President Joe Biden just established a national monument honoring Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was killed in 1955, and his mother, who displayed her son's battered body in an open casket so that the world could see what had happened to her boy in the Jim Crow South. More than 50,000 people went to the funeral.
The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, which will fall under the National Park Service, will span three sites in Illinois, where Emmett was born 82 years ago today, and in Mississippi, where he was killed. But the original monument to Till was erected in Colorado almost fifty years ago.
Denver bowling alley owner Herman Hamilton came up with the idea of commissioning a statue that would connect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Emmet Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago boy who was killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi, after he'd talked to a white woman. He was kidnapped, beaten, shot and tossed in the river; his killers were acquitted at trial.
Hamilton worked with budding sculptor Ed Rose on a proposal to create the statue made of sheet metal and bronze, "King and Companion," which was erected in City Park in 1976 as a U.S. Bicentennial project. But from the start, the piece was the focus of controversy — critics fretted that King's head was too big, funders refused to pay for the statue, and Rose had to sue to be compensated for his work.
Finally, renowned Denver-based sculptor Ed Dwight was given a million-dollar contract to create a replacement sculpture of King for City Park that placed the civil rights leader on top of a three-layer pedestal bearing bronze representations of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks.
"King and Companion" was removed to make room for the new piece, which was unveiled on the Esplanade in 2003. (Ironically, Dwight, who was honored with a 2023 MLK Jr. Business Social Responsibility Award in Denver, was snubbed for a commission to create the King memorial in Washington, D.C. The work went to a Chinese artist and debuted in 2011, when it immediately became the source of controversy over a paraphrased quote. Ultimately, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, a Coloradan who today is Ambassador to Mexico, ordered the quote removed.)
After first offering the city's spare King statue to local schools, Denver finally donated "King and Companion" to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center and Museum in Pueblo. It was vandalized soon after it was installed, then rededicated in a park by the center in 2005, even as the FBI and the Department of Justice reopened the investigation into Till's death.
When the center closed, the statue was put in storage. It was reinstalled in 2017, outside of a building that was once an orphanage for Black children and is today occupied by Pueblo's Friendly Harbor Community Center. It was defaced again during the George Floyd protests in 2020, but has been cleaned up. Today, though, "King and Companion" goes by another name, "Prophet for Peace," which makes no mention of Till, even though the statue was the country's original sculpture honoring the boy.
This story has been updated from the original version published in October 2022.