The Meaning of Emmett Till

On Saturday, a small group of white supremacists gathered at the newly reinstalled and bulletproofed Emmett Till memorial in Tallahatchie County, Miss. They carried with them two flags, one for the state of Mississippi, and another representing the League of the South—an Alabama-based group that the Southern Poverty Law Center says is seeking to “establish a Christian theocratic state and politically dominate black people and other minorities.”

Under the clear sky, a man begins to speak while two women film him. 

“We are here at the Emmett Till monument that represents the Civil Rights movement for blacks. What we want to know is, where are all of the white—,” they are cut off when an alarm that has been installed to keep the memorial safe from vandalism begins to sound. They’ve been seen by a surveillance camera, their actions now captured on video.

“We got to go now, come on,” says a man holding the Mississippi flag. “We got to get the f-ck on,” another man says.

Bulletproof. Hidden video. Alarms. 

This is what it takes to protect the memory of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicago boy who was brutally tortured and murdered in Mississippi in August 1955, for the crime of perhaps whistling at a white woman. His death was one of the most chilling incidents of racial terrorism in the Jim Crow South. His grieving mother, Mamie Till Mobley, is credited for having galvanized a movement by insisting her son’s brutalized body rest in an open casket for the world to see.

But back in Mississippi, it’s still complicated.

Civil rights tour guide Jessie Jaynes-Diming, part of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, tells NPR that Till’s story may be a watershed moment for everyone else, in the Mississippi Delta, it’s personal. The first memorial, which was posted at the spot on the Tallahatchie River where Till’s body was recovered, was installed in 2008. It had been shot at so often that its current replacement, installed nearly two weeks ago, had to be bulletproof.

“There was a lot of pushback [about the memorial] not only from the white community but from the black community also,” she says. “Whites and blacks came to our meetings and [said] ‘Why are you all bringing this up? Why don’t y’all let that die?’”

The League’s attempt to use the current memorial as a scene in a propaganda video was just another reminder of how complicated this history is. (All respect to Ashton Pittman of the Jackson Free Press for his in-depth reporting of the incident.)

League of the South was founded in 1994 by the man in the video, Michael Hill. The group later managed to post a hasty version of their film on YouTube and finish that gripping opening salvo. “What we want to know is, where are all the white people over the last 50 years that have been murdered, assaulted, and raped by blacks going to be memorialized like this? We are League of the South,” Hill says. 

Pittman correctly points out that Hill’s diatribe is just another in a long series of false, racist claims that African Americans are more violent than white people. It’s a persistent idea that continues to bedevil the Jackson, Miss., community in many ways, including fueling the shocking re-segregation of their schools

Oh, and by the way, Mississippi has the highest percentage of black voters in the country and hasn’t had a black Senator since Blanche Bruce left office in 1881. 

In a gut-wrenching and Netflixian twist, Pittman reveals that before Hill founded the League of the South, he was a professor of British history at Stillman College—a historically black college in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

See? Complicated.

So, it should come as no surprise that more than 60 years after his murder, Emmett Till’s personal story has not ended.

His accuser, Carolyn Bryant Dunham, has largely recanted her story. Last year, the Department of Justice quietly re-opened an investigation into his death.

That Till’s memory triggers such vitriol and pain is a difficult part of life for people in Tallahatchie County. I imagine relationships between families are quietly fraught. I imagine the peace, at times, must feel fragile. I imagine that, as a community, it would be nice to be known for something other than this.

But until we can come to a broader reckoning on race in both our public systems and our private lives, Emmett Till will continue to be a complicated part of our own collective story.

That story is still to be continued.

Ellen McGirt


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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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