This will be America’s 425th National Park; although the known killers have never been charged, the monument will remind Americans of this historical tragedy
WASHINGTON – The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument became the country’s 425th national park July 25, on the 82nd anniversary of Till’s birth, as President Joe Biden established the park through proclamation during a White House ceremony. However, the pains of this racial crime still run deep because the known killers of the teenage Black youth were never charged.
"Insisting on an open caset [sic] — casket for her murdered and, I might add, maimed and mutilated son. Fourteen years old. Fourteen years old. She said, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” “Let the people see what I have seen," said President Biden during an emotional speech before signing the proclamation.
"My God, all of us who have lost children in other ways, how hard it is even to close the casket or keep it open or to — what a debate it is."
"The story of Emmett Till and the incredible bravery of Mamie Till-Mobley helped fuel the movement for civil rights in America, and their stories continue to inspire our collective fight for justice," said Vice-President Kamala Harris. "Our history as a nation is born of tragedy and triumph, of struggle and success. That is who we are. And as people who love our country, as patriots, we know that we must remember and teach our full history, even when it is painful — especially when it is painful."
Emmett Till was an African American teenager who grew up in Chicago and had relatives in the Mississippi Delta. At 14, he visited Mississippi on vacation in August 1955. He was kidnapped, tortured and killed by white men after being accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward a white woman.
His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, was an active member of the Chicago community with an especially close relationship with her son and who became a civil rights icon after his death. She quickly sought justice for her child, demanding his casket be transported home and unsealed, and then insisting his mangled corpse be shown to the world.
Till-Mobley devoted the rest of her life to seeking justice for her son, speaking publicly on issues of racism, educating children and comforting other grieving families. Her long journey was filled with setbacks, but her determination and resilience saw her through. She died in 2003.
Emmett Till's Death Inspired a Movement
The alleged teasing of white store clerk Carolyn Bryant by the 14 year-old African American Emmett Till led
to his brutal murder at the hands of Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, forcing the American public to grapple with the menace of violence in the Jim Crow South. According to court documents, Till, who was visiting family for the summer in Money, Mississippi, from Chicago, purchased two-cents worth of bubble gum from the Bryant Grocery store and said, “Bye, baby” over his shoulder to Carolyn Bryant as he exited the store.
That night Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam ran into Emmett’s uncle’s home where he was staying, dragged Till from his bed, beat him to the point of disfigurement, and shot him before tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton-gin fan attached with barbed wire laced to his neck to weigh him down. Bryant and Milam maintained their innocence and would eventually be acquitted of the murder by an all-white, all male jury. They later sold their story for $4,000 to Look magazine– bragging about the murder as a form of Southern justice implemented to protect white womanhood.
For African Americans, the murder of Till was evidence of the decades-old codes of violence exacted upon Black men and women for breaking the rules of white supremacy in the Deep South. Particularly for Black males, who found themselves under constant threat of attack or death for sexual advances towards white women – mostly imagined – Till’s murder reverberated a need for immediate change. Carolyn Bryant testified in court that Till had grabbed her hand, and after she pulled away, he followed her behind the counter, clasped her waist, and using vulgar language, told her that he had been with white women before. At 82, some 60 years later, Bryant, confessed to Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson that she had lied about this entire event.
Members of Citizens’ Councils (white supremacist civic organizations that used public policy and electoral power to reinforce Jim Crow), celebrated the acquittal, further threatening those who had testified against Bryant and Milam and members of the local NAACP. But rather than bending to the intimidation and psychic horror caused by the savage murder, Till’s family, along with national newspapers and civil rights organizations – including the NAACP used his death to strike a blow against racial injustice and terrorism.
A boycott of the Bryant Grocery caused its closure shortly after the trial , and the the Bryants and Milam moved to Texas. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley insisted on an open-casket at his funeral services – which were attended by more than 50,000 people and chronicled by Jet magazine. The photo of Till with his mother earlier that year alongside Jet’s photo of his mutilated corpse horrified the nation and became a catalyst for the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her 14-year-old son, Emmett— who was lynched on Aug. 28, 1955, for reportedly whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi — rocked the nation and helped spur the modern civil rights movement. Efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Black press and others to help Till-Mobley investigate and amplify her son’s story caused the world to bear witness to the racially motivated violence and injustice that many Black people endured in the Jim Crow South. Although an all-white, all-male jury ultimately acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, they later confessed to their crimes in a paid interview. No one was ever held legally accountable for Till's death.
Here's where the monuments are located
The White House proclamation identifies three key sites in two states. It also directs the National Park Service to develop a plan in consultation with local communities, organizations and the public to support the interpretation and preservation of other sites in Mississippi and Illinois that help tell the story of Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley.
The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument includes Graball Landing in Glendora, Miss., the area that is believed to be the site where Till’s brutalized body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River; Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, Ill., the site of Till’s widely attended open casket visitation and funeral; and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, Miss., where Till’s murderers were tried and acquitted.
Graball Landing is where Emmett Till’s disfigured body is believed to have been found early in the morning of Aug. 31, 1955, by a Black teenager fishing. Located across from the confluence of the Tallahatchie River and the Black Bayou, the spot has become a recognized commemorative site.
