Till, 14, was kidnapped, beaten and killed in 1955, hours after after Carolyn Bryant Donham, a white woman, said the teenager had whistled at her. His body was found in a river days later. An all-white jury in Mississippi acquitted two white men of murder charges. In 2017, she told a historian that her allegations against Emmett were false. His murder reverberated throughout the nation and is regarded as a key catalyst to the civil rights movement.
On Saturday, October 19, 2019, Till’s living family gathered at the bank of the Tallahatchie River for a dedication ceremony. This is the fourth historical marker at the site. In 2008, signs detailing Emmett’s harrowing journey were installed around the region but the sign at the Tallahatchie River location was stolen and thrown into the river. The second and third signs were shot at and left riddled with bullet holes.
In 2016, NYU student Kevin Wilson happened on the shot-up sign. He posted it to Facebook and, within days, the vandalism was covered by every major media outlet in the country.
The media coverage generated intense moral outrage and a widespread demand to replace the sign. When the Brooklyn sign manufacturer Lite Brite Neon volunteered to fabricate, ship, and install a new marker free of charge, the commission quickly cut down the old sign to make room for the new one.
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.
On July 25 of this year, ProPublica reported that three University of Mississippi students face a possible civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice after posing for an Instagram post with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and shotgun next to the now-replaced bullet-punctured memorial.
Dave Tell, a University of Kansas professor who has written about Emmet Till told the New York Times “It has become particularly important to tell Emmett’s story in full through 2019. Memory sites, like this one have become the new lunch counters,” further explaining that lunch counters across the South were “where our country worked out its racial politics.”