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Emmett Till’s Cousin, Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Welcomes New National Monument for Lynched Teenager

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On what would have been Emmett Till’s 82nd birthday, President Joe Biden designated a new national monument in Mississippi and Illinois honoring Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. Emmett Till was just 14 years old when a white mob abducted him from his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 before torturing and lynching him. His mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral revealing his mutilated body shocked the country and served as a galvanizing moment in the civil rights movement. This comes amid efforts to suppress such history from being included in school textbooks, led by Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. We speak with Emmett Till’s cousin, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., who was Till’s best friend and witnessed his abduction.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman.

This week, President Biden designated a national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. Emmett Till would have turned 82 on July 25th, but he was murdered at the age of 14 on August 28th, 1955, dragged from his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi, by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. They beat, tortured and shot Emmett, tied a heavy cotton gin fan to him with barbed wire, threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. His bloated, disfigured corpse was discovered several days later.

His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, had his body returned to Chicago for his funeral. She insisted on an open casket so the world would see the brutality of bigotry, the ravages of racism. Jet magazine and other Black publications carried photos of Emmett’s beaten, distended face in his coffin, shocking the world, galvanizing the civil rights movement to defeat Jim Crow.

Three sites make up the monument to Emmett Till: the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ on Chicago’s South Side, where Emmett’s funeral was held; the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where Emmett’s two murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury; and the Graball Landing site along the Tallahatchie River, believed to be where Emmett Till’s body was found. The memorial sign at Graball Landing was made bulletproof to withstand the attempts to destroy it. It’s been shot at and vandalized countless times.

This comes amidst efforts to suppress such history from being included in the school textbooks, led by Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. This is President Biden speaking Tuesday.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: At a time when there are those who seek to ban books, bury history, we’re making it clear — crystal, crystal clear: While darkness and denialism can hide much, they erase nothing. They can hide, but they erase nothing. We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know. We have to learn what we should know.

AMY GOODMAN: Also speaking at the proclamation signing for the national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, was Emmett’s cousin and best friend, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr.

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: When I sat with my family on the night of terror, when Emmett Till, our beloved Bobo, was taken from us, taken to be tortured and brutally murdered, back then, when I was overwhelmed with terror and fear of certain death in the darkness of a thousand midnights, in a pitch-black house on what some have called Dark Fear Road, back then in the darkness, I could never imagine a moment like this: standing in the light of wisdom, grace and deliverance.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., speaking between President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black vice president of this country, joining us now from Chicago, Emmett Till’s cousin, his best friend, was 16 years old when he witnessed Emmett Till’s abduction form his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi, co-authored the book, A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till.

Reverend, welcome back to Democracy Now! You know, as we honor this moment, again, condolences, no matter how many decades later, on the death of your cousin, that has shaped so much of your life. If you can talk about what this means to you, the designation of this national monument in three parts? And, you know, both the church, where you are, in Chicago, where the funeral was held, but also the site where it’s believed his body was found, at Graball Landing, and the courthouse where his murderers were acquitted, your thoughts on what this means to remember these places?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: Well, as you know, I’m very much aware that, in America, the wheels of justice grind, but they grind slow. And we appreciate and respect and honor what has been done to put it on a national level, this monument. I think about the suffering, the pain that it caused us to get us to this point. So we really appreciate it. At the same time, we have mixed emotions, and what was done shouldn’t have been done. It’s kind of like the anti-lynching law. It took 100 years and 200 times, but we got it done.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you want us to know about Emmett Till today? Carolyn Bryant just died, the woman who made the first accusation about Emmett, when you all went into the drugstore so many years ago.

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: From the time that it happened, I wanted the truth. I read the Look magazine piece, and I knew that wasn’t the truth at 16 years old, felt so helpless, thought I’d never, ever get a chance to bring the truth out. Now I’m able to speak to the truth sometime, and someone will believe me. It was 30 years before I was interviewed. And when I was interviewed, they said I “alleged.” So I feel good that the truth is out, some of the truth is out, and believable.

AMY GOODMAN: What did it mean to you to be standing there at the White House between the president and the vice president as you remembered that fateful night?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: Well, here I’m standing among some of the greatest people in the world, people who have a voice, people who can speak to the issues. And I felt comfortable, I felt relaxed, knowing that we were making progress.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2000, I spoke to Mamie Till-Mobley, your aunt, mother of Emmett Till, reflecting on the painful moment when she learned about her son’s murder.

MAMIE TILL-MOBLEY: When we knew that Emmett was dead, our first action — we couldn’t take time to cry. As I announced to the family what was happening, of course there were screams. People were hitting the floor, and the hysteria was setting in. I remember standing, announcing that “We don’t have time to cry now. We’ve got to do something. I don’t know what to do, and you’ve got to help me come to make some decisions.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mamie Till-Mobley. And it’s quite amazing, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., that it’s not just an Emmett Till memorial; it’s also the memorial to the most determined mother, perhaps, on Earth. I mean, Mamie Till-Mobley, when she demanded that the casket be open for the funeral and the wake for people to see her son’s distended, brutalized head, and that picture that went into Jet magazine, the bravery and what this inspired. Right? This was the summer before Rosa Parks sat down on the bus. She was so sickened by these photos and the horror of what had happened to Emmett. And then the 1963 March on Washington, August 28th. People may not realize that was set for August 28th because that was the day Emmett Till was lynched. Can you talk about how his death — his mother said he’s going to die a hero — has shaped so much of the civil rights movement of today?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: Mamie and I both were raised in a very strong faith atmosphere. I pastor the church that started in her mother’s house in 1926 now. She was well prepared. It was like she was ready for this. And at the same time, there was a little confusion there. But she was prepared to step up and do what she did because of her religious background. And you should read, and everybody should have the opportunity to read, her reconciliation speech of 2003. The country, the leaders, the world leaders should read that. I mean, you’ll get a better idea how she is prepared to do what she did. Great woman.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you share with us a cherished memory you have of your cousin? He had come to Money, Mississippi, to be with you, with his other cousins, with his aunt and uncle, to get out of the Chicago heat. What do you remember most about Emmett? And what did you call him?



REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: When you mentioned his name, I was trying to turn so that you could see his face. He has a magnetic smile. If you can see it there?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we can. For people who are listening, the Reverend is moving over because there’s a large black-and-white photo of Bobo, of Emmett Till.

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: That’s Bobo, stuttered every day, all day of his life. He understood he was the center of attraction. He was an innate leader, never was at loss for fun, never had a bad day in his life. And when you mention his name, you have to laugh. If you know Bobo, you got to laugh. He paid people to tell him jokes. And he lived a good, full life for a 14-year old.

AMY GOODMAN: And is that you on the other side of that picture?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: Yeah, the big guy back there, that’s me. At that time, I think he probably was 12, and I probably was 14. Two years later, he was gone.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., we thank you so much for being with us, as you just got back from Washington for that proclamation, that announcement of the three-part national monument that honors Emmett Till and your aunt, Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s, Bobo’s mother. Thank you so much for being with us.

That does it for our show. A very happy birthday to Rob Young!

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