Thank you all, and especially Senator [Susan] Collins, Senator [Thad] Cochran, Senator [Roger] Wicker, Stephen Ayers, and my good friend Janet Langhart Cohen, for the opportunity to be here this morning.
Nearly six decades have passed since the terrible night when young Emmett Till – a 14-year-old Chicagoan on a trip to visit relatives in Mississippi – was abducted, in the early-morning darkness, by violent men with hatred in their hearts. Yet even today, the pain from this unspeakable crime, this unspeakable tragedy, still feels raw – perhaps because those responsible for this hate crime were never held to account. Or perhaps because the progress that generations have fought and died to achieve – progress that made possible my own life and career, and those of leaders like President Obama – came too late for Emmett Till. Or perhaps even because, despite the extraordinary steps forward our country has witnessed in the years since that murderous, hate-filled summer night, our nation’s journey – along the road to equality, acceptance and opportunity for all – is not yet complete. And perhaps because our history – including our recent history – is dotted with the stories of far too many other Emmett Tills, Matthew Shepards, and James Byrds: talented, thriving people, many of them young, with promising futures stretching out before them – all cut down, brutally and unnecessarily, because of what they looked like or who they were.
Although today our hearts still ache for Emmett Till, and for so many others – before and since – who have suffered the same fate, from the darkness of these tragic losses there have arisen great sparks of humanity that have transformed our nation to be more strong, more equal, and more free. Just months after Emmett Till was laid to rest, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, later saying she had thought of this young man the moment she was challenged. In the decades that followed, countless Americans – from brave young people who integrated schools and universities across the South, including my late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone; to leaders like Dr. King and the legendary John Lewis; to Freedom Riders and activists who launched the Mississippi Freedom Summer – have carried with them the memory of what happened, one night in 1955, on the banks of the Tallahatchie River.
So although Emmett Till died senselessly – and far too soon – it can never be said that he died in vain. His tragic murder galvanized millions to action. And today, we commemorate this legacy by planting a tree in his honor – a tree that will become his living memorial, here at the heart of our Republic, in the shadow of the United States Capitol.
Like the work it symbolizes and the cause it represents, this tree will outlast us. Like our ongoing efforts, it will honor the enduring legacy of a young man – a boy, really – who never had the chance to grow old. And it will ensure that Emmett Till’s story, his example, and his too-short life will be preserved forever – on these grounds now made hallow, but also in the memories of all who knew him, in the work of those who carry on his fight, and in the hearts and minds of generations yet to come. In remembering that young man in the way we do today, we ennoble our nation and make our union more perfect.