MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today marks 64 years since Emmett Till, a black teenager, 14 years old, visiting from Chicago, was brutally killed in Mississippi. The murder helped propel the civil rights movement. Today, Till's name is still invoked when innocent blood is shed in racial violence. But telling the story of Emmett Till remains fraught in Mississippi where historical markers have been repeatedly vandalized. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Civil rights tour guide Jessie Jaynes-Diming is standing under a thick green canopy on a remote riverbank in the Mississippi Delta.
JESSIE JAYNES-DIMING: Well, we're here on the banks of the Tallahatchie River. This is where Emmett's body was removed.
ELLIOTT: There's an eerie, deep woods quiet as the murky water flows by.
JAYNES-DIMING: It's always a sacred - listen. Listen to this location.
ELLIOTT: There's a cotton field across the gravel road but nothing to note the historic site. That's because a memorial installed in 2008 has been repeatedly vandalized, shot through with bullet holes. The sign was removed last month after an image surfaced of three white University of Mississippi fraternity brothers posing next to it with guns. Jaynes-Diming says it was painful to see.
JAYNES-DIMING: Because it's commemorating the last place that Emmett touched on this Earth.
ELLIOTT: She's part of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, which is trying to preserve sites like this. It hasn't always been welcome.
JAYNES-DIMING: There was a lot of pushback. Whites and blacks came to our meetings, and why are you all bringing this up? Why don't y'all let that die?
ELLIOTT: The sentiment lingers for some.
JOHN WHITTEN: People in Tallahatchie County are to a great degree tired of Emmett Till.
ELLIOTT: John Whitten is a former county prosecutor who lives in Sumner, Miss., where the two men who killed Till were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury, only to confess to the killing when they sold their story to Look Magazine months later. Whitten's father was one of the defense attorneys. John Whitten was 7 years old at the time and still sticks with the version of the story he learned back then.
WHITTEN: Fella who came down here and got into trouble, overstepped his bounds to a degree some folks thought, and they cured him of his problems.
ELLIOTT: Whitten sees no reason to commemorate Till's murder.
WHITTEN: Every day, somebody's dragging up the race card. Somebody's saying we have racial disparity here. If nobody would stir that damn pile of stuff up, it wouldn't stink.
BENNIE THOMPSON: The issue of race is still the undercurrent about the discussion of Emmett Till.
ELLIOTT: Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson.
THOMPSON: Just like Mississippi, there's the white side of the story and there's the black side. And they don't necessarily agree.
ELLIOTT: Till was kidnapped, beaten, shot in the head and dumped in the bayou, weighted down by a heavy industrial fan taken from a cotton gin, activities that stretched across three counties. The story begins here in Money, Miss., at Bryant Grocery where Emmett Till allegedly flirted with a white woman, a violation of Jim Crow social norms. The building is in ruins, overtaken by trees and vines. You can barely make out a private property sign posted out front.
REILLY MORSE: By letting the trees and so forth grew up around it and letting the walls fall down, it's a way to let history fade into invisibility.
ELLIOTT: Reilly Morse is director of the Mississippi Center for Justice, which is supporting efforts by Congressman Thompson and others to have this and other sites protected as part of the National Park Service. Morse says for decades, there's been a reluctance to draw attention to the building.
MORSE: It's just a symptom of America's struggle to come to grips with its history of racial brutality. And for folks that live here, there's been, over generations, I think, a tendency to sweep it all under the rug to the extent possible. And there's shame attached to it.
ELLIOTT: Even so, the site is drawing attention.
ALEXIS ORTIZ: We came by to see this part of history about Emmett Till.
ELLIOTT: Alexis Ortiz and Miguel Correa of Brooklyn are on a civil rights road trip.
MIGUEL CORREA: You have to take a moment to reflect and think about what, you know, the magnitude of that event, and there's a lot of parallels to things today. And so it's not just history. It's something that a lot of people are still living.
ELLIOTT: If the history of Emmett Till was swept under the rug before, one driving force in commemorating it now is tourism and the potential to bring new money to the Mississippi Delta, a largely agricultural landscape that struggles to attract new industry. The Tallahatchie County courthouse where the trial was held has undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation, and there there's an interpretive center on the courthouse square. In tiny Glendora, an old cotton gin has been converted to a museum. Mayor Johnny Thomas founded it to interpret the story a different way.
JOHNNY THOMAS: Basically, African Americans didn't have an opportunity to tell any of the story back in 1955 when it did happen. And the story never got told from an African American perspective.
DAVE TELL: There is way more at stake than simply a history lesson on what happened in 1955.
ELLIOTT: Dave Tell is a professor at the University of Kansas and author of the book "Remembering Emmett Till." He calls memory sites like signs and monuments the new lunch counters.
TELL: Much like in the 1960s, racial politics were worked out at lunch counters, sidewalks, swimming pools, in the 21st century, we work out our racial politics, for example, battles over the flag or statues or the names of dormitories, right? Time and again, our racial politics are worked out at commemorative sites.
ELLIOTT: To combat the repeated attacks by vandals, Tell has helped the Memorial Commission create a smartphone app called the Emmett Till Memory Project, a virtual tour including pictures, documents and maps.
TELL: The basic idea is that you can't shoot an app.
ELLIOTT: The University of Mississippi fraternity brothers who posed with guns at the bullet-riddled marker were suspended by the Kappa Alpha Order. The fraternity declined to comment to NPR, but the local chapter president has reached out to the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. Executive director Patrick Weems says he welcomes a dialogue.
PATRICK WEEMS: And it's not just about replacing the sign, but it's what do they teach there? What do they teach their fraternity members? What is their social impact to their community?
ELLIOTT: As far as replacing the sign, Weems is getting help from a fifth-generation local farmer who is donating land to better protect the site. It will be dedicated in October with a bulletproof marker and new security measures. Some of Till's relatives will be part of the ceremony.
AIRICKCA GORDON-TAYLOR: This is justice for our family.
ELLIOTT: Airickca Gordon-Taylor is Till's cousin and runs a family foundation in Chicago that works with victims of racially motivated crimes. She says the family is also awaiting word from the U.S. Justice Department, which has reopened the Till murder case. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Money, Miss.
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