Working on a film about Emmett Till, the African American teen brutally slain in 1955, had already been an emotional experience for Kevin Wilson Jr.
A graduate film student at New York University, Wilson set out to document Till’s life earlier this year, speaking with one of Till’s cousins who was there 61 years ago when the 14-year-old was abducted, mutilated and dumped in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River.
Wilson said the interview left him shaken.
“I’m struggling to keep it together,” he wrote in a post on the film’s fundraising page over the summer. “To be able to hear the voice of someone who shared laughs, cries, food, and a bed with Emmett Till is quite emotional.”
Wilson’s research led him to another unsettling encounter last week.
As he was scouting locations for his project, he visited a memorial marker near the site where Till’s severely beaten body was removed from the river. The purple sign describing the incident was riddled with dozens of bullet holes.
Wilson snapped a picture and posted it to Facebook.
“Clear evidence that we’ve still got a long way to go,” he wrote.
With racial tensions running high in the country, the post struck a chord. It has since been shared more than 13,000 times.
Till, a Chicago native, was visiting relatives in Money, Miss., in August 1955, when he spoke and interacted with a white female grocery store clerk. Later, the woman’s husband and another man allegedly went to the house where Till was staying and abducted him, beating him severely and throwing him in the river with a cotton gin fan weighing him down.
When his body was discovered days later, Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral. Thousands of people attended, and gruesome photographs of his disfigured body were published in newspapers and magazines around the country. His death and his alleged killers’ trial — Roy Bryant, the woman’s husband, and J.W. Milam were acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury — became a rallying cry for civil rights leaders.
Till’s casket is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The sign that marks the spot where Till’s body was discovered has been stolen and vandalized on several occasions since it first went up in 2008, according to the Clarion-Ledger. The Emmett Till Memorial Commission installed eight markers like it around the county, and the sign near the river has seen the most damage.
“These are easy targets, a low-risk outlet for racism,” Dave Tell, an associate professor at the University of Kansas who is part of the Emmett Till Memory Project, told the Clarion-Ledger. Some people, he said, see “civil rights monuments as a form of reverse discrimination, a threat to their own well-being.”
People posted photos of the sign after it was vandalized in previous years.
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center told WJTV that it has replaced damaged signs over the years, but the costs are beginning to mount. Police have yet to make any arrests in connection with the vandalism, WJTV reported.
A fundraiser to replace the sign passed its $15,000 goal Sunday night, raising more than $18,000.
Wilson said he didn’t feel any danger when he first came across the sign during his scouting trip — only an “immense sadness” at seeing the bullet holes.
“It just kind of spoke to the racial climate in this country, not just in the area,” he told WJTV. “There are still people who are living in those areas who still hold those ideologies dear to their heart — ideologies that we’re trying to get away from.”
In a disturbing contrast, Wilson also visited the site marker near the home of J.W. Milam, one of the two white men acquitted by an all-white jury of all charges related to Till’s slaying. That sign, he said, appears perfectly intact.
“It is preserved and adorned with flowers,” Wilson said. “We have a long way to go.”