Signs placed here by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission have been vandalized three times — the first one torn down and thrown in the river and two more signs shot up with bullets. The current sign, installed in 2019, is bulletproof and observed by security cameras.
Graball Landing served as a steamboat mooring until an 1894 tornado destroyed much of the area. Today, a dirt road leads to a clearing used by anglers.
Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi
The five-day murder trial of Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, the two men who kidnapped and killed Till, took place in the courthouse. Thousands of people came to Sumner to witness the event, including the deceased boy’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.
With just over an hour of deliberation, the all-white, all-male jury acquitted the men of murdering Till. One juror told Time magazine, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.” The two admitted to the murder in a magazine article just a few months after the verdict.
Thanks to a fundraising effort by Tallahatchie County and the Emmett Till Memorial Commission of Tallahatchie County Inc. between 2007 and 2020, the courthouse’s interior has been restored to its 1955 appearance and an Emmett Till Interpretive Center has opened across the street. The center offers historic tours of the courthouse and a museum with information on the Till story and the trial. A Confederate statue, whose creation was spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, has remained in place near the building’s north entrance since 1913.
The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007 for its role in the Till story and its Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. That same year, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission issued a public apology on behalf of the residents of Tallahatchie County to the Till family.
Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago
Till’s open-casket memorial service was held in the church in early September 1955, drawing tens of thousands of people who responded to Mamie Till-Mobley’s public cry that the world see what racists in Mississippi did to her son.
That Till’s body even made it to Chicago from Mississippi demonstrates Mobley-Till’s determination and
resilience. She paid nearly a year’s salary to have his body transported by train and insisted the casket be opened, despite signed agreements by undertakers in both states to keep it sealed. Inside the church, the casket held Till’s bloated, disfigured corpse under a thick glass panel. An estimated 25,000 people viewed the body at the Saturday service. The church was filled to capacity, while another estimated 10,000 people stood outside listening to the service over loudspeakers.
So many people showed up to the viewing that Till-Mobley decided to delay her son’s burial three days to accommodate the thousands more who wished to pay their respects. The church was open from 6 a.m. to midnight, with people waiting in line for over an hour.
In 2006, city leaders declared Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ a City of Chicago Landmark in recognition of the funeral’s impact on American history.
NPCA worked with members of the Till family, the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Institute, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Latham & Watkins LLP. NPCA received a grant for this work from an anonymous donor.
Beginning this week, visitor services will be provided by park rangers at Pullman National Historical Park in Chicago and in partnership with the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Mississippi. The Emmett Till Interpretive Center is open Tuesday - Saturday from 12-5 p.m. Central Time. (Currently, only the exterior of the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ is open for visitors but they ask for people to respect the private property of the church.) The Pullman National Historical Park visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time. Information about visiting and ranger-led programs will be available on the National Park Service’s (NPS) Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument website at www.nps.gov/TILL. “Over the past two years, it has been my honor to visit the sites that help tell the story of Emmett and Mamie’s lives with the family and community members who loved them. President Biden’s establishment of this national monument is a testament to the strength and bravery of Mamie Till-Mobley to honor her son and ensure that his death was not in vain,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “We are honored to be entrusted with the responsibility of preserving their stories as part of our enduring effort to pursue a more perfect union.”
“President Biden’s establishment of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument further cements Emmett and Mamie’s roles as heroes in America’s enduring pursuit of ‘a more perfect Union,’ and marks an important step in telling a more complete story of the African-American struggle for civil rights,” said NPS Director Chuck Sams. “Protecting these sites and stories helps ensure that the sacrifices borne by Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley will live on in public memory.”
California emotional ties
Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom took his family to visit the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley exhibit at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, along with the Mayor of Jackson, Miss. and his family. He described the emotional experience he and his children endured while viewing the exhibit.
"We witnessed the horrors of Emmett Till’s lynching and learned of the legacy Emmett continues to leave," expressed Governor Newsom.
“Nothing would prepare me for the faces of my children as we walked through the exhibit: passing images of Emmett’s horrific mutilation, photographs of his mother weeping over his unrecognizable body, and seeing the bullet-ridden sign that once stood to mark where his body was found.
“As my 7, 10, 12, and 13-year-olds learned about what happened to 14-year-old Emmett, I learned why every child must learn this history, too. Children like mine will never have to experience the depths of dehumanization and racial violence that Emmett, his family, and Black Americans continue to experience today.
“Our nation must fully understand the impacts of our history on the present day to be able to heal and progress. Today is a step toward that. The truth stands tall — just as the life and legacy of Emmett Till always will.”
In addition to designating these three sites as a new national monument, the National Park Service will develop a plan in consultation with local communities, organizations and the public to support the interpretation and preservation of other key sites in Illinois and Mississippi that help tell the story of Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley. This may include the Glendora Cotton Gin (currently known as the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center), Mound Bayou, the site of the Tutwiler Funeral Home and the Emmett Till Boyhood Home.
Many partners, including the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the National Park Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, Tallahatchie County and Walker Sturdivant were instrumental in the process of preparing properties for inclusion in the National Park System.