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Biden to designate a national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden will sign a proclamation today that will designate three sites a national monument for Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. It's been decades in the making as people wanted to do more to commemorate the lynching of the 14-year-old in 1955. The Gulf States Newsroom's Maya Miller takes us to the Mississippi Delta, where Till's murder changed the landscape of the South.

MAYA MILLER, BYLINE: Down a winding gravel road through miles of corn and soy stands a bulletproof sign. In a deeply rural area barely accessible by a map, it's the only indication that something happened here. Here at Graball Landing in August 1955, Emmett Till's body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River.

BENJAMIN SAULSBERRY: This is a very, you know, well-accepted approximation of where his body was recovered.

MILLER: That's Benjamin Saulsberry with the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss. He's giving me a tour of part of the new national monument. Till was only 14 years old when he was accused of whistling at a white woman in Money, Miss. His kidnapping, torture and murder catapulted Mississippi into the national spotlight that summer and helped launch the civil rights movement.

SAULSBERRY: I think it's through the recognition of these, of spaces like this one - right? - to be able to acknowledge, for better or for worse and otherwise, the truths of how this nation has gotten where it has gotten and then be able to say objectively that we have to do differently and better.

MILLER: Another space that's a part of the new monument will be hundreds of miles north in Chicago at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. That's where Mamie Till-Mobley defied those in power to have an open casket funeral for Emmett. Over two days, thousands came to see the violence that was done to him.

ALAN SPEARS: In September of 1955, the two men who were accused of killing Emmett Till were placed on trial.

MILLER: Alan Spears stands in the courthouse in Sumner, where the trial was held. He's with the National Parks Conservation Association.

SPEARS: You have to remember that maybe a week or two before, Mamie Till-Mobley had held the open casket funeral for her son, Emmett.

MILLER: And because of that funeral, national attention had now turned to Mississippi. That's why this courthouse is the third site of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument.

SPEARS: So what you're looking at is a modest courthouse on the second floor of a building in Sumner, Miss., that would've been packed to the gills in September of 1955.

MILLER: Here, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted the two men who murdered Till. The two later confessed to the crime in a paid interview for a magazine. But nothing ever happened to them. This injustice is also explored through the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which is just across the street from the courthouse. Now, for Spears, the National Park designation provides a bit of narrative justice for Emmett Till, something Till and many others who were met with unjust violence weren't afforded while they were alive.

SPEARS: We say their names to make sure that we honor their lives and that we remember them. And as long as their names are spoken, they will never be forgotten. And we do that by saying Emmett's name and by saying Mamie's name and by remembering. That gets us there. It doesn't get us all the way, but it gets us there, at least a little bit closer.

MILLER: Today would have been Emmett Till's 82nd birthday.

For NPR News, I'm Maya Miller in Sumner, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maya Miller