Nearly 65 years ago, Emmett Till was violently killed in Mississippi at the hands of two white men. A white woman lied that the boy, barely a teenager, had whistled at her on the street — and the men sought to rectify this through means of fatal, barbarous violence.
They kidnapped and tortured the 14-year old, sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. His retrieved body was maimed and unrecognizable; his murder reverberated throughout the nation as a severe example of racism’s malevolent capacities. His mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket in their hometown of Chicago so the world could see what the virulence of racism had done to her son. Despite being considered a flashpoint for the Civil Rights Movement, Till’s murderers were acquitted by an all-white and male jury.
On Saturday, October 19, 2019, Till’s living family gathered at the bank of the Tallahatchie River for a dedication ceremony. The fourth sign honoring the slain boy in just over a decade was being installed — all three of the previous had been destroyed by vandals. The first sign was thrown into the river, according to authorities. The next two were riddled with bullets. This one, heavy and sleek, is made of thick AR500 steel and sheathed by an acrylic panel. Bulletproof.
Airickca Gordon-Taylor, Till’s second cousin who now runs the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, told the New York Times: “Vandalism is a hate crime. Basically my family is still being confronted with a hate crime against Emmett Till and it’s almost 65 years later.”
Her mother, Ollie Gordon, grew up in the same house as Emmett Till and says the two were like siblings. She told the Times that the family has never recovered from the injustice of his killing. Despite Mamie Till’s strong outward face in the wake of the tragedy, the grieving mother remained deeply devastated throughout her life, and the tragedy continues to haunt her kin.
The 500-pound sign was crafted and donated by New York’s Lite Brite Neon as a gesture of solidarity after the previous three had been targeted.
“While it’s really great that we got this new marker up, it’s in the background of trauma that’s never been healed,” said Patrick Weems, co-founder of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “And part of that is that there’s never been justice for Emmett Till and there still remains a contingent of people who […] don’t understand this history at all.”
On July 25 of this year, ProPublica reported that three University of Mississippi students face 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 now-replaced bullet-punctured memorial. They were subsequently suspended from their fraternity, Kappa Alpha, which proudly names Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “Spiritual Founder.”
Weems says the center hosted a panel at the university prior to Saturday’s unveiling, and recently, a group of students marched one of the bullet-riddled signs down to the campus, displaying it in front of a prominent Confederate statue. However, the center has not received word from the Department of Justice or Federal Bureau of Investigations about the investigation moving forward.
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center was founded underneath the umbrella of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, which has been around since 2005. “The only way to break the silence that had existed for 50 years in our community […] was by apologizing and taking responsibility or what took place,” Weems told Hyperallergic. Till’s living family members are continuous consultants on the commission’s projects.
“These markers are part of a moral responsibility that our community owes to the Till family,” Weems said. “It’s our sacred oath to keep these markers up, and to continue to tell the truth about what took place in our community.”