On July 25, the day that would have been Emmett Till’s 82nd birthday, President Joe Biden hosted a White House signing ceremony for a proclamation establishing the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Mississippi and Illinois. Three sites are now part of this monument honoring Emmett Till, who had just turned 14 when he was abducted, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi in August 1955, and his devoted mother Mamie. Her decision to defy authorities who wanted Emmett’s body buried quickly in Mississippi, and instead to hold his funeral in Chicago with an open casket to let the world see what his hateful racist murderers had done to her child, became an inflection point in the Civil Rights Movement. This new monument underscores our nation’s need to keep exposing and acknowledging the truth today.
President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were joined at the ceremony by members of Emmett Till’s family, including his cousin, Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr. The cousins lived next door to each other in Chicago and were best friends, and during that summer break Wheeler and Emmett traveled together to spend a two-week visit with relatives near Money, Mississippi. Wheeler was with Emmett at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market the day Carolyn Bryant falsely said Emmett grabbed and propositioned her after buying two cents’ worth of bubble gum, and he was in the room four nights later when Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam came to their family’s house, dragged Emmett out of bed at gunpoint, and drove off with him. As he spoke at the ceremony honoring his cousin, Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr. said: “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 and brutally murdered—back then, when I was overwhelmed with terror and fear of certain death in the darkness of a thousand midnights, in a pitch-black house on what some have called Dark Fear Road, back then in the darkness, I could never imagine a moment like this: standing in the light of wisdom, grace, and deliverance.”
Rev. Parker is imagining a powerful moment for all of us. The first site in the National Monument, the Graball Landing river site, is in the area along the Tallahatchie River near Glendora, Mississippi where Emmett’s mutilated body was recovered. A memorial sign installed nearby in 2008 was destroyed and two replacements were repeatedly riddled with bullets and vandalized over the next decade, and these contemporary acts of white supremacy and hatred are also exposed here. The second site is the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, where as many as 125,000 people attended Emmett Till’s visitation and funeral services, documented in the searing photographs and news coverage. The third is the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were tried in a segregated courtroom and acquitted by an all-white jury after just over an hour of deliberation. Months later they both admitted their guilt in a paid magazine interview. No one was held accountable for Emmett Till’s murder, but together these three sites are a public, permanent reminder that the truth could not be buried.
During a week when the Florida State Board of Education approved new public school curriculum standards to teach children that enslaved people received a “personal benefit” from slavery, this message about the truth was not lost on anyone at the ceremony. President Biden said: “At a time when there are those who seek to ban books, bury history, we’re making it clear—crystal, crystal clear—while darkness and denialism can hide much, they erase nothing. They can hide, but they erase nothing. We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know. We have to learn what we should know. We should know about our country. We should know everything: the good, the bad, the truth of who we are as a nation. That’s what great nations do . . . Only with truth comes healing, justice, repair, and another step forward toward forming a more perfect union.” And as Vice President Harris put it: “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 benefitted from slavery; those who insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, who try to divide our nation with unnecessary debates. Let us not be seduced into believing that somehow we will be better if we forget. We will be better if we remember. We will be stronger if we remember. Because we all here know: It is only by understanding and learning from our past that we can continue to work together to build a better future.” The truth must be brought to light.