President Biden will establish a national monument on Tuesday in honor of Emmett Till, the black teenager brutally killed in 1955, and pay tribute to his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, according to White House officials.
Emmett’s murder and his mother’s subsequent activism helped propel the civil rights movement, and Mr. Biden will remember both people when he signs a proclamation naming Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument.
As defined by the National Park Service, a national monument is a protected area similar to a national park. There are more than 100 national monuments in the country. The new memorial will consist of three protected sites in Illinois, where Emmett was from, and Mississippi, where he was killed.
One site is the church where Emmett’s funeral was held, Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, in a historically black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side known as Bronzeville. Another is Graball Landing in Tallahatchie County, Miss., where Emmett’s body is believed to have been pulled from the Tallahatchie River. A third site is the Tallahatchie County 2nd District Courthouse in Sumner, Miss., where an all-white jury acquitted Emmett’s killers.
Patrick Weems, the executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, said Sunday that news of the monument had brought tears to his eyes.
“I am so happy for the Till family and also for our community who have worked tirelessly to get these sites recognized,” she said. « It’s just a lot of emotion. »
The establishment of the new monument on Tuesday — what would have been Emmett’s 82nd birthday — comes amid polarized debates in the country about teaching black history in public schools. Last week in Florida, the state’s Board of Education came under heavy criticism after it passed a new set of standards for teaching African American history that included teaching middle school students who enslaved people developing skills in their servitude that benefited them.
Mr. Weems said monuments like Emmett’s and Mrs. Till-Mobley’s helped tell America’s story, playing a role in educating the country. « If we’re going to grow as a society, » he said, « we have to process the pain of the past, the past wounds that have taken place in this country, and Emmett Till represents some of those wounds. »
« I think this allows us to say never again, that this is not who we are anymore, » he added. « This is not who we want to be. »
In August 1955, Emmett was 14 years old and visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he was kidnapped, tortured and killed after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, accused him of booing at her in the store where she worked.
Her husband at the time, Roy Bryant, and JW Milam, her half-brother, kidnapped Emmett at gunpoint and took him to a barn about 45 minutes away. After torturing him, they shot him in the head and tied a 75-pound cotton gin fan with barbed wire around his neck and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Emmett’s body was eventually pulled from the river, though his remains could only be identified by the silver ring on one of his fingers. One eye was gouged out, both of his wrists were broken, and parts of his skull were crushed.
Mrs Till-Mobley insisted on an open casket at her funeral, stating that « the whole nation had to witness it ».
« They had to see what I had seen, » she wrote in her memoir. She went on to become a teacher and civil rights activist and died in 2003.
An estimated 250,000 mourners came during four days of public tours to witness the horrors firsthand, according to The Chicago Defender, and many more saw photographs of Emmett’s body in Jet magazine.
The case went to trial, but an all-white, all-male jury acquitted the two men, Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam, who had been charged with murder. Later, a grand jury chose not to indict them on the kidnapping charge. After the men were acquitted and immune from further prosecution, they confessed to the murder. They are both dead.
Last year, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Ms. Donham, whose charges led to the murder, on charges of kidnapping or manslaughter. She died in April.
In 2008, eight signs detailing Emmett’s history were installed in northwest Mississippi, including one in the Graball Landing area. A year later, the sign at the spot in the river where Emmett’s body was discovered was stolen and thrown into the river. A replacement sign was soon marred by bullet holes. In 2018 another replacement was installed but 35 days after it was fitted this one was fired as well. In 2019, new bulletproof signage was installed, along with a surveillance system.
Reverend Willie Williams, chairman of the board of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, said in a statement Sunday that the national monument would be a symbol of healing. He will remind people, he added, that « from the ashes of tragedy beauty can emerge and that through collective action we can turn pain into progress. »