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John Lewis Speaks on Protests in Posthumous Op-Ed: ‘Emmett Till Was My George Floyd’
In the essay, published on the day of his funeral, the civil rights icon noted that millions around the world came together to “demand respect for human dignity.”
CHICAGO – The church where an estimated 100,000 people filed past the open casket of Emmett Till, which exposed the brutality of racism in the U.S. and helped catalyze the civil rights movement, was listed among America’s most endangered historic places Thursday.
The funeral and extended visitation for Till held September 3-6, 1955, at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago’s South Side Bronzeville neighborhood were “pivotal events in American history,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a D.C.-based nonprofit which included the site on its list of endangered sites this year.
The church is listed as a Chicago Landmark but has severe structural issues. It’s only minimally used by the congregation and needs rehabilitation funding and partnerships, the National Trust for Historic Preservation said.
Till’s family and representatives of the church commended the site’s inclusion on the list, saying in a statement that the move “will raise much-needed awareness to the condition of the iconic Civil Rights site and accelerate efforts to stabilize and rehabilitate the building.”
Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin and the last living witness to the events of 1955, told USA TODAY he hoped that putting the church on the list would draw more attention to the landmark.
“I could remember as if it was yesterday what his mother said, ‘I hope you did not die in vain.’ And that has stuck with me,” Parker said. “This effort that they’ve been doing is a reminder that Emmett Till speaks from the grave. By them putting this out on the national register, I think it’s a reminder, and she would be very happy to know that something is being done to depict what racism was like then.”
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Fourteen-year-old Till was visiting relatives near Money, Mississippi, in August 1955, when he was brutally lynched and mutilated after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. Two men were later acquitted on murder charges, and a grand jury refused to indict them on kidnapping charges. Years later, the white woman involved in the incident said she had been lying when she claimed Till had touched her.
Till’s body arrived back in Chicago on Sept. 2 at the A. A. Rayner Funeral home in Bronzeville, historian Dave Tell writes in the Emmett Till Memory Project, a website and app that offers virtual tours of key landmarks in Till’s life.
“The casket arrived locked, sealed with the state seal of Mississippi, and accompanied by orders that the casket was not to be opened. If Mississippi authorities could not bury the body in a nameless cotton field, they hoped their seal would keep Till’s story under wraps. It did not work,” Tell writes.
It was at that funeral home that Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, uttered the famous phrase “Let the world see what they did to my boy,” according to Tell. She decided to hold an open-casket viewing at the congregation she and her mother belonged to and gave permission to the black press to photograph her son’s mutilated remains. The images were circulated in black newspapers and magazines.
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“The two-thousand seat auditorium was filled to capacity for the funeral, and several thousand more listened to the 90-minute service on loudspeakers set up outside the church,” Tell writes. “The following 48 hours saw an estimated one-hundred thousand mourners file past the body.”
Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ underwent a major renovation in 1991 and was listed as a Chicago Landmark in 2006. It is still in use today.
“Roberts Temple, I started going there 73 years ago, and it was like our mother church. It was our mecca,” said Parker, who stopped by the church Thursday. “I’m crying. I’m too old to be crying now.”
The church was founded in 1916 and is known as the “mother of all of the Churches of God in Christ in Illinois,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was also a central place of political organizing for many who migrated to Chicago from the South during the early 20th century, the organization said.
Parker and his wife Marvel Parker have been campaigning to address the conditions of the church for more than a year. They said the church is currently working to assess the building’s condition and develop a rehabilitation strategy that addresses its structural issues, restores its 1955 appearance and allows the building to continue its use as a house of worship and community anchor in Chicago.
Keith Beauchamp, whose documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” helped inspire the Justice Department to reopen the Till case in 2004, said he was troubled to see the church fall into disrepair.
“To now see that this iconic church is now on the endangered list … it’s metaphoric to what we’re seeing in our democracy today,” Beauchamp said. “It is quite disturbing considering how much a landmark that church is for Chicago and the symbolism of what it stands for.”
Hundreds of Americans have voiced Till’s name this summer. Protesters marching in honor of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more Black men and women killed in the U.S. have invoked Till’s legacy.
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me,” Lewis wrote.
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When thousands of people attended the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28, held on the 65th anniversary of Till’s lynching, many people held posters and wore shirts emblazoned with Till’s name and image. Speakers at the rally, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, spoke about Till.
A week after the anniversary march, Till’s two-flat home in Chicago’s South Side Woodlawn neighborhood was granted preliminary landmark status. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks unanimously voted to approve preliminary status for the home, where Till moved with his mother and her husband when he was ten years old.
“As our country goes through a painful soul-searching in reaction to the murders of George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others, granting this dignity and reverence to the place where Emmett Till was raised is a small but necessary step toward national acknowledgment of the violence that has long defined the Black experience in America,” the Society of Architectural Historians Heritage Conservation Committee said in a letter of support for the landmark designation.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, an organization that supported the campaign to designate the church as a landmark and is working with the Till family, said he hopes the home earns full landmark designation by February of next year for Black History Month.
“It’s more important than ever to honor, recognize and preserve these buildings to tell that civil rights history, and to make these part of a national consciousness,” Miller said.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been publishing the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” report for 33 years to “shed light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage,” according to the organization. More than 300 places have been listed, and fewer than 5% of listed sites have been lost, it said.
“Racial Reconciliation begins with telling the truth, and part of the truth-telling process involves the observation of moments that have shaped our culture and society,” said Benjamin Saulsberry, museum director at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. “We hope this designation will help preserve and restore this vital site in American history.”
Emmett Till’s lynching ignited a civil rights movement: Historians say George Floyd’s death could do the same