President Joe Biden creates Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Chicago and Mississippi

‘What Emmett did, he gave up a lot, but it helped a lot of people. And he still speaks from the grave,’ Emmett Till’s cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., who witnessed Till being kidnapped, told the Sun-Times.

SHARE President Joe Biden creates Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Chicago and Mississippi
President Joe Biden Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument signing

President Joe Biden signs a proclamation Tuesday, establishing the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Chicago and Mississippi. Tuesday would have been Emmett Till’s 82nd birthday. Members of Illinois’ congressional delegation and state officials were on hand in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed a proclamation Tuesday to establish the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, immediately creating a National Park Service site at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, where the mutilated body of Till, a Black youth lynched by white men in Mississippi, was placed in an open casket — and sparked the modern civil rights movement.

As the late civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis noted, Till, murdered in 1955, was the George Floyd of his day. Floyd, a Black man beaten to death by police officers in Minneapolis in 2020, ushered in a new era of reckoning dealing with racial violence, policing, discrimination and equity.

In turn, that led to the current political environment: some public libraries subject to book bans pushed by conservatives as Republicans in a few states recently opened a debate over teaching about race and slavery in schools.

New guidelines in Florida for teachers say students should be told that slaves gained skills for “personal benefit.”

That’s the context for what Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris said about trying to erase history. They spoke ahead of signing the Till proclamation at a ceremony in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, pegged to what would have been Till’s 82nd birthday on Tuesday.

At the signing, Biden and Harris were flanked by a group of Illinois state and federal elected officials and the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., 84, the pastor of the south suburban Argo Temple — who is Till’s cousin and the last living witness to the kidnapping of the then 14-year-old boy.

The cousins took the Illinois Central City of New Orleans train to the Mississippi Delta from Chicago to stay with a granduncle. Parker was with Till when at 2 a.m. on Aug. 28, 1955, two white men broke into the house and grabbed Till.

Afterward, Parker told me, “What Emmett did, he gave up a lot, but it helped a lot of people. And he still speaks from the grave.”

Biden, with a stroke of the pen invoking the Antiquities Act — the law that allows a president to create a national monument — opens a path to helping fund much needed costly renovations at the Roberts church, 4021 S. State St., and to preserving two sites in Mississippi: Graball Landing, where Till’s body was pulled from a river on Aug. 31, 1955; and the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, where an all-white jury quickly acquitted the white men accused of killing Till, though later they would admit their guilt.

“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,” Harris said.

“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,” she said.

Without mentioning any names 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,” Biden said.

“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,” he said. “For only with truth comes healing, justice, repair and another step forward toward forming a more perfect union.”

Biden applauded Chicago’s Black press, the Chicago Defender and Jet Magazine, for reporting on the thousands who came to the church on Chicago’s South Side in the Bronzeville community to pay tribute to Till — getting out a story that may otherwise have been largely ignored.

Till’s murder would have escaped any public notice if not for the crucial decision of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to bring her son back to Chicago and insist that his battered body be seen by the public in what turned out to be days of visitation before he was buried on Sept. 6, 1955, at Burr Oak Cemetery in south suburban Alsip.

Till’s body was brought from a train to the A.A. Rayner funeral home, then at 41st and Cottage Grove Avenue. It was there that Till-Mobley decided to leave her son’s body untouched to, she said, “let the world see what I have seen.”

What’s ahead for Roberts Church

Efforts to designate Roberts Church a national monument have been going on for years.

In order for Biden to invoke the Antiquities Act, the National Park Service had to own some physical property within the church boundaries.

To meet this requirement, according to the proclamation, the church “with the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, donated two parcels of land” to the federal government, “creating a conservation easement of about 0.27 acres adjacent to the church building.”

Both parcels, the proclamation noted, are “where crowds gathered in September 1955.”

Shortly after the signing, the National Park Service posted a brochure on the newest site in its system, with a spokesperson telling the Sun-Times that interim signage will be installed this week. For now, the park service said, public access to the church “is limited to the exterior of the building.”

