By Kazi Mehedi Hasan
Ole Miss graduate student
A new bulletproof memorial marker for civil rights icon Emmett Till stands along the Tallahatchie River near Glendora, Mississippi. Till’s body was recovered from the site 64 years ago.
The 14-year-old African American was kidnapped then murdered in 1955. His two white killers are believed to have attacked him because they say he whistled at a white woman in a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. An all-white jury eventually acquitted both men of murder charges and Till’s death galvanized America’s civil rights movement in the 1960s.
This new marker is the fourth to stand at the site; the previous three were stolen and vandalized repeatedly. Family members of Till blame racism as the catalyst of vandalism.
“Mississippi wants to forget who Emmett Till was, but my family and I would not allow that to happen. We would not allow anyone to forget what happened here in Mississippi with Emmett Till and what continues to happen with people of color,” said Till’s cousin, Airickca Gordon-Taylor.
The Emmett Till Memorial Commission dedicated the first historical marker at the river site in 2007. That marker was stolen and thrown in the river six months after installation.
The second marker was rededicated at the site in 2009. The sign was shot several times and left riddled with bullet holes. The commission finally removed the damaged marker in 2018.
The third marker was rededicated in June 2019 and vandals again riddled it with bullet holes — this time after only 35 days.
Ollie Gordon, another Till cousin said, “The aggression of the sign itself still gives a loud message that the racism is alive.”
Dave Tell, a consultant for the Emmett Till Memorial Commission and author of “Remembering Emmett Till” said, yes, there is a new sign on site. However, he instructs all visitors to read the fine print at the bottom of the marker.
“The fine print does something that no other sign has ever done. It acknowledges the vandalism. It records the theft and the gunshots because that’s part of the story, too,” he said. “And if there’s a chance now to move forward, we not only have to reckon with what happened in 1955, we also have to reckon with the ongoing story that’s been happening since 1955.”
Why Target Emmett Till?
Protecting the memorial marker of Emmett Till is more than a little challenging. The latest version is made from 500 pounds of steel with a glass bulletproof front. The commission has also installed a security camera to monitor the sign.
According to Tell, who is also a professor of communication at the University of Kansas, Till’s marker has been targeted repeatedly because it is more powerful than ever before.
“Till is not just surviving in cultural memory; he is thriving. There are more mentions of Emmett Till now in the popular media than there ever were in the closing decades of the 20th Century,” he said. “There is a lot to talk about here, but perhaps the most important is the advent of Black Lives Matter. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that Till’s murder has become the proto-founder of the #BLM movement.”
Shennette Garrett-Scott, professor of history at Ole Miss, agrees with Tell.
“The desecrations go beyond acts of misconduct; they are acts of racial terrorism. The Till Memorial is a particularly pregnant target. Till’s death galvanized a generation of activists and artists, from Rosa Parks to Malcolm X to Toni Morrison,” she said. “Terrorists’ attacks against Till’s memorial read as a kind of rite of passage, a reassertion of white supremacy designed to ritualize and reignite in a modern generation of whites its supposed racial and moral superiority.”
Till’s Influence on the Civil Rights Movement
Till’s story is disturbing even today – more than 60 years after his death. The Chicago resident was in Mississippi visiting relatives when two white men kidnapped him and tortured him before witnesses say they threw his body in the Tallahatchie River.
360 image of Tallahatchie Courthouse and Emmett Till Interpretative Center, Sumner, MS
Garrett-Scott said after the murder of Emmett Till his mother made a strategic decision that may have changed history.
“The state of Mississippi demanded that coffin be sealed. But she opened it anyway and this was her way of turning the gaze of America, not just upon Mississippi, but upon the United States to say, ‘Look at what happened to my son. Look at what happens to innocents of this country and the future of this country.’”
Historians maintain that Till’s death influenced the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and the push to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. These two incidents received widespread media coverage and earned huge public support for the Civil Rights Movement.
“He [Till] is a story about America, it is about the struggle to bridge the gap between our democratic ideals and the discrimination, oppression and inequality in our reality,” Garrett-Scott said.
Just days after the commission dedicated the new bulletproof marker, the new security camera attached to the sign captured a group of people assembled in front of the new marker carrying a white nationalist and Confederate flags. Two of them were recording a video of the five-person rally.
One man can be heard in the video saying, “Civil rights movement for blacks.” And then, “What we want to know is, where are all of the white people?” from the same voice.
Jessie Jaynes-Diming, a member of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, said they need help in ending the attacks on Till, his marker and his memory.
“We need to say and teach young people to say ‘Enough is enough,’ otherwise it won’t stop and keep going on.”
In Part I of our series on the Emmett Till legacy, we explore the most recent attack on Till’s memory and the University of Mississippi’s connection to the incident.