The death of young Emmett Till is considered one of the pivotal markers of the civil rights movement. The bravery of the teen’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, in the mid-1950s in exposing what had been done to her son helped jump-start African-Americans’ fight for equality by showing in graphic detail the horror of racial violence in the Jim Crow South.
Now Congress intends to posthumously honor both mother and son with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor government can bestow, seven decades after Till’s horrific lynching.
The act, cited as the “Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2021” was recently passed by both the Senate and House of Representatives, the Congressional Record shows, and now sits on President Joe Biden’s desk for the final approval.
While the president has not released a statement on the bill, in March, he signed a bill named for Till that made lynching a federal crime, where those convicted will face up to 30 years in prison.
The bill had bipartisan support and was sponsored by Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who introduced it to his peers on Feb. 25, 2021.
Burr said, “It is only right that we posthumously award the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, in recognition of the grave injustices they faced and the indelible impact they left on America’s Civil Rights movement.”
It was introduced in the House in 2021 by Democratic Rep. Bobby L. Rush of Illinois, The New York Times reports.
Burr noted it was an “honor” for him to reach across the aisle and work with Sen. Cory Booker, Reps. Rush and Bacon, and the late Alvin Sykes to get the bill passed.
On Wednesday, Dec. 21, the bill finally pushed through both branches of Congress, when a motion passed the bill in the House, almost a year after the Senate unanimously passed it in January. The lawmakers agreed to the bill becoming law “without objection.”
Rush spoke reverently about the importance of the bill, reminding the world of the terrible crime perpetrated against the child from his state in 1955, and how the boy’s mother took a brave stand to try to obtain justice after his killing.
“The gruesome and unjust murder of Emmett Till serves as one of the most well-known examples of a lynching in American history,” Rush said. “Without the courage and determination of his mother, Mamie, in keeping his casket open during his funeral, the world would not know what happened to him or the full horrors of white supremacy.”
In August 1955, Till, 14, traveled from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta to visit his great-uncle Moses Wright. While there, Till went into a store in Money, Mississippi, and purchased some gum from the white clerk working behind the counter.
The stories about the encounter differ, but according to the customs of Mississippi at the time, Till broke social norms.
His cousin and another Black teen said when it came down to paying the woman, identified as Carolyn Bryant, he placed the money in her hand. At that time in history, Blacks were expected to leave it on the counter and not make eye contact with the white person.
Bryant’s recollection was that Till got fresh with her and accused him of flirtatiously whistling at her.
Four days later, the teen was kidnapped from his uncle’s home in the middle of the night, beaten, and lynched by Bryant’s husband Roy, his half-brother J.W. Milam, and several other never-to-be-indicted perpetrators, who left his mutilated body to rot in a local river.
A national search for the boy was launched by the NAACP, law enforcement, and other stakeholders, and when his body was discovered three days later he was unrecognizable. His wrists were smashed, his skull was crushed, his eyes were gouged out and his face was disfigured.
“The corpse of Emmett Till was discovered 3 days later in the Tallahatchie River and his murderers were acquitted despite Moses Wright providing an eyewitness testimony that the men on trial kidnapped Emmett Till,” the bill reads.
Roy Bryant and Miilam would later admit to the killing in an interview for Look magazine.
“Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, demonstrated her love for her son and her courage and strength in suffering in the days that followed as she brought the body of Emmett Till back to Chicago for burial and demanded an open casket funeral, which drew more than 50,000 attendees,” it continues, adding she “allowed a photograph to be taken of Emmett Till in his casket, which was shown throughout the world.”
Before her death in 2003, Till-Mobley continued to fight for her son. She served as chair and co-founder of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign and worked to have her son’s murder case reopened.
As a result of her advocacy, in 2004 the Emmett Till Justice Campaign led to the successful joint investigation by the state of Mississippi, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007. It was later signed into law by President George W. Bush.
Another fruit of her efforts is the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
In the same year of the Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, the original casket used to bury Till was placed on display at the National Museum of American History and Culture. It remains there. Should the bill be signed by the president, the museum will house the medal after all of the necessary ceremonies are complete.
As the nation pauses to acknowledge the pair, the fight to arrest Bryant, the woman at the center of his murder, is still a hot-button topic.
In August , a grand jury in Mississippi declined to indict Bryant (who remarried and bears the name Bryant Donham) after the revelation that in an unpublished memoir she had placed herself at the scene of Till’s kidnapping in 1955. She was never tried in the 1950s because law enforcement said they could not locate her, according to the back of a recently discovered warrant from 1955 that called for her arrest.
After seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses, the grand jury said there was not enough evidence to indict Bryant on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter.
On social media, as recently as Dec. 21, people are calling for Bryant to stand trial after a 97-year-old Nazi war criminal was convicted this week.
Till’s slaying remains an unpunished crime.