USA Today: Lawmakers push to make civil rights landmarks national monuments

By Deborah Barfield Berry — Every year, Deborah Watts and other relatives of Emmett Till  make a 30-mile pilgrimage through the heart of Mississippi tracing the path of the 14-year-old  who was murdered there more than 60 years ago.

One stop is the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, where two men accused of killing Till in 1955 were acquitted.

“It’s a painful part of our past,’’ said Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. “We do it for the purpose of remembering, never forgetting and educating ourselves and others on what really happened.”

Educating the nation about Till’s death, which became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, couldsoon become an expanded mission for the National Park Service.

The park service is considering whether to designate the courthouse and other civil rights sites in Mississippi as national monuments and include them in the federal park system.

The effort to highlight key sites in Emmett Till’s life and deathis part of a broader push by congressional lawmakers and others to highlight the importance of civil rights landmarks in the nation’s history.

“We can’t speak about civil rights unless we speak about Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till Mobley,” said Watts. “It was the catalyst for starting the civil rights movement … We’ve got to tell the truth about what happened.’’

Mobley had an open casket funeral in Chicago to show the world how Till, who had been visiting family in Mississippi, had been brutally beaten and shot in the head. Witnesses said two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till, whose body was later found floating in the Tallahatchie River.

Democratic Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Terri Sewell of Alabama are pushing for significant but sometimes little-recognized civil rights sites — including courthouses, homes, jails and even bus stops  — to be included in the national park system.

If successful, the change would bring more national attention and greater preservation protections to these important landmarks.Most of the locations are in the Deep South, which was ground zero of the movement.

“There’s a general interest around making sure that history reflects accurately what went on,’’ said Thompson, whose district is home to several key civil rights sites. “Very few people dispute the fact that African American and the civil rights history in the South specifically has gone unaccounted for in many instances.”

There have been other recent efforts to recognize the turbulent history of African Americans, particularly in the South. Just last month, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a lynching memorial, opened in Alabama. Earlier this year, civil rights activists celebrated the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 in the nation’s capital, has an entire floor dedicated to the civil rights movement.

Thompson said there is “no better custodian” than the National Park Service to help restore and maintain civil rights sites.

“We’ve been working with them for quite some while trying to get a real focus on that part of Mississippi’s history that not only needs to be told, but needs to accurately reflect what really happened,’’ said Thompson.

The National Park Service will host six public meetings starting May 7 in Mississippi to discuss requests to preserve civil rights sites there.

Among the sites under consideration are the home of Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP who was shot in his driveway in June 1963, and the Old Neshoba County Jail in Philadelphia, where three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — were held before being murdered later by members of the Ku Klux Klan in June 1964.

Congress passed a bill last year to conduct a study on the historical significance of civil rights sites in Mississippi and whether they should be under the National Park Service.  Next week’s meetings are part of that process, which can generally take up to two years. The deadline for public comment is June 1.

Ben West, southeast regional chief of planning for the National Park Service, said civic engagement will play an important role in the outcome. The agency will submit a report to Congress, which will decide whether to approve the designations.

The park service will consider the national significance, the suitability and feasibility of potential sites, including cost, and whether there are other alternatives to managing them.

West said looking at civil rights sites in Mississippi is an important part of “telling the nation’s history.”

West continued, “This is bigger than Mississippi. I think there’s a lot of interest outside the state.”

In Alabama, Sewell and local officials successfully pushed to include civil rights landmarks in the National Park Service system.

Before leaving office in 2017, then-President Obama designated two sites in Alabama as national monuments, including the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston and the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, which includes the 16th Street Baptist Church and the A.G. Gaston Motel.

“Civil rights and voting rights sites are national treasures that tell the story of the movement’s fight for freedom and equality in the face of hate and injustice,’’ Sewell said.

The Bogalusa, La., home of civil rights activist Robert Hicks, who headed the local chapter of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. In March, the National Park Service announced a $500,000 African American civil rights grant to help preserve the home.

South Carolina Reps. James Clyburn, a Democrat, and Mark Sanford, a Republican, introduced a bill last month that would expand the Beaufort National Historic Landmark, among other things.

Last December, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended several sites for national monuments, including the Evers’ home in Mississippi. Separately, a House subcommittee recently approved legislation proposed by Thompson and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that would also formalize that designation, but Republican leaders have not yet brought it to the floor.

Thompson said other sites in Mississippi should also be considered, including the gravesite of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville, the Emmett Till Museum in Glendora and the funeral home in Tutwiler, where Till’s body was brought before being returned to Chicago.

“This part of our history, for me, is personal because so much of who I am was on the backs and lives of people” who fought and died for civil rights, said Thompson. “There’s history there. We can’t ever let it be forgotten.’’

Watts, who makes her annual “Till Trail of Tears and Terror” accompanied by family, journalists and others, applauds the National Park Service and Thompson for wanting the country to remember Till’s death and its impact. But she said it’s still a cold case. No one has been convicted of his murder.

“We are still looking for justice for Emmett,’’ she said. “Coupled with justice for Emmett, I think we would be very honored because the country will remember and hopefully will never forget.”

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