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The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Law: Emmett Till’s Cousin and Ida B. Wells’s Great-Granddaughter Respond

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President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law on Tuesday, culminating efforts to make lynching a federal crime that started over a century ago. We’re joined by Emmett Till’s cousin and best friend, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., who was 16 years old when he witnessed Till’s abduction from his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi, prior to his brutal killing. Parker recalls the night of Till’s abduction and says, almost 70 years later, he is “thankful” for the new law, while acknowledging that “it shouldn’t have taken that long.” We also speak with author and public historian Michelle Duster, who spoke at Tuesday’s bill signing and is the great-granddaughter of the pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells. “Finally, in 2022, we have justice. We have laws put in place that were fought for so long ago,” says Duster, who thinks the law is “better late than never.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law Tuesday, culminating efforts to make lynching a federal crime that started over a century ago. The legislation was named after Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black teenager who was abducted, tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he was accused of whistling at a white woman in a store. Speakers at Tuesday’s bill signing included Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, the legendary anti-lynching journalist.

MICHELLE DUSTER: Dan and I are honored to be here and represent our great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who once said, “Our country’s national crime is lynching.” She was born enslaved in 1862 Holly Springs, Mississippi, the same state where 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched 93 years later. … And in 1898, in response to the lynching of Postmaster Frazier Baker in Lake City, South Carolina, she visited President William S. McKinley right here in Washington to urge him to make lynching a federal crime. Since my great-grandmother’s visit to the White House 124 years ago, there have been over 200 attempts to get legislation enacted. … But we finally stand here today, generations later, to witness this historic moment of President Biden signing the Emmett Till anti-lynching bill into law.

AMY GOODMAN: Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered August 28th, 1955. He had been accused of wolf-whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, and dragged out of his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi, in the middle of the night, where his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, had sent him from Chicago for the summer. Several days later, his brutally beaten, disfigured body, weighted down with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied to his body with barbed wire, was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River. The Leflore County sheriff attempted to force the immediate burial of Emmett Till, but Mamie Till intervened and paid almost a year’s salary for his body to be shipped back to Chicago. There, the funeral director refused to open the box for her to view her son’s corpse. “Give me a hammer,” Mamie Till demanded. He relented and allowed her to view Emmett’s mutilated remains. By then, the murder had sparked outrage across the nation. Mamie Till-Mobley insisted Emmett receive an open-casket funeral. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” she said.

This is Mamie Till-Mobley speaking in the documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till about what she had seen. Her description is extremely graphic. A warning to our listeners and viewers: At the end of the excerpt, you see what Mamie Till wanted the world to see: Emmett Till’s mutilated face.

MAMIE TILL-MOBLEY: I saw his tongue had been choked out, and it was lying down on his chin. I saw that this eye was out, and it was lying about midway the cheek. I looked at this eye, and it was gone. I looked at the bridge of his nose, and it looked like someone had taken a meat chopper. …

Well, I looked at Mr. Rayner, and Mr. Rayner wanted to know: Was I going to have the casket opened? I said, “Oh, yes, we’re going to open the casket.” He said, “Well, Ms. Bradley, do you want me to do something for the face? Want me to try to fix it up?” I said, “No. Let the people see what I’ve seen.” I said, “I want the world to see this, because there’s no way I can tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, speaking in the documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. Mamie Till’s decision helped draw attention to lynching. Last November would have been her 100th birthday.

For more, we’re joined by two guests in Chicago. The Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. is Emmett Till’s cousin, his best friend. Reverend Parker was 16 years old when he witnessed Emmett Till’s abduction from his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi. Also with us, Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of the pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, who in 2020 was recognized with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her, quote, “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” Michelle Duster is an author, professor, public historian, an advocate for racial and gender justice.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., I mean, to have the two of you here together is historic. And I wanted to go to the reverend as we just listened to your aunt, to Mamie Till-Mobley, describe what happened to your best friend, your cousin, who was two years younger than you. If you could go back to that night in 1955, still so vivid with you — and I apologize for asking you to do this — to talk about what took place, and the impact, not only on your family but on the world?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: Yes, it’s kind of hard to understand what it was like in Mississippi at that time; if you didn’t live there and experience it, it just seemed unreal. After the incident at the store, which is on a Wednesday, early Sunday morning, about 2:30, I heard the people talking about what happened at the store: “I see you’ve got two kids — two guys here from Chicago, and want to talk to the fat boy that did the talk at the store.” And right away, having been raised — my formative years were spent in the South, and I was well entrenched in the ways and mores of the South. I started praying. I said, “God, we’re getting ready to die. These people are fixing to kill us.” I know people that had been killed before. People had been hung down the street from where my uncle lived. My daddy had to sleep with his gun overnight. Nobody came. Nothing came of it. And I knew where I was, and I just said, “I’m getting ready to die.” So I just started praying. And when death is imminent, you just think of all the bad things you’ve ever done, and I knew I was not in good standing with God, so I just started saying, “God, if you just let me live, I’m going to do right.” I didn’t call my grandfather; I knew he could not help me in Mississippi in 1955.

