Emmett Till’s Bulletproof Memorial: We Have So Far Still to Go

Emmett Till’s Bulletproof Memorial: We Have So Far Still to Go October 21, 2019

Eric Rauchway, a professor at U.C. Davis, recently made the following point via tweet:

“Pretty sure you can derive nearly every important observation about US history if you simply start with the need of a memorial to Emmett Till that’s bulletproof,” Rauchway wrote.

What’s that, you ask? Why is Emmett Till’s memorial bulletproof? For reasons, that’s why. Reasons like this:

The first sign went up along the river in 2007 and was stolen the following year. No arrests were ever made. When the marker was replaced, it was riddled with bullet holes. In 2018, a third sign was put up at the site, but only 35 days went by before it was shot up again.

14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped and brutally tortured and murdered in 1955. His crime? He was accused of whistling at a white woman. The men who kidnapped him were identified, but the jury declined to convict. In 1956, they sold their confession to Look magazine. Because the law prevents being tried twice for the same crime, they never suffered any legal consequences for their crime.

And yet today, in 2019, a sign memorializing Till has to be bulletproof. History doesn’t just disappear once we’ve lived it. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it does so slowly.

Following Rep. Elijah Cummings’ recent death, I learned things about him that I hadn’t known before.

He carried the scar all of his life.

He was 11-years-old, when he and a group of black boys decided to visit the public pool. He didn’t know it then, but he was among the first black children to integrate the Riverside Park swimming pool in the summer of 1962.

A crowd of angry white residents, surrounded them, carrying signs that said “Keep Our Pool Germ Free” and shouting, “Go back to where you came from.”

“People were throwing bottles, rocks, and screaming,” he remembered, “calling us everything but a child of God.”  

One of the flying objects hit him in the face, that’s how he got the scar.

Cummings was injured when a white mob set upon him and other black boys integrating Riverside Park swimming pool in the summer of 1962. Many Americans seem content to pretend that this is history, over and done, something that hardly bares talking about anymore. But it’s not so long ago, really.

Ruby Bridges is only 65.

When Rauchway mused that “you can derive nearly every important observation about US history if you simply start with the need of a memorial to Emmett Till that’s bulletproof,” a black woman tweeted back at him: “US history AND present.” Indeed.

I’ll leave you with two pictures. The first is a picture of Emmett Till’s mother, at his open casket, overcome with grief. The second is a picture of three smug racist assholes with shotguns posing by Emmett Till’s riverside memorial—before it was bulletproof.

May we hope to see deeper change in the future. We’re not there yet. We need to leave off pretending history is past and gone, and take steps to grapple more fully with how we got here—and where we are going.

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