Emmett Till would have been 79 years old this year – Time for a gold medal, antilynching laws, and accountability.

  • Action #1 – Tell your House representative to push this through H.R. 2252 – The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2021.
  • Action #2 – If they really wanted to honor Emmett Till, legislators would pass H.R. 55 – Emmett Till Antilynching Act and H.R. 1727 – Emmett Till and Will Brown Justice for Victims of Lynching Act 2021
  • Action #3 – If they really want to honor Mamie Till-Mobley, her son’s false accuser would be held accountable.

Action #1 – Tell your House representative to push this through H.R. 2252 – The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2021.

On Jan. 13, in the middle of the intense push for voting rights legislation, one may have missed that the Senate passed a bill from Sen. Booker to honor Emmett Till and his mother, as a long-overdue recognition of what the Till family endured and what they accomplished in their fight against injustice. OK, nice. S.451 – the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2021 passed the Senate unanimously! Nice, but commemorating the lynching murder of a 14-year old from 65 years ago and the resulting life of activism of his mother, who died in 2003, was absolutely the least GOP senators could have done.

  • GOP – You want to honor Emmett Till? Stop repeatedly obstructing anti-lynching bills.
  • GOP – You want to honor Mamie Till-Mobley? Stop obstructing the civil and voting rights bills MLK, Jr. championed. She created the Emmett Till Players dedicated to sharing his speeches across the nation in her son’s name.

In joining in on S.451, the Senate GOP did the light lift of accolades, not actions. They do not get a cookie for it. Even so, the House version, H.R. 2252, has still not been passed. So let’s get that done.

(House cosponsors here: Neither Brownley, nor Carbajal are cosponsors yet.)

Minimal script: I’m calling from [zip code] to ask Rep. [___] to push through H.R. 2252 the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2021.

In addition, I would like Rep. [___] to urge the Federal Government to issue an official apology to the Till Family, for the human rights violation, wrongful death, kidnapping and lynching of Emmett Louis Till, and for the miscarriage and for the subsequent and continuing obstruction of justice.

Contact:

  • Rep. Julia Brownley (CA-26): email, DC (202) 225-5811, Oxnard (805) 379-1779, T.O. (805) 379-1779
  • or Rep. Salud Carbajal (CA-24): email. DC (202) 225-3601, SB (805) 730-1710 SLO (805) 546-8348
  • Who is my representative/senator?: https://whoismyrepresentative.com

(Note: Our government has officially apologized five times: for slavery and Jim Crow laws, the internment of Japanese-American citizens, the Tuskegee experiment, the overthrow of the Kingom of Hawaii, and for shielding Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie.)

Action #2 – If they really wanted to honor Emmett Till, legislators would pass H.R. 55 – Emmett Till Antilynching Act and H.R. 1727 – Emmett Till and Will Brown Justice for Victims of Lynching Act 2021

  • Starting in 1918, the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill was introduced, which, according to the NAACP, was to “assure the equal protection of the laws and punish the crim of lynching. Passed the House in 1922, died by filibuster in the Senate.
  • Between 1882 to 1968, 200 similar anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress but they all failed to pass due to resistance from the Southern Democrats, now the modern GOP.
  • In 2018, the Senate finally passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, which was then blocked by the GOP-led House.
  • In 2020, the Democratic-led House passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, a revision of the 2018 bill, with near-unanimous approval. But GOP Sen. Rand Paul, of Ky., single-handedly blocked the legislation , due to lack of a functional internal dictionary, stating he thought the stated punishments would be used for “minor bruising.”

Minimal script for your representative: I’m calling from [zip code] to [ask/thank] Rep. [___] [to cosponsor/for cosponsoring] H.R. 55 – the Emmett Till Antilynching Act and H.R. 1727Emmett Till and Will Brown Justice for Victims of Lynching Act 2021.

(House cosponsors here: Brownley is not yet a cosponsor, Carbajal is.)

