Family Members of Emmett Till and Ida B. Wells Respond to Anti-Lynching Law

On Tuesday, President Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. This marks the culmination of efforts to make lynching an federal crime. We’re joined by Emmett Till’s cousin and best friend, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., who was 16 years old when he witnessed Till’s abduction from his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi, prior to his brutal killing. Parker recalls the night of Till’s abduction and says, almost 70 years later, he is “thankful” for the new law, while acknowledging that “it shouldn’t have taken that long.” We also speak with author and public historian Michelle Duster, who spoke at Tuesday’s bill signing and is the great-granddaughter of the pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells. “Finally, in 2022, we have justice. We have laws put in place that were fought for so long ago,” says Duster, who thinks the law is “better late than never.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Tuesday’s signing of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act by President Biden culminated efforts to make federal lynching a federal crime. This was more than a century ago. The legislation was named after Emmett, a 14 year-old Black teenager who was abducted and tortured to death in Mississippi in 1955. He was accused in a whistling incident at a white woman in the store. Speakers at Tuesday’s bill signing included Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, a legendary anti-lynching journalist.

MICHELLE DUSTER: Dan and I are honored to be here and represent our great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who once said, “Our country’s national crime is lynching.” She was born enslaved in 1862 Holly Springs, Mississippi, the same state where 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched 93 years later. … And in 1898, in response to the lynching of Postmaster Frazier Baker in Lake City, South Carolina, she visited President William S. McKinley right here in Washington to urge him to make lynching a federal crime. Since my great-grandmother’s visit to the White House 124 years ago, there have been over 200 attempts to get legislation enacted. … But we finally stand here today, generations later, to witness this historic moment of President Biden signing the Emmett Till anti-lynching bill into law.

AMY GOODMAN:Emmett Till, then 14, was brutally murdered in August 1955. He had been accused of wolf-whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, and dragged out of his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi, in the middle of the night, where his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, had sent him from Chicago for the summer. His severely beaten and disfigured body, weighed down with a 75-pound cotton fan tied to him with barbed wire, was pulled from the Tallahatchie River several days later. The Leflore County sheriff attempted to force the immediate burial of Emmett Till, but Mamie Till intervened and paid almost a year’s salary for his body to be shipped back to Chicago. There, the funeral director refused to open the box for her to view her son’s corpse. “Give me a hammer,” Mamie Till demanded. He relented and allowed her to view Emmett’s mutilated remains. The nation was in a state of shock at the time. Mamie Till-Mobley demanded Emmett have an open-casket burial. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” she said.

This is Mamie till-Mobley speaking during the documentary The Untold Story of EmmettLouis TillShe describes what she saw. Her description is very graphic. A warning to our listeners and viewers: At the end of the excerpt, you see what Mamie Till wanted the world to see: Emmett Till’s mutilated face.

MAMIE TILLMOBLEY:I saw that his tongue was clogged and that it was lying on his chin. I saw that the eye was out, and it was located about halfway between the cheek and the chin. I looked at the eye and it was gone. I noticed that the bridge of his nose looked like it had been cut by a meat cutter. …

I looked at Mr. Rayner, who wanted to know if I was going to open the casket. I said, “Oh, yes, we’re going to open the casket.” He said, “Well, Ms. Bradley, do you want me to do something for the face? Want me to try to fix it up?” I said, “No. Let the people see what I’ve seen.” I said, “I want the world to see this, because there’s no way I can tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, speaking in the documentary The Untold Story of EmmettLouis Till. Mamie Till’s decision helped draw attention to lynching. Her 100th birthday would have been last November.

For more, we’re joined by two guests in Chicago. The Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. is Emmett Till’s cousin, his best friend. Reverend Parker was 16 years old when he witnessed Emmett Till’s abduction from his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi. Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter to pioneering investigative journalist Ida B., is also with us. Wells, who in 2020 was recognized with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her, quote, “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” Michelle Duster is an author, professor, public historian, an advocate for racial and gender justice.

