PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHNATHON KELSO . STORY BY JA’HAN JONES
TALLAHATCHIE COUNTY, Miss. ― In Mississippi, a state where Confederate generals are still vaunted with highways and holidays, there’s an ongoing debate over who, if anyone, gets to tell the story of Emmett Till. Emmett’s lynching in 1955 catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement and shed light on a raft of brutality inflicted on Black people in Mississippi. Many locals want Emmett’s story memorialized, to retell it so that the gruesome truth is never forgotten: The teen’s abduction and murder, coordinated by two white men, is counted among 580 other lynchings that occurred in Mississippi between 1882 and 1968, the most of any state over that span.
That bloodshed and bigotry are woven into the fabric of Mississippi’s history ― they emanate from the poplar trees and cotton clusters, and they weigh heavy on many Mississippians to this day. But others seek to erase this history, repeatedly making their denial known with violent and visceral desecrations of Emmett’s monuments. In June, a photo went viral online depicting three white Ole Miss students cheerfully posing with guns besides a bullet-riddled commemorative plaque to Emmett. Ben LeClere, John Lowe and Howell Logan became the public faces of a wider movement of rage against Emmett’s legacy in the delta, but they were following in others’ footsteps; the sign had previously been shot, scratched and doused with acid.
Opposing these forces is a group of people working to keep Emmett’s story at the forefront of the American consciousness, among them family members, local officials, and members of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. HuffPost traveled to the Mississippi delta in October to meet them on the shore of the Tallahatchie River, where they unveiled a new, bulletproof memorial to Emmett, bringing national awareness once again to the fight for his memory. That sign, too, was met with bigoted resistance ― white supremacists used it as a prop for a propaganda video in early November. But history shows that this group of historians won’t be deterred. For them, preserving the story of the most famous lynching in American history is not just about atonement, but about ownership of wrongs committed and atrocities inflicted.
Jessie Jaynes-Diming, Civil Rights Tour Guide
Jessie Jaynes-Diming conducts tours of civil rights sites in the Mississippi delta and serves on the board of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. She took us on a tour of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, where Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, falsely accused the 14-year old child of sexually harassing her in 1955. This history, she said, could be lost if it’s not constantly retold.
“I think it’s important to know the history, understand it and create conversations,” Jaynes-Diming said. “The children from here, and a lot of the adults, were not always aware of this history.” She spoke of visitors from across the globe; international tour guests who have a keen interest in civil rights history. As she talked, drivers in all sorts of vehicles stopped at the site, pulling up and craning their necks outside their windows to eavesdrop. She said when she moved to Mississippi from Chicago, where Emmett Till was originally from, she was surprised to learn many people in the delta didn’t know who he was. That discovery inspired her to get involved with the civil rights tours and the memorial commission.
Ollie Gordon and Airickca Gordon-Taylor, Family
Ollie Gordon, Emmett Till’s cousin, lived with Emmett and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, for a period when the two were in Chicago. Her daughter, Airickca, runs the Mamie Till-Mobley Foundation, an organization honoring Till-Mobley’s legacy as a mother and activist in Emmett’s honor. They stood in a seed barn located in the small city of Drew, Mississippi ― the exact barn where Emmett Till was tortured and killed before being tossed in the Tallahatchie River. They remembered the sacrifice of their family members and Black community leaders before them, who gave everything to tell Emmett’s story. “When Uncle Mose testified against Emmett’s killers, that was the first time a Black man had ever testified against a white man,” Ollie said. “He had to hide out in the graveyard the night of testimony to get out of there, because they would have killed him.”
Both Gordon and Gordon-Taylor said they’re motivated to continue commemorating their cousin for members of their family who still live in fear of what an association to Emmett might mean in the Mississippi delta. “We have cousins who were witnesses, and they live in fear today. Some of them won’t talk about it and never have,” Ollie said. Airickca added: “I think the bulletproof memorial is just saying you can shoot it, knock it down, you can throw it in the river, you can steal it, but we’re gonna keep replacing it because we’re never gonna forget Emmett Till.”
“In defacing it, they’re saying ‘we don’t want to remember what happened to that 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago.’ But we’re not gonna let you forget it.
