Biden creates monument to Emmett Till amid fights over Black history

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Biden creates monument to Emmett Till amid fights over Black history
President Joe Biden delivers remarks before signing a proclamation to establish the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument inside the Indian Treaty Room at the White House in Washington, July 25, 2023. The monument honors Till and his mother and includes three protected sites, in Illinois, where Emmett was born 82 years ago, and in Mississippi, where he was killed at the age of 14 after being accused of whistling at a white woman. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

by Erica L. Green

WASHINGTON, DC.- President Joe Biden established a national monument Tuesday honoring Emmett Till, the Black teenager whose 1955 murder helped galvanize the civil rights movement, making a case for reckoning with the legacy of racism in America even as some Republicans try to limit how Black history is taught.

The monument honors Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who insisted on an open coffin at her son’s funeral, saying that “the whole nation had to bear witness to this.”

The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument includes three protected sites in Illinois, where Emmett was born 82 years ago, and in Mississippi, where he was killed at the age of 14 after being accused of whistling at a white woman.

In a ceremony at the White House, which was attended by Vice President Kamala Harris as well as members of the Till family, Biden invoked Republican efforts to ban books and “bury history.”

“Darkness and denial can hide much,” Biden said. But “they erase nothing. We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know.”

The president’s decision to dedicate the Till monument comes amid a divisive political battle over how to teach Black history in schools.

Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, came under fire after education officials in his state introduced new standards for teaching Black history.

The standards say that middle schoolers should be instructed that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The depiction drew widespread rebuke, including from Harris.

“Let us not be seduced into believing that we will somehow be better if we forget,” she said at Tuesday’s ceremony.

DeSantis, who has made fighting a “woke” agenda in education a signature part of his election platform, defended the standards, which were created to comply with a law he signed known as the “Stop WOKE Act.” He accused Democrats of “indoctrinating students.”

Since Biden took office, more than 40 states have introduced or passed laws or taken other measures to restrict how issues of race and racism are taught, according to Education Week. The outlet has been tracking the legislation against so-called “critical race theory,” a term that has been adopted by conservative activists as a catchall for teachings about race.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre referred to Florida’s new standards Monday, saying the Till monument was arriving “at an important moment.”

“Let’s not forget what we’ve seen these past several months, as we’ve witnessed extreme officials in Florida and across the country lie about American history — the most recent example shamefully, shamefully promoting a lie that enslaved people actually benefited from slavery,” she said. “It’s inaccurate, insulting. It’s hurtful and prevents an honest account of our nation’s history.”

The Biden administration has invoked Emmett’s death and Till-Mobley’s activism before. During a White House screening of the movie “Till” in February, Biden told the crowd that he chose the movie because “history matters.”

“To remember history is to shine a light on the good, the bad, the truth and who we are as a nation,” he said at the screening.

He also said that signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which made lynching a federal hate crime, in March 2022, was “one of the great honors of my career.” Biden also signed a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would posthumously award Emmett and Till-Mobley the Congressional Gold Medal, the body’s highest civilian honor.

The monument’s locations are meant to honor the Till family.

One site is Graball Landing in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where Emmett’s body is believed to have been pulled from the Tallahatchie River. His body was so disfigured that it was only identifiable by a ring that his mother had given him before he left to visit relatives in Mississippi.

Another is the church in Chicago where Emmett’s funeral was held, Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.

More than 100,000 people poured into the church over days of public viewings.

The third site is the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where an all-white jury acquitted Emmett’s killers.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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