We are happy to welcome you both. Democracy Now!Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. As we just listened as Mamie Till-Mobley, your aunt, described what happened to your best friend, your cousin who was two years older than you. I wanted to go to him. If you could go back to that night in 1955, still so vivid with you — and I apologize for asking you to do this — to talk about what took place, and the impact, not only on your family but on the world?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: Yes, it’s kind of hard to understand what it was like in Mississippi at that time; if you didn’t live there and experience it, it just seemed unreal. After the incident at the store, which is on a Wednesday, early Sunday morning, about 2:30, I heard the people talking about what happened at the store: “I see you’ve got two kids — two guys here from Chicago, and want to talk to the fat boy that did the talk at the store.” And right away, having been raised — my formative years were spent in the South, and I was well entrenched in the ways and mores of the South. I started praying. I said, “God, we’re getting ready to die. These people are fixing to kill us.” I know people that had been killed before. My uncle lived across the street from the scene where people were hanging. My dad had to go to bed with his gun over night. Nobody came. It didn’t work out. And I knew where I was, and I just said, “I’m getting ready to die.” So I just started praying. And when death is imminent, you just think of all the bad things you’ve ever done, and I knew I was not in good standing with God, so I just started saying, “God, if you just let me live, I’m going to do right.” I didn’t call my grandfather; I knew he could not help me in Mississippi in 1955.

So, they didn’t know what room I was in. It’s dark as a thousand midnights. You couldn’t see your hand before your face. And it’s large landowner’s home, former landowner’s home. I heard them coming towards me and they carried a flashlight and a pistol in each hand. I’m shaking like a leaf on a tree. And I close my eyes, just thinking, “This is it. I’m going to be shot.” And, of course, they went by me. And I woke. They were passing by me. They moved to the third bedroom and found Emmett lying in bed with my Uncle Simeon (12 years old). And they got Emmett up. And he put his socks on. It was a hellish room. The atmosphere was filled terror and fear. He finally put his shoes on and they went with him. My grandmother tried to pay them but my grandfather begged them to not take him. And that was our last sighting of him alive.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of Emmett Till’s great-uncle. This is the Reverend Mose Wright speaking about Emmett’s abduction. It’s from that same documentary, The Untold Story Of Emmett TillKeith Beauchamp directed the film.

REV. MOSE WRIGHT:This is Mose Wright. I am Emmett Louis Till’s uncle. Sunday morning at 2:30 am, someone knocked on the door. And I said, “Who is it?” And he said, “This is Mr. Bryant. I want to talk with you and the boy.” And when I opened the door, there was a man standing with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other hand. He then asked me if I had ever met two boys from Chicago. I told him, “I have.” And he said, “I wants the boy that done all that talk.”

AMY GOODMAN:This was Emmett Till’s great-uncle, as you can see in the documentary. The Untold Story of EmmettLouis Till. This is an incredibly disturbing story. Roy Bryant, the husband to Carolyn Bryant, was brought to trial. He claimed that she had been whittled at in the store. J.W. Bryant was her brother-in-law. Milam. Now, the amazing story that isn’t often told, two brave activists from the Mississippi NAACPMedgar Evers, Amzie Moore, and Till were involved in Till’s disappearance. They first searched for the boy, then sought eyewitnesses to the crime. Despite the eyewitnesses, the jury was all-white and all-male and acquitted all the suspects. One member of the jury claimed they reached their decision in minutes, but waited for an hour to appear as though they had deliberated. Medgar Evers would be assassinated later. Bryant and Milam then sold their story to the media after they were acquitted. Take a lookMagazine for $4,000, which is the same amount Mamie Till paid to send her son home. This is equivalent to over $40,000 in 2022. They confessed that they had killed him. Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr.: What was your response on the Emmett Till Antilynching Act which has been signed into law 70 years later? This is after more than 200 attempts to get an anti-lynching bill over the past century. What are your thoughts?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: I have great commendations for those who had the courage and the fire and the guts in their belly to do what’s right. These men have stood up for what they believed in over 200 times. It speaks volumes, both for them and for America. Let us not forget that justice is a slow-moving machine. They did the job. And sometimes you’re tempted to have bitterness: Why did it take so long? And it shouldn’t have taken that long. But we appreciate it, and we’re thankful for what was done and when it was done.

AMY GOODMAN:Michelle Duster is welcome to join me in this conversation. I mean, again, today we’re joined by two historic figures. Yes, we’re joined by Reverend Wheeler Parker, the best friend and cousin of Emmett Till, and Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, a pioneering anti-lynching journalist, was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, in 2020. You were the one we just watched at White House as you signed the act. What are your thoughts today?

MICHELLE DUSTER:Reverend Wheeler’s words are mine. I mean, it’s just amazing — Reverend Parker — just the fact that, you know, finally, in 2022, we have justice; we have laws put in place that were fought for so long ago. But it’s better to be late than never. And we can all hope that the future will bring more justice to hate-based and racist-based crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about your great-grandmother, Ida B. This remarkable figure in American history is Wells. And talk about how lynching — what the original lynching that motivated her more than 100 years ago, of her three friends. Discuss what happened.

