On the anniversary of his death, a bullet-ridden sign tells the story of Emmett Till

Lee O. Sanderlin
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

GLENDORA, Miss. — Tucked away down a trail off a dirt road outside this small Delta town, there is a clearing in the trees that leads to the Tallahatchie River. 

On the far side of this place, Graball Landing, the muddy water has cut a bluff into a farmer’s field. On this bank, the grass grows tall.

This is the place where, 66 years ago, a fisherman found Emmett Till’s body. His killers fastened a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire to weigh the body down. He was 14. A child. 

This is the portion of the Tallahatchie River where, 66 years ago, a fisherman found Emmett Till’s body. His killers fastened a cotton gin around his neck with barbed wire to weigh the body down. He was 14.

About 100 yards inland, next to a dirt road bordering a field, there is a sign marking the spot. Its predecessors were purple and there were three of them. 

“This is the site where Till’s body was removed from the river,” they once read.

They were thrown in the Tallahatchie, replaced, shot, replaced again, shot again and replaced again. Three white students from the University of Mississippi, holding guns, once posed for a picture in front of it.

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On Sept. 3, one of those signs — one riddled with 317 bullet holes — will be displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. It will be in the middle of Flag Hall, outside the entrance to the museum’s highest-profile exhibit: The Star-Spangled Banner. There hasn’t been an exhibit in Flag Hall since 1998, according to a Smithsonian spokesperson.

“The crux of the exhibit is talking about anti-Black violence of course and the connection between the past and present,” said Tsione Wolde-Michael, a Smithsonian curator of African American social justice history. 

The sign is a reminder the past is not the past. 

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In this Instagram photo, three Ole Miss students posed smiling and toting guns in front of this bullet-riddled Emmett Till memorial sign in Tallahatchie County.

In 2019 it was revealed a group white Ole Miss students — Ben LeClere, Charles Logan and John Lowe — posed for a picture holding guns in front of the river sign. LeClere posted it on Instagram March 1, 2019, as a happy birthday message for Lowe.

Patrick Weems, co-founder of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the nonprofit that owns the signs, said the sign the students posed in front of is not the one the Smithsonian will display. 

That photo illustrates how much work remains to be done in Mississippi and elsewhere, Weems said.

“We’re still grappling with some of the same issues around Black violence,” he said. “There are parallels when thinking about Emmett Till and 2021.”

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The students who posed for the pictures were never charged with a crime. Outside of significant circumstantial evidence — posing in front of the bullet-ridden sign with a gun of matching caliber to the bullet holes, and the height of the grass in the photo matching the height of the grass on the day this sign was shot — there is no hard evidence they actually shot the sign.

Their attorney, Hal Neilson, said they are innocent. His comments are the first given to anyone on the students' behalf. While three white men posing for photos in front of a lynching memorial while holding weapons is bad optics, Neilson says they’re innocent and didn’t do anything wrong.

“They went in there stomping around looking for snakes, that’s all it was,” Neilson said. “ I think they would’ve loved to take a picture (without the guns). I think they wish the grass had been cut.”

Neilson, a former FBI agent who oversaw the agency’s reinvestigation of Till’s murder, said his clients’ lives have been virtually ruined with the publication of their photo. Googling their names brings up news stories.

“You’ve got three innocent young men out here who literally saw Morgan Freeman the night before, and were super excited about meeting him, and the next day were riding through and wanted to get a picture with the Emmett Till memorial,” Neilson said. “One of them even called their mother the next day and said ‘Guess what? I got a picture with the Emmett Till memorial.’”

But John Lowe does have a distant tie to the Till case through his family’s history. 

According to a Clarion Ledger records review, John Lowe’s great grandmother is M.B. Lowe, the owner of the cotton gin where Milam and Bryant got the fan they used to weigh down Till’s body. Today, that gin is an Emmett Till museum, owned by Glendora Mayor Johnny B. Thomas. There is no evidence anyone with the Lowe family had anything to do with Till’s murder.

If those students didn’t shoot the sign, a lot of people would like to know who did. Weems is one of them. He said taking pictures in front of the sign posing with guns is still a violent act.

