For more than 50 years, nothing marked the remote spot in northwest Mississippi where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in 1955, after he was dragged from a relative’s home in the middle of the night and brutally lynched. So when a historical marker was placed there in 2007, as part of an effort to commemorate Till’s life and the way his murder became a catalyzing moment in the civil rights movement, it was seen as a sign of progress.
Then, people started showing up with weapons.
On Thursday, which would have been Till’s 78th birthday, a photograph circulated around the Internet, drawing outrage. It showed three white University of Mississippi fraternity brothers smiling as they posed in front of the sign with a shotgun and an AR-15. Originally posted on a private Instagram account, where it received 274 likes before being removed, it was made public by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica.
The students have now been suspended from their fraternity and potentially face a civil rights investigation from the Justice Department, but they were not disciplined by Ole Miss because the incident took place off campus and did not violate the university’s code of conduct, the outlets reported.
In the Instagram post, the historical marker is riddled with bullet holes, though it’s impossible to tell whether the Ole Miss students fired the shots. For more than a decade, the sign has been subjected to nonstop vandalism, taxing the resources of the small nonprofit organization that put it there.
“Our signs and ones like them have been stolen, thrown in the river, replaced, shot, replaced again, shot again, defaced with acid and have had KKK spray painted on them,” the Emmett Till Memorial Commission said in a statement Thursday. “The vandalism has been targeted and it has been persistent. Occasionally, the national news has picked up the story. More often, these acts have gone unnoticed and been the responsibility of our community to maintain.”
Within a year of the purple-and-white historical marker being erected, it was ripped down by vandals whose tire prints led to the riverbank. Authorities concluded that the marker had been dumped in the river, in an act with chilling parallels to Till’s own death: After dragging him from his bed in the middle of the night, his murderers shot him, tied a cotton gin fan to his neck with barbed wire and threw his body in the river.
A second sign was shot at 317 times before it, too, was replaced. Though it had been collecting bullet scars for years, it wasn’t until 2016 that a photo of the damage posted by a film student working on a documentary about Till’s life went viral, prompting donors to kick in more than $20,000 for a new sign. Yet, just 35 days after the replacement sign went up in 2018, a professor from nearby Delta State University discovered that it had been shot with four bullets. None of the vandals have ever been caught.
“These are easy targets, a low-risk outlet for racism,” Dave Tell, a communications professor at the University of Kansas and the author of “Remembering Emmett Till,” told the Clarion Ledger in 2016. Some people, he added, mistakenly see civil rights monuments as “a form of reverse discrimination, a threat to their own well-being.”
Other markers that commemorate Till have suffered a similar fate. In 2006, when a 38-mile stretch of Route 49 in Mississippi was dedicated in the Chicago teenager’s honor, the sign proclaiming it the “Emmett Till Memorial Highway” was promptly spray-painted with KKK graffiti.
“Our city is growing, working to bring racial harmony . . . and then we have some jackass come in and deface the sign,” state Sen. David Jordan, a Democrat who had worked to get the highway renamed, told the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper at the time.
A historical marker in front of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Miss., where a white storekeeper accused Till of whistling at her, was defaced in 2017 by vandals who removed its vinyl, literally erasing the story of Till’s death and the subsequent acquittal of the two men accused of murdering him.
“This time, it’s not someone with a shotgun or somebody trying to run over or tear down the sign,” Davis Houck, a rhetorical studies professor at Florida State University and member of the Emmett Till Memory Project, told the Clarion Ledger. “This time, it’s more sinister because it’s carefully thought out. It’s not a defacing, but an erasing.”
Though the Emmett Till Memorial Commission has put up a number of markers at key historic sites in the area, the one by the riverbank is the most secluded, and has consequently seen the most damage. Over the years, the commission has debated replacing it with a gazebo, which could potentially be a less appealing target for vandals, and tried to figure out if there’s a way to make a sign that resists bullets. It has also been working to develop a mobile app, scheduled to go live this fall, intended as a digital equivalent of the historical marker.
“It’s not bricks and mortar so you can’t shoot it,” Houck, who worked on the project, told the Clarion Ledger in 2016.
Some have also suggested that the vandalism adds another layer of meaning to the sign. In 2018, after the brand-new marker was shot up, Tell told the Clarion Ledger that he was in favor of leaving the sign the way it was, explaining that 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.”
Alvin Sykes, the president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, agreed, telling the paper, “The sign going back up is a sign of progress. The bullets are showing how much further we need to go.”
Yet, others have argued that replacing the sign again and again will eventually send a necessary message. “I would keep putting it up, and someone is going to get tired after a while,” Annie Wright, whose husband was Emmett Till’s cousin and shared a bed with him on the night that he was dragged from their home, told the New York Times in 2018.
On Thursday, the commission said that it’s trying a number of strategies, including working with a local landowner to install a gate and security camera. The commission is trying to get the historic sites designated as a national park, which would mean that any acts of vandalism are considered a federal crime and treated accordingly.
And it’ll soon be installing the fourth iteration of the sign, which is supposed to be made of bulletproof material.
“Unlike the first three signs, this sign calls attention to the vandalism itself,” the commission’s statement said. “We believe it is important to keep a sign at this historic site, but we don’t want to hide the legacy of racism by constantly replacing broken signs.”