For decades, the spot was unmarked, but in 2008, signs detailing Emmett’s harrowing journey were installed around the region, and for the first time there was a memorial to the African-American teenager whose death galvanized the civil rights movement.
But the sign at the Tallahatchie River location was stolen and thrown into the river.
A replacement was soon marred with bullet holes.
Then came a third, which was hit with more bullets.
Now, there’s a fourth sign, this one made of steel. It weighs more than 500 pounds. It’s over an inch thick, and, the manufacturer says, it’s bulletproof.
The dedication of the new sign opened old wounds for his cousins, including Ollie Gordon, 71, and her daughter, Airickca Gordon-Taylor, 50. They traveled to Mississippi from Chicago, Emmett’s hometown, for the ceremony.
“What they did to Emmett was so ugly that even the Tallahatchie River spewed his body back out so he could be seen and found,” Gordon-Taylor said Sunday. She runs the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, which is named in honor of Emmett’s mother.
“Vandalism is a hate crime,” she said. “Basically my family is still being confronted with a hate crime against Emmett Till and it’s almost 65 years later.”
The family has never healed from Emmett’s murder, the mother and daughter said.
Gordon was 7 years old when her cousin was brutally killed after Carolyn Bryant Donham, a white woman, said the teenager had grabbed her and wolf-whistled at her. In 2017, she told a historian that her allegations against Emmett were false.
Gordon, who was raised in the same house as Emmett, remembers her cousin as a food-loving jokester who protected her like a brother would.
“We grew up like siblings because we were all in the same house together,” Gordon said. “He was superprotective.”
Emmett’s death was confusing for Gordon when she was a child. She remembers hearing screams in her otherwise peaceful home. It was also her first brush with death.
She said she and her brothers thought that white people were coming to get them.
“We still didn’t really absorb what was going on; we were children,” she said. “When the body came, we started to have nightmares.”
The two white men who were accused of murdering Emmett were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury.
Now, as a grown woman with children, Gordon still carries the sadness and grief of her cousin’s murder, particularly when she thinks of his mother.
“We didn’t have any counseling, which I think we should have had because I still have these crying episodes,” she said, adding that Emmett’s mother “cried every day.”
“I still have sadness for her pain, losing a child, I can’t imagine losing my child,” Gordon said.
Dave Tell, a University of Kansas professor who has written about Emmett, wrote the text that accompanies the new sign. He said it has become particularly important to tell Emmett’s story in full through 2019.
“The story of Emmett Till can’t be confined to 1955,” he said, adding that “the bullet holes are important, too.”
“Till’s story is still going. It’s still very divisive in Mississippi and across the country,” Tell said.
Memory sites, like the one marked by the new memorial sign, “have become the new lunch counters,” Tell said, explaining that lunch counters across the South were “where our country worked out its racial politics.”
The new sign was made by Lite Brite Neon, which has locations in Brooklyn and Kingston, New York.
The sign is made out of half an inch of AR500 steel and covered in an acrylic panel that’s three-quarters of an inch thick, according to the Emmett Till Memory Project. “The sign is designed to withstand a rifle round without damage,” the project’s site said.
In 2014, Tell began working closely with the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which grew out of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. The commission installed the first signs with the actor Morgan Freeman, who helped fund the project.
Ceremonies like the one Saturday provide the family with a sense of gratification, Gordon-Taylor said.
“OK, you want to shoot it down? We’re going to put it right back up,” she said. “You’re never going to forget about Emmett Till and that he was here. Our family has never received judicial justice from the state of Mississippi for Emmett’s murder, so, in some form, this is us saying, ‘Until you do right by us, basically, you’re never going to forget.’”
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