Note: This article originally appeared in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
An Emmett Till marker has been vandalized yet again, and the form of vandalism symbolizes a larger story. While defacing a marker is nothing new, this is the first time a sign has been erased.
Clarion-Ledger journalist Jerry Mitchell quoted Davis Houck of the Emmett Till Memory Project as saying, “This time, it’s not someone with a shotgun or somebody trying to run over or tear down the sign.
“This time, it’s more sinister because it’s carefully thought out. It’s not a defacing but an erasing.”
The Till marker stood outside the former Bryant grocery store where the 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago allegedly made improper advances toward Carolyn Bryant. In retaliation, Bryant’s husband and her half-brother abducted Till. They beat him mercilessly and shot him in the head. After that, they used barbed wire to tie his body to a cotton gin fan and threw him into the Tallahatchie River.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, made the bold decision to have an open casket at her son’s funeral so the world could see what hate did to her baby. The lynching garnered international attention. Despite all the evidence against Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, a jury acquitted them of Till’s murder.
The literal erasure of the Emmett Till sign is an illustration of the ways American culture tries to erase the reality of racism . Lynchings — the extrajudicial murders of black people for real and perceived transgressions — have been obscured for decades. This is one reason why the exact number of lynchings will forever remain a mystery. Heinous crimes perpetrated against the powerless are routinely ignored or concealed.
But it is not only the painful parts of the past that have been obscured, moments of heroism and virtue have been missed as well. Markers for Emmett Till recall not only his unjustified slaying but also the bravery of his mother and other civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers who risked their well-being to expose this crime in the hope that a public sense of righteous outrage might spur positive change.
How much rich history have we missed by attempting to erase a past we should learn from but not repeat?
The flip side of erasing history is rewriting it. History abhors a vacuum. When one part of history is removed it must be filled, often with idealized visions of the way things were. These memories may be pleasant, but they are mirages that must yield to reality.
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