Emmet Till was a fun-loving 14-year-old, always joking and pulling silly pranks. In 1955, while visiting with family in Mississippi, he allegedly flirted with a white woman in a grocery store. Four days later, the woman's husband and half brother broke into Till's uncle's house, kidnapped the boy at gunpoint, beat him severely, gouged out one of his eyes, and then shot him in the head. Using barbed wire, they tied a large metal fan to his neck and threw him into the Tallahatchie River.
When Till's body was found three days later, his face was unrecognizable and a monogrammed ring he wore had to be used to identify him.
The two men who kidnapped him were arrested, and three weeks later they stood trial. After less than an hour's deliberation, the all-white, all-male jury acquitted the men of all charges. After brutally murdering an innocent child, they walked free.
Till's mother insisted on her son's remains being placed in a glass-topped casket so the world would see what racism and white supremacy had done to her only child. The images from his funeral served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement that followed.
Such a clear-cut story of racial violence should easily bring all Americans to the same page, right? We should all agree that such a heinous act and gross miscarriage of justice should be treated with some level of reverence and respect. We should all agree that the scene of such a violent, tragic crime against a child should be considered a sacred place. That should just be a given, shouldn't it?
Apparently it's not a given for the people who can't stop defacing the memorial sign marking the spot where Emmett Till's body was found. It's not a given for the people who stole the original memorial marker in 2008 and threw it into the river. It's not a given for the people who shot 317 bullets through the second sign, nor for the people who shot up the third replacement sign barely a month after it went up.
It's not a given for the three Ole Miss frat boys who posed in front of the bullet-riddled sign holding shotguns and rifles just recently, either. Till's memorial marker has had to be replaced four times in a little over a decade because some people apparently can't stop being racist a-holes.
I mean, really. How sick do you have to be to desecrate a place where a tortured, murdered child's body was found? How brazen do you have to be to shoot holes in a memorial for a child that was killed by being shot in the head? How heartless do you have to be to think there's anything okay about posing with guns and smiling at the camera in front of a sign that describes how a child was brutally murdered?
The marker will once again be replaced, this time by a 600-pound, reinforced steel, bulletproof sign. The fact that a child's memorial marker needs to be made bulletproof should send a chill down everyone's spine.
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I hear people try to say that racism isn't really a thing anymore, as if the passage of the Civil Rights Act magically removed centuries of racism from every American heart. I hear people say racism would disappear if we stop talking about it, as if the word "racism" somehow conjures racial injustice to appear out of thin air. I hear people say stories like this one perpetuate the issue, as if describing something that happened somehow causes things like it to happen.
I hear people talk about "white supremacy" only in the context of Neo-Nazis, as if white supremacy hasn't been the default of our nation since its founding.
Racism is intertwined with America's foundation like a root system, and uprooting it is a messy and arduous process. The civil rights movement may have cut down the most visible weeds of white supremacy at the surface, but it didn't uproot the whole system. If we don't dig deeper down, if we don't get the dirt under our fingernails and constantly strive to pull those weeds from the root, they'll never really be gone. Racism will keep on cropping up in ugly ways.
Things like shooting up Emmett Till's memorial marker is an ugly, visible weed of racism that keeps cropping up, but it's not the whole problem. Let's condemn such horrific actions, absolutely. But let's also recognize that racism exists in degrees that all of us need to constantly weed out if we ever hope to rid ourselves of it once and for all.
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