CHICAGO—It was the site of a seminal event in the civil rights movement, where a photograph was taken that gave the country a glimpse of the horrors of racism.
Today, a half century after scores of mourners filed into Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ and past the open casket of a brutally beaten 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till, there is hope the church will become to this chapter in American history what places like Gettysburg are to the Civil War.
"This is part of the civil rights trail," said Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, which is pushing for the city to give the church landmark status. "The civil rights trail begins in Chicago and it began in this church."
It was here that Mamie Till-Mobley decided to make what historians and activists say was one of the most significant statements about civil rights. After her son's body was brought back to Chicago from Mississippi where he was murdered, allegedly for whistling at a White woman, Till-Mobley insisted the casket remain open. She wanted the nation — the tens of thousands who descended on the church to pay their respects and the millions who saw the photographs in Jet Magazine — to see firsthand the brutality directed at Blacks in the South.
Rosa Parks was among those influenced by the images. About three months later, on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., the seamstress refused to give up her seat to a White man. It was a simple decision that became one of the most significant acts of defiance in American history.
"I once asked Mrs. Parks, 'Why didn't you go to the back of the bus?' " said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "She said, 'I thought about Emmett Till and I couldn't go back.' "
"If Rosa Parks was the mother of it (the civil rights movement) ... Emmett Till was the martyred son of it," Jackson said.
Today, it is no accident that there is an effort to gain landmark status for this nondescript church on the city's south side. Across the nation, more and more houses, churches, hotels and other structures bound together by the struggle for equality are being designated as landmarks, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and turned into museums.
Just this year:
• In Alabama, 15 churches where civil rights activities took place were listed on the historic register;
• In New York, the Hotel Theresa, where Black entertainers stayed when most hotels turned them away, was placed on the register;
• In Greensboro, N.C., the International Civil Rights Center and Museum is being built where four North Carolina A&T State University students sat down at a segregated lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960.
"There has been a push in the last few years," said Alexis Abernathy, a National Register of Historic Places historian. "Everybody is really looking at (sites) in the context of the civil rights movement."
One reason is that 50 years have passed since the events that made such sites famous. That milestone makes simpler the process of inclusion on the National Register.
"Enough time has passed to put a historical perspective on these events," Abernathy said.
Another reason is that spots associated with the civil rights movement are becoming popular with tourists, in much the same way that Civil War battlefields have attracted tourists.
That has been recognized by communities, which have begun to advertise their place in the civil rights movement. In 1999, the historic register posted on its Web site "We Shall Overcome," a page devoted to places associated with the civil rights movement.
"The whole rebirth of civil rights tourism is clearly a phenomenon," said Amelia Parker, the executive director of the museum in Greensboro.
Places like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968, and Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site are major attractions that bring in millions of dollars.
"There is a national focus on these communities and the history of civil rights in these communities," said Harold Lucas, the president of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council in Chicago. Just last month, he gave a tour to about a dozen foreign journalists — at the request of the U.S. State Department — of sites in Chicago associated with the civil rights movement.
The city played key roles in the labor movement, sports, gospel music, jazz and blues because it attracted so many leaders from those fields during the Great Migration of Southern Blacks to the North in the early 20th century, said Lucas and others.
But Chicago has lacked a well-known landmark from the civil rights movement. And why Roberts Temple was not given landmark status before is anyone's guess.
Fine said it may be because so few knew the church still existed. It was not until federal prosecutors reopened the investigation into Till's death last year that the church was thrust back into public consciousness.
Today, those pushing to keep it there by giving it landmark status — likely to come before the City Council early next year — hope the designation will attract visitors.
Fine points out sites attract visitors to Montgomery, Ala., and other cities that historically are not tourist destinations.
"I mean, Montgomery is a beautiful city, but it's not a resort," he said. "There are definitely people nowadays who specifically go to these cities to see places that relate to the civil rights movement."
Roberts Temple pastor Cleven Wardlow Jr. said tourism dollars could start to flow if the church is listed.
"If it's on the national register, you can't help but become a tourist attraction when people visit the city," he said.
If that happens, Lucas and others hope tourists will stay to see the dozens of sites in Chicago related to history of labor, or the blues.
"History is so very dense in this area of Chicago," he said. "If people come to study the civil rights (movement), we can link them to a broader area and they can discover that there is a full pallet of experiences there."
— The Associated Press