So, they didn’t know what room I was in. It’s dark as a thousand midnights. You couldn’t see your hand before your face. And it’s large landowner’s home, former landowner’s home. And I heard them coming my way, and in they walked with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other. I’m shaking like a leaf on a tree. And I close my eyes, just thinking, “This is it. I’m going to be shot.” And, of course, they went by me. And I woke up. They were passing by me. They went to the third room, found Emmett in bed with my Uncle Simeon, who was 12 years old. And they aroused him up. And I think he went to put his socks on. It was just pure hell in that room, and just the atmosphere was just thick with terror and fear. And I think he finally got his shoes on, and they left with him. My grandmother tried to pay them, and my grandfather begged them not to take him. And that was the last time we saw him alive.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of Emmett Till’s great-uncle. This is the Reverend Mose Wright speaking about Emmett’s abduction. It’s from that same documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Till, directed by Keith Beauchamp.

REV. MOSE WRIGHT: This is Mose Wright. I am the uncle of Emmett Louis Till. Sunday morning, about 2:30, someone called at the door. And I said, “Who is it?” And he said, “This is Mr. Bryant. I want to talk with you and the boy.” And when I opened the door, there was a man standing with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other hand. And he asked me: Did I have two boys there from Chicago? I told him, “I have.” And he said, “I wants the boy that done all that talk.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was, again, the great-uncle of Emmett Till, from that documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. The story is so horrifying. The two suspects brought to trial were Roy Bryant, the husband of Carolyn Bryant, who claimed she had been whistled at in the store, and the brother-in-law, J.W. Milam. Now, the amazing story that isn’t often told, two brave activists from the Mississippi NAACP, Medgar Evers and Amzie Moore, had been involved since Till was reported missing, first looking for the lost boy, then seeking eyewitnesses to the murder. Despite the eyewitnesses, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted the suspects. One member of the jury said they had reached the decision within minutes but held off for an hour to appear as if they had actually deliberated. Medgar Evers, of course, would later be assassinated. After the acquittal, Bryant and Milam sold their story to Look magazine for $4,000, about the same amount that Mamie Till paid to ship her dead son home, equivalent of over $40,000 in 2022. And they admitted that they had murdered him. Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., your response to the Emmett Till Antilynching Act that has now been signed into law, 70 years later? This is after over 200 attempts at getting an anti-lynching law over the last century. Your thoughts?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: I have great commendations for those who had the courage and the fire and the guts in their belly to do what’s right. Over 200 times these guys have stood up and did it. It speaks volumes, not only for them but for America. Let us know that the wheels of justice grind, but they grind slow. They got the job done. And sometimes you’re tempted to have bitterness: Why did it take so long? And it shouldn’t have taken that long. But we appreciate it, and we’re thankful for what was done and when it was done.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Michelle Duster into this conversation. I mean, again, today we’re joined by two historic figures. Yes, we’re joined by Reverend Wheeler Parker, the best friend and cousin of Emmett Till, and Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, the pioneering anti-lynching journalist who won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize two years ago, in 2020. That was you we just watched at the White House speaking at the signing of the act. Your thoughts today?

MICHELLE DUSTER: I echo what Reverend Wheeler said. I mean, it’s just amazing — Reverend Parker — just the fact that, you know, finally, in 2022, we have justice; we have laws put in place that were fought for so long ago. But, you know, better late than never. And hopefully, going forward, there will be more justice for crimes that are hate-based and racially based.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about your great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, this remarkable figure in U.S. history. And talk about how lynching — what the original lynching that motivated her more than 100 years ago, of her three friends. Talk about what happened.