MICHELLE DUSTER: Right. Well, in 1892, three of my great-grandmother’s friends owned a grocery store, which rivaled a white-owned grocery store. They were lynched for their success, and the other person decided to eliminate them. And she knew that they were not guilty of any crime, and so she wanted to — it started her investigating other lynchings to see how many other innocent people were being killed.

AMY GOODMAN:Your great-grandmother visited Washington in 1898 to urge President William McKinley to make lynching a federal offense. This was over 120 years ago. This was in 1898. Can you talk to us about that moment and your great-grandmother’s life before and after that moment? What was McKinley’s response? It is hard to believe that it is 2022, after 200 attempts, where the anti-lynching legislation was signed.

MICHELLE DUSTER: Right. Well, when Frazier Baker — he was the postmaster in Lake City, South Carolina, which meant he was a federal employee. This was a very prestigious position for an African American man. He was lynched by the white community because they were uncomfortable with an African American in that position. My great-grandmother contacted William S. McKinley, asking him to make lynching federal. This was because the victim was a federal employee and needed federal protection.

AMY GOODMAN:Can you please explain the meaning of this law? I mean, if someone is murdered and they are tried and found guilty, they’re found guilty of murder. Talk about what the law does.

MICHELLE DUSTER:It makes it a federal hate crime. This means that any crime that falls under this category would be investigated by the federal government, and not just the state. And that’s significant, because there have been plenty of cases and examples — when only local officials investigate a crime, then sometimes justice is not meted out appropriately.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask if you have a message for the three Republicans in the House — Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas — who voted against the bill?

MICHELLE DUSTER:History will, hopefully, take care of that and their names won’t be forgotten like those who opposed the law.

AMY GOODMAN:Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. has 67 years to go until your best friend and cousin was lynched and was brutalized.

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.:I believe history will remember them and they will be remembered in the history. And I don’t — tried to understand. I haven’t heard why they voted against it. I would love to know why. We must pray for people like this. And the results, with the percentage we got to turn out, almost 100%, they don’t even really count.

AMY GOODMAN:What does this anti lynching law have to do with police killings of George Floyd or other killings such as Ahmaud Abery? His murderer was also a former officer of the police force. Reverend Wheeler Parker

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.:OK. Do you want to know more?


REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.:We know that they were guilty before the law was signed. And what we see there, in America, how far we’ve come and how much work we’ve got to do, because that spirit is still out there. While law can make you behave better it does not legislate your heart. And I was just so appreciative of the outcome in George Floyd’s case. We had diversity protests the next day. And Arbery in Georgia, I was stunned that these men had life. It’s not the South that I know. So we’ve made a lot of progress. And I want to encourage everyone: Don’t give up. Keep pushing, using the law and not violence, not taking it into your own hands.

AMY GOODMAN:Can you speak about your desire to create an Emmett Till-Mobley National Historic Park in their honor?

REV. WHEELER PARKER JR.: Yes. We are looking forward. We’ve met and we’ve talked with people. I believe that this will happen. These are things we need. Some people say, “We’re doing better. Why bring it up? Why do those kind of things?” If we don’t do it, if we forget, we’re subject to repeat and do the same thing we did before. So we need these benchmarks or signs, kind of like on the highway when you’re driving. They need to post that sign every now and then and let you know what’s going on. We need that sign. I believe it will be done. We are making progress. As I said, justice wheels grind but they grind very slowly. So don’t get impatient. Don’t get discouraged. Keep trying. Ida B. It was started by Wells. She didn’t get to see it, but her great-granddaughter got to see it. So we must be there for the long-term.

AMY GOODMAN:I just wanted to say thank you for being here. And I don’t know how many people realize that A. Philip Randolph, the renowned African American labor organizer, civil rights activist, chose the eighth anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, August 28th, 1963, for the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King would deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Thank you so much, both, for being with us, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till’s cousin, best friend, and Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells. Michelle Duster was the author, professor, historian, and advocate of racial/gender justice. She spoke at the signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.

Next up, YouTube has deleted the entire archive of Chris Hedges’ Emmy-nominated television show Get in touchHe hosted the show on RT America (a news channel funded in part by Russia). We’ll get an update from the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist about what happened. Chris Hedges just returned from the wedding of Julian Assange (WikiLeaks founder) in Belmarsh, the maximum-security prison. Stay with me.