In 1955 in Mississippi, two white men beat, shot, and lynched a 14-year-old African American boy, Emmett Till, who was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman. His body was later retrieved from the Tallahatchie River and the boy’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, held an open-casket funeral in their native Chicago to expose the violence inflicted on her son. The brutal, racist murder is often said to have galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.
Sixty-six years after Till’s death, the ongoing defacement of signs erected in his memory is a troubling testament to the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness in America. Since 2008, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission has put up nine historical markers, but the signs are frequent targets of theft, vandalism, and even gunfire, including several on the bank of the Tallahatchie. At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), the upcoming exhibition Reckoning with Remembrance: History, Injustice and the Murder of Emmett Till will acknowledge the enduring legacy of racist violence through a monthlong display of one such bullet-riddled marker.
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“It’s becoming something of a cycle,” wrote Dave Tell, a consultant for the commission, in a 2019 op-ed. “Every time a new sign is erected to mark the spot where, in 1955, Emmett Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, the sign gets vandalized, it gets replaced and it gets vandalized again.”
The riverbank spot, known as Graball Landing, had become a “pilgrimage site,” Tell added, not only for those seeking to honor Till’s memory but also for white supremacists, neo-Confederates, and other hate groups. In July 2019, a photo of three white University of Mississippi fraternity brothers posing in front of the sign with a shotgun and an AR-15 began circulating on social media, sparking horror.
That October, the defaced aluminum marker — pierced by 317 bullets — was replaced with a sign made of bulletproof steel, produced pro-bono by Brooklyn sign manufacturer Lite Brite Neon. The new, fortified sign is inscribed with a text addressing the marker’s history of vandalism. “We believe it is important to keep a sign at this historic site, but we don’t want to hide the legacy of racism by constantly replacing broken signs,” the commission noted at the time.
In a poignant photograph taken by Suzi Altman during the rededication ceremony, two student activists at the University of Mississippi hold up the battered sign in front of a comparatively pristine Confederate statue on campus.
The damaged marker was donated to the NMAH, where it will be exhibited across from the original Star-Spangled Banner in the building’s center hall starting September 3. At the nearby Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the original glass-topped casket that held Till’s body is on view as part of the permanent installation Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968.
“In what would have been Emmett Till’s 80th year, this vandalized sign demonstrates the ways histories of racism and violence continue into the present,” said Tsione Wolde-Michael, the museum’s curator of African American social justice history, in a statement.
“Our Mississippi community partners have continuously risked their lives to commemorate and interpret this history, and we are honored with the trust they have placed in the Smithsonian to steward the sign and bring its story along with Emmett’s to the public,” Wolde-Michael added.