By Ahmed Shatil Alam
Ole Miss Graduate Student
Ole Miss student Curtis Hill learned about civil rights icon Emmett Till years ago.
“I was maybe in grade six or seven when I first heard about him,” Hill said. Though he is African American himself, he said Till’s story didn’t really touch him at the time.
That changed this past summer.
In July 2019, ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting broke a story and published a photo of three Ole Miss students posing with guns in front of a historical marker commemorating Emmett Till. The marker is located in Sumner outside of Glendora, Mississippi, about 78 miles from the University of Mississippi Oxford campus.
The students were eventually expelled from the Kappa Alpha fraternity; however, the university has not since publically reported any additional disciplinary action.
When Hill saw the photo of three of his fellow students posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker honoring Till, it hit him hard.
“The incident was painful to me and gave me a sense of insecurity of my color,” said Hill, a senior majoring in English.
He went so far as to share the news of the incident with one of his cousins, but he wasn’t prepared for the response. His cousin simply replied with an “Okay,” as if such an incident has nothing new in Mississippi.
“This was OK to him, but I did not take it as he did,” Hill said. Referring to the incident, he also said, “On this campus or anywhere in the world it is not a good sign.”
Photos from the bulletproof marker unveiling ceremony
(Click to see enlarge images)
The Summer Incident and Emmett Till’s story
In 1955, Emmett Till was 14 when two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, kidnapped and shot him twice in the head. The killers alleged that Till was flirting with a white woman who happened to be the wife of one of the killers.
Till’s body, with a disfigured face swollen beyond recognition, was eventually recovered from the Tallahatchie River. During his funeral ceremony, his mother, Mamie Till, kept Emmett’s casket open to show the world what the perpetrators had done to her son.
That same year an all-white jury acquitted Emmett Till’s killers. But the incident turned out to be an important milestone in America’s Civil Rights Movement and propelled the overall movement forward, said his cousin Airicka Gordon-Taylor, who is now a member of Emmett Till Memorial Foundation.
But not everyone, like Hill, is exposed to civil rights history from an early age.
Jerry Mitchell, who founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, is an acclaimed investigative reporter with extensive knowledge of the civil rights era in Mississippi. He did much of the reporting for the vandalized marker story and suggests that the three Ole Miss students who posed with the sign were ignorant.
“If they truly understood who Emmett Till was, they wouldn’t have done it — presuming they’re open to such understanding. Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of Americans truly understand the role that Till’s death played in the modern civil rights movement,” he added.
What Faculty Members and Students Think
On the University of Mississippi’s campus, there are students and faculty who think the administration needs to do more to address the kind of behavior demonstrated by the students posing with the Till marker and other unacceptable incidents.
In 2014, two Ole Miss students tied a noose around the neck of a statue honoring the university’s first-ever black student James Meredith. The university expelled the students, the courts convicted them and one went to prison.
Brian Foster, an assistant professor of sociology and southern studies at the university, is a former University of Mississippi student himself. He said treating these events as isolated occurrences is not the right approach.
“I graduated from here; joined here as faculty. I just love this place. Therefore, I need to be critical on the issue.”
Foster, who is an expert on African-American history, has been vocal on campus-based racial issues. He recently hosted a discussion about Emmett Till on campus, in conjunction with the dedication of a new historical marker honoring Till.
Student Yasmine Malone, a junior in the political science department, criticized the university for its handling of the Till photo incident.
“I was not surprised to see racial incidents happened on campus, as our society and nation have been lackluster on this issue … the reaction on the March incident by the university was small,” she said.
According to ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, an anonymous person informed Ole Miss authorities about the students’ picture in March. Once the news story broke in July, the students were expelled from their fraternity but some people are still waiting to hear what action if any, the university itself will take.
Anne Twitty, an associate professor of history at Ole Miss, is one of those people.
“We were told that the university was following up on this incident after Jerry Mitchell’s article, but we really have not heard anything about the issue since then,” she said.
When contacted, the University of Mississippi’s Strategic Communication Associate Director Rod Guajardo wrote to us in an email, “Federal privacy law prohibits us from speaking publicly about this matter.”
Twitty said that the university, given its troubled racial history, needs to send “an extraordinarily powerful message.”
“I don’t think that three individuals should be given the opportunity to carry out acts of hate, carry out acts of racism that endanger the safety of the rest of the student community,” she said.
Hill said Emmett Till’s story should be required learning for every student on campus. He said that might help students to become more aware of the impact of hate and racial biases.
Three Emmett Till commemorative markers have been erected and destroyed in Mississippi since 2008. The fourth, dedicated in October 2019, was created to be bulletproof. In Part II of our series on the Till legacy, we explore the hurt and the hope that lives on.