It was the site of the funeral of a 14-year-old Black boy whose badly disfigured face shocked the world and helped spark the Civil Rights Movement. Today, efforts are underway to designate the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Bronzeville a national monument, 66 years after it hosted the funeral of murdered teenager Emmett Till.
On Tuesday, March 16, several U.S. Senators, including Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), introduced a bill that would establish Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ as a National Monument. The move came months after the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the Bronzeville church an endangered historic site. In addition to Duckworth and Durbin, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) are co-sponsors of the bill.
The building at 4021 S. State St. is a Chicago Landmark, but is plagued by structural issues as church officials seek to restore its grandeur.
In January, the Chicago City Council approved the designation of Till’s home in Woodlawn as a Chicago Landmark.
The latest effort is a federal move that would add more recognition and significance to the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.
The bill introduced Tuesday would offer the highest level of federal support for the church and would ensure that the National Park Service will preserve, protect, and interpret the structure’s powerful impact on American civil rights history for generations to come.
Civil rights activist Mamie Till Mobley was a member of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, and the church played an historic role in the funeral of Emmett Till, her 14-year-old son killed on August 28, 1955, during a visit with relatives in Money, Mississippi.
Choosing not to hide the brutality of her son’s murder, Mobley bravely directed morticians at the A.A. Rayner Funeral Home to prepare an open casket funeral to be held at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, to show the world what two white men did to her son after they accused him of whistling at a white woman.
Some 100,000 people viewed Emmett Till’s mangled body at Roberts Temple from September 3-6, 1955.
Photographs of his badly disfigured face were published in journals around the country after Jet and Ebony magazines and the Chicago Defender newspaper ran them in their publications.
Till and his mother are buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip.
The two white men, Roy Bryant and John William “J.W.” Milam, were eventually acquitted by an all-white jury in a trial that lasted just over an hour. They later sold their story for $4,000 to LOOK magazine, bragging about the murder as a form of Southern justice implemented to protect white womanhood.
Civil rights icon Rosa Parks was motivated by Till’s death when she refused to give up her seat in an act that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It ignited the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, the way George Floyd’s death has impacted movements today.
Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ on its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, recognizing its groundbreaking significance and the need to restore and preserve the site.
Support has continued through Trust grants and technical assistance, as well as through advocacy to gain federal support to maintain the site. The Trust has partnered in this work with members of the Till and Roberts Temple families, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the National Parks Conservation Association, Latham & Watkins LLP pro bono program and other interests committed to the longevity of this historic landmark.
Efforts are also underway to obtain National Park status for important sites linked to Emmett Till in Mississippi.
“The Roberts Temple Church is both extraordinarily and heartbreakingly important to Chicago, our state and to our country’s history,” Duckworth said. “It’s time we recognize how historic sites can not only teach us about our history – but provoke us to build a more just future. By designating this church a historic site, we will help ensure that this awful chapter is not erased and that generations of Americans to come can show respect to Mamie and Emmett’s stories.”
The National Trust’s Chief Preservation Officer Katherine Malone-France said, “Our nation will benefit tremendously when Roberts Temple is designated a National Monument, lifting up its profoundly important role in American history. It is imperative that our country appropriately honors the site of Emmett Till’s funeral and of Mamie Till Mobley’s remarkable courage. We are honored to support the Roberts Temple congregation, the Till family, and the local community as they advance this designation and determine how to carry forward the legacies of this powerful place as a unit of the National Park System.”
Reverend Wheeler Parker, who witnessed his cousin Emmett’s abduction in 1955, and his wife, Dr. Marvel McCain Parker, said, “We are grateful for the introduction of legislation to preserve the legacy of Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley by making Roberts Temple a National Monument, which will help to fulfill Mamie’s request for my wife and I to continue her work to ensure that her son’s death was not in vain.”
Founded in 1916, Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ is known as the “mother of all of the Churches of God in Christ in Illinois.” With its founding, it became a central place of worship and political organizing for many who migrated to Chicago from the South during the early 20th Century.
Today, the building remains in use by the Church of God in Christ congregation, now led by Elder Cleven Wardlow who said, “On behalf of the congregants of Roberts Temple and members of the Roberts Temple family, we strongly support this endeavor, as well as the ongoing efforts by racial justice and preservation organizations to obtain federal protection for Roberts Temple.”
Patrick Weems, Executive Director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, stated, “What took place at Roberts Temple changed the world. We commend the Roberts Temple congregation, the Roberts Temple and Till families, especially Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr., Dr. Marvel McCain Parker, and Ollie Gordon, for their commitment to tell the truth, and we want to thank Senator Duckworth for her leadership in bringing forth this legislation.”
“The time for turning away from this painful chapter in American history is long over,” stated Alan Spears, Senior Director of Cultural Resources. “The National Parks Conservation Association applauds Senator Duckworth for introducing this very significant piece of legislation commemorating the legacies of Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley.”
For more information on the campaign to designate the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ a National Monument, visit [www.tillnationalpark.org].