A new marker for Emmett Till

By JACK RYAN ENTERPRISE JOURNAL,

This past weekend in the Mississippi Delta, a group of people gathered for the placement of yet another historical marker at the location where  historians believe Emmett Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River.

Till was 14 in the summer of 1955, a youngster from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi, when he flirted with a white woman in a rural grocery store. Two men took him from his relatives’ home soon afterward and tortured and killed him, dumping his body in the river.

Till’s lynching, plus the acquittal of the woman’s husband and another man in a criminal trial, was one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement. It is a moment that, unfortunately, a few people in Mississippi seem unwilling to let go.

Three memorial signs have been placed along the river over the past 11 years, but all have been damaged, typically with bullets. A picture this summer of three Ole Miss students, grinning as they carried guns and posed in front of a month-old marker, seems typical of the mindset of the vandals.

To a small degree, the discomfort about the marker is understandable. Its very presence speaks volumes about the immorality of segregation, and nobody likes to be reminded about their society’s shortcomings. Thus, when nobody’s looking, those who are truly bothered by the marker, which is located in an extremely isolated area, are free to take their revenge.

It probably won’t do any good to point this out, but those who have damaged the markers would be among the first to take offense if someone anonymously trashed one of the crosses that used to be placed along interstates and highways by family members of someone who had been killed in an auto accident.

The Emmett Till vandals somehow don’t realize they are doing the same thing to the memory of a teenager who, for whatever rules of his day that he violated, did not deserve to die.

This past weekend’s gathering was to commemorate a fourth marker along the river, one that the Emmett Till Memorial Commission hopes will stand up to the vandalism that damaged its predecessors.

The Washington Post reported that the new marker, weighing 500 pounds, is designed to withstand assaults. It has protective glass and reinforced steel to prevent damage from bullets and other attacks, and hopefully to keep it from being stolen as well. The site also will be monitored by surveillance cameras that can transmit images onto the internet.

It would be a gentle symbol of tolerance, not to mention a show of respect for history, if the new marker was left alone except for the occasional visit from someone interested in Till’s life and death. But the safeguards built into the marker probably will be too tempting for a few goofballs to ignore. They’ll be compelled to find out for themselves whether it’s really bulletproof, or see if they can somehow dislodge it.

How odd that a simple memorial shows how far we have come, but how far we have to go.

Jack Ryan, Enterprise-Journal