President Joe Biden named a new national monument Tuesday honoring Emmett Till and his mother amid a national debate over how to teach painful facts about American history in classrooms.
“In 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,” Biden said at the White House, where he and members of the Till family gathered to formally approve the new monument.
“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know,” Biden said from the Indian Treaty Room. “We have to learn what we should know. We should know about our country. We should know everything. The good, the bad, the truth. Who we are as a nation.”
Till was a Black teenager whose murder in 1955 helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Biden designated the monument on what would have been Till’s 82nd birthday.
His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral so visitors could see her son’s body, mangled beyond recognition – a decision that bravely resisted sanitizing the brutality of racism, allowing the world to see.
Almost seven decades later, dozens of states have taken steps restricting how issues of race or racism are taught in schools, leading to fresh concern that America’s darkest chapters are being held from students’ view.
The Biden administration has demonstrated new willingness to push back on those new policies, which Biden suggested Tuesday impeded efforts toward reconciliation.
“Only with truth comes healing, justice, repair and another step forward towards forming a more perfect union. We’ve got a hell of a long way to go,” he said.
Speaking before him, Vice President Kamala Harris noted that the nation’s darkest moments would strengthen the country.
“Our history as a nation is born of tragedy and triumph. Of struggle and success,” Harris said. “That is who we are. And as people who love our country, as patriots, we know that we must remember and teach our full history. Even when it is painful, especially when it is painful.”
Harris made a last minute trip to Florida on Friday to respond to new state education guidelines that, in part, require instruction for middle schoolers to include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The guidelines also mention acts of violence “against and by” African Americans.
She addressed the new guidelines again Tuesday.
“Today there are those in our nation who would prefer to erase or even rewrite the ugly parts of our past,” she said. “Those who attempt to teach that enslaved people benefited from slavery. Those who insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, who try to divide our nation with unnecessary debates.”
The new rules were written after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the Stop WOKE Act, which was intended to prevent teachings or mandatory workplace activities that suggest a person is privileged or oppressed based necessarily on their race, color, sex or national origin.
DeSantis, who is running for president, has accused Harris and the White House of misleading the public about the new rules.
Still, Biden’s advisers view the issue as a winning one, particularly as they work to engage a coalition of young voters and voters of color ahead of next year’s election.
“Did you ever think we’d be talking about banning books in America? Banning history? I’m serious,” Biden said in his speech Tuesday.
While Biden has largely focused on his economic agenda as he makes his reelection argument, Harris has emerged as a more forceful voice on cultural issues like race, guns and abortion.
The Biden team’s internal polling has demonstrated enthusiasm among Democrats for speaking out forcefully on issues like education and book bans, ensuing those topics will make a regular appearance on the campaign trail in the months ahead.
Tuesday’s national monument designation, the fourth of Biden’s administration, seeks to ensure a painful event in American racial history isn’t ignored.
Biden himself has used the history of Till’s murder previously to insist on “shining a light” onto dark moments.
“They can’t erase the past, and they shouldn’t,” he said during a screening of the film “Till” earlier this year.
The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument will be centered in Illinois and Mississippi, the states where Till was from and killed, respectively.
A 14-year-old from Chicago, Till was visiting family in Mississippi, when he was beaten and shot to death for allegedly whistling at a White woman. The new monument will encompass three separate sites, an official said, including the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ on Chicago’s South Side, the site of Till’s funeral.
Two additional sites will be in Mississippi: Graball Landing, which is believed to be where Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, where an all-White jury acquitted Till’s murderers.