Emmett Till’s black, broken body was plucked from the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi days after his killing in August 1955, a heavy cotton gin fan tied on his neck with barbed wire.
It took 19 days for two white men, Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law J.W. Milam, to be acquitted of murder by an all-white jury, which deliberated for less than an hour.
Then it took 52 years for historical markers to be erected at locations related to the teenager’s death, which galvanized the civil rights movement after the acquittal.
And now, at the spot marking where Till’s body was pulled from the river, it took just 35 days since installation for a replacement sign to be pierced by gunfire. Again.
Till was lynched, shot and tortured before his death, and a grim trail of his final moments is marked by signs installed by the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, a museum supported by Tallahatchie County.
But the sign — the third iteration after the first was stolen and the second was destroyed by gunfire — apparently was pierced by four bullets on July 26, five weeks after it was dedicated, center co-founder Patrick Weems said.
The marker has drawn visitors to the site outside Glendora, Miss., the final stop on a civil rights movement driving tour across the Mississippi Delta.
It has also become a beacon for racist expressions of violence, and a signal that work toward justice and equality remains unfinished, Weems told The Washington Post on Sunday.
“We didn’t deal with the root reasons in 1955. And we’re still having to deal with that,” Weems said. “The same systems that allowed these signs to be vandalized are the same systems that allowed Emmett Till to be murdered.”
Till, a 14-year-old visiting from Chicago, was killed after he was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, during an interaction at Bryant’s grocery store in Money, Miss. She recanted her story decades later. No one was ever jailed for his death.
Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, decided to hold an open-casket funeral, and photos of Till’s mangled face published in Jet magazine sparked outrage and mobilization in black communities nationwide.
The moment was so pivotal to the civil rights movement that Till’s casket is displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
What is left outside museums are the sites that bear the legacy of Till’s gruesome death. He was lynched in a barn, which still stands, Weems said, but it’s unmarked. Even many locals do not know its significance.
That makes the signs important. The county adopted a 2007 resolution to put up the signs, and in 2008, the riverside sign was stolen. Tire tracks leading from the site led authorities to conclude that it probably had been thrown into the water, as Till had been. It was never recovered.
In 2016, a photo of the sign covered in a rash of bullet holes went viral. It is now on display at the interpretive center.
The riverside sign has been a frequent target because of its isolation, Weems thinks. It’s 10 minutes outside town and two miles down a gravel road.
Vandalizing the sign, then, is not some spontaneous act. One has to really want to shoot it, Weems said.
It is not clear who is responsible for the years of vandalism. A spokesperson for the Tallahatchie County Sheriff’s Office could not be reached.
The interpretive center is seeking a replacement sign made of reinforced metal, he said. There is also an interactive app and website being developed that will populate a map with the sites, so people learning about Till’s legacy could visit them even if all the signs were destroyed.
But replacing the sign is beside the point, and the vandalism itself tells a story about Till, said Dave Tell, a communications professor at the University of Kansas and the author of the forthcoming book, “Remembering Emmett Till.”
The sign has been a target since it was dedicated, and people in the community have widely interpreted the act as evidence of persistent racism and avoidance of Till’s brutal killing and its legacy, he told The Post.
“That has been an issue in the Delta since [the killing]. People were afraid to talk about him then,” Tell said. Some have ascribed the vandalism to teenagers, but the persistence and routine of the destruction points to deeper social issues, he added.
Tell gives talks about Till nationwide, and said a photo of the sign struck with dozens of bullets “is as powerful as an image I have.”
It moves people, he said.
“It’s not just a 1955 story. It’s still something that matters in the present. Replacing it means erasing the material evidence of the way the story still grips us.”
If it were up to him, Tell said, he would leave the sign up. Bullet holes and all.
Like the open casket, it forces us to look.
More at Retropolis: