When President Joe Biden signs a decree on Tuesday establishing a national monument in honor of Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, it will mark the fulfillment of a promise made by Till’s family after his death 68 years ago.
The Chicago black teenager whose kidnapping, torture and murder in Mississippi in 1955 fueled the civil rights movement will be seen as more than just the cause of the movement, said Till’s cousin, Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr.
“We’re determined to make this an American story now, and not just a civil rights story,” Parker told The Associated Press ahead of a scheduled proclamation signing ceremony at the White House.
With a stroke of Biden’s pen, the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, spread over three sites in two states, will become a publicly protected site. But members of Till’s family, along with a national organization dedicated to preserving black heritage sites, say their work to protect Till’s legacy continues.
They hope to raise money to restore the monuments and develop educational programs to support their inclusion in the national park system.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that the Till National Monument will be the Biden-Harris administration’s fourth designation, which reflects their “work to advance civil rights.” The move comes as conservative leaders, mostly at the state and local level, are pushing legislation to restrict the teaching of slavery and black history in public schools.
The administration “will continue to oppose the hateful attempts to rewrite our history and strongly oppose any action that threatens to divide us and set our country back,” Jean-Pierre said.
Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the federal designation is a milestone in a multi-year effort to preserve and protect sites associated with events that shaped the nation and that symbolize national wounds.
“We believe that as long as black history does not matter, their lives and bodies will not matter,” he said. “By paying for America’s racist past, we have an opportunity to heal.”
In 2017, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund provided an initial $750,000 grant to help save sites important to Till’s heritage. Together with his partners, the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Foundation II Foundation, Leggs revealed that an additional $5 million has been allocated for specialized monument preservation.
Biden’s declaration defends passages that are central to the story of Emmett’s life and death at the age of 14, the acquittal of his white killers by an all-white jury, and his late mother’s activism.
In the summer of 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley put her son Emmett on a train to his home state of Mississippi, where he was to spend time with his uncle and cousins. On the night of August 28, 1955, Emmett was taken from his uncle’s house at gunpoint by two vengeful white men.
Emmett’s alleged crime? Flirts with the wife of one of his kidnappers.
Three days later, a fisherman on the Tallahatchie River discovered the bloated corpse of a teenager – he had one eye broken off, his ear was missing, his head was shot and broken.
Till-Mobley demanded that Emmett’s mutilated remains be taken to Chicago for a public open-casket funeral attended by tens of thousands of people. Graphic images of Emmett’s remains, taken with the permission of his mother, were published by Jet magazine and spurred the civil rights movement.
At the trial of his killers in Mississippi, Till-Mobley boldly appeared as a witness to refute the perverted image of her son that defense lawyers had painted for jurors and trial monitors.
In total, the Till National Monument will include 5.7 acres of land and two historic buildings. Mississippi locations are Graeball Wharf, the site where Emmett’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River near Glendora, Mississippi, and the Tallahatchie County Second Circuit Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where Emmett’s killers were tried.
Sumner already has an Emmett Till Interpretive Center that has received philanthropic funding to expand programs and pay staff to interact with visitors.
In Graball Landing, a commemorative sign erected in 2008 has been repeatedly stolen and shot at. In October 2019, an inch-thick bulletproof sign was installed at the site.
Illinois is home to the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, where Emmett’s funeral was held in September 1955.
In a statement emailed to the AP, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin hailed the courage of Mamie Till-Mobley in allowing the nation and the world to bear witness to the scourge of racial hatred. The monument, he says, helps “ensure that the story of Emmett Till is not forgotten.”
The Till National Monument will join dozens of federally recognized landmarks, buildings, and other places to the south, north, and west that represent historic events and tragedies of the civil rights movement. For example, in Atlanta, all properties representing the life and legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., including his birthplace and Ebenezer Baptist Church, are part of the National Park Service.
The designation often requires public and private entities to work together to establish interpretation centers at each of the sites so that anyone who visits can understand the meaning of the site. Hiring of park rangers is supported through partnerships with the National Park Foundation, the official non-profit organization for the park service, and the National Park Conservation Association.
Increasingly, the park service includes sites “that are part of the justice arc in this country, telling where we come from, how far we’ve come, and frankly, how far we still have to go,” said Will Shafroth, President and CEO of the National Parks Foundation.
That’s where the Leggs African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and the Till family’s job is to raise enough money to keep the facilities properly maintained and have the staff they need to educate the public.
For Parker, who was 16 years old when he witnessed Emmett’s kidnapping, the proclamation of Till’s monument begins to lift the brunt of the trauma he has carried for most of his life. Tuesday is the anniversary of Emmett’s birth in 1941. He would have turned 82 years old.
“All these years I suffered from the way he was portrayed – I still deal with it,” Parker, 84, said of his cousin Emmett.
“Truth must carry itself, but it has no wings. You must put wings on him.”
Associated Press contributors Josh Boak and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
Aaron Morrison is a New York member of the AP Race and Ethnicity Team. Follow him on social networks.
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