“I think it links in a very visceral way that these young men are not a one off in our society,” Weems said. “They were all-American kids attending the flagship university in Mississippi. These were students that, if our society is really going to change, these students shouldn’t have been anywhere near the sign with guns.”

The families of LeClere, Logan and Lowe just want their boys’ pictures out of the news.

“All three families wanted and prayed this would just kind of go away,” Neilson said.

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‘It’s almost like assassinating him again’

Ollie Gordon can not help but cry sometimes. At 73, she is one of Emmett Till’s last living relatives who personally knew him. She is not sure how to feel about the Smithsonian displaying one of the vandalized signs. 

"I’ve seen the sign," she said. "I’ve touched the sign. It’s something that doesn’t go away."

For some white people, to vandalize the sign is to avoid remembering their ancestor’s cruelty, Gordon said. But that doesn't mean history didn't happen.

“Is it worthy of going into the Smithsonian?” Gordon said. “I guess I would have to say yes because it’s still a part of Emmett’s legacy.”

Originally from Chicago, Till begged his mother, Mamie, to let him spend the summer of 1955 in Mississippi. She relented and Till went with his cousin to visit relatives in the Delta.

On Aug. 24, 1955, Till and some of his family went to Bryant Grocery in Money, Mississippi. Once he left the store, he whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who worked there, according to an FBI report into his lynching. There is a sign commemorating the store.

Four days later, at 2:30 in the morning, Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to the home of Mose Wright, Till’s great uncle. They demanded to see the boy who “did the talking” in Money. 

The men took Till to Milam’s brother’s barn on Drew Ruleville Road where they beat and tortured him. Some historians think there were more than two men there, although only Bryant and Milam were ever charged. An all-white jury acquitted both men. 

After beating and torturing him, they shot Till with Milam’s .45 pistol. 

The men drove Till’s body into nearby Glendora, where Milam lived. His house was next to the M.B. Lowe cotton gin. A purple sign marking the spot is all that’s left of Milam’s home.

They went to that gin, retrieved a cotton gin fan, and then drove off. There’s another purple sign marking the gin location.

Meant to weigh the body down, they fastened the gin fan around Till’s neck using barbed wire. They tossed him in the Tallahatchie River. 

It is the sign there, the one commemorating where Till’s beaten body was found, that has been vandalized and destroyed. Like Till, it was thrown in the river. Like Till, it was shot.

“To me, it's almost like assassinating him again,” Gordon said. 

Smithsonian hopes sign sparks reflection

When the Smithsonian displays the Till sign in Flag Hall, the museum’s most prominent location, museum curators hope it challenges people in its complexity.

“On the one hand, it can hold the horror of what it meant to lynch a 14-year-old boy,” Wolde-Michael, the Smithsonian curator, said. "And then on the other hand, it can hold the memory of his life"

The placement is also meant to invoke reflection. Flag Hall leads to the Star Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key when he wrote what would become the national anthem. To get there, visitors have to pass a sign commemorating the lynching of a child. 

“What do we choose to remember and what do we choose to forget?” Wolde-Michael asked.

In a way, displaying the shot-up sign is a metaphor for Mamie Till displaying her son's beaten body to the world when she held an open-casket funeral, Gordon said. Mamie Till wanted people to know what they did to her son.

"She never wanted the world to not realize what this ugly, grotesque racism of hate looks like," Gordon said. "Today when you see the sign mutilated, it’s another picture rooted in our minds."

Emmett Till Interpretive Center employees, along with Gordon and a host of others, are working to make the sites where the signs are, and other Till locations, a national park. Fundraising efforts to buy the barn where Till was tortured and killed are also underway. That designation would give the sites federal protection and preserve them for future generations. It may even deter future vandalism.

For now, the signs exist largely without protection. Hidden cameras watch some of them. 

On a recent Saturday near the spot Till was found in the river, there is a bouquet of roses and another bouquet of artificial flowers lying under the current sign. The grass around it is still tall. But this sign is not like the ones before it.

This one is black. And bulletproof.

A new sign being erected in memory of Till.

Lee O. Sanderlin is an investigative and political reporter covering the state of Mississippi. Got a story tip? You can call him at 601-559-3857, send it to LSanderlin@gannett.com or message him on Twitter @LeeOSanderlin.