MICHELLE DUSTER: Right. Well, in 1892, three of my great-grandmother’s friends owned a grocery store, which rivaled a white-owned grocery store. And they were lynched because they were so successful that the other person decided to eliminate the competition. And she knew that they were not guilty of any crime, and so she wanted to — it started her investigating other lynchings to see how many other innocent people were being killed.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1898, over 120 years ago, in response to the lynching of another man, of the postmaster, Frazier Baker, in Lake City, South Carolina, your great-grandmother visited President William McKinley in Washington to urge him to make lynching a federal crime. This is in 1898. Can you talk to us about that moment and your great-grandmother’s life before and after that moment? What was McKinley’s response? I mean, it is hard to believe it is 2022 where the anti-lynching law was signed, after 200 attempts.

MICHELLE DUSTER: Right. Well, when Frazier Baker — he was the postmaster in Lake City, South Carolina, which meant he was a federal employee. And at that time, that was a very prestigious job for an African American man to have. And for him to be lynched, because the white people in that community had a problem with an African American being in that type of position, my great-grandmother went to William S. McKinley and implored him to create legislation making lynching a federal crime, because the person who was killed was a federal employee, and she felt he needed to be protected by federal law.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain what exactly this law means? I mean, if someone is murdered and they are tried and found guilty, they’re found guilty of murder. Talk about what the law does.

MICHELLE DUSTER: Well, by making it a federal hate crime, what it does is make it so that when a crime happens that would fall under this category, it would be investigated by the federal government and not just state and local government. And that’s significant, because there have been plenty of cases and examples — when only local officials investigate a crime, then sometimes justice is not meted out appropriately.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask if you have a message for the three Republicans in the House — Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas — who voted against the bill?

MICHELLE DUSTER: Well, hopefully, history will take care of that, and their names will be known as those who opposed this law.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., do you have a message for them, 67 years after your best friend and cousin was lynched, was murdered and brutalized?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: I think history will remember them, and they will be remembered in history. And I don’t — tried to understand. I haven’t heard why they voted against it. I would like to know why. But, of course, we have to pray for people like that. And the results, with the percentage we got to turn out, almost 100%, they don’t even really count.

AMY GOODMAN: What does this anti-lynching law mean for police killings, for example, of George Floyd, of other killings, like Ahmaud Arbery? One of the people involved with his murder was also a former police officer. Reverend Wheeler Parker?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: OK. You want to know what does this mean?


REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: Well, we know they were found guilty prior to the signing of this law. And what we see there, in America, how far we’ve come and how much work we’ve got to do, because that spirit is still out there. Law will make you behave better, but it does not legislate the heart. And I was just so appreciative of the outcome in George Floyd’s case. The next day, we had diversity protesting. And Arbery down in Georgia, I could not believe that those men got life. It’s not the South that I know. So we’ve made a lot of progress. And I want to encourage everyone: Don’t give up. Continue to pursue, using the law, not violence, not taking the law into your own hands.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about your hope to create an Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Historic Park to honor their memories?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: Yes. We are looking forward to that. We’ve met and we’ve talked with people. And I think that will happen. I think we need those things. Some people say, “We’re doing better. Why bring it up? Why do those kind of things?” If we don’t do it, if we forget, we’re subject to repeat and do the same thing we did before. So we need these benchmarks or signs, kind of like on the highway when you’re driving. They need to post that sign every now and then and let you know what’s going on. So we definitely need to get that, and I think it will be done, because we are progressing. Like I said, the wheels of justice grind, but they grind very slow. So don’t get impatient. Don’t get discouraged. Hang in there. Ida B. Wells started it. She didn’t get to see it, but her great-granddaughter got to see it. So we have to be in for the long haul.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. And I don’t know how many people realize that A. Philip Randolph, the renowned African American labor organizer, civil rights activist, chose the eighth anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, August 28th, 1963, for the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King would deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Thank you so much, both, for being with us, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till’s cousin, best friend, and Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells. The author, professor, public historian, advocate for racial and gender justice, Michelle Duster, spoke at the signing of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.

Next up, YouTube has deleted the entire archive of Chris Hedges’ Emmy-nominated television show On Contact, which he hosted on RT America, a news channel funded by the Russian government. We’ll get an update from the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist about what happened. Chris Hedges is also just back from the wedding of the imprisoned WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, in the maximum-security prison Belmarsh. Stay with us.

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