Minimal script for both senators: I’m calling from [zip code] to ask Sen. [___] to push through a concurrent version of the House bill H.R. 55 – the Emmett Till Antilynching Act and the H.R. 1727Emmett Till and Will Brown Justice for Victims of Lynching Act 2021, after Sen. Paul has been supplied with a working dictionary.

In addition, I would like Sen. [___] to urge the Federal Government to issue an official apology to the Till Family, for the the human rights violation, wrongful death, kidnapping and lynching of Emmett Louis Till, and for the miscarriage and for the subsequent and continuing obstruction of justice.

Contact:

  • Rep. Julia Brownley (CA-26): email, DC (202) 225-5811, Oxnard (805) 379-1779, T.O. (805) 379-1779
  • or Rep. Salud Carbajal (CA-24): email. DC (202) 225-3601, SB (805) 730-1710 SLO (805) 546-8348
  • Senator Feinsteinemail, DC (202) 224-3841, LA (310) 914-7300, SF (415) 393-0707, SD (619) 231-9712, Fresno (559) 485-7430
  • and Senator Padilla: email, DC (202) 224-3553, LA (310) 231-4494, SAC (916) 448-2787, Fresno (559) 497-5109, SF (415) 981-9369, SD (619) 239-3884
  • Who is my senator?: https://whoismyrepresentative.com

Action #3 – If they really want to honor Mamie Till-Mobley, they’d hold her son’s false accuser accountable.

Not everyone involved in Emmett Till’s murder is dead. Carolyn Bryant Donham, whose false accusation started the lethal chain reaction, is still alive. Till’s family has been calling for charges against her since she admitted to Duke University scholar Timothy Tyson that the 14-year-old had not actually attacked her. Her confession was exposed in his book “The Blood of Emmett Till” in 2018. Although the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that they’ve closed their investigation into his death last year, the family is not done.

Emmett Till’s case still remains open in Mississippi, where Attorney General Lynn Fitch and W. Dewayne Richardson, district attorney for the 4th Circuit Court District, can decide to move the case forward by charging and indicting any known accomplices, including Carolyn Bryant Donham.

MoveOn and the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation have created a petition, but you should also write an email message to the addressees: Attorney General Merrick Garland, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and ​District Attorney for the Fourth Circuit Court District of Mississippi, W. Dewayne Richardson

Petition: https://sign.moveon.org/petitions/charge-surviving-accomplice-in-65-year-old-emmett-till-open-murder-case-now-justiceforemmetttill

To bring truth, justice and long overdue closure to this historic case, the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation (ETLF), its supporters and family members of Emmett Till are demanding that:

  • 1. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and District Attorney for the Fourth Circuit Court District of Mississippi, W. Dewayne Richardson ​move the case forward with appropriate charges and an indictment of any known accomplice.
  • 2. Carolyn Bryant Donham, as a recognized accomplice, be charged with murder immediately.
  • 3. An official apology to the Till Family from the Federal Government, Department of Justice, the State of Mississippi and local law enforcement for the human rights violation, wrongful death, kidnapping and lynching of Emmett Louis Till, and for the miscarriage and obstruction of justice in the 1955 trial.

(In the petition, there is more background and relation to modern lynching cases, such as George Floyd’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s.)

Amplify your impact on behalf the Emmett Till case:

  • Tweet the President Biden @POTUS and Vice President Kamala Harris @VP demand #JusticeForEmmettTill, Email at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/
  • Tweet DOJ and US Attorney General Merrick Garland @TheJusticeDept and demand #JusticeForEmmettTill, Email: AskDOJ@usdoj.gov
  •  Tweet and call Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch @lynnfitchag; 601.359.3680 demand #JusticeForEmmettTill, Email: https://www.ago.state.ms.us/contact/
  • Email and call District Attorney for the Fourth Circuit Court District of Mississippi, W. Dewayne Richardson dewayne@msdeltada.com; 662.378.2105 demand #JusticeForEmmettTill

