A nine-foot-tall bronze of Emmett Till was erected last week in Greenwood, Mississippi, just about 10 miles from where the 14-year-old boy was abducted and lynched when visiting relatives on summer vacation in 1955. His brutal murder, and his mother’s relentless fight to show Americans what their fellow citizens had done to her son, is recognized today as one of the galvanizing forces that sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
“We have to have a statue so that 50 years from now, when people read the plaque and ask, ‘what’s the meaning of this statue?’ we can tell them what happened,” Mississippi State Senator David Lee Jordan told Hyperallergic. Jordan worries that people still too often prefer to sweep Till’s appalling murder under the rug.
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“I just want the truth to be told. Everybody knew what happened here, who lived here,” he continued. “Many people don’t want to talk about it and try to forget it — not me.”
After Till allegedly tried to flirt with a White woman in a store, two men stormed his great-uncle’s house in the early hours of the morning and abducted the young boy. He was beaten unconscious. His body was found three days after he was killed, shot and weighed down in the Tallahatchie River, so disfigured that he was barely recognizable. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on holding an open-casket funeral for her son. A carefully framed photograph of herself and her fiance Gene Mobley mourning over his brutalized body was published in Jet magazine. Despite the public outcry that this photograph generated, neither man involved in his murder was convicted. A year later, both men confessed to killing Till. Earlier this year, a grand jury decided against indicting Carolyn Bryant Donham for her role in his death.
Greenwood is the county seat of Leflore County — the same county that Money, Mississippi, belongs to, where Till stayed that fateful summer. In Money, Jordan says, “they’ve shot up signs [about Emmett Till] and torn them down.” “I wanted something in Greenwood,” he said.
According to Jordan, the new public sculpture is the only official statue honoring Till in the country. (In 1976, Denver erected a monument representing Martin Luther King, Jr. walking alongside Till, but the sculpture — which critics found disproportionate — was replaced with another that did not feature Till in 2003.) A statue of Till-Mobley is planned to be unveiled early next year in the Chicago suburb of Summit.
The effort to install a statue honoring the life of Emmett Till was spearheaded by Senator Jordan, who attended the trial of Till’s killers in 1955. Jordan remembers driving 35 miles as a college freshman in late August to Sumner, Mississippi, where the trial was taking place. Having himself suffered a racist assault as a young adolescent, the trial, and its blatant miscarriage of justice imbued him with a sense of purpose.
“I decided I would make my life here in Mississippi, and start working on civil rights,” Jordan said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “My whole life has been a struggle not just for myself but for African Americans who were lynched and who had given 242 years of free labor to this country.”
Matt Glenn, who designed and built the Till statue and is the lead sculptor at the Big Statues studio based in Provo, Utah, said, “The message is that Emmett Till’s tragedy created so much energy for the Civil Rights Movement, so we wanted to make him larger than life.”
Hundreds of people were present for the unveiling of the Till statue. “One of the most important things that I think has come from this is the unity of the community in Greenwood, Mississippi,” Glenn added. “They all came together on a Friday afternoon at three o’clock when there are lots of other things to be doing, and they showed their support.”
“We all stand on the back of this young man,” Jordan said.