Emmett Till memorial gets extra layer of protection after acts of vandalism

SUMNER, Miss. -- A commission responsible for a memorial honoring the life of slain 14-year-old Emmett Till has had to step up security around the site after three markers were destroyed by vandals.

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center has installed multiple cameras and sensors at the memorial site where Till’s body was believed to have washed up three days after being thrown into Tallahatchie River in 1955. The commission was forced to tighten security around the site after the memorial honoring Till was continually vandalized.

The marker has been replaced on at least three occasions since the site was first dedicated to Till in 2008. Every time a new one went up, it was either stolen or riddled with bullet holes. The third marker was installed in June 2018. It lasted a little more than a month before it was shot four times. A quarter-inch thick acrylic panel was put on the fourth one in October -- though even that wasn’t enough.

Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, said trouble found its way to it, as he tried to check the newest marker for what appeared to be a bullet graze.

“It baffles us that people would be willing to come and desecrate this marker," said Weems. "This last marker we’ve put up, it weighs over 500 pounds. It cost us $10,000 to make sure it was reinforced steel with a bulletproof glass. We've added security cameras with an alarm system to make sure no future vandalism takes place at this site."

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Till, an African American teen from Chicago, had been visiting family in Money, Miss. when he was accused of whistling at a white woman. The accusation led to the 14-year-old’s kidnapping and brutal death at the hands of two white men, which was considered the spark to the U.S. civil rights movement. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were charged and tried in connection to Till’s death but were exonerated by a jury. The two men later confessed to the murder but were never retried.

His memorial is now surrounded by at least three security cameras that are perched in trees and alert the commission of any activity around the site.

The cameras alone weren't enough to prevent a group of white supremacists from using the Till memorial as a backdrop for a propaganda video they were filming earlier this month. The group was seen holding a confederate flag and a southern nationalist flag, which is commonly associated with the League of South white nationalist group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. A man can be heard on the security footage ranting about memorials honoring African Americans and asking, “where are all the white people?” It wasn't until a high-pitched alarm began blaring that the scurried away.

Undated file photo shows Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black Chicago boy, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi.

Undated file photo shows Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black Chicago boy, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. (AP)

TM Garret, a former Ku Klux Klan member who now spends his time helping former white supremacists and gang members cover up tattoos with his “Erase the Hate” campaign, said showing up to the Till memorial is something he would have done when he was radicalized.

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“We would’ve gone there and used it just to show that we’re still here,” Garret explained. “We want the old order being restored and we want segregation.”

Garret said the presence of white supremacists at the memorial signaled a fear of losing their perceived privilege. It’s an idea he said was completely fictional.

The sight of one of three previous markers at the Emmett Till memorial site. This marker is riddled with bullet holes and later had to be replaced with a marker encased in bulletproof glass. (The Emmett Till Interpretive Center)

The sight of one of three previous markers at the Emmett Till memorial site. This marker is riddled with bullet holes and later had to be replaced with a marker encased in bulletproof glass. (The Emmett Till Interpretive Center)

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center has since raised more than $40,000 from public donations. Meanwhile, preserving and securing the Till memorial has cost the commission hundreds of thousands of dollars, $250,000 of which has gone toward creating a smartphone app where users can virtually tour sites that are relevant to Till’s story, instead of physically going to them. Those who do visit the sites can also use the app to report cases of vandalism.

The commission has also focused its efforts on training people in the community to be tour guides for tourists who may not feel comfortable going out to the memorial and other sites by themselves. Weems said the Emmett Till Interpretive Center would begin phasing in the option of tour guides by 2020.

“It's frustrating that we have to do these kinds of security measures, especially for the murder of a child,” said Weems. "But we think it's important that this story get and told."

Other memorials around the country have endured similar acts of vandalism this year. In May, a 33-year-old man was arrested after Massachusetts State Police said that he spray-painted swastikas on stone monuments at a Vietnam War memorial in Dorchester, Mass.

On the eve of the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, county officials in White Plains, N.Y. said someone plastered anti-Semitic rhetoric over the Holocaust Garden of Remembrance there.

Daphne Chamberlain, a civil rights historian at Tougaloo College, said these acts of vandalism to the Till memorial and other historical sites around the country “open up wounds.”

“It’s a stark reminder that there is a lot more work that has to be done,” said Chamberlain. “We need to do a better job of making sure that this next generation of young people don’t relive a past that was traumatic.”

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Weems said regardless of what happens at the memorial site, the commission was always going to fight to make sure Till's story stayed in the public eye. He said it made an important point.

“We’re not afraid of this history. That we’re willing to tell the truth and we’re willing to move forward,” said Weems.

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