A national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley will be comprised of three sites connected with Till’s story, two of them in Mississippi. This will provide federal protection for sites that have been subject to vandalism in the past.
White House sources say President Biden will sign an order on Tuesday to establish a national monument honoring Emmett Till, the Black 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi after whistling at a white woman in 1955. Tuesday would be Till’s 82nd birthday. The monument will also honor the activism of Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley, whose decision to allow the world to see her son’s mutilated body at his funeral helped to catalyze the civil rights movement.
The national monument status will protect three sites in Illinois and Mississippi connected with Till’s story. The site in Illinois will be at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Bronzeville where Till’s funeral took place. The other two sites will be in Tallahatchie County, MS: Graball Landing, where locals believe 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 killers, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam. Bryant and Milam later confessed to killing Till in a paid interview for Look magazine.
One last chance for justice denied
J.W. Milam died in 1980 followed by Roy Bryant in 1994, cheating all forms of earthly justice. But it wasn’t until April this year that Roy’s wife Carolyn Bryant (who latterly went by Donham) died in her home at the age of 88. It was Bryant-Donham who accused Till of making sexual advances toward her while she was working in her husband’s store. And it was her testimony on the stand, which she later recanted, that secured her husband and brother-in-law’s acquittal.
There’s also reason to believe Bryant-Donham participated in Till’s abduction. Days after the incident at the store, Roy and J.W. drove to Till’s uncle’s house and demanded the boy be brought out. As the two men marched Till to the vehicle, Till’s uncle heard a woman’s voice in the vehicle say “that’s him,” referring to Till.
A warrant was issued for Carolyn Bryant’s arrest in 1955 for her role in Till’s kidnapping. At that time, the Leflore County Sheriff told reporters he wouldn’t serve that warrant, saying he didn’t want to “bother” Mrs. Bryant, because she had two boys to raise.
Last year, members of Till’s family discovered the unserved warrant for Bryant-Donham in the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse. There was an intense public outcry demanding Bryant-Donham’s arrest at long last. But ultimately, a Leflore County grand jury decided once again not to “bother” Bryant-Donham. Like her husband and brother-in-law before her, Bryant Donham died having eluded justice.
Vandalism at Till sites in Mississippi
In 2006, Jerome G. Little, the first Black President of Tallahatchie County’s Board of Supervisors, founded the Emmett Till Memorial Commission to educate the public about the events that had unfolded there in 1955. The memorial commission is now the Emmett Till Interpretive Center and is headquartered at the very courthouse where Till’s murderers were set free.
The Commission set up historical markers at sites in Leflore and Tallahatchie Counties, including Graball’s Landing, the courthouse in Sumner, and the site of Bryant’s Grocery where the encounter between Till and Bryant-Donham took place. Since 2008, these signs have been repeatedly vandalized, shot at, torn down, and stolen. The memorial commission replaced the sign at Graball’s Landing three times, once after it was stolen and twice after it was shot full of holes. Finally in 2019, they put up a new bulletproof sign. In addition to recording the finding of Emmett Till’s body, the sign also remarks upon the history of vandalism at the site.
In 2019, three Ole Miss frat brothers posed with guns in front of the bullet-riddled sign at Graball’s Landing. The disgraceful incident brought national attention to vandalism at sites connected with the civil rights movement in Mississippi. The three young men were expelled from their frat, but ultimately none of them was charged with a crime. The FBI and Department of Justice investigated and found they did not have jurisdiction. After Tuesday, that will no longer be the case. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed an order making vandalism or destruction of a national monument punishable by up to 10 years in prison.