TALLAHATCHIE COUNTY, Miss. — The historical sign marking where Emmett Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River in 1955 has been riddled with bullets.
Since the Emmett Till Memorial Commission put up eight markers in Tallahatchie County in 2008, the sign near the river has been a repeated target of vandals.
It’s one of a number of civil rights markers and symbols that have been vandalized in Mississippi over the past decade.
“These are easy targets, a low-risk outlet for racism,” said Dave Tell, an associate professor at the University of Kansas who is part of the Emmett Till Memory Project.
Some people mistakenly see “civil rights monuments as a form of reverse discrimination, a threat to their own well-being,” he said.
On Sept. 23, 1955, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted half-brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of Till’s murder.
Months later, the two men confessed to Look magazine they had indeed killed Till.
Four days after Rosa Parks heard a speech on Till, she boarded a bus in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, and refused to give up her seat to a white man.
“The Emmett Till case propelled the civil rights movement,” said Devery Anderson, whose book on the case is now being made into an HBO miniseries being produced by Jay-Z, Will Smith, Casey Affleck and Aaron Kaplan.
After Emmett Till Memorial Highway was dedicated along a 32-mile stretch of U.S. 49 East in 2006, vandals painted “KKK” on the Emmett Till highway sign.
After the Mississippi historical marker recognizing the Ku Klux Klan’s 1964 killings of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, was unveiled in 2009, it became a repeated target, too.
First, vandals painted the sign black. Then, they painted “KKK” on the sign. In 2013, they stole the sign.
The sign south of Philadelphia at the intersection of Mississippi 19, Mississippi 19 South and County Road 515 has since been replaced.
Chaney’s grave south of Meridian has been such a repeated target of vandals that steel frames were installed to keep his headstone from being knocked over or damaged.
In spite of such vandalism, efforts are continuing in Mississippi and across the U.S. to commemorate significant places during the civil rights movement.
The courthouse in Sumner where the killers walked free has since been restored, and in a 2007 ceremony, the community apologized to the Till family.
"We are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved one," they said. "We the citizens of Tallahatchie County acknowledge the horrific nature of this crime. Its legacy has haunted our community. We need to understand the system that encouraged these events and others like them to occur so that we can ensure that it never happens again."
Patrick Weems, who runs the Emmett Till Interpretive Center across the street from the courthouse, is raising money to replace the vandalized Emmett Till sign.
The Emmett Till Memory Project is a website and smartphone app that lets people visit all the significant places connected to the Till story — 51 in all.
“It’s not bricks and mortar so you can’t shoot it,” said Davis Houck, Fannie Lou Hamer professor of rhetorical studies at Florida State University, who is a part of the project team with Tell, Pablo Correa, also of Florida State and Chris Spielvogel of Penn State University.
Through the app, people can learn about the varying versions of the story, Houck said. “They can see how history gets written on the landscape.”
Hopes are to expand the app to include primary documents from the Till case, he said. “That way people can connect with the real history.”
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