.
The National Park Service will manage the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument.
The state where two sites will be dedicated to Till in 2022 passed a law banning the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 education, reported Mississippi Today. CRT is a theoretical method in higher academic settings that is used to explore how the legal system can be used in perpetuating and remedying inequality.
Telling the story
The national monument is an opportunity to tell the story of Emmett Till, said Eboni Preston Goddard, the Southeast Region Associate Director for the National Parks Conservation Association, which advocates for the protection of national monuments.
“It’s not about necessarily who killed Emmett Till, but what killed Emmett Till,” she said in an interview with States Newsroom.
Preston Goddard said it’s important to understand the inequity, injustice and racism that led to Till’s murder.
“Maybe today will be a new day for us to have these deeper conversations, for people to see just how hard and rough and difficult things like this have been as it’s impacted communities for generations,” she said, adding that her grandmother is 90 and “this is in her lifetime.”
Preston Goddard said it’s also important that Till’s mother is honored for her determination to have an open casket. The decision to show her son’s body was in defiance of Mississippi officials, who wanted Till quickly buried in Mississippi.
The president said Tuesday’s announcement is part of the Biden administration’s commitment to racial justice.
Last year, Biden signed into law a bill to make lynching a federal crime, and named the bill in Till’s honor.
There have been more than 200 attempts to make lynching a federal hate crime, with the first effort starting in 1900 by U.S. Rep. George Henry White, a North Carolina Republican. More than 6,500 Black Americans were lynched between 1865 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, which has tracked racial violence since the Civil War.
The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument is Biden’s fourth national monument designation. The other three are the Castner Range National Monument in Texas, Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada and Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in Colorado.
A national monument can either be established by Congress or the president through the Antiquities Act of 1906.
The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument will also be near another national monument, the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Jackson, Mississippi, which honors the life and work of husband and wife civil rights activists.
Medgar Evers established an NAACP office in Jackson, Mississippi, and worked to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962 before he was assassinated outside his home.
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