What Emmett Till’s Bulletproof Memorial Says About Us

Mississippi Murder Trial of Emmett Till. A scene in Sumner, Miss., during the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.
Mississippi Murder Trial of Emmett Till. A scene in Sumner, Mississippi, during the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. Photo: Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Few lynchings are etched as indelibly onto the American psyche as that of Emmett Till. While visiting relatives near Money, Mississippi, in 1955, the 14-year-old Chicagoan had a disputed encounter with a white woman: Carolyn Bryant Donham, the wife of a local grocer, who accused Till of grabbing her by the waist and uttering obscenities to her. The exchange took on a lethal dimension under the precepts of Jim Crow, which viewed behavior that challenged the social dominance of white people over black people as a punishable offense. Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Millam, sought out the black boy and found him at the home of his uncle, Mose Wright. On the night of August 28, the two white men kidnapped Till, bound him in the back of a pickup truck, pistol-whipped him, shot him, tied his dead body to a cotton gin fan for extra weight, and threw it into the nearby Tallahatchie River.

Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett’s mother, refused to let her son perish in obscurity, as had countless black lynching victims before him. His body recovered, she held an open-casket funeral for her mangled child and permitted news photographers to take pictures. The images were disseminated widely in the black press; Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender published them, among others, vivifying for northern readers especially the brutal costs of the south’s racist caste system. The outcry that followed marked a watershed moment in the civil-rights movement, which would continue to amass public sympathy — and over the following decade, prompt federal legislation — starting with the Montgomery bus boycott, which launched in December, mere months after Till’s death.

As was customary at the time, Till’s killers were acquitted by an all-white jury — a miscarriage of justice made even more acute by Carolyn Bryant’s admission, in 2008, that she’d lied about him grabbing her and making obscene comments in the first place. Today there are dozens of memorials across Mississippi that commemorate the atrocity of his death. That Till’s memory continues to haunt the state more than 60 years later is a testament to his family and community’s unwillingness to let America forget. But it’s been a contentious process. Over the weekend, a new marker was erected on the banks of the Tallahatchie River at Graball Landing, where Till’s corpse is believed to have been pulled from the water all those years ago. The text outlines the details of his case, but includes an unusual addition: A brief history of the marker itself. That’s because three other markers have stood there before it, and all three were either stolen, thrown into the river, or riddled with bullets.

The most recent controversy around the sign stemmed from a photograph that circulated online in July. A trio of white, male University of Mississippi students was pictured posing with guns beside it, grinning. This was its third iteration; the sign had already been shot at, as had the version that stood before it. Both markers were officially removed after being filled with so many bullet holes that they’d become difficult to read. The original sign, erected in 2008, had to be replaced because it was stolen and thrown into the river. The fourth and most recent version — the text of which includes this history of vandalism — was installed on Sunday, with several members of Till’s Chicago family in attendance, according to the New York Times. The new one is bulletproof. Among those gathered to see it erected was Ollie Gordon, Till’s cousin, who was 7 years old when he was killed, and her daughter, Airickca Gordon-Taylor, who spoke of the wounds reopened by the sign’s repeated destruction. “Vandalism is a hate crime,” Gordon-Taylor told the Times. “Basically my family is still being confronted with a hate crime against Emmett Till and it’s almost 65 years later.”

The vandals’ motives remain obscure, but their conduct suggests a hostility toward Till’s memorialization — or at least a glib or disdainful attitude toward it — that reflects a broader American tendency. Efforts to commemorate the suffering endured by black people are often met with resistance. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama — the first memorial dedicated to the thousands of victims of racist lynchings in the United States — faced such grumblings from the outset. “Interjecting even more race talk into Alabama’s politics is not productive,” Dick Brewbacker, a Republican state senator, told The New Yorker in 2016. “I’d say the imbalance has been corrected pretty quickly, especially when you consider the Confederate symbols that have been removed.”

I saw it firsthand when I visited the memorial to Mary Turner near Hahira, Georgia, last year. Turner was lynched while pregnant in 1918, suspended by her ankles while a white mob cut her stomach open, ripped out the fetus, and set her on fire. The sign describing her death was shot through with bullets — with one hole fortuitously burrowing through the “o” in the word “mob.” And of course, disregard for remembrance had a more insidious dimension when these lynchings actually occurred: The perpetrators’ insistence on silence, refusing to discuss an act of vigilante violence after the fact, and instead letting its memory linger as an implicit threat in the waking thoughts and nightmares of the black people who witnessed it helped preserve the racist order. Gordon-Taylor’s remarks illustrate the personal toll such vandalism takes on victims’ families. Each attack on a memorial is an implied attack on the memory it seeks to preserve. What a country, where bulletproof metal is needed to fortify such remembrances as strongly as in the minds of those who cannot forget. What an indictment, that literal armor is required to shield from harm a memorial to a dead child.

What Emmett Till’s Bulletproof Memorial Says About Us