Until today he would have been 82 years old.
WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden signed a proclamation Tuesday establishing a national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, it marked the fulfillment of a promise made by Till’s relatives after his death 68 years ago.
The Chicago black teenager, whose 1955 kidnapping, torture and killing in Mississippi helped propel the civil rights movement, will be seen as more than just a cause of that movement, said Till’s cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr.
“We are determined that it now becomes an American story and not just a civil rights story,” Parker told the Associated Press, ahead of a White House proclamation-signing ceremony attended by dozens, including other family members, members of Congress and civil rights leaders.
With the stroke of Biden’s pen, the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monuments, located at three sites in two states, became federally protected places. But members of Till’s family, along with a national organization that seeks to preserve Black cultural heritage sites, say their work protecting Till’s legacy continues.
They hope to raise funds to restore the sites and develop educational programs to support their inclusion in the national park system.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday that Till’s National Monument will be the Biden-Harris administration’s fourth designation reflecting their “work to advance civil rights.” The move comes as conservative leaders, mostly at the state and local levels, push legislation limiting the teaching of slavery and black history in public schools.
The Democratic president’s administration “will continue to denounce heinous attempts to rewrite our history and will 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 was a milestone in a years-long effort to preserve and protect places related to events that shaped the nation and symbolize national wounds.
“We believe that as long as Black history doesn’t matter, Black lives and Black bodies don’t matter,” he said. “As we come to terms with America’s racist past, we have an opportunity to heal.”
The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has provided $750,000 in grants since 2017 to help save sites important to Till’s heritage. With his partners, the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Lilly Endowment Inc., Leggs said an additional $5 million in funding has been secured for the sites’ specialized conservation.
Biden’s proclamation protects central places in the story of Emmett Till’s life and death at age 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 native Mississippi, where he would spend time with his uncle and cousins. In the nighttime hours of August 28, 1955, Emmett was taken from his uncle’s house at gunpoint by two vengeful white men.
Emmett’s alleged crime? Flirting with the wife of one of his kidnappers.
Three days later, a fisherman on the Tallahatchie River discovered the teenager’s swollen corpse: one of her eyes was gouged out, an ear was missing, her head had been poked and bludgeoned.
Till-Mobley requested that Emmett’s mutilated remains be flown back to Chicago for a public open-casket funeral attended by tens of thousands. Graphic images taken from Emmett’s remains, sanctioned by his mother, were published by Jet magazine and propelled the civil rights movement.
At the trial of his killers in Mississippi, Till-Mobley boldly took the witness stand to counter the perverted image of his son that defense attorneys had painted for jurors and trial observers.
Overall, Till National Monument will include 5.7 acres (2.3 ha) of land and two historic buildings. The Mississippi sites are Graball Landing, the spot where Emmett’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River just outside Glendora, Mississippi, and the Tallahatchie County 2nd District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where Emmett’s killers were tried.
There is already the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, which has received philanthropic funding to expand programming and pay staff who interface with visitors.
At Graball Landing, a memorial sign installed in 2008 had been repeatedly stolen and was riddled with bullets. An inch-thick bulletproof sign was erected at the site in October 2019.
The Illinois site is Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, where Emmett’s funeral was held in September 1955.
In an emailed statement to the AP, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin hailed Mamie Till-Mobley’s courage in making the nation and the world witness the scourge of racial hatred. The monument, he said, helps “ensure Emmett Till’s story is not forgotten.”
Till National Monument will join dozens of federally recognized landmarks, buildings and other places in the Deep South, North and West that represent historic events and tragedies of the civil rights movement. For example, in Atlanta, sites representing the life and legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., including his birthplace and Ebenezer Baptist Church, are all part of the National Park Service.
The designation often requires public and private entities to work together on the development of interpretation centers at each of the sites, so that anyone who visits can understand the site’s significance. The hiring of park rangers is supported through partnerships with the National Park Foundation, the official park service nonprofit, and the National Parks Conservation Association.
Increasingly, the park service includes sites “that are part of the arc of justice in this country, telling where we came from, how far we’ve come and, frankly, how far we still have to go,” said Will Shafroth, president and chief executive officer of the National Park Foundation.
This is where Leggs’ African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and the Till family’s work remains: raise enough funds so that sites are properly maintained and staffed to educate the public.
For Parker, who was 16 when she witnessed Emmett’s abduction, the proclamation of Till’s monument begins to lift the weight of the trauma she has carried for most of her life. Tuesday is the anniversary of Emmett’s birth in 1941. He would have been 82 years old.
“I’ve suffered all these years from how they’ve portrayed it — I’m still dealing with it,” Parker, 84, said of his cousin Emmett.
“Truth should carry itself, but it has no wings. You have to give us wings.”
Associated Press writers Joshua Boak and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.