08/27/2010 10:56 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Beckapalooza' Tramples Emmett Till Anniversary

In the clash of commentary on Glenn Beck's decision to stage his "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial, one critical voice has been missed. The distant voice of Mamie Till-Mobley.
If she still were alive, Mother Mobley would remind us with a keen sense of irony--as well as historical context--that "Beckapalooza" tramples more than one solemn memory. She also would urge us to recognize the importance of historical memory. In appreciating the social and legal progress we have made. In making sure we don't repeat past mistakes.

As a number of people already have recognized, Saturday, August 28, marks the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered from the site where Beck's event will take place. What people have not recognized is that Dr. King's 1963 speech itself fell on another significant anniversary--the August 28, 1955 lynching of Mother Mobley's son, Emmett Till, who was accused of whistling at a white woman on his visit with relatives in the Mississippi Delta.

That hate crime and its aftermath would help to galvanize the fledgling Civil Rights movement. A little more than two months after the acquittal of Emmett's killers by an all-white jury, Rosa Parks would take her stand by keeping her seat on that bus in Montgomery. She later would tell Mother Mobley that she was thinking of Emmett.

So, what should we be thinking now, on the 55th anniversary of Emmett's death?

The answer comes partly in how I suspect Mamie Till-Mobley would react.

Eight years ago, I visited her on the anniversary of Emmett's lynching. I brought flowers because, well, it just seemed like the right thing to do. She was despondent and told me that people always called her on the 28th of August. They would say, "You know what day this is, don't you?" And she looked at me deeply with eyes that long ago had run out of tears and said, "I don't need reminders. I can never forget this day."

She would want us to remember, too. Not just her son's murder. But its meaning.

That is why Mother Mobley, a Chicago teacher who mined her grief for a mission in life, would see Saturday's point of conversrion as a teachable moment. She understood the politics of difference, the politics of place. As an African American whose family had barely escaped Southern atrocities, she recognized the potential pushback when you stepped out of place. Like whistling at a white woman. Or living in the White House.

So she would see parallels between then and now. She could interpret the code, the messages of hate and racism that get embedded in the vocabulary of patriotism. Years ago, she tuned into what we all now recognize, in the parlance of, as "dog whistle politics," that perfect pitch of the rabid right.

That is why slogans like "restoring honor" and "take back our country" today would sound so much to her like preserving "a way of life" once did in the euphemism of resistance--the reign of terror--in the 1950s South. Beck says the timing is purely coincidental. He says his event is not political, even though Sarah Palin is a keynoter. But long before the first speaker, the message already has been delivered by headlining Beck and Palin, whose public images are built on divisiveness. So, the event itself is the message. And the title pretty much confirms it all, when you know how to read between the lines.

After all, restoring honor is exactly what Emmett's racist killers thought they were doing by forcing him back into his place--beating and torturing him to death.

In an interview with Tavis Smiley, the late Coretta Scott King said Dr. King and many people in Montgomery during the year-long 1956 bus boycott were thinking of Emmett Till. Dr. King and the 1963 March on Washington organizers also were mindful of the significance of the August 28 date of their massive demonstration.

There is another connection. Two years ago, on August 28, Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech, becoming the first African American in history to receive a major party nomination for the presidency.

Remembering is about more than sorting our emotions. It's about understanding the powerful significance of these important moments, appreciating the journey we have taken to develop a more inclusive society. The slaying of Emmett Till--as horribly tragic as it was--moved people forward with a new resolve to dismantle a system of violently enforced exclusion. American Apartheid. Dr. King's "Dream" speech, Obama's acceptance speech shared the vision of a better place out on the horizon. And Obama's acceptance speech also was crafted in the language of unity.

The common theme that ties these moments together is forward movement. Of all the ways one might describe Beckapalooza, Mamie Till-Mobley likely would opt for "backward."