In 2007, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission set up 11 signs in Mississippi to commemorate the 14-year-old African American boy whose murder in 1955 played in a crucial role in sparking the nascent civil rights movement.
But the signs were vandalized. Some were stolen. A few were shot at. The commission members came across a man in a pickup truck one day trying to pull down the sign in front of the courthouse where Emmett’s murderers stood for trial. They successfully talked him out of doing so.
Some of the signs remain vandalized today: Bullet holes still riddle the signboard that marks where Emmett’s body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River. A Facebook user, as noted by The Trace, posted a picture of the sign earlier this week, writing in the caption “Clear evidence that we've still got a long way to go.”
The commission has been able to replace some of the signs, but the cost of constantly doing has proved onerous. But the group is not giving up. Instead, as Patrick Weems, coordinator of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, they've decided to expand the number of memorial sites by reaching out in a virtual way: through a GPS-guided mobile phone app.
“In the past we’ve been able to replace the sign, but we decided to go a different tactic because we don’t have the resources to replace it,” Mr. Weems says. “To mark 51 sites seems to be a better way to tell the truth than repairing one site.”
Although Emmett died over 50 years ago, the effort to keep his memory alive by commemorating the sites may be more relevant now than merely explaining the truth – especially with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and growing frustration over the death of young black men in the hands of police. From Michael Brown to Tamir Rice, Emmett's tragedy is increasingly being seen as a marker of the progress – or lack thereof – in overcoming racism.
“Since Ferguson, Missouri, Emmett Till has had more press coverage than he had for a really long time,” Dave Tell, associate professor at Kansas University who was involved in developing the app tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “Right now it’s a really powerful Emmett Till movement. Every time there is a murder, Emmett Till is back on the news.… Violence of the murder made it so plain how black people are so vulnerable.”
The drive to maintain Emmett’s memory in Tallahatchie, Miss., has been driven by the desire to confront past tragedies by revealing the truth. In 2006, a multiracial commission led by Jerome Little, the first African-American president of the county's board of supervisors, was formed in the county to “break the silence and take responsibility for their role in the justice.” The board offered an apology to Emmett’s family and declared that “racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.” Since then, the commission has set up memorial signs and restored the Sumner Courthouse where the men stood trial to what it had looked like back then, turning it into a museum called the Emmett Till Interpretive Center.
The GPS-based app that the Center launched in February is part of the Emmett Till Memory Project. It incorporates information about 51 sites related to Emmett Till in Google’s Field Trip app. Users can log onto the app and when they approach a site in the state, they can receive information about the significance of the locations that range from the river where Emmett’s body was found, the unmarked site where he was nearly buried, to the store where his encounter with his murderers took place. The team is now launching an app of their own with funding from grants that has the same functions. If the funding goes through, the app is expected to be rolled out in 2018.
Telling these stories, however, means touching on potentially controversial issues. Emmett, who came from Chicago to visit family in Mississippi, was accused of flirting with a white woman in a store in 1955. The woman’s male relatives then kidnapped, brutally murdered Emmett, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. The men involved were acquitted in a trial by an all-white jury, but two of them later confessed their roles in a magazine interview. A Federal Bureau Investigation report in 2007 found that another man later confessed his role in the kidnapping as well, but none of the men involved were ever charged.
“The fun thing about this is that because we use GPS we can tell a different version of the story depending on where the user is standing,” Prof. Tell says. “If you’re in Mississippi next to the courthouse, you will get the jury’s version of the story.… [If you are] at where the black press was staying, they were the ones who figured out the truth. We want to teach people about how people have been spinning the story for their selfish purposes over time.”
Tell says he got involved in the project when a friend made him come to Mississippi three years ago. He met Weems, a few historians and scholars, the FBI agent who investigated the case, and Simeon Wright, Emmett’s cousin, who witnessed his kidnapping that night. Tell had originally been skeptical, since he had already written papers about the Emmett Till case and thought he had covered everything there was to be known. But meeting people – and finding many sites left unknown – moved him to take action.
“I got down there with people with people who have deeply personal connections with the story,” he says. “I came away with the conviction to not just write about the memory of Emmett Till in an academic sense, but to do something that can be useful.”
Both Weems and Tell say they know there is a hostile crowd. But there is also a strong local community eager to protect the memory, which is what Weems says motivates him. Tell says some other community members are supportive because they also stand to benefit from the increasingly popular idea of cultural heritage tourism and civil rights pilgrimages that can bring economic opportunities.
The Center started a fundraising campaign online to help replace the bullet-ridden sign that marks the place where Emmett’s body was removed from the river. So far, they’ve raised $3,000 with 72 days left in the campaign. The money raised will also be used to fund the app.
“It’s amazing to see the outpouring of support from across the country,” Weems says. “We know our role is to continue to listen and try to move our community forward. It’s a local project, local members of the community, both black and white, have worked to keep the sign up and that gives me hope.”