Signs of the times

It was a quiet drive from Oxford to Sumner, Mississippi. Karen was busy and I drove the 70 miles by myself. I don’t think I said more than a few words all day. Mostly, I read signs. And I’m going to let the signs do most of the talking today.

A sign in front of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse says:

“Emmett Till Murder Trial.

In August 1955 the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago, was found in the Tallahatchie River. On September 23, in a five day trial held in this courthouse, an all-white jury acquitted two white men, Roy Bryant and W. W. Milam, of the murder. Both later confessed to the murder in a magazine interview. Till’s murder, coupled with the trial and acquittal of these two men, drew international attention and galvanized the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and the nation.”

-Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 2007

Because of double jeopardy, the men couldn’t be tried again, even thought they had both confessed publicly.

On another corner of the courthouse a Confederate statue stands, with a soldier on top, a Confederate flag below and underneath that an inscription that reads:

“For truth dies not and by her light they raise the flag whose starry folds have never trailed; and by the low tents of the deathless dead they lift the cause that never yet has failed.”

-Virginia F. Boyle (“Poet Laureate of the Confederacy”)

The largest words at the base read simply, “Our Heroes.”

Inside the courthouse there is no signage, but walking up the stairs, I found the door to the courtroom open, so I wandered in to see the room where the trial was held.

Twelve miles to the south in Glendora is the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, housed in an old cotton gin, owned by J.W. Milam, one of the men who confessed to the murder after the trial.

A sign just down the road from the cotton gin and museum reads:

“Milam’s House.

This site was the home of J.W. Milam, who along with his half-brother, Roy Bryant, murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till on August 28, 1955.

The two men confessed to journalist William Bradford Huie, during which Milam claimed he and his brother initially beat Till in the barn behind the house. Milam forced several of his black employees to wash out the bloody truck, which had been used to carry Till’s body to the Tallahatchie River. He also later admitted to burning Till’s clothes in the backyard.”

Just a short drive from Glendora will bring you to the site where Emmett Till’s body was found. The first sign directing you to the site is riddles with bullet holes. It reads:

“River Site

On August 31, 1955, Emmett Till’s body was found 2.6 miles to the southeast. Fishermen discovered the body on a piece of land adjacent to the Tallahatchie River, where it had been dumped, presumably as a warning to the black community. A cotton gin fan had been tied around Till’s neck with barbed wire. Till’s uncle, Moses Wright, identified the swollen and mutilated body only because he recognized a ring Emmett wore on his finger. The FBI later confirmed the identity through DNA testing.”

And if you drive those 2.6 miles down a gravel road, you will come to the river site. When I visited two years ago, that sign had been removed, because it, too, had been shot and vandalized. This time a new, bulletproof sign stood in its place and it read:

“Graball Landing

Emmett Till’s body may have been removed from the river at this site. Cleared by enslaved persons in 1840, Graball began as a prominent steamboat landing. Although an 1894 tornado eliminated all visible evidence of inhabitation, it left a clearing in the otherwise impenetrable vegetation that provided access to the river.”

In smaller type below,

“Some historians suggest that the body was recovered a few miles downstream from Graball at Fish Lake Landing near Pecan Point. But from the trial to present, there has never been a consensus on precisely where the body was recovered. Fish Lake Landing is no longer connected to the river.

Since the Emmett Till Memorial Commission first commemorated Graball Landing in 2008, t has become a nationally recognized memory site. Signs erected here have been stolen, thrown in the river, replaced, shot, removed, replaced, and shot again. The history of vandalism and activism centered on this site led ETMC founder Jerome Little to observe that Graball Landing was both a beacon of racial progress and a trenchant reminder of the progress yet to be made.”

From this last sign down to the river bank is just a short walk. And at the end of the muddy trail, I left my own sign. Small, humble and impermanent, my peace sign would recede with the next rain, but our need to remember the history will not leave so quickly.

Like so many, I was relieved with the recent verdict in the death of George Floyd. But I worry about the temptation to pat ourselves on the back and say, “There…we did it,” without finishing the work.

I have no real historic data to back this up…and I’ll admit that this is a broad and sweeping generalization…but I’ve long thought that at the end of the Civil Rights Era, the white community breathed a sigh of relief and said, “There…we did it. You’re welcome.” And then turned away from the issues hoping they would fade out of sight. And at the same time, people of color said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…we aren’t quite there yet.”

And that’s where we’ve been stuck ever since.

There are some promising signs. Signs of the times. It’s come at a high cost. But maybe…just maybe…we find ourselves with the rare opportunity to finish the work this time.

2 thoughts on “Signs of the times

  1. Thank you for this very thought-provoking album, John. Realizing that Emmett Till would have turned 80 years old this year on July 25th makes me grieve that we senior citizens really have made such little progress during our lifetime. My generation have been the adults who could and should have made a difference. There is so much yet to do.

  2. Hi John, This is a beautiful and provocative image. It challenges us to call out to our better selves as we find our paths through this rocky time. May our minds, hearts, souls, find joy in this new summer.

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