So Till’s cousin Airickca Gordon-Taylor wasn’t surprised this weekend to learn about the latest outrage. A white-supremacist group had gathered in front of the memorial to shoot a video.
Gordon-Taylor says she felt a familiar anger at another testament to the racism “alive today in the fabric of our United States of America.” But there was also a feeling of resolve.
“They can keep coming, and the more they do, we can do more,” Gordon-Taylor told The Washington Post.
The visit by white nationalists to Till’s memorial has provoked a new round of dismay, at the way a remembrance of horrific injustice could be a magnet for those who promote bigotry. Till’s torture and lynching — he was accused of flirting with a white woman in a grocery store, a charge the woman would largely recant — helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
“It has always been a pilgrimage site for people who care about social justice,” said Dave Tell, a historian who wrote a book about Till as well as the latest monument’s inscription. “And now it seems to be becoming a pilgrimage site for hate groups.”
The targeting isn’t new. The first sign at the Mississippi memorial, erected decades after Till’s death, was stolen in 2008 and never found. A second marker was riddled with bullet holes by the time it was replaced in 2016. The third marker met a similar fate but was not removed until this summer, after white students from the University of Mississippi posed with it for a grinning photo while holding guns. Advocates determined to preserve Till’s memory took drastic new measures to protect the memorial this fall, hardening the 500-pound sign with glass and reinforced steel.
They also installed surveillance cameras.
That’s how Patrick Weems knew right away that the League of the South had been on site. The cameras start recording when they detect movement and ping Weems, the director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, so he can review the footage. On Saturday morning, he said, he puzzled at first over disjointed clips that captured a small group’s hurried visit.
The members carried two flags, one for the state of Mississippi and one for the League of the South, which advocates “Southern independence” and has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group’s leader has decried the “Browning of America” and called to restore a “political and social system based on kith and kin” with Europeans “at its core.”
Surveillance video captures the group’s haste to get in formation Saturday.
“We got to go now, come on,” one man says. Then the group starts recording.
“We are here at the Emmett Till monument that represents the civil rights movement for blacks,” a member begins. “What we want to know is where are all of the white people.”
Weems wasn’t sure Saturday of exactly what message the League of the South delivered. The video was incomplete: The next footage showed the group scattering toward their cars at the sound of alarms, another protection just installed.
But Weems could imagine.
“We realized that they were making a propaganda video,” Weems said Sunday. “And we thought about it, thought about not telling anybody. But … we wanted to let people know that this type of thing happens.” The response was swift as people shared in the Memorial Commission’s disgust.
“That these clowns continue to disrespect his legacy is heartbreaking,” tweeted Jemele Hill, a writer at the Atlantic.
As the videos circulated, they also fueled a wave of donations to the Memorial Commission: $9,000 and counting from more than a hundred people. Saturday’s events, Weems said, have “made us stronger."
“Which I think is the opposite of the effect they were trying to have,” he added.
He’s been heartened, too, by the supportive response from law enforcement — a stark contrast, he said, to authorities who in the 1950s helped ensure Till didn’t get justice. When Tallahatchie County Sheriff Jimmy Fly read about what happened Sunday morning, he headed down to the river to make sure the sign was okay. He told Weems his deputies would check it on patrol for the next few weeks.
Fly does not see grounds for a criminal investigation into the League of the South’s actions. He’s just saddened.
“It’s disrespectful,” Fly said.
The League of the South’s full video, posted to its website, is short. Reached by phone Sunday, founder and president Michael Hill denied seeking to minimize Till’s death and said the group was protesting a double standard.
“Where are all of the white people over the last 50 years that have been martyred, assaulted and raped by blacks going to be memorialized like this?” a League member asks in the group’s clip.
Tell, the historian, sees a false equivalency in the message. Black people have never had cover from the government to kill whites, he said.
One thing Tell’s grateful for: Unlike the Memorial Commission’s surveillance footage, the League of the South’s message does not seem to have traveled far online.
As of Sunday evening, the YouTube video had little more than 100 views.