Emmett Till has been dead more than 60 years, and they still won’t let him rest in peace.
Someone again vandalized a memorial to the African-American teenager who was kidnapped, mutilated, and murdered by two white men in Money, Miss., in 1955. Originally installed in 2011, the marker was scratched with a blunt tool in May, but an attack in late June attack left far more damage. Panels featuring Till’s image and the story of his killing were peeled off. All that remains is the logo for the Mississippi Freedom Trail, of which the memorial is part.
Whoever destroyed that marker wanted to erase history.
This isn’t the only memorial to the Chicago boy that’s been marred in Mississippi. Last fall, someone shot up a marker at the Tallahatchie River, where Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam dumped Till’s brutalized body. (An all-white jury acquitted the two men; later, they gave a detailed confession to Look magazine.) In 2006, an Emmett Till Memorial Highway sign was defaced with the initials “KKK.”
Do not equate the desecration of these memorials with the recent removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans. Those statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis remain intact but out of public view. Like the defeated men whom those statues commemorate, the vandals who deface civil rights memorials intend to intimidate and sustain racist subjugation. One can draw a straight line from these unknown criminals to zealots of the “lost cause” still choking on the bitter disgrace of a nation-defining war that ended more than 150 years ago.
Earlier this year, after four Confederate monuments in New Orleans came down, Mississippi state representative Karl Oliver was incensed enough to declare on Facebook that those responsible should be “LYNCHED.” (His emphasis, not mine.) After the inevitable backlash, Oliver said he misspoke due to his “passion for preserving all historical monuments.” So far, Oliver has said nothing about the defacement of Till’s memorial — which occurred in his own district. His passion is reserved for the so-called heroes of the Confederacy, not those whose lives its long shadow still endangers.
Till was not an activist. He was a 14-year-old kid spending the summer down South with relatives, but his murder galvanized the civil rights movement. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral so the world could see what hateful men did to her only child. Today, some still feel so threatened by Till’s markers that they try to destroy them, but that only highlights why such memorials are essential. They represent atrocities we might otherwise find too unsettling to recall, and they challenge people who would prefer that we forget.
On the flip side, memorials to the Confederate dead sanitize history, portraying those who favored human bondage as men of valor. The desecration of memorials to slavery or civil rights is just another attempt to eradicate this nation’s troubling past.
To be sure, such defacement is not confined to the South. Boston police are still trying to determine why someone vandalized the New England Holocaust Memorial near Faneuil Hall. The attacker threw an object and smashed a glass panel etched with numbers representing tattoos on the arms of Holocaust victims. Whatever the motive, pain in and beyond the Jewish community was instant. More than a broken panel, it was an act of disrespect toward the millions who perished in death camps, those who survived, and the many who still say their names. The suspect, James Isaac of Roxbury, was charged with willful malicious destruction of property and causing more than $5,000 in damage to a place of worship, which includes buildings used to memorialize the dead.
In both Boston and Mississippi, there have been public vows to restore the damaged memorials. Given what they represent, there’s always a chance that they will be defaced again, but we would be greatly diminished without them. For us, they are lessons in the impossible toll of hatred.
Yet in these moments of despair, we should also be reminded that such memorials aren’t only made of glass, metal, or polished stone they are forged in flesh and blood, sacrifice and resilience.Renee Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham