ON THE MORNING of November 2nd, six white men and two women, dressed in uniforms of dark tops and khaki trousers, gathered on the east bank of the Tallahatchie river in the Mississippi Delta. One carried the flag of a group called the League of the South, which advocates for “Anglo-Celtic” supremacy. Its founder, Michael Hill, said: “We are here at the Emmett Till monument that represents the civil-rights movement for blacks. What we want to know is: when are all of the white people over the last 50 years that have been murdered, assaulted and raped by blacks going to be memorialised?”
This is not the first time that the spot, which is near the point where, in 1955, the mutilated body of an African-American boy named Emmett Till was pulled from the waters, has attracted racist protests. The monument is the fourth marker on the riverbank. The others have been stolen, thrown in the river, replaced, riddled with bullet holes, cut down, replaced again, shot up again and replaced for a third time. Because of the vandalism, the new memorial, erected two weeks before the protest, weighs 500 pounds and is made of reinforced steel covered in bulletproof glass. It is also surrounded by security cameras. When the cameras picked up the protest and triggered an alarm, the protesters ran away. The event was widely reported as showing that racism still bedevils the commemoration of civil rights in the Deep South. That is true. But there is more to the story than that.
Within a 20-mile radius of the memorial at Graball Landing (named after a dock for unloading goods) are over two dozen places associated with Emmett Till’s final days. They include a museum, two restored buildings, a park and nature trail (now overgrown) and a community centre. Poverty, denial, indifference, local rivalries and greed, as well as racist violence, have all beset these commemorations of Emmett Till, and muted the racial reconciliation that public acts of remembrance are intended to bring about.
Twenty miles downstream from Graball Landing stands Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a shop in the village of Money. It was here, on the evening of August 24th 1955, that Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was visiting his uncle, wolf-whistled at a white shop assistant, Carolyn Bryant. She claimed in court that he had propositioned and assaulted her, though many years later she said that was untrue. Outside the shop stands a roadside sign which says Bryant’s Grocery marks the first step in a sequence of events that was to lead to Till’s torture, murder and the American civil-rights movement itself.
Paradoxically, putting up the sign contradicts the stance taken by lawyers acting for the Till family at the time. In court, they tried to suppress the episode at the grocery, fearing (rightly, it turned out) that Mrs Bryant’s story would be taken by the all-white jury as evidence that Till had broken one of the sexual taboos of the south.
The condition of the building is testimony to a continuing reluctance to confront that historic racism. Bryant’s is a ruin. Hurricane Katrina tore the roof off in 2005. The shop front and rafters had collapsed by 2010. A “disgrace” to the local community, said one visitor who offered to buy the site.
Its neglect stands in sharp contrast to the building next door: Ben Roy’s gas (petrol) station. Whereas Bryant’s has been left to rot, the gas station has been lovingly restored with a grant from the state of Mississippi to something like its condition in the 1950s. The garage has no connection with the events of Emmett Till’s murder but restoration was justified on the specious grounds that people may have sat on the porch discussing it (which is unlikely: locals ignored the story for decades). The contrast between Bryant’s and Ben Roy’s, argues Dave Tell of the University of Kansas and author of a new book, “Remembering Emmett Till”, shows that, in the Delta, it is easier to commemorate the charm of rural nostalgia than the ugly facts of lynching.
Both buildings and the village of Money have been bought by the Tribble family, descendants of one of the jurors who acquitted Emmett Till’s killers. Over the years, they have rejected a stream of offers to restore Bryant’s. At the moment, according to Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger, a Mississippi newspaper, they are trying to get the National Park Service to buy the ruin for $4m, but that is many times its value and the park service rarely buys properties. In 2018, surveying the wreck, a relative of Emmett Till said of the Tribble family “they just want history to die.”
They are not the only ones. The state of Mississippi has done little to keep Till’s history alive. Commemoration has been left to a local group, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission (ETMC), founded in 2006 with the aim of using commemoration to promote racial reconciliation; it has nine black and nine white board members. Lacking money or statewide influence, it has had to raise cash however it can. In practice, that has meant accommodating historical accuracy to other requirements.
Emmett Till was killed by Mrs Bryant’s husband, Roy, two half-brothers, J.W. and Leslie Milam, a brother-in-law, Melvin Campbell, and at least three other men. They beat the 14-year-old literally to a pulp before gouging out one eye with a penknife and shooting him. The photograph of his mutilated face turned the killing into a cause célèbre in Chicago, where the picture was published. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were arrested and acquitted at a trial in Sumner, 30 miles north of Money. To add insult to barbarity, they admitted they had killed Till in a magazine, Look; they were paid $3,150 for the story.
In 2006 the courthouse where their trial took place was dilapidated and its restoration became the first test of the ETMC’s ability to use other aims to advance its goals of commemoration and racial reconciliation. These mixed aims caused problems from the start. “All of the blacks”, said one commissioner, “focus on how horrible the crime was, and the need for acceptance of responsibility.” A white member said “we see this Till thing as a way to get funds to restore the courthouse.” The building has been beautifully restored and is still working. The ETMC offered an apology to the Till family on behalf of the county. But the interpretative centre, which was supposed to teach about the murder and reconciliation, is a dusty shell, itself in need of restoration.
It is a similar story at Glendora, a small town 16 miles south, which has by far the largest collection of memorials, including an Emmett Till museum. They reflect the efforts of the long-serving mayor, Johnny B. Thomas, to bring business to his poverty-stricken town. Glendora is one of the poorest towns in the impoverished Delta (“our Haiti,” says one local). There is even an NGO, Partners in Development, devoted to combating poverty in Haiti, Guatemala, Peru—and Glendora. In 2009 the Mississippi Development Authority sent a team of economists to the town. After describing it as a place with “no hope”, they said its only viable asset was civil-rights tourism. Mr Thomas enthusiastically set about providing sites for the hoped-for visitors.
The Till museum was financed using money from the US Department of Agriculture meant for rural broadband services in rural areas. The redirection of funds may perhaps be justified: Glendora has no broadband but the museum is still going. The trouble is that the town has so little to do with Till’s history. One of the murderers lived there, but his house disappeared decades ago. The town’s other claimed connections—that Till’s body was thrown into the river there, weighed down by a chunk of farm machinery from a local factory tied round his neck with barbed wire—have not withstood scrutiny. Efforts to enroll Glendora’s museum on America’s National Register of Historic Places have been rejected. To judge by the number of memorials, Glendora was the birthplace of the civil-rights movement. In reality, these sites reflect Mr Thomas’s efforts to combat the poverty of his town.
The lynching of Emmett Till did help launch the civil-rights movement in America. A later black leader, the Rev Jesse Jackson, said Rosa Parks, the first lady of civil rights, had told him that she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, precipitating the first large protests against segregation, because “I thought of Emmett Till and couldn’t go back”. To reflect this national significance, Patrick Weems, the executive director of the ETMC, wants the National Park Service to take over the sites. Local efforts have run up against multiple problems. But they testify to the refusal of Emmett Till to go away.■