Column: Emmett Till and his mother are icons. DeSantis is just another politician wooing white supremacists

A Confederate monument outside a courthouse
A Confederate monument outside the courthouse where Emmett Till’s killers were found not guilty.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)
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A newly declared national monument honoring the life and story of Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, is being talked about in the context of current events. Understandable, considering that the spirit that tried to oppress them is still a force in American politics and life. Just look to Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.

This week DeSantis cut a third of his campaign staff — the second round of layoffs this month — as it seems fundraising has slowed since he launched his bid in late May. It’s the latest disappointment for a candidate who has spent the last two years trying to woo Donald Trump voters with extreme legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and a war on diversity at state colleges. Unfortunately for him, Trump voters still prefer Trump, indictments and all. Not to mention that when it comes to pressing flesh on the trail, DeSantis is about as charismatic as a splinter.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

But while he continues to lose ground because people are getting to know him better, I would like to remind the nation that he told us exactly who he was the first time he ran for governor, back in 2018. Less than 24 hours after his Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, became the first Black nominee for governor, DeSantis went on Fox News to tell voters not to “monkey this up.” Sounds like the kind of dog whistle Southern politicians were tossing around in 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett was kidnapped, tortured and killed by white supremacists in Mississippi.


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A spokesperson would later say DeSantis’ “monkey” remark was solely about the state’s economy and “to characterize it as anything else is absurd,” a statement that of course is absurd. But then again, so is his latest attempt to rebrand slavery as some sort of trade school. Thanks to his desperation to out-Trump the real Donald Trump, Florida’s new curriculum will teach middle school children that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Of course DeSantis, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, knows better than to suggest enslavement had its benefits. But in his pursuit of power, he has decided to forget that world-class education and instead execute his favorite parlor trick: gaslighting. When he performed it nearly five years ago, pretending his use of “monkey” in reference to Gillum had nothing to do with race, we all knew what he was doing then.

And we know what he is doing now.

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It’s a fresh reminder of the importance of declaring a national monument for three sites associated with Emmett and his mother. Just so we’re clear, though: President Biden’s decision to honor these two Americans shouldn’t be seen as a response to DeSantis’ rhetoric. Their story is far too big to share space with a man so small.

“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know,” Biden said Tuesday after signing the proclamation. “We have to learn what we should know. We should know about our country. We should know everything: the good, the bad, the truth of who we are as a nation. That’s what great nations do, and we are a great nation.”

That we are.

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And this country has Till-Mobley to thank for that. She chose to have an open casket at Emmett’s funeral to show the world how he had been mutilated. The image galvanized the civil rights movement.

During the 1940s, more than 50 lynchings had been recorded, six of them in Mississippi, where her son was murdered. In 1941, the year her son was born, James Oliver Eastland was appointed to the Senate to fill a vacancy. As a senator seven years later, Eastland successfully led a campaign to block a federal anti-lynching bill. In fact for nearly 40 years, voters in Mississippi sent Eastland to Washington to fight against civil rights, and he didn’t disappoint. As the nation’s attitude toward race began changing after Emmett’s funeral, Eastland leaked the confidential Army record of Louis Till, ex-husband of Till-Mobley. He had been convicted of rape and hanged in Italy when their son was 3.


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Just a spiteful act from a small man who used to go by the name “Big Jim” on the Hill. Over the course of his career, Eastland served as the acting vice president twice because of vacancy. That’s how influential he was in Washington. That’s the kind of firepower wielded by the folks who tried to shut down Mamie Till-Mobley — and failed. She remains an icon for civil rights, even decades after her death in 2003.

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There have always been small men like DeSantis.

But there haven’t always been giants like Till-Mobley.

Honoring her and her son Emmett should not be spoken about as a response to the current political environment. Instead we should think about it for what it truly is: a long-overdue honor.