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Honoring Emmett Till’s life — and his mother’s legacy

Medill professor announces the creation of a new institute to “reach one another, to teach one another”

emmett till
Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till, 1950, Library of Congress.

November 23 marks the 100th birthday of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was brutally lynched in the Mississippi Delta in 1955. Her decision to “let the world see” the mutilated remains of her son in Jet magazine and in an open-casket funeral is credited as the catalyst for the modern civil rights movement.

To preserve the memory and historical significance of the life and death of Till and the legacy of his mother, Northwestern University professor Christopher Benson — with surviving members of the Till family — has announced the creation of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Institute. Several relatives and friends of the Till family will serve on the institute’s board of directors.

“Mamie Till-Mobley opened that casket and opened our eyes,” Benson said. “She wanted to make sure we could never turn away again from our responsibility for racial reconciliation. If she were alive today, Mother Mobley would see something quite familiar in the racial violence that comes from a fear of change.”

The focus of the institute is youth-oriented programming that contributes to a deeper understanding of the social issues confronting the nation and encourages enlightened discourse and participation in a multicultural democracy.

“Mother Mobley would want us to explore new ways to reach one another, to teach one another,” Benson said.

Several projects already are in motion as part of a year-long commemoration of Till and his mother.

  • Participation as consultants in a six-part limited ABC-TV series, “Women of the Movement,” based on the Mamie Till-Mobley story, along with a three-part companion ABC documentary on the history and significance of Emmett Till. The production, which is scheduled to air beginning Jan. 6, 2022, acquired the television rights to Till-Mobley’s autobiography. Jay-Z and Will Smith are among the executive producers. The showrunner is Marrisa Jo Cerar, also of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
  • Collaboration with Boston-based Facing History and Ourselves in association with Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to develop a high school curriculum unit based on the Emmett Till story.
  • Benson, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr., Emmett’s cousin and best friend, Dr. Marvel Parker and Dave Tell, professor of communications studies at the University of Kansas, are among those serving as advisors in the development of a traveling exhibition designed by the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Professor Tell is the creator of the Emmett Till Memory Project and mobile app.
  • Continued discussions with the National Parks Conservancy on the establishment of a non-contiguous national park in the Mississippi Delta and on Chicago’s South Side, in honor of Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till.
  • Continued development of a mobile app guiding users through historic sites in the Mississippi Delta and Chicago’s South Side, with narrative on the history of the Emmett Till lynching and aftermath.
  • The design and erection of a national monument in honor of Emmett Till
  • A Congressional Gold Medal honoring Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till. A bill has been introduced by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Institute management and board:

  • Marvel Parker, executive director (member, board of trustees, Summit, Illinois, wife of the Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr., cousin, best friend of Emmett Till, and a survivor of the night of terror when Emmett was taken.
  • Christopher Benson, president (associate professor, Medill School of Journalism, Media Integrated Marketing Communications; co-author with Mamie Till-Mobley, “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America,” Random House, 2003)
  • Ollie Gordon, vice president (educator; cousin of Emmett Till; goddaughter of Mamie Till-Mobley)
  • Patrick Weems, treasurer (executive director, Emmett Till Interpretive Center, Summit, Mississippi)
  • Joseph Olchefske, secretary (former superintendent of public schools, Seattle, Washington)
  • Mike Small (educator, longtime friend of Mamie Till-Mobley)
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