An original version of this story was posted on 8/8/18. It was updated on 7/26/19 to include new information.
A sign in memoriam of the late Emmett Till was vandalized only weeks after it was erected on June 21, 2018. This makes it the third sign vandalized in a series of efforts made by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission to commemorate the youth’s death. The sign, installed on the bank of the river in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi where Till’s body was thrown after his death, was shot with four bullets on July 21. The Commission, after consulting scholars and the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, has agreed the defaced sign should remain standing as is.
Till was a 14-year-old Black boy who was murdered and brutalized in 1955 following false accusations that the teen whistled at a local white woman. The Chicago-bred Till was visiting family in Mississippi when he was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by two white men in August of 1955. The killers faced an all-white, all-male jury in the wake of their indictment but were acquitted, never facing legal ramifications for their brutality.
The Emmett Till Memorial Commission was founded in 2005, 50 years after the death of Emmett Till. Patrick Weems, co-founder of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which created by the Commission in 2015, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview that the Emmett Till Memorial Commission was founded to “offer the first apology to the Till family, from our county, from our sheriff, down to our local community members.”
Weems cites the organization’s emphasis on the arts and education, saying that through a series of workshops the Center educates the local community using “arts and storytelling as a methodology” through photography and documentary work with local youth, teaching them to “tell their own stories as part of a moral imagination.”
Weems says their decision to maintain the sign in its vandalized form lies in the fact that, “It would be whitewashing to just replace it.” He says they have been offered a steel version of the memorial by a Brooklyn sign-making establishment, and they’re deliberating how to move forward.
This instance is the third time the sign has been defaced. The inaugural memorial was announced on October 2, 2007, at Graball Landing. Six months later, the sign vanished. Evidence indicated the sign was thrown in the river, much like Till’s body, but was never recovered. A new sign was created and installed on-site but was targeted once again, destroyed by bullets in 2013. This version of the memorial was collected and now sits in their museum space.
In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, Dave Tell, author of the upcoming book Remembering Emmett Till and a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, explains:
Six months after the commission installed the sign [in 2007], it disappeared. Tire tracks leading from the site to the riverbank led Sheriff William Brewer to conclude that the sign had been tossed into the Tallahatchie River, just as Till’s body once had — an irony not lost on the local black community. The commission quickly installed a second sign at Graball landing, but by the spring of 2013, vandals had riddled it with bullet holes. For ETMC founder Jerome Little, the vandalism was evidence of ongoing racial tension.
While an ever-new sign might accurately describe the events of 1955, it suggests, wrongly, that the past is entirely in the past, discreet and disconnected from the present. A bullet-pierced marker, by contrast, is the perfect icon for a community still rent by the memory of Till’s murder. The bullet holes bear eloquent witness to the fact that work remains to be done, that the memory of Till’s murder still cuts a rift through the heart of the modern day Delta.
The organization is raising money in the wake of the vandalism to educate the surrounding community and maintain the sign. Their goals include plans to:
- Create a website that marks all significant sites to the Till Story with a GPS location
- Purchase the land near the river where Till’s body was thrown after he was brutally murdered
- Create a park and memorial site by the river with cameras, a gate, and other security items
- Create a smartphone app that can guide individuals to the different sites, including where young Till was tortured and murdered along with other significant sites
Patrick Weems told Hyperallergic that the Emmett Till Interpretive Center has contacted the Tallahatchie County sheriff, but there are currently no leads on the culprits.
Update 7/26/19 12:22pm: Yesterday, July 25, Propublica reported that three University of Mississippi students are facing a possible civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice after posing for an Instagram post with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and shotgun next to the bullet-punctured sign commemorating Emmett Till. It is unknown if the students shot at the sign before or after taking the photograph.
They have been suspended from their fraternity, Kappa Alpha, which cites Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as its “Spiritual Founder.”
Ben LeClere posted the photo on March 1 for his fraternity brother John Lowe’s birthday with the caption “one of Memphis’s finest and the worst influence I’ve ever met.” Five days later, an individual submitted a bias report to the university’s Office of Student Conduct, writing: “The photo is on Instagram with hundreds of ‘likes,’ and no one said a thing. I cannot tell Ole Miss what to do, I just thought it should be brought to your attention.”
“We stand ready to assist the fraternity with educational opportunities for those members and the chapter,” university spokesman Rod Guajardo said, adding that while the image was “offensive,” it was not a direct violation of the university code of conduct. The university police department handed the matter to the FBI, which says it will not be investigating the matter as there was no specific threat attached to the post.
However, US Attorney Chad Lamar of the Northern District of Mississippi in Oxford referred the information to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for further investigation, saying, “We will be working with them closely.”
The photo was deleted from Instagram after the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica contacted the individuals involved and their associates.