On what would have been Emmett Till’s 82nd birthday, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation designating a monument in honor of his tragic murder and the profound courage of his mother Mamie Till-Mobley.
Emmett Till was just 14 years old when in 1955, two White men, Roy Bryant, and J.W. Milam, kidnapped, mutilated, and lynched him for allegedly whistling at a White woman. Till, a native of Chicago, was visiting with family in Mississippi at the time.
An all-White jury acquitted Bryant and Milam. The two would eventually admit to the murder in Look Magazine, adding insult to barbaric injury and injustice.
Displaying unbelievable courage in the face of heartbreak, Till-Mobley insisted that her son’s casket remain open during the funeral so the world could bear witness to the grotesque acts of racial hatred. The publication of Till’s mutilated body in Jet Magazine shook the nation and helped galvanize a movement for racial justice.
“Our history as a nation is born of tragedy and triumph, of struggle and success,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, who opened Tuesday’s proclamation ceremony. “We gather to remember an act of astonishing violence and hate and to honor the courage of those who called upon our nation to look with open eyes at that horror and to act.”
Acknowledging current political efforts to rewrite history and ban books in schools, Harris continued, “Let us not be seduced into believing that somehow we will be better if we forget. We will be better 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.”
Harris introduced the last surviving witness to Till’s abduction, Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr.
“It has been quite a journey for me from the darkness to the light,” said Rev. Wheeler, who was 16 years old at the time his cousin was murdered. “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,” said Wheeler, who thanked President Biden before introducing him.
President Biden began by stating that while writing his remarks, he had to temper his anger at what happened to Till and the miscarriage of justice that followed. “Just as we joined together when I signed the law in his name to make lynching a federal crime—and think how long that took for that to happen. And we screened the movie ‘Till’ at the White House—today, we join together as I sign a proclamation designating Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in both Illinois and in Mississippi,” Biden said to applause.
Previous monuments honoring Emmett Till have been targets of constant vandalism. In 2008, a sign commemorating where Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River was taken down and tossed in the river. When replacement signs went up, they were repeatedly riddled with bullet holes to the point that a new bullet-proof sign, weighing 500 lbs., had to be installed.
But Biden’s proclamation federally protects key places in Till’s tragic story: the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, the site of Till’s open-casket funeral; Graball Landing in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where Till’s body was believed to be found; and the site where Till’s murderers were acquitted, the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. The National Park Service will be tasked with managing these monuments.
Biden singled out the Black Press for its role in championing Till’s story and the broader call for racial justice. “Jet Magazine, the Chicago Defender, and other newspapers and radio announcers who told the story were unflinching in the bravery with which they told that story, making sure America saw—saw what they saw.
“Ida B. Wells once said, quote, ‘The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.'”
Biden also reminded Americans that the fight for justice continues: “Hate never goes away. It just hides. It hides under the rocks. And given a little bit of oxygen by bad people, it comes roaring out again. It’s up to all of us to deal with that, up to all of us to stop it. The best way to do that is with the truth. Silence is complicity.”
The president closed his remarks by pointing to the strides the nation has made: “The idea that when that 14-year-old was buried, that in this [room], there’d be this many people of color holding powerful office, changing the direction of the country, it would have been beyond our comprehension.
“And we’re just getting started.”