President Joe Biden plans to name a new national monument Tuesday honoring Emmett Till and his mother amid a national debate over how to teach painful facts about American history in classrooms.
Till was a Black teenager whose murder in 1955 helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Biden will designate the monument on what would have been Till’s 82nd birthday.
His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral so visitors could see her son’s body, mangled beyond recognition – a decision that bravely resisted sanitizing the brutality of racism, allowing the world to see.
Almost seven decades later, dozens of states have taken steps restricting how issues of race or racism are taught in schools, leading to fresh concern that America’s darkest chapters are being held from students’ view.
The Biden administration has demonstrated new willingness to push back on those new policies. Vice President Kamala Harris made a last minute trip to Florida on Friday to respond to new state education guidelines that, in part, require instruction for middle schoolers to include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The guidelines also mention acts of violence “against and by” African Americans.
“Let’s be clear, I do believe this is not only about the state of Florida. There is a national agenda afoot,” Harris said in Jacksonville. “Extremist so-called leaders for months have dared to ban books. … Now, on top of all of that, they want to replace history with lies.”
In a speech earlier in the week, the vice president took similar aim at rules limiting what can be taught on race and racism.
“They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us and we will not stand for it,” she said in Indiana.
The new rules were written after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the Stop WOKE Act, which was intended to prevent teachings or mandatory workplace activities that suggest a person is privileged or oppressed based necessarily on their race, color, sex or national origin.
DeSantis, who is running for president, has accused Harris and the White House of misleading the public about the new rules.
Still, Biden’s advisers view the issue as a winning one, particularly as they work to engage a coalition of young voters and voters of color ahead of next year’s election.
While Biden has largely focused on his economic agenda as he makes his reelection argument, Harris has emerged as a more forceful voice on cultural issues like race, guns and abortion.
The Biden team’s internal polling has demonstrated enthusiasm among Democrats for speaking out forcefully on issues like education and book bans, ensuing those topics will make a regular appearance on the campaign trail in the months ahead.
Tuesday’s national monument designation, the fourth of Biden’s administration, seeks to ensure a painful event in American racial history isn’t ignored.
Biden himself has used the history of Till’s murder previously to insist on “shining a light” onto dark moments.
“They can’t erase the past, and they shouldn’t,” he said during a screening of the film “Till” earlier this year.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said Monday the monument came at a “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 Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument will be centered in Illinois and Mississippi, the states where Till was from and killed, respectively.
A 14-year-old from Chicago, Till was visiting family in Mississippi, when he was beaten and shot to death for allegedly whistling at a White woman. The new monument will encompass three separate sites, an official said, including the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ on Chicago’s South Side, the site of Till’s funeral.
Two additional sites will be in Mississippi: Graball Landing, which is believed to be where Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, where an all-White jury acquitted Till’s murderers.