Reckoning with Remembrance: History, Injustice, and the Murder of Emmett Till

September 3–November 2, 2021
Flag Hall, National Museum of American History

 

In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally lynched on a trip to visit family near Money, Mississippi. More than 60 years later, the anti-Black racism that led to Emmett’s murder continues. Today, historical signs that publicly commemorate Emmett are part of an ongoing fight in the United States over which histories are remembered and which are suppressed.

The River Site marker by the Tallahatchie River from which Emmett Till’s body was recovered in 1955

The River Site marker by the Tallahatchie River from which Emmett Till’s body was recovered in 1955

Bullet-riddled River Site marker collected by the National Museum of American History

This historical marker erected by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission is pierced by 317 bullet holes; it is only one of many defaced historical markers memorializing sites of Emmett Till's lynching in the Mississippi Delta.

“The vandalism hurts the same as if it were the American flag.”

—Jessie Jaynes-Diming, Emmett Till Memorial Commission, June 2021

The River Site marker stands on the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where Emmett’s body was discovered. The Emmett Till Memorial Commission has replaced the River Site marker three times since it was first erected in 2008, due to repeated acts of vandalism; the most recent version is made with bulletproof steel. The bullet holes represent more than just random attacks. For many community members, these aggressions are an extension of the violence inflicted on Black people—in 1955 through the present day.

Emmett Till: A Black Child in America

Growing up in a tight-knit Black community in Summit, Illinois, Emmett Till was affectionately known as a jokester. When fun-loving Emmett wanted to take a trip to visit his uncle in Mississippi, his mother warned him about a distinctive set of unwritten rules he would have to follow in the South as a Black child. Their conversation echoed one that Black parents still have with their children today: that simply being Black can get you killed. On August 20, 1955, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, waved goodbye to her 14-year-old son as he boarded the train for Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.

Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley

Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley

Courtesy of the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Mamie Till-Mobley family

Eight days later, two white men kidnapped Emmett from his bed. They brutally beat, shot, and mutilated Emmett, throwing his body into the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His attackers lynched Emmett for whistling at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant.

Mamie Till-Mobley made the brave decision to hold an open casket funeral for Emmett, forcing the nation to see the harsh reality of anti-Black racism. Thousands from around the country came to the funeral in Chicago to mourn Emmett’s murder and the deaths of so many other Black people. An all-white jury in Tallahatchie County acquitted the two men, who confessed to the murder months later. The image of Emmett’s mutilated body and the court’s failure to hold his killers accountable sparked a revolution, inspiring civil rights activists to act with courage, boldness, and determination.

The Power of Collective Action

The Emmett Till historical markers represent decades of local activism in Tallahatchie County. Even though the county was and is majority Black, few African American residents held public office until one group of Black men—nicknamed the “Magnificent Seven”—were willing to risk their lives for increased political representation. Starting in 1977, the Magnificent Seven fought for the Black community’s access to basic human rights: clean water, fair employment, safe and affordable housing, healthcare, voting rights, and education. Their work challenged the same racist structures that led to Emmett’s murder and included a strong interest in preserving this history for future generations.

In 2006 a member of the Magnificent Seven, Jerome “G” Little, founded the Emmett Till Memorial Commission to break local silences around Emmett’s story in Tallahatchie County. Together, they placed nine historical markers commemorating the events of Emmett’s murder throughout the county, saved the local courthouse where Emmett’s murderers were acquitted, and issued a formal apology with the citizens of Tallahatchie County for the “miscarriage of justice” in 1955. Yet while the commission made these significant inroads, the struggle to preserve Black history is ongoing.

Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi, 2015

Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi, 2015

The current owners of Bryant’s Grocery, where Emmett encountered his accuser, Carolyn Bryant, received state funds to preserve the storefront as a historical site. Instead, they left it dilapidated and renovated a historically insignificant gas station.

©Ashleigh Coleman

University of Mississippi, 2019

University of Mississippi, 2019

A new generation of Black organizers highlights the stark contrast between the bullet-riddled River Site marker and the protected Confederate statue on the University of Mississippi campus.

©Suzi Altman

History is an active battleground. What we choose to remember, memorialize, and preserve as a society determines how we understand our present and imagine our future. When Black history is suppressed or delegitimized, we lose the ability to reckon with systemic racism, from one generation to the next.

Tallahatchie Community Leaders Speak

Watch testimonials from Tallahatchie County community leaders as they reflect on Emmett’s history.

Reverend Wheeler Parker, civil rights activist and Till family member, shares his experience growing up with Emmett and reflects on America in the 1950s compared to today.

Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, walks us through his journey as a community advocate.

Reverend William (Willie) Williams, Emmett Till Memorial Commission co-chair, speaks about the spiritual aspect of the commission’s work.

Anti-Black Violence Today

“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor. . . . [H]e could easily have been me.”

—Congressman John Lewis, July 2020

Today, protestors still hold signs with Emmett Till’s name, exposing the continuation of anti-Black violence in policing, mass incarceration, inequitable housing, education, healthcare, and environmental racism. Emmett’s story is not just part of a racist past; it reflects our ongoing present and fuels contemporary struggles for change.

Activists and young people imagine new futures despite the persistence of anti-Black violence. Pictured here, a child leads protest chants weeks after George Floyd’s murder in June 2020.

Courtesy of David Ryder/Getty Images News via Getty Images

Joint Statement

Reckoning with Remembrance: History, Injustice, and the Murder of Emmett Till is co-curated by the National Museum of American History (NMAH) and the Emmett Till Interpretive Center (ETIC) in Sumner, Mississippi. Both NMAH and ETIC are committed to a long-term partnership that creates sustained public reflection on the enduring legacies of anti-Black violence.

Our partnership began in 2019 when we started discussing the possibility of bringing the bullet-riddled Till historical marker into the collections at NMAH. Over a series of site visits, NMAH curators and members of ETIC and the Emmett Till Memorial Commission (ETMC) worked together to think through how the marker could be moved to Washington, D.C. while maintaining its ties to the Tallahatchie County community. This exhibition is the first product of these conversations and centers local voices and family perspectives on Till’s Mississippi story. The second stage of our collaboration will be a series of joint programs in the state of Mississippi to highlight the ongoing struggle to preserve this history and to reflect on its impact on the state and the nation.

How we remember matters. Both ETIC and NMAH commit to telling a fuller, more complex and complete history to engage public understanding of anti-Black violence today.

Learn more about ETIC’s work, including efforts to build a Black community center in Tallahatchie County:

The Emmett Till Memorial Commission

The Emmett Till Memory Project

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