Emmett Till: The Memorial That Was Vandalized Until They Made It Bulletproof
The legacy of Emmett Till is one of anger and brutality. His death at the hands of two white men in the Mississippi Delta was one of the major sparks of the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. It was an event that should never be forgotten, but there are people in Mississippi who desperately want to ignore the tragedy of this 14-year-old boy. After a memorial was put up to honor the life and horrible death of Emmett Till in 2008, people immediately started vandalizing it. By 2019, Till's family and others who wished to keep his memory alive were sick of it, so they created a bulletproof memorial on the bank of the river where Till's body was found.
Emmett Till was visiting his family when he was marked for death
Emmett Till didn't even live in Mississippi. He was from Chicago and visiting family in the small Delta community of Money, Mississippi when he walked into a store owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant on August 24, 1955. At her husband's trial, Carolyn Bryant testified that the 14-year-old boy grabbed her, and when she went behind the counter, he followed while using crude language, then gave her a "wolf whistle" when he left the store. None of that happened; Carolyn Bryant recanted her story decades later. After she spun the tale for her husband, however, Roy Bryant was furious. Shortly thereafter, he and his half-brother committed one of the most obscene murders of the 20th century.
Till was put through unspeakable torture before his death
It was the middle of the night when Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam showed up at the house where Till was staying. After waking up Till's family, they pulled the young man out of the house in front of the entire neighborhood before throwing him in the back of a truck and driving into the night. The men drove Till deep into the Mississippi Delta before getting lost while searching for a specific bluff. The racist morons then decided to turn around and drive the 75 miles back to a toolshed behind J.W.'s house, where they repeatedly pistol whipped the boy. The men later claimed that Till antagonized them even as they beat him, and while these two aren't exactly reliable narrators, it's a nice thought.
Rather than just call it a day, the creeps drove Till to a bridge over the Tallahatchie River before making the 14-year-old strip and carry a 3-ft. cotton gin fan. The men claimed that Till refused to buckle under their anger, so they shot him in the head and tied the gin fan around his neck with a noose of barbed wire. They then pushed Till's body into the water and let it float away before heading back to Milam's toolshed and burning their victim's clothes.
No one was punished for Till's brutal murder
When Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam went to trial in September 1955, they stood in front of an all-white jury, never took the stand, and despite Carolyn Bryant's testimony that Till's only crime was buying gum and whistling at her, Bryant and Milam walked free after only 67 minutes of deliberation.
The killers were so proud of what they'd done that they told the whole story to Look Magazine the next year. Although their story amounts to a confession of theft, kidnapping, torture, and murder, they discussed what happened as if it was the only right thing to do. It was infuriating enough even before Timothy B. Tyson interviewed Carolyn Bryant for his 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till, in which she recanted her initial claim.
Emmett Till's open casket funeral was a spark for the Civil Rights movement
No mother should ever have to make the terrible decision of whether to have an open or closed casket funeral for her child, but in the case of Mamie Till, the decision was all the more upsetting. Till had been beaten, shot, and drowned; not even the best mortician can fix that. His body was a disturbing sight, which is exactly why Mamie Till insisted that her son receive an open casket funeral in his home town of Chicago. She wanted the world to witness the punishment he received simply for being a young black man in Mississippi in 1955. Devastating images of the funeral made their way around the world, igniting the Civil Rights movement.
Till finally received a memorial in 2008
The location where Till stood in his final moments was long known to the people of Mississippi, but in 2008, a memorial sign was finally placed on the shore of the Tallahatchie River just outside of Glendora to remind people of the horrible crime that took place there. Depressingly predictably, it wasn't long before the memorial became a magnet for vandalism.
The first sign was thrown into the river. A second was riddled with bullet holes. When a third sign went up in 2018, it also became an object of target practice for white supremacists. Sadly, like Till, history and truth are not welcomed by many people in Mississippi. Patrick Weems, director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, told the Washington Post:
This is not just driving down the highway and you see a sign and shoot it. It's a very remote site that you're not just regularly passing by. Unfortunately, we have people who go all the way out of the way to vandalize it.
In 2019, a bulletproof memorial went up in Graball Landing
Exhausted with the cat-and-mouse game, the Lite Brite Neon Studio in Brooklyn designed a 500-lb. glossy black sign that tells not only the story of Till but the history of his memorial. Airickca Gordon-Taylor, a relative of Till and the executive director of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, told the Washington Post:
The fact that it's bulletproof speaks volumes. I was so pleased to see how many people had come out to support the family and the efforts of the mission; that was very moving.
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