NEW YORK – With the news that President Joe Biden will establish a national monument to Emmett Till, a Catholic neighbor of the slain civil rights icon said the designation invites people to investigate a little bit more, to see “This is where we were, and this is where we are now.”
“I think the purpose is more people will have the opportunity to maybe pause for a moment, and contemplate where we were, where we are, where we shouldn’t have been, and where we should go,” Deacon Arthur Miller told Crux.
“People need to take a moment to absorb, and be with that time, and be with those memories, and if a monument isn’t prescribed, people with insensitive hearts won’t feel the moment,” he said.
“The events that occurred [in Mississippi] are now marked with a designation, particularly given the tenor of the country, which is choosing to ignore or sanitize the ugly part of our history,” Miller said.
President Joe Biden is set to establish a national monument today, July 25, honoring Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, which will consist of three sites. One is in Illinois, where Till was born and raised. The other two sites are in Mississippi, where Till was killed.
July 25, 2023, would’ve been Till’s 82nd birthday.
While visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, Till went to a store with his cousins and supposedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, kidnapped and murdered the then-14-year-old Black teenager, dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.
The lynching became a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement, especially after Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, held an open-casket funeral in Chicago so the world could see what happened.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said July 24 that the new national monument “will protect places that tell the story of Emmett Till’s too short life, and racially motivated murder, the unjust acquittal of his murderers, and the activism of his mother … who courageously brought the world’s attention to the brutal injustices and racism of the time, catalyzing the Civil Rights movement.”
Miller, 77 and a deacon at St. Mary’s Church in Simsbury, CT, said his older brother knew Till better as the two were good friends and classmates, but Miller previously told Crux he still remembers the inherent kindness Till had even at such a young age.
Miller remembers Till-Mobley, as well, as a woman who “was elegant like many of the women in the community,” and “represented all of the black mothers who lived up north in Chicago at that time.”
Miller also remembers going to school after Till’s murder and there weren’t any social workers there to help the students, and none of the teachers talked about what happened. The only thing that happened, he said, was the funeral, which “was the climax of grieving his death, his mother’s plea … it was an outpouring of absolute pain and frustration and anger and resolve and hope.”
“That, in my opinion, was a Godly moment,” he said.
The Chicago site for the monument is Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, where thousands gathered to mourn Till’s death in September 1955.
The two Mississippi sites a part of the new National Monument are Graball Landing, where it’s believed that Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, where Till’s killers were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago told Crux in a statement that Biden should be commended for the decision to erect a National Monument dedicated to Till and Till-Mobley.
“By remembering both Emmett and his mother, our nation also recognizes all those who suffered and lost their lives through racial hatred and injustice,” Cupich said. “Emmett was only 14 when he was murdered, a fact that should inspire young people to take up the work of fighting bigotry in ways that earlier generations have failed to do.”
Not far from the Mississippi sites is what’s left of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, the store Till visited on August 24, 1955. The site is now marked with a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker that tells the story of what happened to Till, beginning at that site.
Miller has visited that site, and said that in and of itself is an experience all people should have.
“I liken it to the Grand Canyon. It’s such a spectacle that people don’t talk. We’ve heard the old saying that it took your breath away, and it truly does happen,” Miller explained. “It demands, requires for one to be with that place and not disturb it,” noting a “quiet, almost sacred solitude.”
“It’s one of those places where something cracked the ethos, which was a point in time that changed the world, that moment, when from that point on everything in the whole world was different, not just for us in the United States,” he added.
The establishment of the National Monument follows Congress passing the “Emmett Till Antilynching Act” last March, which made lynching a federal hate crime. Last October, a statue honoring Till was also unveiled in Greenwood, Mississippi, about 10 miles from the store. The nine-foot tall bronze statue depicts a living Till in slacks, a dress shirt, and tie with one hand on the brim of a hat.
Miller said it’s important for the nation to continue honoring Till for what he helped inspire in the U.S.
“Emmett Till was the very instrument that was needed to change the country from what it was to what it had to be, and he was the martyr, and not a willing martyr but a martyr nonetheless, so you have to have a monument to that,” Miller said. It demands it, and it’s not Black people who demand it because the very constitution of this nation demands that this be a monument to when the country began the long, long, desert journey of what was right for equality and equity in this nation.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg