'Why Don't Y'all Let That Die?' Telling The Emmett Till Story In Mississippi

Aug 28, 2019
Originally published on August 28, 2019 7:00 pm

A memorial first installed in 2008 to mark the spot where 14-year-old Emmett Till was recovered from the Tallahatchie River in 1955 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.

Civil rights tour guide Jessie Jaynes-Diming says it was painful to see.

"It would be the same thing if I had a Bible up there, or if I had the flag up there and you shot it up," she says.

Jaynes-Diming is part of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, which is trying to preserve sites like this. Till, a black teenager visiting from Chicago, was brutally killed in Mississippi after allegedly violating Jim Crow social norms. The killing propelled the civil rights movement, and his name is still invoked when innocent blood is shed in racial violence. But telling his story in the Mississippi Delta remains fraught.

Civil rights tour guide Jessie Jaynes-Diming stands on the banks of the Tallahatchie River, one of several Emmett Till Memorial sites that local officials are trying to have protected under the National Park Service.
Debbie Elliott / NPR

"There was a lot of pushback not only from the white community but from the black community also," says Jaynes-Diming. "Whites and blacks came to our meetings and [said] 'Why are you all bringing this up? Why don't y'all let that die?' "

The sentiment lingers for some.

"The people in Tallahatchie County are to a great degree tired of Emmett Till," says former county prosecutor John Whitten.

Three college students posed in front of the Emmett Till memorial sign in Tallahatchie County, Miss.
Instagram / Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

He 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 lawyers.

John Whitten was 7 at the time and still sticks with the version of the story he learned back then.

"Fella who came down here and got in trouble — overstepped his bounds to a degree some folks thought," says Whitten. "And they cured him of his problems."

Whitten sees no reason to commemorate Till's slaying.

"I think all these folks are stirring crap up," he says. "Every day, somebody's dragging up the race card. Somebody saying we have racial disparity here. If nobody would stir that damn pile of stuff up, it wouldn't stink."

"We don't want the sanitized version"

"The issue of race is still the undercurrent about the discussion of Emmett Till," according to Rep. Bennie Thompson, an African American Democrat who has represented the Mississippi Delta region in the U.S. House since 1993.

The body of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was visiting relatives, was found in the Tallahatchie River near Money, Miss., on Aug. 31, 1955.
AP

"Just like Mississippi, there's the white side of the story and there's the black side and they don't necessarily agree," Thompson says. "We have struggled with getting the whole story out; we don't want the sanitized version."

For a long time, Thompson says, people didn't talk about Till's lynching.

"People only in closed circles whispered about the atrocities of the death," he says.

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 in Money, Miss., at Bryant's Grocery, where Till allegedly flirted with a white woman. Today, the building is in ruins, overtaken by trees and vines. You can barely make out a "private property" sign posted out front.

"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," says Reilly Morse, president of the Mississippi Center for Justice.

The center is supporting efforts by Thompson and the Till Memorial Commission to have Bryant's Grocery and other sites associated with Till's lynching protected as part of the National Park Service.

The Bryant's Grocery building is in ruins, overtaken by trees and vines. A "private property" sign posted out front is barely visible.
Debbie Elliott / NPR

Morse says that for decades, there has been a reluctance to draw attention to the building.

"It's just a symptom of America's struggle to come to grips with its history of racial brutality," Morse says. "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."

Even so, the site draws attention and visitors, like one couple from Brooklyn on a civil rights road trip through the South.

"We came by to see this part of history about Emmett Till," says Alexis Ortiz.

Miguel Correa finds parallels to events today.

"So it's not just history," he says. "It's something that a lot of people are still living."

Intrepreting Till's story

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 in the northwest part of the state that struggles to attract new industry. The Tallahatchie County courthouse where the trial was held has undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation, and now there's an Interpretive Center on the courthouse square.

In tiny Glendora, an old cotton gin has been converted to the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center Museum.

"We're here in the cotton gin where they received the fan, the old fan, that they attempted to dispose of the child's body with," says museum founder and Glendora Mayor Johnny Thomas.

A replica of Bryant's Grocery is part of the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center Museum in Glendora, Miss.
Debbie Elliott / NPR

For $5, you can watch a short film in which local residents describe what they remember from 1955, and walk through a hallway of exhibits, including a replica of Bryant's Grocery.

Thomas says it's about interpreting the Till story a different way.

"Basically African Americans didn't have an opportunity to tell any of the story back in 1955 when it did happen," he says, because of fear of reprisals in Jim Crow-era Mississippi. "And the story never got told from an African American perspective."

The new lunch counters

The question of who gets to tell the Emmett Till story is a charged question says Dave Tell, a professor at the University of Kansas and author of Remembering Emmett Till.

"There is way more at stake than simply a history lesson on what happened in 1955," Tell says. "Because it matters morally who gets to tell it, and it matters financially who gets to tell it."

He calls commemorative sites like signs and monuments the new lunch counters.

"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 in battles over the flag or statues or the names of dormitories," says Tell.

Emmett Till's killers J.W. Milam (left) and Roy Bryant sit with their wives, Juanita Milam (second from left) and Carolyn Bryant, in September 1955. The two men attacked the teen after Carolyn Bryant claimed he made an aggressive pass at her.
AP

To combat the repeated attacks by vandals, he has helped the Memorial Commission create a smartphone app called the Emmett Till Memory Project — a virtual tour including pictures, documents, and maps.

"The basic idea is that you can't shoot an app," Tell says.

Mississippi social justice consultant Susan Glisson, who has also been working with the Memorial Commission, says the persistent vandalism sends a clear message.

"The Emmett Till Memorial Commission put up that sign to say the story of Emmett Till is important to us as a community and to us as Americans," Glisson says. "And for people to come along and shoot it up is to say that's not the story we want to tell. That's not the America that we want to live in. That is not who we want to be."

The University of Mississippi fraternity brothers who posed with guns at the bullet-pocked marker were suspended by the Kappa Alpha Order, an organization that glorifies the Confederate South. The fraternity declined to comment to NPR.

But the local chapter president has reached out to Memorial Commission Executive Director Patrick Weems, who welcomes a dialogue.

"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?" Weems says.

As far as replacing the sign, Weems is getting help from a fifth-generation local farmer, Walker Sturdivant, who owns the property and plans to donate a long-term lease to better protect the site.

Farmer Walker Sturdivant owns the land where Till's body was removed from the river. He plans to donate a long-term lease to better protect the site.
Debbie Elliott / NPR

"We're not today who we were back then," Sturdivant says. "What happened to Emmett Till, it's awful, it's sickening, turns my stomach every time I think about it, but it's a part of our history. It's part of our culture. He didn't die in vain, and he triggered, I believe, the civil rights movement."

The property will be dedicated in October with a bulletproof marker and new security measures. Some of Till's relatives will be a part of the ceremony.

Hate crimes

"This is justice for our family," says Till's cousin Airickca Gordon-Taylor who runs the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation in Chicago. The group works with families who have been victims of racially motivated crimes and police violence.

She says the repeated vandalism just adds more pain.

"Emmett was murdered because of racial hatred," says Gordon-Taylor. "And in 2019, you have another hate crime of vandalism occurring where they want to desecrate the space that we've allotted for memory of him."

She says the family is also awaiting word from the U.S. Justice Department, which has reopened the Till murder case.

: 8/28/19

In a previous Web version of this story, we incorrectly said the Mississippi Delta is in the northeast part of the state. The Delta is in the northwest.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.