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Abby Zimet: What We Do With Our History

After Vandalism and Shootings, Emmett Till Gets A New Memorial –Bulletproof.

This weekend, the survivors of Emmett Till – at 14 kidnapped, beaten, shot and drowned with a massive cotton-gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire for the alleged crime of being a black boy whistling at a white woman – gathered in Mississippi to honor a new memorial for him. The marker, near the spot where Till’s body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River 64 years ago, is the fourth; starting in 2008, when the first sign went up, three earlier iterations have been stolen, vandalized and repeatedly shot up – this, despite its remote site where people have to go far out of their way to get to it. On Saturday, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission in Glendora, MS dedicated the fourth memorial plaque at the Graball Landing, a former steamboat landing in an area first cleared by slaves. The new sign – glossy, black, crafted from reinforced steel and weighing 500 pounds – is specifically designed to withstand rifle rounds. “The fact that it’s bulletproof,” noted one relative, “speaks volumes.” The site currently has surveillance cameras, and may eventually be enclosed by a gate; the Commission also hopes to create a smartphone app, the Emmett Till Memory Project, offering a virtual tour. Says one member, “The basic idea is that you can’t shoot an app.” 

From a middle-class black neighborhood in Chicago, Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, MS the summer of 1955 when, in town one day, he was accused of whistling at and flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a white cashier at the grocery store. Even today, his relatives recall being awoken hours later, around 2:30 a.m., to the sound of men pounding on the door of his grandparents’ cabin; his grandmother offered them money to leave the boy alone, but they dragged him away, beat and shot him, and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and John William Milam were later acquitted in an hour by an all-white jury; in a 1956 interview with Look magazine, they confessed to killing Till, but were never punished. In 2007, at age 72, Carolyn Bryant admitted she made up the story about Till. At his funeral in Chicago, Emmett’s mother Mamie Till Bradley insisted on an open casket so the thousands in attendance could see his mutilated face. She also distributed a photo of his corpse to newspapers and magazines, declaring “the whole nation had to bear witness to this.”

 The new marker is likewise intended to bear witness, says Reverend Willie Williams of the Memorial Commission, to  “answer the question as to what we do with our history – do we learn from it?” Several relatives who were the last to see Emmett alive – those he was visiting, those he’d traveled with from Chicago – attended the weekend ceremony. “You’re never going to forget about Emmett Till and that he was here,” said his cousin Airickca Gordon-Taylor, who runs the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation. Because their family has never gotten justice from Mississippi, “This is us saying, ‘Until you do right by us, (you’re) never going to forget.’” They thus follow the tenet of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, a non-profit that teaches, “Racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.” But they and others acknowledge the violent history of the sign is a telling addendum to the murder itself, that the site serves as both a beacon of healing and a grim reminder of past and ongoing racial brutality. Says historian Dave Tell, “The vandalism and the bullet holes are part of Till’s story, too.” The Commission created the memorial “to say the story of Emmett Till is important to us as a community and to us as Americans,” says one activist. “And for people to come along and shoot it up is to say that’s not the story we want to tell.” 

That ugly recalcitrance is still strong in Mississippi, and America. Just listen (if you can) to John Whitten, a former prosecutor whose father was a defense attorney for Till’s murderers. “The people in Tallahatchie County are to a great degree tired of Emmett Till,” he says. “Fella who came down here and got in trouble – overstepped his bounds to a degree some folks thought. And they cured him of his problems.” He’s got plenty of company, including three white Ole Miss frat boys so racist they thought it’d be cool to celebrate a birthday by shooting up a memorial to a 14-year-old murdered black kid. After posted a leering, gun-toting photo on Instagram, they were outed by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and suspended from their fraternity, but after months and a long, reportedly botched investigation, they’ve suffered no consequences. Ditto, so far, for the fat racist man-baby in the White House squawking his impeachment is a “lynching,” just like the thousands of black bodies hanged, shot, burned alive and beaten to death. “Evil is learned,” says a U of M professor who notes the school displays a statue of a Confederate soldier that, unlike the testament to Till, has never been shot. The day after Till’s new sign went up, though, it was revamped: Two black Ole Miss students carried the old sign, its bullet-hole edges drawing blood, to campus, and placed it at the foot of the Confederate soldier.

“Here is history,” said Ja’han Jones. “Both the desecrated sign and the Confederate monument belong to the same tradition of racist terrorism, and their righteous act of linking them in this way cannot be undone. Ever. Salute to them.”

Mamie Till Bradley views the casket at Emmett’s funeral

Roy and Carolyn Bryant, right, and John William Milam and his wife left, celebrate acquittal

Photo across street from Atlanta’s King Center at MLK Historic Site MuseumNote gleeful girl in front.
Emmett’s mother Mamie Till Bradley views her son’s body. Photo by David Jackson. Front photo of Emmett’s grave marker in Illinois by Robert A. Davis/Chicago Sun-Times via AP 

First published in Common Dreams.

One comment on “Abby Zimet: What We Do With Our History

  1. dodadagohuhsgi
    October 24, 2019

    A black saleslady working in a bank once told me that for her being black “was like being a prisoner inside your own skin.” Those words haunt me still. How could anyone be made to feel that way?? How much blindness, bigotry, hatred, stupidity, and indifference does it take to to still feel that way about any other human being??–Tom Reilly

    Liked by 1 person

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