For more than 50 years after the murder of Emmett Till, no historical markers in the Mississippi Delta told the story of the 14-year-old African-American boy who was dragged from his bed in the night, lynched and then dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
That changed in 2007. Eight signs were erected in northwest Mississippi, including at the spot on the river where fishermen in 1955 discovered Emmett’s mutilated corpse tethered to a cotton-gin fan.
But a year later, vandals tore down the sign on the riverbed. It was replaced. But then bullets were fired into that marker — more than 100 rounds over several years. A new sign was installed in June. Thirty-five days later, on July 26, it was shot up again.
“To drive up and see it like that, I was sad,” said Patrick Weems, a founder of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss. “When we finally replaced it, it was an amazing feeling that this sign that had been obliterated was finally restored.”
The purple marker titled “River Site,” off a dirt road between a riverbank and cotton fields outside Glendora, Miss., was pierced by four bullets. One punctured the word “mother” in a sentence about how Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, wanted his body returned to his hometown, Chicago, where she displayed it in an open coffin for everyone to see.
His mother’s decision not to hide Emmett’s disfigured body in a closed coffin helped make the crime a symbol of the brutality of the Jim Crow era, shocking the nation during the early civil rights movement. Emmett was abducted and killed after a white woman complained that he had grabbed her and wolf-whistled at her, an account that she later changed and then retracted.
The Justice Department reopened its investigation into Emmett’s death this year, saying it was “based upon the discovery of new information.” The federal government has not elaborated on what changed, but the decision appears to be linked to the woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, recanting her allegations.