A touring exhibition that tells the story of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley opened at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on Thursday. To mark the launch, the library hosted “Let the World See: Emmett Till and the Media,” an event exploring the media’s — and particularly, the Black press’ — role in forcing the country and the world to face the tragedy.
“What happened with Emmett Till was one of the worst things that could happen to any child,” said Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of The Washington Informer, speaking as a panelist at the launch event. “But I guarantee you he was not the first. And I guarantee you that the Black press was telling those stories.”
The exhibition, titled “Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See,” will remain at the library through March 12. Thursday evening’s launch event featured Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till’s cousin and one of the last people to see Till alive, as its keynote speaker. The 83-year-old reverend, who recently authored a book about Till, “A Few Days Full of Trouble,” spoke with both humor and grace about the progress the U.S. has made and the remaining work to be done.
“The attitude we have today is not like it was then,” Parker Jr. said. “For 30 years it was like ‘Emmett got what he deserved.’ Until 1985: [NBC Chicago journalist] Rich Samuels did a documentary, and then we were not ashamed to talk about it.”
The “Let the World See” exhibition aims to help people continue to talk about Till’s story. The District is the exhibit’s third stop on a seven-city tour that includes Birmingham, Chicago and Atlanta. Here in D.C., it’s situated in MLK Library’s Great Hall; visitors will see it as soon as they walk through the front doors. The library also developed a companion exhibit, “Mothers of the Movement,” which centers the experiences of mothers in the ongoing fight for justice in the D.C. region.
“One thing that we know from our history is that we should never underestimate a mother’s ability to change the world,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said in brief remarks at the beginning of the event. “It was because of Mamie Till-Mobley’s strength in a time of extraordinary grief that we know what happened to Emmett Till. We know his name, and we know his story.”
Developed by a collaboration between the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Institute, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the Till family, and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the traveling exhibition offers a new way to learn Till’s story. Intended for children as young as 10, the exhibit includes interactive displays and a downloadable family guide with tips to help children process their feelings.
The launch event’s speaker panel specifically addressed the necessity of finding appropriate ways to share Till’s story with young audiences. One speaker, National Black Justice Coalition executive director Dr. David Johns, wore a shirt that read “Black boys deserve to grow up, too.” The last time he wore it, Johns said, was at a meeting about the death of Trayvon Martin.
“[We have to] move to a space where we can talk about safety and protection, and ensure that our babies have the ability to not only consume media that talks about our grief, but to produce media that talks about our freedom as well,” Johns said.
The rest of the panel included Vann R. Newkirk II, a writer for The Atlantic, and Dr. Amber Hewitt, the District’s first Chief Equity Officer. NPR reporter Ayesha Rascoe moderated.
The audience seemed energized during the event, audibly connecting with the panelists and gathering for a lively reception in the library afterward. Despite the exhibition’s somber subject, several speakers discussed the need to pair grief with both action and, wherever possible, joy.
“The exhibit is, of course, rooted in tragedy,” Bowser said. “But it is also a celebration of advocacy.”