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A purple Emmett Till River SIte sign, riddled with bullets, behind plexiglass with a plaque beneath it
Riddled with bullet holes, the River Site sign on the Emmett Till will stand for three months in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., before returning to its final resting place in the Mississippi Delta. Photo by Taylor McKay Hathorn

They Said Emmett Till’s Name to Me. Now, I Say it for Myself.

The first time I ever heard someone say Emmett Till’s name was in Room 504 at Wayne County High School. My Mississippi studies teacher was Callie Taylor, a Black woman who had marched in the Civil Rights Movement and was only a few years away from her retirement when she taught me in the spring of 2012.

In that class, I acquired a strange range of skills that have since come in handy: I can name every county and county seat in Mississippi and point to it on a map; I can tell you the names of every state and local elected official. In short, my teacher insisted that we do exactly what the title of the course suggested and study our home state.

Emmett Till, pictured here with his cousin Wheeler Parker and friend Joe B. Williams, would not live long after this photo, as a gang of white men in Money, Miss., murdered him in 1955. Photo courtesy Wheeler Parker Jr.

On the day Mrs. Taylor taught us about Emmett Till, she pulled up the now-famous photo of Mamie Till-Mobley weeping over her son’s casket. The projector flickered a little, distorting the image, but his mother’s grief was plain as day.

“The funeral was in Chicago,” Mrs. Taylor told us. She never raised her voice at us, not even when we deserved it, and that day was no exception. “But Emmett Till died in Mississippi.”

“Where in Mississippi?” one of my classmates asked.

“Money,” she replied, and there were scattered titters at the name of the town, a few mumbles of “I wanna live there.”

“They beat him and tied his body to a fan,” she continued. Then, everyone was silent.

“What made them do that?” another student asked.

“He whistled at a white woman,” Mrs. Taylor said, and she let out a small sigh: a testament and an homage to the blurred lines of teaching history when you’re all too aware of who has written history. “Maybe.”

Mississippi on Trial

Her “maybe”—which the white woman herself has confirmed in the years since the murder—echoed in my ears during my mid-September 2021 trip to Washington, D.C. As we held our arms over our heads and passed through the metal detectors in order to enter the Smithsonian Museum of American History, my friend and traveling companion made an interesting observation: The museum is unique in that it sees history as “current.”

The Emmett Till exhibit, which sits in the center of the main hall and is visible immediately upon entering the museum, is no exception to the museum’s belief that history is very, very present. The actual bullet-riddled “River Site” sign largely speaks for itself, as there’s probably less than a thousand words of text on all four of its placards combined.

A purple Emmett Till River Site sign, riddled with bullet holes
The defacement of the River Site sign, located just yards from the river where murderers dumped Emmett Till’s body in 1955, led to national outcry and the installation of a bullet-proof, alarmed sign. Photo courtesy Emmett Till Memorial Commission

I’d seen the sign before, in its original location near the Tallahatchie River, where Emmett Till’s killers ultimately dumped his body after eviscerating it. The sign is now more protected in the museum than it had been in its original location, where it was eventually replaced with a 500-pound steel edifice that its manufacturers boast is bulletproof.

A few museum-goers milled around the sign, all of them shocked at the sight of it. One woman wondered aloud what sort of a weapon would leave a metal sign so thoroughly disfigured. (Guns, ma’am, and there’s lots of them down here). A man said, “They’re still doing this,” and I cringed, knowing that as a native-born Mississippian, I was encapsulated in his scornful “they.” I passed around to the back of the sign, and I swallowed at a quote I’d never read before but felt in my bones: “Emmett Till was my George Floyd.”

Black and white photo of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till
Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted that the world look upon the disfigured face of her son after his body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. Many have called his brutal murder the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.  Photo courtesy Simeon Wright

It was a line from John Lewis’ final letter to the nation, published after his death. I thought about Callie Taylor again, thought about how Emmett Till had been her George Floyd, too. Emmett Till, in his death, had been the galvanizing call-to-arms for the South, had been the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement that still isn’t finished.

‘Why I Stayed’

Not even close to finished, I realized later as I read the replies to my tweet about the Smithsonian’s loan from Glendora, Miss. “Surely Mississippi has more to offer,” one respondent wrote. “Slavery was sad, but let’s move on!”

Emmett Till lived nearly a hundred years after the end of slavery, as several helpful Internet strangers reminded him, though I suppose conflating Emmett Till’s murder with the crushing system that created the dehumanization and racism that led to the sign’s defacement was apt.

Another Twitter user replied, “Mississippi has got to be one of the worst states ever. I wish my remaining relatives would leave this state.”

My thumbs itched to tell a faceless Twitter user why I stayed: to tell them about the world-class English education I received, to tell them about the good work the Mississippi Free Press and other organizations are doing by addressing these very issues, to tell them about my ninth-grade history teacher who told me about a murdered young man and thereby made sure his story and his community’s devastation lived on in me.

An outside corner view of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss., is dedicated to the preservation of the life and ongoing legacy of Emmett Till. Photo courtesy Langdon Clay

I didn’t tell him any of those true things, but I think about them as I write this essay. I was 15 years old the first time someone said Emmett Till’s name to me, and I’d hear it countless times over the ensuing years—from my Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher, who shocked and enraged our class full of budding activists by telling us that his murderers still walked free; from my college Mississippi history professor, who showed us images of his disfigured face and told us why it mattered in the telling of our state’s story; from my English professors, who believed deeply that tragedies like the murder of Emmett Till were inescapably enmeshed in the writing of Mississippians.

I say his name now for myself, proving my English professors’ belief that Emmett Till’s blood cries out to us from the pen of Mississippians. I say it even though the governor and half the Legislature might say that it’s proof of the nefarious “critical race theory” infiltrating Mississippi schools.

Mostly, I say it because it’s true, because it’s part of our story, and because, as the Smithsonian reminds us, the past will never really be past if we don’t drag it into the light of day.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and fact check information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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