Biden to honor Emmett Till as DeSantis rebuked on racial history

(Bloomberg) —

President Joe Biden is set to enshrine a national monument for Emmett Till, the Black teenager whose lynching galvanized the civil rights movement, just as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s rhetoric around slavery draws fresh attention to US racial history and discourse. 

At the White House on Tuesday, Biden plans to sign a proclamation to protect sites connected to the barbaric 1955 killing of Till and the bold efforts by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to highlight his death. 

The signing, on what would have been the younger Till’s 82nd birthday, follows a long-sought effort by civil rights groups and conservationists to honor his legacy. It takes place against a heated backdrop over the teaching of Black history, giving the president an opportunity to draw contrasts with one of his top 2024 challengers in DeSantis. 

US President Joe Biden speaks while hosting a screening of the movie “Till” in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, US, on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

For months DeSantis has drawn scrutiny from the White House and Democrats for his moves to curtail the teaching of Black history. But on Friday, the Florida governor sparked bipartisan criticism for his defense of his state’s new curriculum that says formerly enslaved Black Americans accrued beneficial life skills from chattel slavery.

DeSantis said that he wasn’t involved with the new standards, but offered a light defense. 

“They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life,” DeSantis said Friday. 

That presents an opening for Biden to shore up ties with Black voters, a key bloc of Democrats’ electoral composition and a demographic that the president largely credits for catapulting him to the White House. He carried 92 percent of the Black vote in 2020, but a July 18 The Economist/YouGov poll found his approval rating among that bloc at just 64%.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden believes “we should learn everything about our history, the good and the ugly,” calling the rhetoric from Florida “dangerous.”

Kamala Harris, the first Black, Asian and woman US vice president, traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, on Friday to rebuke the state’s new standards. And although she didn’t mention DeSantis by name, the governor accused her of lying about the state’s plans and backing the curriculum.

The controversy comes at a delicate time for the DeSantis campaign, currently undergoing a reboot after a dismal start. Though he’s tried to outflank former President Donald Trump on far-right Republican tenets, he trails the current front-runner by a wide margin, leaving donors anxious. 

Earlier: DeSantis to Shake Up Team Amid Campaign Spending Scrutiny

Biden’s campaign co-chair Cedric Richmond in a statement Saturday said DeSantis’s “comments in support of the idea that slavery had its benefits for slaves are obviously disgusting” and a sign of “extremism” among Republican 2024 candidates.

Some Republican presidential candidates have criticized DeSantis, including longshot contender Will Hurd, who said “implying that there is an upside to slavery is absolutely wrong,” in an interview Monday with Bloomberg Television’s “Balance of Power.”Play Video

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, another Republican 2024 hopeful, said DeSantis was wrong to try to avoid responsibility for the state’s curriculum. “‘I didn’t do it,’ and ‘I’m not involved in it’ are not the words of leadership,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday.

Read more: Hurd Says DeSantis Wrong to Double Down on Slavery Curriculum

The White House has routinely pounced on DeSantis’s moves to cast he and Republicans as extreme on issues including immigration, abortion and the teaching of critical race theory. 

Biden made Juneteenth a national holiday in 2021 and last month he hosted a celebration at the White House, where he implored Americans to “choose to remember history, not erase it.”

“As we celebrate a holiday dedicated to teaching and honoring America’s full history, extremists across our country attempt to ban books and erase our past,” Harris said at the event. 

Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr., Till’s cousin and best friend, will speak at Tuesday’s White House event, according to an official, who shared details of the signing on condition of anonymity. Parker Jr. lobbied for the monument designation, which prevents developers or local officials from significantly altering or destroying the sites. The last surviving witness of Till’s abduction, he will be joined by relatives, lawmakers, civil-rights leaders and preservationists.

Advocates fought for the sites to receive federal protection for at least a decade, according to Alan Spears, senior director of cultural resources at the National Parks Conservation Association. 

The monument will span three locations, including the Mississippi site where Till’s disfigured body was found, the church in Chicago where his mother held an open casket funeral, and the courthouse where his killers were acquitted by an all-White jury. 

Biden last year signed legislation, named in honor of Till, that made lynching a federal hate crime. In February, he hosted a screening of the movie “Till,” about the life of Mamie Till-Mobley, at the White House. 

Earlier: Biden to Host Screening of Film on Civil Rights Icon Till-Mobley

The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument will be the fourth monument green-lit under Biden, according to the official.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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