As It Happens

Emmett Till's memorial sign riddled with bullet holes — for the 2nd time

The sign that marks where the 14-year-old black boy's body was found was repeatedly shot just 35 days after the last one was replaced.

Sign marks where the 14-year-old's body was found after he was tortured, killed and drowned

In 2008, a sign memorializing the site Emmett Till's body was found was erected along the Tallahatchie River was stolen and replaced. The second sign, pictured here, was shot repeatedly and is now displayed at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. (Emmett Till Interpretive Center/Facebook)
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For the second time, a sign commemorating the life of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was murdered in 1955, has been repeatedly shot.

Till was killed after he was accused of making sexual advances toward Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. Bryant later admitted she fabricated the story and no one was ever charged for his death.

Till's case is often credited as the spark that ignited the U.S. civil rights movement.

Vandals have repeatedly targeted the memorial sign that sits on the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where the young boy's body was found after being tortured and drowned outside Glendora, Miss.

In 2008, it was stolen from the site and never recovered. Kevin Wilson Jr., a filmmaker behind the documentary My Nephew Emmett, found its replacement riddled with bullet holes in 2016.

This year, following a fundraiser lead by the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss., it was once again replaced. Thirty-five days later on July 26, it was found with 50 bullet holes.

Wilson Jr. shared his thoughts on the vandalism with As It Happens guest host Matt Galloway. Here is part of their conversation.

Why do people keep shooting at the sign?

I can only speculate why it's happening. I think that there are still attitudes there in Mississippi and then, of course, across this country, toward African-Americans and toward minorities and people of colour.

That existed hundreds of years ago and, of course, during that time when Emmett Till was murdered. Attitudes that bring about division and hatred and violence.

When I found the sign the first time back in 2016 there were folks who said, "Oh, you know, that's what they do in the country. They shoot up signs. It had nothing to Emmett Till."

This undated photo shows Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 1955. (AP Photo, File)

But then my rebuttal to that was that myself and my partners in my filmmaking endeavour visited a number of signs, a number of markers, in the area. Emmett Till's sign had been the only one that had been shot.

There were other signs marking where J.W. Milan, one of those murderers, had lived. There are stop signs and all kinds of billboards and things in the area that hadn't been shot up. So I think it's very specific to Emmett Till.

Because of that, there is some racial motivation involved with that. And furthermore I think this is just evidence that we still have a lot of things that we have to address. Conversations that need to be had about the value of a human life.

How do people feel in Mississippi about remembering the story of Emmett Till?

Contrary to what I thought folks would feel, there were a lot of people there who were very much moved by his story and who are supportive of what we're trying to do. And so a lot of people that I came across down the Greenwood and Money, Mississippi, area were very helpful.

There were those, of course, who you could tell had different attitudes about Emmett Till. There was one gentleman actually speaking with who said, "Well, you know, Emmett Till did more than just whistle at Carolyn Bryant," as if he had done anything to deserve being tortured and murdered.

Kevin Wilson Jr. is a New York City filmmaker and the director of My Nephew Emmett. (Lauren Desberg)

So there are still folks who feel that his death may have been justified. There's a handful of those folks who are still there.

I think that there's the potential to bring about change, especially in the area.

I don't mean to get too political, but we can't have leaders of this country emboldening the white supremacists. We have that type of leadership. You know, that just makes the conversation that much harder.

Do you see a connection between that? Between, as you say, a leadership that is emboldening white supremacists, and people putting 100 bullets into a sign remembering Emmett Till?

Absolutely. I think the sympathies that President Trump has for white supremacists and that those sympathies have been made evident by his own words have given those folks a sense of comfort.

And it's given them freedom to do things such as desecrate a sign that was erected to preserve the memory of an African-American boy who was unjustly murdered. And then to continue to recruit others to be part of organizations that support and defend folks who engage in the types of actions.

A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Aslip, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

So I think it's going to be hard to get past this. I think we may end up seeing a lot more of it. What I do hope is that, as it relates to this sign in particular, there is some type of security measure taken — there are video cameras or something that's installed because this is a huge piece of American history here.

I hope the federal government gets involved. I hope it becomes a federal historic site so that it's a federal crime to vandalize this site because it has to change.

This absolutely cannot continue to happen. It is more than just a bullet hole and someone shooting up a sign. They're really making a loud statement about how they feel about African-Americans.

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview produced by Ashley Mak.