Dave Tell, Professor
Dave Tell, a professor at the University of Kansas, walked us through the Sumner Courthouse in Tallahatchie, Mississippi. Here, after a five-day trial, an all-white jury returned a not guilty verdict for Emmett’s killers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. The jury reportedly needed only 67 minutes of deliberation. Tell is the author of “Remembering Emmett Till” and a co-creator of the Emmett Till Memory Project, a digital tour of related sites. His scholarship interrogates the misleading ways Emmett’s story has been told over time, from misplaced markers to misinformation about accomplices.
Notably, Tell’s dogged research into civil rights commemoration revealed how Mississippi officials used public funds to refurbish a local gas station rather than maintain Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, a critically important site in the story of Till’s murder. Today, the gas station, which bears no relationship to the story, looks pristine while Bryant’s Grocery mere feet away falls to pieces, meekly tucked behind a wall of shrubbery. Frequently, passersby mistake the gas station for the historic grocery store, and the roadside marker commemorating the site — confusingly placed between the two — does them no favors. Tell said it’s this sort of research — the story about the story of Emmett Till — that Emmett’s surviving family has come to appreciate. “My relationship with the Till family has been strong because I don’t want to tell their story. I don’t want to pretend to have any authentic sense of what it must have felt like, because that’s their thing. I just want to tell those same stories from the perspective of people who live in their shadow.” Tell’s efforts in researching civil rights commemoration across the South has uncovered repeated instances of local governments misidentifying or mislabeling historical sites in order to direct grants to their cities and towns.
Tyler Yarbrough is a senior majoring in public policy at the University of Mississippi. After an Oct. 18 panel discussion concerning racism at Ole Miss, Yarbrough and fellow panelist Curtis Hill walked through campus carrying a desecrated marker that commemorated Emmett, before placing it at the base of a Confederate monument nearby. The gesture appeared to link the two objects as parts of the same white supremacist tradition. In July, a photo circulated online depicting three Ole Miss students who are members of a pro-Confederate fraternity standing beside the bullet-riddled sign-carrying guns.
“I just remember a tear falling down my face when we actually got to the statue, because I knew all about how that statue has been a rallying point for white supremacy in our school’s history,” Yarbrough said Ole Miss is in the process of removing the Confederate monument from its campus and placing it in a nearby graveyard after months of student-led protests.
Johnny B. Thomas, Mayor
Johnny B. Thomas is the mayor of Glendora, Mississippi, a small, financially-strapped village of fewer than 200 people. Here, he is pictured in the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, a museum he runs in Glendora featuring replica items related to Emmett’s case. His father, the late Henry Lee Loggins, has been tied to Emmett’s murder for years as an alleged accomplice believed by some to have been forced to participate.
“I’m thinking [here in Glendora] is where you’re going to find stories of African Americans that were made to participate, such as my father, who I believe was made to participate. African Americans were made to participate [in Emmett’s killing]. And those African Americans died along with Emmett, as far as I’m concerned, but had to stay here and suffer as a result.”
The Center is the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to Emmett, according to the Emmett Till Memory Project. In addition to a specially made replica designed to look like Emmett’s body in his open-casket funeral in Chicago in 1955, Thomas also features in his museum a model of the truck J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant used to kidnap him.
Reverend Williams said his desire to advocate in support of Emmett’s legacy today has largely inspired the fact that Emmett’s story had been hidden and silenced in the Mississippi region for a half-century. “In the delta, Emmett Till was something that had been secret for almost fifty years, man,” he said. “People talked about it, but not publicly. And I’ve never been the type of person who felt like I was a victim. So that’s why I speak out like I do.”We met Rev. Willie Williams, the co-director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, at his church in the small northern Mississippi town of Tutwiler.
Williams was born in the Mississippi delta in 1955, two months after Emmett was killed, and his lineage in the delta runs deep. He recalled that few people in the area ― Black or white ― discussed Emmett’s murder when he was a child, fearing what could happen if they’d been associated with the Till family. Reverend Willie Williams of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission inside the Rollins United Methodist Church in Tutwiler, Mississippi.
Reverend Willie Williams of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, parked outside The Tutwiler Funeral home where Emmett Till’s body was embalmed in 1955 before being sent to Chicago. The Emmett Till Memorial Commission erected a historical marker to commemorate the location in 2008.