Washington, DC – US President Joe Biden has established a national monument to honour Emmett Till, the Black teenager whose 1955 lynching galvanised the civil rights movement in the United States.
Biden signed a proclamation honouring Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, during a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday, which would have been Till’s 82nd birthday.
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“Only with truth comes healing, justice, repair, and another step forward toward forming a more perfect union,” Biden said during the ceremony.
“That’s what’s gonna happen with visitors of all backgrounds who learn the history of Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley through our national monument,” he continued.
“Silence is complicity. I will not be silent, nor will you be silent, about what happened.”
The 14-year-old’s brutal killing in Mississippi, and Till-Mobley’s subsequent activism – including her insistence on having an open-casket funeral so the public could see her son’s mangled body – propelled the push to end segregation and racist Jim Crow laws in the US South.
“It’s just barbaric – barbaric – what happened,” Biden added. “To all you moms … Imagine the courage it took to say, ‘Let them see.'”
Observers have welcomed the new national monument as a way to both honour the pair’s legacy and continue the fight against anti-Black racism amid a push by some right-wing politicians to restrict how American history is taught in schools.
Till’s cousin, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr, said the new national monument enshrines Till’s place in US history, not just Black US history.
“When I sat with my family, on the night of terror, when Emmett Till, our beloved Bobo, was taken from us, taken to be tortured, brutally murdered,” he said on Tuesday at the White House, using Till’s nickname.
“Back then, when I was overwhelmed with the terror and fear of certain death In the darkness of a thousand midnight’s in a pitch-black house … I could never imagine a moment like this, standing in the light of wisdom, grace and deliverance.”
The national monument consists of three sites spanning two states.
The first is in Graball Landing, located just outside of Glendora, Mississippi, where Till’s body is believed to have been discovered in the Tallahatchie River. A sign installed at the site in 2008 has regularly been vandalised.
The second site is Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, Illinois, where Till-Mobley held the open-casket funeral for her son. As many as 125,000 people attended Till’s visitation and funeral services.
The third site is also in Mississippi, where an all-white jury acquitted half-brothers Roy Bryant and JW Milam, who had been charged with the boy’s murder.
Till, who lived in Chicago but was visiting family in Mississippi when he was killed, was abducted after Carolyn Bryant Donham, a white woman working as a store clerk in the small town of Money, said he had whistled at and flirted with her.
Another of Till’s cousins, Simeon Wright, who witnessed the incident and the subsequent abduction, later said that Till had whistled in what appeared to be a joke, but did not make any sexual advances.
Bryant, who was married to Donham at the time of Till’s killing, and Milam later confessed to the murder in a paid interview with Look magazine. The men died in 1994 and 1980, respectively.
Amid pressure from civil rights advocates and newly emerged evidence, the US Department of Justice has reopened the case twice since 2004. It was most recently closed by the federal agency in 2021 with no new charges filed.
Meanwhile, in August of last year, a grand jury in Mississippi determined there was insufficient evidence to charge Donham in relation to Till’s killing. She died in April.
‘Lift up his memory’
Janai Nelson, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said on Tuesday that the national monument in Till and Till-Mobley’s honour should “remind us of the many ills this country must atone for”.
Bernice King, the daughter of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr, also tweeted that it “will protect places that are central to the story of #EmmettTill’s life, his brutal death from white supremacists torturing and murdering him at age 14, and his mother, #MamieTillMobley’s activism, which helped spark the civil rights movement”.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre noted that the move to protect Till’s memory comes amid a conservative effort in some states to overhaul how race and US history are taught in public schools.
That most recently includes new guidelines from the Board of Education in Florida that say instruction on US Black history should include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit”.
“Let’s not forget what we have seen these past several months as we witness extreme officials in Florida and across the country lie about American history,” Jean-Pierre said, describing the effort as “inaccurate” and “insulting”.
“Sadly, Emmett Till’s murder really was a catalyst for the civil rights movement,” she said during a news briefing. “There are many ways we can lift up his memory, but this is an important way to do that.”
The proclamation signed on Tuesday directs the US National Park Service to work with community groups to “develop a plan to support the interpretation and preservation of other key sites in Mississippi and Illinois” that relate to Till and Till-Mobley.
Last year, Biden also signed a law named after Till that made lynching a federal hate crime.