Deeper Dive

(Sen. Booker)“At the age of 14, Emmett Till was abducted and lynched at the hands of white supremacists. His gruesome murder still serves as a solemn reminder of the terror and violence experienced by Black Americans throughout our nation’s history,” said Sen. Booker. “The courage and activism demonstrated by Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, in displaying to the world the brutality endured by her son helped awaken the nation’s conscience, forcing America to reckon with its failure to address racism and the glaring injustices that stem from such hatred. More than six decades after his murder, I am proud to see the Senate pass long-overdue legislation that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to both Emmett and Mamie Till-Mobley in recognition of their profound contributions to our nation.”

Justice for Emmett

Mamie Till-Mobley co-founded the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, which pushed for the re-investigation of Till’s murder by the State of Mississippi, the FBI, and the Department of Justice in 2004. Although Emmett Till’s killers Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, had confessed to the crime during a paid interview in 1956, a year after their acquittal of murder charges, the department determined that the statute of limitations and double jeopardy issues prevented any federal prosecution, according to the report. Three years later, a Mississippi grand jury declined to issue new charges.

Mamie did not live to see the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 , which directed the Justice Department and FBI to investigate civil rights era cold cases (violations that happened before 1970). The Till case was reopened in 2018, when Tyson published “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which included the admission from Carolyn Bryant  – by then, Carolyn Bryant Donham – that she made up the damning allegations of Emmett’s verbal and physical advances. Tyson stated that the authorities already knew this from the killers, who died 1980 and 1994, but that his book helped force the FBI to make an announcement, which he deemed “political theater” to distract from the Trump administration’s immigration and civil rights policies. He felt that the FBI calculated, with the main perpetrators dead, no one living will have to suffer consequences, so “It makes a good announcement and yet there’s no one to prosecute. This is a low-cost thing and they’re in desperate need of political cover for their essentially neo-Confederate race politics.”

As far as Tyson is concerned, “America is still killing Emmett Till,” not just through “bludgeons and bullets,” but through violence, poverty and social and economic inequality.

Meanwhile, among the those who share the pain of Till’s family is Carolyn Bryant herself, who in an interview with the author more than a half-century after the fact, says, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.’

Activism and work with Martin Luther King, Jr.

The death of Emmett Till had a profound affect on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.

A month after the Till lynching, Martin Luther King stated that it “might be considered one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of the twentieth century” (Papers 6:232). Just three months after Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began. For most of his life, King would use the Till murder as an example of “the evil of racial injustice,” preaching about “the crying voice of a little Emmett Till, screaming from the rushing waters in [Mississippi]” (King, 12 May 1963).”

Although Dr. King did not mention the eighth anniversary of Till’s death to the hundreds of thousands gathered before him at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, it grounded his “I Have a Dream” speech, which spoke to the broader institutional discrimination—police violence, political and economic disenfranchisement and more—that allows for deadly racist terror to flourish.

In 1973, Mamie was asked by her principle to create a Black History Month school assembly for her students at Carter Elementary. The request would be the beginning of the Emmett Till Players, where teenagers travel throughout the country presenting Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches of hope, unity and determination to thousands.

Ignition of the civil rights movement

(Time) The civil rights leader Aaron Henry once remarked that the most surprising thing about the Till story was not its horror but the fact that white people even noticed. After all, black boys had been lynched for decades with impunity. African American bodies were not supposed to reemerge, and they certainly were not supposed to stir national and even international outrage.

But this one did. Killing Till and dumping his body did not end the story, quite the contrary. Thirty-eight articles in TIME magazine have discussed Emmett Till since 1955. Daily newspaper databases reveal even more extensive coverage. In the New York Times alone Till appears in 600 articles.

Most of the Till coverage came in the first six months: The discovery of the body; the deeply emotional funeral in Chicago (to which 100,000 South Siders came to pay their last respects); the indictments and trial, when nationally famous reporters swarmed tiny Sumner, Miss., and television cameras caught the scene outside the courthouse. Day after day, Till was headline news.

