On Tuesday, July 25, United States President Joe Biden will establish a national monument honoring the life of late Black American teenager Emmett Till and his mother, civil rights activist Mamie Till-Mobley, in honor of what would have been Till’s 82nd birthday. The monument status will issue protections for three significant locations pertaining to the life and murder of Emmett Till, safeguarding his story from erasure in light of the conservative-led push to sanitize if not remove Black history and the history of enslavement from school curricula nationwide.
In 1955, 14-year-old Till, born in Chicago, was accused of wolf-whistling and groping Carolyn Bryant Donham, a White shopkeeper’s wife, while visiting family in heavily segregated Mississippi. After hearing Donham’s accusations a few days after the alleged incident occurred, her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to Till’s great-uncle’s home and wrenched the teenager out of the house and into their car. They beat Till within an inch of his life, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head, and used barbed wire to attach his body to a heavy cotton gin fan before throwing him into the Tallahatchie River. Till’s recovered body was unrecognizable, but his identity was confirmed by an initialed ring on one of his fingers.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, had his body sent back up to Chicago where she bravely held an open-casket service to force the nation to reconcile with the embedded brutality of his death. Thousands of people attended Till’s funeral, and Till-Mobley allowed Jet magazine to publish photos of her son’s body, bringing a nationwide spotlight to his murder that galvanized the civil rights movement. Bryant and Milam were acquitted of all charges by an all-White, all-male jury in Mississippi, and approximately 60 years later, Carolyn Bryant Donham herself revealed that while she doesn’t remember exactly what happened with Till prior to his murder, he never laid a hand on her.
President Biden will designate three protected sites to immortalize Till: the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ that held Till’s funeral service in Chicago’s South Side; the Graball Landing point of the Tallahatchie River where Till’s body was reportedly recovered from; and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse where Bryant and Milam were acquitted of all charges. Graball Landing has been in the headlines since 2016 as vandals have consistently shot at the existing sign memorializing Emmett Till until it was replaced by a bulletproof version directly addressing vandals in 2019.
This decision is especially relevant as Republican-backed efforts to restrict teaching Black history in schools and dissolve Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility resources and groups continue to impact states across the nation. Vice President Kamala Harris recently criticized the Florida Board of Education for its newly approved statewide history curriculum suggesting that some enslaved African-American people reaped benefits from skills they acquired during their forced labor.
However, some critics on social media aren’t convinced that the monument is anything but symbolic. One user cited a quote attributed to Malcolm X that reads, “The White man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic equity and real justice,” and another asked why Carolyn Bryant Donham wasn’t arrested and tried as an accomplice for the murder of Emmett Till before she died last year.