Photographs of the open casket at Emmett Till’s funeral, a choice his mother insisted on because it would force the world to face what happened to him, showed the 14-year-old boy disfigured from a horrific beating by a group of white vigilantes. They had attacked him based on an unfounded accusation of whistling at a white woman.
Circulating widely via Jet magazine (while more mainstream media institutions deemed it “inappropriate” to publish), the image was the early 20th-century equivalent of a viral video of a racist extrajudicial or police killing.
Just two weeks ago, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation establishing a national monument in honor of Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley across three sites in Mississippi and Illinois. Till’s story, which represents not just one incident of racial violence but a pattern and history of racist vigilante violence, should absolutely be honored and learned from.
Being part of a generation that came of age with a Black president who was, for many of us, more of an icon or symbol than a genuine reflection of systemic change, I am conditioned toward skepticism (maybe even indifference) when it comes to the weight we give symbolic wins. From streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. to a Juneteenth federal holiday to individuals who share our identities in positions of power — we have spent our lives navigating how to discern the symbolic from the real.
Long before any government-recognized symbols highlighting the reality of racial violence, a flag with the words “a man was lynched yesterday” hung boldly outside the NAACP’s headquarters above New York’s bustling Fifth Avenue every time a lynching made news from 1920 to 1938. The ritual continued until the organization was threatened with eviction by their landlord after almost two decades.
On many blocks, in many cities, when people die, communities create their own public memorials — grassroots monuments, if you will — where lives lost might otherwise be forgotten or looked past. In 2014, after police killed and left Michael Brown Jr.’s body lying in a Ferguson, Missouri, street for hours in the hot August sun, a DIY public memorial for Brown emerged. The careful collection of stuffed bears, roses, heart-shaped balloons, altar candles, photograph of Brown in a green cap and gown and poster that read “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” was captured in familiar images that spread across social media.
In the following weeks, the memorial was repeatedly trampled and removed by militarized police there to quell protests, and each time it was lovingly reconstructed. The brutal disrespect for mourning stung the wound of Brown’s murder even for those of us calling for justice from afar.
Fifth Avenue and Ferguson’s “grassroots monuments” challenged, rather than legitimated, the powers that be in their respective times — so much so that they were removed with threats and force.
Just as we have been in practice of erecting our own tributes, communities have long called for the official removal of symbols that represent legacies of violence and for the construction of new ones that uplift other stories about the past. In 2015, racial justice activist Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole outside the South Carolina state capitol to remove a Confederate flag, emphasizing that “symbols of oppression have no place in the 21st century.”
Two years later, community members with the “Take ‘Em Down NOLA” campaign successfully pressured the City of New Orleans to remove three prominent Confederate statues in 2017 and continue to call for the removal of all remaining symbols of Confederacy.
In 2020, young people from Chicago’s Village Leadership Academy were successful in fighting to get the Park District to rename a local park named after an enslaver to instead honor abolitionists Anna and Frederick Douglass. They connected their campaign to the story of a young Black woman, Rekia Boyd, who was killed by an off-duty police officer near the park and the movement that called for justice in her name.
Each of these examples of communities putting forth the need for new or different symbols were directly connected to broader movements advocating for systemic changes to address root causes of unjust violence and loss. The NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign was demanding federal anti-lynching legislation (which would come a full 100 years later but ultimately fail to be the deterrent to racist killings that proponents had hoped). The Ferguson movement called for many police reforms, inducing demilitarization of police and policies to end racial profiling.
A decades-long fight for release of and reparations for survivors of police torture in Chicago resulted in a 2016 reparations ordinance that included not just a public memorial, but financial compensation and counseling for those impacted, a formal apology and a commitment to teach the history of police-perpetrated torture in Chicago Public Schools. The ordinance can be looked to as one model of how to tie symbols that force us to face abuses of the past with material investment that addresses their impact.
Earlier this year, Jordan Neely, a Black man experiencing homelessness and mental illness, was pinned down and choked to death on the subway among dozens of New York City onlookers in what we can understand, quite literally, as a modern-day lynching. Vigilante violence against vulnerable people like Neely persists as an extension of state violence. The same criminal legal system that excused Till’s racially motivated murder has grown exponentially, continuing to disproportionately impact Black and Brown people. On top of that, the racial wealth gap has been steadily increasing since the 1980s, and displacement and lack of access to housing along the lines of race continues to disrupt Black communities in cities across the country. We are far from done with the work of dismantling structural racism or ending racial violence.
Instead of seeing symbols like the newly designated monument dedicated to Till and his mother as measures of progress on their own, we should treat them as entry points and opportunities to examine the society we live in and advocate for more systemic change.
Context always matters — a United States president erecting a monument is a different thing than a community-constructed memorial or a symbol of protest. While there is meaning to us in the former, we must be careful of uncritically accepting symbols as evidence of progress when they are not matched with transformative changes that improve people’s material lives.
Racial justice movements have shifted the political climate enough that Biden’s milieu of Democratic politicians now have political imperatives to look like they are addressing issues of race. One charge of movements, in that context, is to both affirm what symbolic recognition means to people, and then to challenge the public to understand substantive reforms that take power away from harmful systems as the real benchmarks of social change.
As far right leaders work to strip Black history from school curricula, take books dealing with race off library shelves, and take away affirmative action; monuments can serve as important statements about history. If facing the legacy of racism in this country was not threatening to the status quo, right-wingers would not be putting so much effort into restricting that we teach or read about it. The spirit of Mamie Till-Mobley, who made sure the world saw what happened to her son, shows us how powerful it can be when we do just that.
There is a rich tradition of communities at the margins creating symbols, monuments, and memorials to help us face injustice and fight for bigger kinds of change. Let’s draw on that to let the monument to Emmett Till lead a wider set of people to face the deeper roots of racism and join in making long-standing calls for transformative solutions like reparations, massive community investment and social programs, debt cancellation and unraveling our criminal legal system, to name a few.
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