Activists hope to make church of Emmett Till's funeral a historic site

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Historians call Till's story one of the most signifcant early statements about civil rights.

CHICAGO -- In 1955 in a small, nondescript church, the mutilated body of 14-year-old Emmett Till was put on display in an open casket because his mother wanted the nation to see what racism looked like.

Historians and activists call that one of the most significant early statements about civil rights and now, a half-century later, there is a movement to turn that church, the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, into a historic city landmark.

"This is part of the civil rights trail," said Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago. "The civil rights trail begins in Chicago and it began in this church."

Influencing millions

Emmett was tortured and murdered in Mississippi, where he had gone to visit relatives, for whistling at a white woman.

His body was brought back to his hometown, but before he was buried his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, let the nation see what had been done to him.

Tens of thousands of mourners filed by the casket on Sept. 3, 1955, and millions more saw the photographs in Jet Magazine.

Among those influenced by the images was Rosa Parks. About three months later, in Montgomery, Ala., she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, one of the pivotal acts of defiance in American history.

"I once asked Mrs. Parks, 'Why didn't you go to the back of the bus?"' said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "She said, 'I thought about Emmett Till and I couldn't go back."'

If Parks was the mother of the civil rights movement, Jackson said, "Emmett Till was the martyred son of it."

Across the nation, houses, churches, hotels and other structures bound together by the struggle for equality are being designated as landmarks, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and turned into museums.

Just this year, 15 Alabama churches where civil rights activities took place were listed on the historic register. New York's Hotel Theresa, where black entertainers stayed when most hotels turned them away, was placed on the register. An International Civil Rights Center and Museum is being built in Greensboro, N.C., where four North Carolina A&T State University students sat down at a segregated lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960.

"There has been a push in the last few years," said Alexis Abernathy, a National Register of Historic Places historian. "Everybody is really looking at [sites] in the context of the civil rights movement."

A historical perspective

One reason is simply the passage of time. "Enough time has passed to put a historical perspective on these events," Abernathy said.

Also, communities are seeing the advantage of preserving and promoting these sites. Places like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968, and Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site are major tourist attractions.

A proposal to give the church landmark status is likely to come before the Chicago city council early next year.

"The whole rebirth of civil rights tourism is clearly a phenomenon," said Amelia Parker, executive director of the museum in Greensboro.

However, although Chicago was a major destination for millions of blacks who came from the South during the Great Migration early in the 20th century, the city has lacked a well-known landmark from the civil rights movement.

Fine said few people even knew the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ still existed. It was not until federal prosecutors reopened the investigation into Emmett Till's death that the church returned to public attention.

A proposal to give the church landmark status is likely to come before the City Council early next year.

Harold Lucas, president of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council in Chicago, said the Roberts Temple church could spur interest in a host of local sites that played major roles in black history.

"History is so very dense in this area of Chicago," he said. "If people come to study the civil rights, we can link them to a broader area and they can discover that there is a full pallet of experiences there."

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