CHICAGO — On the 100th birthday of Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of a teenager slain in Mississippi in 1955, members of the Till family and a professor at Northwestern University marked the milestone Tuesday by announcing a new institute dedicated to preserving the family’s legacy.
The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Institute at Northwestern University is aimed at carrying on Till-Mobley’s educational activism by “exploring new ways” to reach and teach one another, said Medill professor Chris Benson, as well as keeping alive historical significance of the Till family’s story. Till-Mobley died in 2003.
Marvel Parker, who has a doctorate in divinity and is the institute’s executive director, and her husband, the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., the last surviving eyewitness to Till’s kidnapping the night he was killed, have worked for years to preserve Till’s memory and the true story. Parker said the institute is a way to further that work.
“There have been many versions of Emmett Till’s story over the last 66 years,” she said. “Our motive is to make sure not only is the story told but that it’s told correctly and Emmett’s legacy is preserved.”
Marvel Parker said she was chosen to be the institute’s leader because of her background in management and nonprofit administration. Her husband serves the institute in an advisory capacity.
Patrick Weems, treasurer and member of the board of directors of the new institute, has been working with the Till family for 15 years in Mississippi.
He said there “seemed to be a great need” for a national organization to make sure the significance of the Till family story isn’t lost on future generations.
“Emmett Till is still speaking to us even in 2021,” Weems said. “We saw that a lot last year too. There are a lot of lessons still to be learned from Emmett Till’s story. We want to create an institution that preserves that life and legacy of the Till family and connect their story to people here and now.”
Weems referenced the late Rep. John Lewis, who said before he died last year “Emmett Till was my George Floyd” after Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis last May.
Till was 14 when he traveled from Chicago to Mississippi to visit relatives. He was tortured and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman at a convenience story. His mother chose to have an open-casket funeral after her son’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River to show mourners and the world the violence her son endured.
“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.”
The institute will be home to youth-oriented programs that focus on crafting a better understanding of social issues that have been and are currently present in society.
A number of relatives as well as family friends are on the institute’s board of directors.
Some of the projects in motion as part of a yearlong commemoration of the Tills include:
Acquiring and restoring historical sites in Till’s story, including the spot of the Tallahatchie where Till’s body was recovered.
A partnership with the Boston-based nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to develop high school curriculum surrounding the story of Till and its significance.
Working with partners to create a noncontiguous national park in the Mississippi Delta and on Chicago’s South Side in honor of Till and Till-Mobley.
Participating as consultants on a six-part ABC-TV series, “Women of the Movement,” based on the story of Till-Mobley, as well as a three-part ABC documentary on Till. Jay-Z and Will Smith are two of the executive producers of the series, scheduled to premiere Jan. 6.