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Smithsonian opens exhibit showcasing defaced Emmett Till historical marker

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(photo courtesy of Suzi Altman)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened an exhibit on Friday displaying the bullet-riddled historical marker that was placed at the bank of the Tallahatchie River in honor of Emmett Till.  The exhibit, called “Reckoning with Remembrance: History, Injustice and the Murder of Emmett Till,” will be on display for a month in the museum, shining a light on the lingering racism that the defaced sign so aptly represents.

Dave Tell, author of ‘Remembering Emmett Till’ and photographer Suzi Altman, whose work is also included in the exhibit (photo courtesy of Suzi Altman)

On the museum’s website, curators recanted the story of Till’s untimely death and the outrage that followed, seemingly, right up to present day.

During a visit to see his great uncle in Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till, of Chicago, was brutally lynched Aug. 28,1955. When his mutilated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River, his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago. Starting in 2008, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission erected nine historical markers to remember Till, but the signs have been stolen, riddled with bullets, or thrown in the river. This monthlong display of the defaced historical marker preserves the memory of Emmett Till while demonstrating the contested nature of racism’s violent legacy in America. The 317 bullet punctures further serve as a reminder that the racism that caused Till’s death still exists today and that his murderers were never truly brought to justice.

Also present for the exhibit’s opening was civil rights activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a Freedom Rider who was arrested in Jackson in 1961.

Renowned photographer Suzi Altman, who also heads the Mississippi Folk Art Foundation and its primary project of restoring Margaret’s Grocery, provided a historic photograph from her portfolio depicting Ole Miss students carrying the vandalized sign onto the University of Mississippi campus to where the Confederate monument stood in the grove.

James Meredith, who was the first Black student to be admitted to the University of Mississippi, is captured in silent prayer at the site of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, where Till was accused of harassing the store clerk, a white woman.

James Meredith at old Bryant store (photo courtesy of Suzi Altman)

The Bryant Grocery marker was vandalized on the same day that the bullet-riddled marker from the river site was installed at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

This exhibit is actioning on a commitment that the museum made in their strategic plan to showcase our nation’s history in the fullest and truest possible form, highlighting innovation and achievements right alongside examples of cruelty and injustice.

“We have a unique and cherished role as the only museum in the country dedicated to telling the full history of the United States,” the plan reads. “Knowledge of the past is not a luxury: it is a necessity for civic health.”

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