The first time I saw a picture of Emmett Till’s dead body was in seventh grade. We’d been given a lesson on the incident, on the dark place it holds in Mississippi’s history, but our teacher hadn’t shown us photos.
The next class, we Googled it on our own. I remember how long it took me to realize what I was looking at, that the shape on the screen was a human body. I didn’t know a human body could look like that.
In my twenties, I started freelancing travel articles around the Southeast, hunting down musicians and chefs, sites of historical significance as well as cultural oddities. Every few months, I’d end up passing by Bryant’s Grocery, where Till allegedly whistled at a white woman and grabbed her waist.
The store is a stark (and appropriate) contrast to the immaculately maintained landmarks like Dockery Farms down the road in Cleveland. It sits in ruin, leaning, sinking into the bucolic landscape like a dead ship.
Each time I passed the grocery store or the spot where they pulled Till’s swollen body, tied with barbed wire to a heavy metal fan, out of the Tallahatchie River, the historical markers would be different–either vandalized or replaced since the last time I’d seen them.
I couldn’t imagine then and can’t imagine now why someone would desecrate a memorial to a murdered 14-year-old. Especially after Till’s accuser admitted in 2008 that he’d never whistled at her, never touched her, never spoken a lewd word to her.
So I don’t understand what compelled three Ole Miss students to pose next to Till’s historical marker holding guns in a photo that surfaced last week. To quote Deborah Watts, Till’s cousin and co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, “What sense of pride does that represent for you?”
Look, I’m proud to be a Southerner but I’m a citizen of the real South, not a South that failed to launch. That South, the South of the Confederate flag, is an imaginary, delusional place. Whether you believe the Civil War was fought over slavery or states’ rights, the Confederate cause was intrinsically tied to keeping black people in bondage. There’s no two ways about that.
An overly generalized, willfully ignorant view of “The War of Northern Aggression” might leave room for noble ideas a group of people being imposed upon by an overreaching government fight bravely against the odds to protect their culture and way of life.
But even if you entertain the prospect of such honor or whatever, the murder of Emmett Till doesn’t compute.
I doubt these guys were making some larger political statement. I don’t think they’re part of some strategic white nationalist agenda, or anything like that. They were probably just goofin’.
But the flippancy of their gesture says something else that’s just as sinister. It implies that the pain of the Jim Crowe era and the debasement of black Americans’ humanity is a joke a thing you can choose not to take seriously. Perhaps this ability to blithely accept or discard the humanity of someone different than you, and the willingness to prioritize the fantasy of would-have-been Southern glory over the humanity of real living, breathing children of God, is the ultimate expression of the racial power dynamic still at play in this country.
To these students, Till’s death means nothing. But for many, Till’s mutilated body is a symbol of injustice that is conjured up every time a black child dies at the hands of the powers that be. These people don’t get to choose whether Till’s murder is relevant to them or not.
I hope these boys grow into some empathy. I hope they join the rest of us in the real, better South, the South that strives for harmony and brotherhood.