The first time I saw Deb Haaland cry, she was a congresswoman from New Mexico, and she was standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. It was 2019, during a civil rights pilgrimage led by John Lewis. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., wailed out as a hymn was sung, and Haaland reached to comfort her. It was impossible not to be moved standing with Lewis on the bridge where he was almost killed in 1965.
So it wasn’t a surprise to watch tears well this week for Haaland, now the interior secretary, as she stood outside the Mississippi courthouse that once set free the murderers of Emmett Till. For Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, visiting these sites doesn’t just mean remembering the injustice inflicted upon Black people; it means walking the ancestral lands that were home to Indigenous people long before the slave ships came. Long before the boundaries between the races were drawn, and then reinforced by Jim Crow. She knows what it means to come from people who experienced prejudice and violence — the kind of violence that killed Till when he was just 14 years old.
A 2017 act of Congress spurred the current effort to incorporate existing sites that honor the history of Till’s 1955 lynching into the National Park Service, and it’s what brought Haaland to the Mississippi Delta to listen. What she heard was pain from a community that wants Till’s story told truthfully.
The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. was 16 years old when he rode the train from Chicago with Till to see family in Mississippi. Standing in front of the ramshackle remnants of Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Miss., the 83-year-old Parker recounted the events that led to his cousin’s kidnapping and murder.
He described Till as a “fun-loving prankster” who was begged by relatives to learn the ways of the South, those unwritten but universally understood rules about how Black people were to behave, especially around white girls and women. That’s why Parker said when Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant, “If I could have gone into the ground, I would have gone into the ground.”
But there was no escape. Bryant’s husband and an accomplice later kidnapped Till from his great-uncle’s house. They tortured him before murdering him and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River, weighted with a 75-pound cotton gin fan. Till’s mutilated body was found three days later. Mamie Till-Mobley took her son’s body back to Chicago and held an open-casket funeral. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said.
“This community wants the Emmett Till story told to the world,” Haaland said. “There are people living today who remembered Emmett Till, and knew him. There are people who were there. Those are the folks we need to hear from.”
Her tears came when asked why she felt it was important for her to stand where the civil rights movement unfolded. “As an American, I feel it’s my obligation to know and understand the history of our country. And, the South,” she said haltingly, “… it’s a tragic history that none of us should shy away from.”
When Haaland speaks, she does so with the humility of a true public servant. But there is something more. She’s an Indigenous woman and a 35th generation New Mexican, and her ancestors bore the brunt of the country’s founding white supremacy.
“We have similar tragic histories,” she said to me outside the courthouse. “Right? The United States painted Native Americans as savages . … It’s easier to commit genocide against a savage than it is a human being. So in that respect, when Emmett Till was dragged from his bed that fateful night, do you think they thought of him as a human being?”
Black people know the answer, and so do indigenous people. As Haaland said, “African American and Native American communities are kindred spirits.”
There is no timetable for the National Park Service to send its Mississippi site recommendations to Congress, which could approve a proposed Emmett Till national park through legislation. The president could also use his executive authority under the Antiquities Act.
First, Haaland insists, the job is to make sure everyone’s voice is heard in this process. “Our job is to tell America’s story,” she told me. “We want to make sure that America’s story is told from the folks who have not always been invited to the table, who have not always had a say in what their own history has been.”
Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Washington Post editorial board. This commentary was written for the Washington Post.