The group had gathered on Saturday at noon in the remote spot near Glendora, Miss., to dedicate yet another memorial to Till. And this time, it was bulletproof.
It took 50 years to get the first memorial to Till erected in Tallahatchie County, the site of the lynching that helped spark the civil rights movement. But then an entirely new battle began: keeping the tribute intact.
Saturday’s dedication unveiled the fourth marker the local Emmett Till Memorial Commission had installed at the site since 2008, when the original sign was stolen and never recovered. A sheriff suspected it had been thrown into the river, not far from the Graball Landing site where historians say Till’s body had been found.
The sign and similar markers in the region have become a frequent target for racist vandalism and theft, with perpetrators going to deliberate lengths to deface Till’s memory.
The commission quickly erected a second sign at Graball Landing, which stood until 2016. By the time it was taken down by the advocates that year, it had been riddled with bullet holes for years.
They replaced that sign with a third, which lasted a mere 35 days before it, too, was shot up. It remained standing until this summer, when a photo emerged that depicted three white University of Mississippi fraternity members posing next to the sign, grinning as they clutched guns. The photo, unearthed from social media by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, resulted in the students’ suspension from the fraternity.
“This is not just driving down the highway and you see a sign and shoot it,” said Patrick Weems, director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. “It’s a very remote site that you’re not just regularly passing by. … Unfortunately, we have people who go all the way out of the way to vandalize it.”
But the same week the Ole Miss photo emerged, the Lite Brite Neon Studio in Brooklyn had completed a new sign for the riverside memorial, and the commission was able to install it this month.
“My attitude over the years has been, leave it there with the riddled bullet holes in it, because it’s really indicative of the fact that racism is yet alive all over the country but especially down in Mississippi,” said Airickca Gordon-Taylor, a relative of Till’s and the executive director at the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation. She traveled from Chicago to attend Saturday’s dedication with her mother, Ollie Gordon, a cousin of Till’s who knew him as a young boy.
But after seeing the sign, Gordon-Taylor appreciated that it incorporated the history of vandalism at the site. “The fact that it’s bulletproof speaks volumes,” she said. “I was so pleased to see how many people had come out to support the family and the efforts of the mission; that was very moving.”
During Saturday’s commemoration, Gordon-Taylor and her mother took a moment at the edge of the river where Till’s body had been found.
“We walked over and stood there for a few, and I had never been to the river there,” Gordon-Taylor said. “I saw the sign from the river site over the years. We have been to the location where Emmett’s body was tossed into the river but not where his body had been removed from the river. And so every time I stand there by the water, and I know that Emmett’s body was in there and floating in there. My mom grew up with Emmett, so imagine standing there with her.”
The sign comes with protective glass and reinforced steel to prevent bullet holes, vandalism and theft, and for the first time, the site would be monitored by surveillance cameras capable of transmitting feeds over the Internet.
“We’re going to continue to be resilient to putting these markers up,” Weems told The Washington Post. “And hopefully, this will be the last marker we have to dedicate for the site.”
In 1955, Till was a 14-year-old visiting Mississippi from his native Chicago when men kidnapped him at his relative’s home after he spoke to a white woman at a grocery store and was accused of flirting with her. The woman, Carolyn Bryant, recanted significant parts of her accusations decades later.
Her husband, Roy Bryant, and John William Milam, the white men accused of murdering Till, were swiftly acquitted by an all-white jury. In 1956, the pair admitted to killing Till in an interview with Look magazine.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, insisted her son receive an open-casket funeral in Chicago so the world could see what had happened to him. Till’s murder and the heartbreaking images of his funeral were a major catalyst of the civil rights movement.
The new, glossy black sign, which weighs 500 pounds, is inscribed with a history of the site, from its clearing by enslaved people in 1840 until the present day, when it continued to be the site of racist attacks on Till’s memorial.
“Signs erected here have been stolen, thrown in the river, shot, removed, replaced, and shot again,” the monument reads. “The history of vandalism and activism centered on this site led Emmett Till Memorial Center founder Jerome Little to observe that Graball Landing was both a beacon of racial progress and a trenchant reminder of the progress yet to be made.”
Historian Dave Tell, who wrote the inscription on the sign, said it was important to remind visitors of racism’s past and its very real present. He had also led the creation of an app that guided visitors to locations in the county that played an integral role in Till’s story.
“I don’t think anyone on the commission sees the bulletproof sign as a cure-all,” he said. “In some ways, it just feels like a bigger target. Personally, I would not be surprised to see it vandalized again.”
But “by drawing attention to the vandalism at the place, I’m trying to say the vandalism and the bullet holes are part of Till’s story, too,” Tell said. “We don’t want to brush that story under the rug.”
The photo captions on this story have been updated to credit the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. They previously credited the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, a museum that is connected with the Commission’s work.