So what was it they were trying to kill?
After all, the sign standing near the Tallahatchie River is cratered by dozens of bullet holes. More than idle target practice, it suggests a frenzy of gunfire, an attempt to kill something. And the something is not really that hard to name.
Memory. They sought to assassinate memory.
The damaged sign, discovered recently and posted to Facebook by student filmmaker Kevin Wilson Jr., marks the spot where the body of Emmett Till, barbed wire around his neck tying him to a 75-pound fan from a cotton gin, surfaced 61 years ago.
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He had traveled to the nothing town of Money, Miss., to visit family for the summer. Emmett, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago unschooled in the ways of the Jim Crow South, accepted a schoolboy dare: Bet you won’t whistle at that white woman in the store. He carried out the challenge, wolf-whistling at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant.
Four days later, her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, came for him in the dark of night.
The body that was pulled from the Tallahatchie River three days afterward barely resembled a human being, much less a prankish boy. It was bloated to the point of shapelessness and had been savagely beaten. An eye had been gouged out. There was a bullet hole in the skull.
The brothers freely admitted the kidnapping. A witness placed Milam at a barn inside of which he said he heard a child being tortured. Yet jurors acquitted them in under an hour. One said it took that long only because they stopped to “drink pop.”
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on an open casket funeral. She said she wanted the world to see what had happened to her child in America. The world saw and was horrified. African Americans saw and seethed with a familiar outrage that was old even then.
Four months later, an Alabama seamstress named Rosa Parks refused a bus driver’s demand for her seat. There are those who say the two events were not unrelated.
And here, perhaps the reader looks to the writer for assurance that while you can vandalize a sign you cannot, in fact, murder memory. The writer has no such assurance to give.
Whoever destroyed that sign represents, albeit crudely, an emerging American consensus. It says that things which give us pain are better off forgotten, some memories better off dead.
So you get columnist Cal Thomas and Snoop Dogg complaining that “Roots” has been remade. And textbooks teaching slavery as “immigration.” And Margaret Biser, a docent on a Southern plantation, writing of being scolded once that talking about slave life “is bringing down America.”
Forget about it, they say. Forget Rubin Stacy and Mary Turner. Forget Trayvon Martin. Forget Emmett Till.
We’d never say, Forget Anne Frank. That would be like killing her all over again. But then, America bears no conscience scars there. America did not kill her. In its intransigence and hatred it did, however, kill Emmett.
Nor is this the first time the marker of that tragedy has been damaged. In Mississippi such markers are often vandalized.
With spray paint and guns or just refusal and denial, some of us seek to murder memory. But others of us stand stubbornly in memory’s defense. One is glad to hear money is being raised to replace the sign.
Besides, even if you kill memory, you do not escape the past. America is shaped by Emmett Till’s death and always will be, even if we no longer know his name.
We make history. But history makes us, too.
Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, appears in Opinion on Mondays.