Mississippi was the epicenter of the racial terror lynchings in which thousands of African American men, women and children were hanged, shot, drowned, dismembered or burned alive across the South between the end of the Civil War and the mid-20th century.
The case of the state’s best-known victim — 14-year-old Emmett Till, lynched in 1955 — stands out against this blood-drenched backdrop, both for the barbaric violence involved and because the murder helped to galvanize the modern civil rights movement.
Despite its obvious importance, the Till story remained shut out of Mississippi’s civic life until 2005, when signs memorializing the lynching started to appear in public — and were targeted for desecration.
The defilement of the signs reflects the belief that Mississippi’s public square should be reserved for Confederate memorials and other testaments to white supremacy. The realization that the symbolic landscape can either reinforce or contest racism is especially resonant at a time when cities, churches and schools are discarding Confederate names and iconography.
Emmett Till’s murder illustrated how lynchings buttressed the school of white supremacy that marked black people for death for seeking the right to vote, talking back to white people or merely brushing against a white woman on the sidewalk. It also underscores the repugnancy of President Donald Trump’s attempt to characterize impeachment proceedings as a “lynching.”
Emmett was visiting from Chicago when he had the misfortune of encountering a white woman named Carolyn Bryant at a store owned by her husband, Roy, in Money, Mississippi. We may never know why Bryant took offense at her young customer. Nonetheless, days after the encounter at the store, Roy Bryant and his half brother J.W. Milam abducted Emmett from the home of his uncle, Moses Wright, tortured him and shot him in the head. The killers secured a heavy cotton gin fan to the child’s neck with barbed wire and heaved his body into the Tallahatchie River.
The matter would have ended there had Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, allowed Mississippi authorities to bury her child. Instead, she brought the body to Chicago and used a glass-topped coffin that allowed mourners and newspaper readers around the globe to see the ravaged remains of what had once been Emmett’s face.
In a book published two years ago, historian Timothy Tyson reported that Bryant initially told her lawyer that the teenager had “insulted” her. But by the time of the trial, she had become “the mouthpiece of a monstrous lie,” claiming that the child had spoken obscenities while grabbing her around the waist.
Aided by a contrived rape fantasy and an all-white jury, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted of murder. Just months later, the two thumbed their noses at the Till family by confessing to the killing in Look magazine.
Local residents avoided discussing the case for fear of harassment from groups like the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan. The Mississippi Legislature struck an important blow against this enforced silence in 2005 when it renamed a 32-mile stretch of U.S. 49 East the Emmett Till Memorial Highway. As Dave Tell, author of the book “Remembering Emmett Till,” pointed out recently, the road sign unleashed white supremacist rage.
“Less than a year after it was dedicated, the Till sign on U.S. 49 was spray-painted with the letters ‘KKK,’” Tell wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Since that time, Emmett Till signs have been stolen, thrown in the river, replaced, shot, replaced again, shot again and defaced with acid. The vandalism has been targeted and it has been persistent.”
A similar response erupted when a memorial sign was erected at the spot along the Tallahatchie River where Emmett’s mutilated body was pulled from the water. The first sign was stolen and thrown into the river. The second and third signs were shot through with bullets.
The acts of desecration were so widely accepted that three University of Mississippi fraternity brothers posed triumphantly in front of the bullet-riddled sign, two of them holding weapons.
Tell rightly likens the photo to a trophy picture of hunters smiling over the body of an animal. The proud faces and drawn weapons add an element of racial terrorism to the defilement. The newest replacement sign, dedicated on Saturday just outside Glendora, Mississippi, weighs 500 pounds — too much to be easily carted away — and is said to be bulletproof.
The assaults on the markers eerily mirror the violence inflicted up Emmett Till himself, reflecting a long-standing attempt by white supremacists to silence fellow citizens who have made it their mission to speak openly about the state’s blood-drenched history.