For now, “It is a park in progress, with input from a wide variety of community partners and stakeholders,” the park service said, including Chicago’s DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center; Emmett Till Interpretive Center; Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area; Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area; Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ; and Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.”

The present plan is for the church to remain an active congregation and stay, for now, in private hands as the park service develops agreements with the church and other partners.

Brenda Mallory, the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality — one of the federal agencies involved in the monument designation project — told the Sun-Times in an interview that one of the next steps is for the National Park Service to pull together a management plan.

“And for the management plan, we will work for the community and others who are interested in defining how best to have this reflect the historic story we are telling,” she said.

The church building — currently with a crumbling roof — was listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s most endangered historic places in 2020. The trust stated that “the cost to fully restore and interpret Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ is more than $20 million.”

Mallory said the historic designation encourages philanthropic organizations to “become more interested” in delivering financial help, with public-private partnerships likely to evolve.

photos newspaper clippings Emmett Till Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ

Photos and newspaper clippings of Emmett Till and his funeral hang on display boards outside the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, where his service took place.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ main sanctuary interior

The main sanctuary of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Nets main sanctuary Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ ceiling

Nets recently installed in the main sanctuary of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ catch pieces of the broken ceiling. An estimate of the cost to repair the church came to more than $20 million.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Illinois officials at the White House

The White House invited Illinois officials to the ceremony: Reps. Danny Davis, Robin Kelly and Jonathan Jackson — whose districts sweep in most of the Black population of Illinois; Reps. Brad Schneider and Lauren Underwood; Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who has been pushing Biden to invoke the Antiquities Act; Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton; Attorney General Kwame Raoul; and Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

The church is in Davis’ 7th Congressional District. Eventually, the church, as a national monument, will became a place “to teach the truth of what our country was and project us forward in terms of what our country ought to become,” Davis said.

“I can just picture the school children coming to visit ... every day. The restoration of the church is going to be just wonderful,” Davis said.

Stratton, who lives in Bronzeville, said, “Bronzeville will be the center of people remembering that we must tell our history. We cannot ban books, and we must make sure that the truth is told, even the painful parts of our history.”

signing Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument Chicago Mississipp Kwame Raoul Emanuel “Chris” Welch Juliana Stratton Robin Kelly Brad Schneider Lauren Underwood Jonathan Jackson Sen. Tammy Duckworth

Illinois officials at President Joe Biden’s signing of a proclamation creating the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Chicago and Mississippi: (from left) Attorney General Kwame Raoul, standing; Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch; Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, Reps. Robin Kelly, Brad Schneider, Lauren Underwood and Jonathan Jackson, standing; and Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

north lot Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ Grand Boulevard neighborhood Chicago

The north lot that flanks the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ — the site of Emmett Till’s funeral — in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood is pictured Tuesday. The lot and another parcel were donated to the federal government to create the monument.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Emmett Till body casket

Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket for her son’s funeral, saying she wanted everyone to see what had been done to him.

Sun-Times file

Mourners Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ 1955 Emmett Till funeral

Mourners wait to pay their respects outside Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in 1955.

Sun-Times file

Emmett Till class picture McCosh Elementary School Chicago

A 1954 picture of Emmett Till’s class from McCosh Elementary School in Chicago.

Provided | Dr. E. W. Spears

Mamie Till-Mobley casket Emmett Till Chicago

Mamie Till-Mobley kneels in prayer beside the casket of her son, Emmett Till, after it arrived in Chicago by train from Mississippi.

Sun-Times file photo

Mamie Till-Mobley Emmett Till casket A.A.Rayner funeral home

Mamie Till-Mobley with her son’s casket at A.A. Rayner funeral home.

Sun-Times file

 crowd Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ Emmett Till funeral

The crowd outside Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ waits to view Emmett Till’s coffin.

Sun-Times file

Emmett Till original coffin Burr Oak Cemetery

Emmett Till’s original coffin used for the public viewing that drew throngs to a South Side church is pictured. Emmett’s body was exhumed in 2005 as part of a criminal investigation, and the coffin was replaced at that time.

Sun-Times file

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