But then the story disappeared. There were few articles in the press commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Till slaying, even fewer on the 25th. Early histories of the Civil Rights Movement barely mentioned him.

More accurately, the Till story became segregated, living on among African Americans, not whites.

Young black activists, who sometimes referred to themselves as “the Emmett Till Generation,” carried his memory into their struggles of the ’60s. John Lewis, Anne Moody and Muhammad Ali all recalled their shock at seeing Till’s funeral photos in Jet magazine, Emmett in his coffin, his face a grizzly ruin. They recalled too how the story gave them grim determination to change things. The photos became part of “Jim Crow wisdom,” visual lessons parents gave children about growing up African American.

Seared though they were into the memory of the Till Generation, very few whites saw those pictures. No mainstream newspapers or magazines published them in 1955, or for three decades thereafter.

That changed in 1987 when the photos reemerged, most prominently in the popular documentary Eyes on the Prize, which began its history of the Civil Rights Movement with Emmett Till. Rather than avoid Till’s face, Eyes on the Prize lingered on it. Only then did the truism that Emmett Till’s martyrdom launched the Freedom Struggle start to take hold among whites.”

Opinion on the awarding of the posthumous Congressional Gold Medal

(MSNBC) The Senate passed a bill Tuesday to posthumously award Congressional Gold Medals to Emmett Till, the teenager whose lynching in 1955 galvanized the civil rights movement, and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. The bill was introduced by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Richard Burr, R-N.C.

On one hand, it’s obviously good for the United States to acknowledge its horrifying legacy of racist torturewhich includes Till’s slaying. It’s also good for the country to acknowledge Till-Mobley — not just because she held an open-casket funeral for her son to demonstrate the horror of racist violence, but because of her lifelong commitment to civil rights activism. 

But it seems a hollow gesture for the two to receive medals from an institution that’s been unable to pass an anti-lynching law. I’m wary of performative gestures of anti-racism being used when substantive options are available.

So how do we countenance this award knowing Till was savagely murdered by a crime Congress hasn’t formally outlawed because of conservative opposition? What honor could an institution so depraved possibly bestow upon the Till family? 

A 2018 anti-lynching bill introduced by two Democrats — Booker and then-Sen. Kamala Harris, of California — as well as Republican Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina, passed unanimously in the Senate but stalled in the Republican-led House.

In 2020, the Democratic-led House passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act with near-unanimous approval, but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., single-handedly blocked the legislation when it was taken up by the Senate.

“The people who are putting this forward are putting forward some sort of symbolism,” Paul said disparagingly at the time

That’s partially true. Hate crimes are already federal offenses, as Paul noted, but the symbolism in formally denouncing lynchings — a specific crime used to enforce racist order — is powerful and necessary. The refusal or inability to pass an anti-lynching bill is powerful symbolism as well: It shows racist obstruction is alive and well in Congress, to the detriment of lynching victims like Till and their families. 

Awarding Congressional Gold Medals to Till and his mother is just about the least the Senate could do to honor them and others who have suffered similarly. I’m not jumping for joy.

Resources

  • (NAACP) Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill
  • (Propublica) S.450: Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2021
  • (CoryBooker) Booker Applauds Senate Passage of Legislation to Posthumously Award Congressional Gold Medal to Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley
  • (TIME) Emmett Till’s Death Could Easily Have Been Forgotten. Here’s How It Became a Civil Rights Turning Point Instead
  • (usatoday) Emmett Till’s cousin: Accuser in case is still alive and must be brought to justice
  • (ClarionLedger) What did Carolyn Bryant say and when?
  • (medium.com) Want To Honor Emmett Till’s Life? Pass Anti-Lynching Legislation Now. Here’s why we need to remember his story
  • (Justice.gov) Emmett Till – Notice to Close File
  • (emmetttilllegacyfoundation.com) Creating a Legacy of Hope
  • (theroot) Woman Who Caused Emmett Till’s Death Admits to Lying

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