U.S. President Joe Biden designated a new national monument Tuesday to memorialize the racist 1950s lynching of Emmett Till, and challenged Americans to confront their dark history or risk repeating the past.
"We should know about our country. We should know everything," Biden said at a White House ceremony attended by lawmakers and Till family members, including the last surviving witness to his abduction, prior to torture and murder.
The monument honors Till, a 14-year-old Black boy snatched by white men in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white shopkeeper's wife in Mississippi. It also honors his mother Mamie Till-Mobley, who turned the tragedy into a focal point for the nascent civil rights movement.
Signed on the 82nd anniversary of Till's birth, Biden's proclamation preserves three historic sites in Illinois and Mississippi.
One is the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, where a huge crowd viewed Till's mutilated body at the funeral after Mamie Till-Mobley insisted on leaving the casket open, saying Americans should see what had been done.
Another will be the Tallahatchie, Mississippi, courthouse where an all-white jury acquitted the men accused of murdering Till, although they would later admit to the crime.
The spot on the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi where Till's battered body was eventually discovered also enters the memorial. Signs commemorating the brutal event there and in other locations around Tallahatchie County have repeatedly been defaced and vandalized over the years.
Quite a journey'
Joining the audience in the ornate Indian Treaty Room was Wheeler Parker, a pastor now in his 80s, who was Till's best friend and cousin when, aged 16, he witnessed him taken to his death.
Parker spoke of that "night of terror" but reflected that changes in the United States had brought him all the way to standing alongside the president in the White House.
It's "been quite a journey for me from the darkness to the light," he said.
An emotional Biden spoke quietly about the Till story, something he has long taken an interest in, including hosting a screening of the 2022 biopic movie "Till" early this year.
He then connected the nearly seven-decades-old case to recent controversies over race, slavery and more contemporary LGBTQ issues.
Without naming names, Biden -- who at 80 was born in to the same generation as the slain Mississippi teenager -- took shots at a chorus of Republicans who complain that leftist ideology is teaching Americans to be ashamed of their past.
One of the most prominent right-wing voices, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is seeking to challenge Biden in the 2024 presidential election on a campaign of fighting the "virus" of leftist "woke" attitudes.
Mirroring a broader right-wing push around the country, Florida's state government has sought to weed out school textbooks seen as overly emphasizing LGBTQ issues, race and the oppression of Black people.
DeSantis himself suggested last Friday that slaves benefited from job training while they were the property of white owners. "They're probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being (an enslaved) blacksmith into doing things later in life," DeSantis said.
Biden said the Till monument matters because Americans "should know everything: the good, the bad, the truth — who we are as a nation."
Ignoring extremism, Biden said, won't make it disappear. "It just hides. It hides under the rocks."
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who is Black, said the Emmett Till monument was part of "the broader story of American Black oppression" and survival.
"It's an important moment," she said.