The journey for the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley national monuments
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Emmett Till would have turned 82 today. Till was tortured and murdered in Mississippi after a white woman accused the Black 14-year-old of whistling and grabbing at her. Till and his mother's willingness to share the brutality Till suffered marked a pivotal moment in the early Civil Rights Movement. Mamie Till Mobley described her decision in a 2003 interview with The Chicago Project.
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MAMIE TILL MOBLEY: Let the people see what I've seen. And I want open casket viewing from now until the time we take Emmett for burial.
KELLY: Now, almost 70 years after Till was beaten, shot, had a cotton gin tied around his body and was thrown in the Tallahatchie River, Till and his mother are being memorialized in the form of three monuments in Chicago and Mississippi. President Biden signed the proclamation designating the sites earlier today. Patrick Weems is the executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss. He was at the White House when President Biden put pen to paper. We spoke before he headed to that event.
Patrick Weems, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
PATRICK WEEMS: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: You've come to D.C. for this event at the White House, and you picked up the Till family en route.
WEEMS: We drove from Chicago to D.C. to be here today, and I couldn't think of a more memorable trip to be here with Wheeler Parker, who's one of the most gracious, forgiving human beings and probably one of the most important people alive.
KELLY: So tell me about the three locations. There are two in Mississippi, one in Illinois. Start with the one that marks the site where Till's body was believed to have been pulled from the Tallahatchie River. What will visitors see there?
WEEMS: Yeah, well, hopefully what they won't see is a bullet-riddled sign. You know, we've had a lot of history of this site being desecrated, being shot up. We were able to put a bulletproof marker there recently in the last couple of years. But more significant is that the site where Till's body came out of the Tallahatchie River will now be a part of the National Park Service system. And to know that it will be federally protected - to make sure that if someone does vandalize our signs, it won't be a local sheriff. It will be the federal government that will get involved. But this is the big bang of the Civil Rights Movement, as Jesse Jackson talked about. This is a site where so many Black bodies were thrown into rivers. But Emmett's miraculously emerged. An 18-year-old fisherman found the body and brought it to the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where his body was initially identified because he had his father's ring on his finger. But then later, Mamie Till made sure the body came to Chicago, where she said, this is my son. I know my son.
KELLY: Yeah. And that's - the site in Illinois is the site where she insisted on an open casket. Describe what we'll see there.
WEEMS: Yeah. So, I mean, public officials wanted to bury Emmett in Mississippi. The sheriff had a directive to make sure the body was buried in Money, Miss. Mamie refused. She wanted to have a very private mourning for her son, first and foremost. But she also took that moment to remember and kind of resist white supremacy, resist the Jim Crow system by having a public funeral, having an open casket to show the world what they did to her son.
KELLY: And then the last location is also in Mississippi, back in Tallahatchie County.
WEEMS: That's right. So the site of the injustice - right? - so the miscarriage of justice took place in our courtroom in 1955. And it's also the site where people like Willie Reed, an 18-year-old sharecropper who witnessed the murder. He testified at the trial, and he whispered his testimony because he was scared to death. He later had a nervous breakdown, changed his name and moved to Chicago and didn't talk about this until 30 years later. And so, you know, it's a low point in American history, the fact that these men get off without any penalty. But it also is a testimony to people like Medgar Evers, Willie Reed, Mose Wright, Mamie Till, Dr. T.R.M. Howard - people who did the right thing that day and had the courage to at least try to get some attempt at justice.
KELLY: You know, I'm thinking about how this monument designation comes as a national conversation is underway about how to teach Black history in our schools. Do you think these monuments might help inform that conversation?
WEEMS: They already are. I mean, this is American history. We have young people visit these sites already. This will only amplify and make it easier for young people to come. It takes the best of us to talk about the worst of us. And if we're going to have a true democracy and multicultural democracy, we have to understand where we've stumbled. And we stumbled badly in 1955. And no matter party affiliation, I think we should all agree that what took place in 1955 was wrong. The system was wrong. Mississippi was wrong. The United States was wrong. But we can be better. It's our hope that this memorial marks a line in the sand that says, never again, and that if we want to hold and cherish our democracy, we need to learn about Mose Wright and Mamie Till.
KELLY: Patrick Weems. Thank you.
WEEMS: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.