Memory, Legacy, and Learning: A National Monument for Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley | Facing History & Ourselves
A black and white image of the grave site of Emmet Till lies submerged in melting frost at the Burr Oak cemetery on March 5, 2012 on the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois

Memory, Legacy, and Learning: A National Monument for Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley

As we commemorate the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death we explore the importance of the new monument commissioned to preserve his and Mamie Till's legacy.

Note: This piece is co-authored by Facing History staff and contributors from The Emmett Till Interpretive Center.

On August 28, 1955 the body of a young Black boy was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Soon the world would know his name, Emmett Till, and the story of his brief life and brutal murder would shape generations to come. His death sparked global outrage and led to a wave of civil rights activism that changed the course of US history. 

Last month, on what would have been Emmett’s 82nd birthday, President Joseph Biden signed an official proclamation to establish the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument. The creation of this new monument is a powerful symbol of remembrance, honoring the life and legacy of Emmett Till, while also recognizing the profound injustice of his murder and its impact on the fight for civil rights. The memorial will span multiple sites related to Emmett’s life and death, including in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois and in Tallahatchie County Mississippi where his murder occurred. Once established, it will serve as an educational space for visitors to learn about Emmett’s life and legacy, as well as the activism of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.

Traditionally, monuments have often celebrated victories or memorialized leaders. The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley multi-site monument is different. This monument challenges the notion of what should be remembered, emphasizing that sometimes it's the harshest truths that need to be confronted head-on. By memorializing these sites, we're saying that history, in all its complexity and pain, should be acknowledged. It's a testament to the idea that we need to recognize the fullness of our history, no matter how uncomfortable, to ensure atrocities and injustice aren't repeated. We need to remember the Emmett Tills of our history in order to truly cherish and uphold the ideals of our democracy.

Emmett Till's murder and its place in civil rights history

It is impossible to fully understand the meaning of Emmett Till’s murder without recognizing the political and historical context in which it happened. Even amid the growing movement for civil rights taking root across the US in 1955, it was not uncommon for African Americans in the Jim Crow South to be lynched or face severe violence. And the perpetrators of those crimes were generally not held accountable for their actions in any way. Emmett’s murder wasn’t an isolated act; it was part of a long history of racial oppression and violence enacted by white Southerners to enforce the color line in order to maintain political and economic power.

In the wake of his death Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett's mother, refused to let her son's death go unrecognized. First, she demanded that Emmett's body be returned home to Chicago. Once arriving in Chicago, Mamie also insisted on an open casket funeral and invited Jet Magazine to photograph the event, forcing the world to confront the brutality of his murder. The Jet Magazine photos brought wide-spread attention to Emmett’s murder and the issue of racial injustice—putting the sheer brutality and lawlessness of Jim Crow segregation and racism on national display. 

Emmett’s  murder, and the national media coverage that surrounded it, sparked outrage across the United States that galvanized civil rights activists and inspired multitudes of young Americans to join the movement for equality. In fact, a 1966 survey conducted for Newsweek found that the Till murder left a “generational imprint” on the collective memory of African Americans and was a catalyst in motivating Black participation in civil rights. Joyce Ladner, who was a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was 12 years old when Emmett Till was killed and his murderers acquitted by an all-white jury. At the 40th SNCC Anniversary Conference in 2000, she referred to herself and her peers as “the Emmett Till generation” and said, “No other single incident had a more profound impact on so many people who came into SNCC.”

The significance of the newly announced Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument

The monument has been championed for decades by members of Mamie and Emmett Till’s family, including his cousin Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., who Emmett was visiting in Mississippi at the time of his murder. Other key advocates for the monument include Facing History Board of Scholars member Dr. Christopher Benson and Facing History curricular partners like Patrick Weems and the staff at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center

The Emmett Till story isn't confined to a single location. It's a journey that took place across regions, starting from the tragic events in Mississippi, to the powerful statement made by Mamie Till-Mobley in Chicago. This multi-site monument will be the first of its kind in the United States. Each site is a chapter in the narrative of Emmett's life, his brutal death, and the aftermath that resonated deeply with the civil rights movement. By making this a multi-site monument, visitors have a chance to immerse themselves in the entirety of the story, not just a fragment of it. It's a holistic approach to understanding the gravity of what transpired and how it played a pivotal role in shaping the nation's history.

Across the sites the monument will help ensure Emmett’s story is told, shared, and remembered as well as create a new space to honor and learn about the courageous actions of his mother Mamie Till-Mobley. The monument will also serve as an important physical reminder of the ways violence and injustice impact us, both individually and collectively, and offer an opportunity to reflect on how the choices we each make can shape history.

In a recent conversation with Facing History, Patrick Weems shared what he hopes people will take away from visiting the monument: “I hope that visitors will see the raw reality of our past, the depths of racial prejudice, and the strength of individuals like Mamie Till-Mobley, Mose Wright, and Willie Reed who stood against it. These sites aren't just about the tragedies; they're also about resilience, courage, and the fight for justice. They serve as a poignant reminder of the costs of bigotry and the enduring spirit of those who resist it. Through these sites, I hope visitors will internalize the importance of combating prejudice in all its forms and be inspired to contribute positively to the ongoing journey towards true equality.”

Teaching and learning about Emmett Till in the classroom and beyond

Going beyond monuments or memorials, exploring Emmett Till's legacy through education and activism is one way we can honor his memory while also striving toward a more equitable future. Teaching about his story and exploring the legacy of Emmett Till is an essential part of understanding his lasting impact on society. To do this it is essential to ensure our educators are prepared to teach about the importance of his life. 

Facing History's six-lesson unit, "I Wanted the Whole World to See: The Murder of Emmett Till," provides students with an opportunity to gain insight into this tragedy and consider what can be learned from it in order to pursue racial justice. Through this unit, students gain an appreciation for how historic events like these still shape our lives today.

The curriculum engages with primary source materials like photos, newspaper articles, court transcripts, and other artifacts from that time period to encourage civic engagement in young people. In addition to giving teachers strategies on effectively teaching emotionally challenging content in class, each lesson follows Facing History’s learning journey which connects past events to current contexts so that they may be better understood by both teachers and students.

Emmett and Mamie’s story is an important reminder of the power of grassroots movements to fight for justice and how our choices can create meaningful change. In order to truly honor both Emmett and Mamie Till’s memory, it is important for us to have open and honest conversations about race and justice and embrace the teaching of our full and complex history to our young people. By learning about the historic injustice of Emmett Till's murder, young people can get a deeper understanding of the past and reflect on ways they can fight against future injustice and stand up to bigotry and hate.