Last night, Karen and I went to see Till, the movie of the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till. It is a powerful retelling of a difficult and important story in our nation’s history. I’ve been twice to the site where Emmett Till’s body was found , and I wrote about it in Portraits of Peace, Searching for Hope in a Divided America.
The passage below is from that book and you’ll learn more about this photo if you keep reading.
“In Mississippi, I found the site where Emmett Till’s lynched and beaten body had washed up on the shores of the Tallahatchie River three days after he was killed in 1955. My friend George was with me on this trip.
We first visited the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the men who killed Emmett were acquitted by an all-white jury. Across the street was an interpretive center, but it was Sunday afternoon, and it was closed. A faded note in the window provided contact names and information, and I started dialing numbers and working my way down the list until someone picked up. I asked if it was possible to visit the river site, and the voice on the other side of the phone explained that it was hard to find.
The sign had been removed because it kept getting shot full of holes by rifles, handguns, and shotguns. “How recently?” I asked, hoping it was decades ago. He said 2016. I wondered out loud how anyone could believe our country had moved past its race issues when things like this were still happening. He wanted to make sure I had four-wheel drive because it had been raining and the route was on a dirt road. He wasn’t sure it would be passable, but he offered detailed directions so I could try.
The clouds hung low and delivered an occasional mist. We drove the tar roads that brought us close, crossed over the railroad tracks he had mentioned, and found the one sign that was still in place, pointing toward the river site. I counted seven bullet holes in that sign.
It was a remote and rural setting, and as I passed the occasional car, I wondered if the person inside was the kind of person who would have felt grief at the story of Emmett Till or if they were the kind of person who would have shot the sign pointing the way to where his body had been found.
It was uncomfortable. I wanted to take a picture of the sign with the bullet holes, but I was hesitant. I wondered how it would play out if someone drove by when I was taking pictures, depending on who that driver was. I decided to photograph the sign on the way out because I didn’t want anything to derail my visit to the site. So we turned right on a dirt road that paralleled the river.
We drove slowly, our view of the water obscured by trees and undergrowth, even though it was early spring, and the leaves had not yet budded. The man on the phone had given me precise mileage to the site, and I watched the odometer tick off the distance in tenths of miles. He said we would know the site because the two concrete pedestal bases for the removed sign still protruded from the ground.
We found it. We pulled onto the small gravel pad and shut off the truck. The ground was soft from the rain. We followed a rough path a few dozen yards to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, its chocolate waters running high. The shoreline was wooded and lined with tall grasses and dried reeds.
In the one small spot in front of us, the bank was clear, and it was possible to imagine the scene from 1955 when Emmett Till was found there. We stood quietly for a while, the clouds still low and heavy, like the mood.
Then, with no other way to respond, I started breaking off dried reeds. I broke them into lengths of eighteen to twenty- four inches and gathered a handful. George gathered some as well. And at the banks of the river, we laid the reeds, one at a time, to build a three- foot peace sign on the damp earth.
It wasn’t going to change the facts or alter the historic record. It wasn’t going to f ix any of the pain that echoed through the years and into today. It was a personal act of bearing witness. It was a moment to acknowledge the pain of what had happened at that spot. To recognize the human tragedy on the individual and grand societal levels that brought us to that very place on that very day. It was simply a small gesture of healing and a whispered commitment that we could find a way to do better. Together.”