A Mississippi community with an elaborate Confederate monument plans to unveil a larger-than-life statue of Emmett Till on Friday, decades after white men kidnapped and killed the Black teenager for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a country store.
The 1955 lynching became a catalyst for the civil rights movement after Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago so the world could see the horrors inflicted on her 14-year-old son. Jet magazine published photos of his mutilated body, which had been pulled from the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi.
The 9-foot (2.7-meter) bronze statue in Greenwood is a jaunty depiction of the living Till in slacks, a dress shirt and a tie with one hand on the brim of a hat.
The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., the last living witness to the kidnapping of his cousin Till from a family home, said he won’t be able to travel from Illinois to attend Friday’s dedication ceremony. But he told The Associated Press on Wednesday: “We just thank God someone is keeping his name out there.”
The Till statue at Greenwood’s Rail Spike Park is a short drive from an elaborate Confederate monument outside the Leflore County Courthouse and about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the crumbling remains of the store, Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in the hamlet of Money.
The unveiling of the statue coincides with the release this month of “Till,” a movie focusing on Till-Mobley’s private trauma over her son’s death and her development into a civil rights activist.
A life-sized bronze statue of Till-Mobley is planned in the Chicago suburb of Summit. An Oct. 28 groundbreaking is set for a plaza outside Argo Community High School, where she was an honor student. The statue is scheduled to be in place by late April.
Some wrongly thought Till got what he deserved for breaking the taboo of flirting with a white woman and many people didn’t want to talk about the case for decades, Parker said.
“Now there’s interest in it, and that’s a godsend,” Parker said. “You know what his mother said: ‘I hope he didn’t die in vain.’”
Greenwood and Leflore County are both more than 70% Black and officials have worked for years to bring the Till statue to reality. Democratic state Sen. David Jordan of Greenwood secured $150,000 in state funding and the community commissioned a Utah artist, Matt Glenn, to create the statue.
Jordan said he hopes it will entice tourists to visit Greenwood and learn more about the history of the area.
“So much has been said about this case,” Jordan said this week. “Hopefully, it will bring all of us together.”
Till and Parker had traveled from Chicago to spend the summer of 1955 with relatives in the deeply segregated Mississippi Delta. On Aug. 24, the two teens joined other young people in a short trip to the store in Money. Parker said he heard Till whistle at shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant.
Four days later, Till was abducted in the middle of the night from his uncle’s home. The kidnappers tortured and shot him, weighted his body down with a cotton gin fan and dumped him into the river.
Jordan, who is Black, was a college student in September 1955 when he drove to the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner to watch the murder trial of two white men charged with killing Till — Carolyn’s husband Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam.
An all-white, all-male jury acquitted the two men, who later confessed to Look magazine that they had killed Till.
Nobody has ever been convicted in the lynching. The U.S. Justice Department has opened multiple investigations starting in 2004 after receiving inquiries about whether charges could be brought against anyone still living.
In 2007, a Mississippi prosecutor presented evidence to a grand jury of Black and white Leflore County residents after investigators spent three years re-examining the killing. The FBI exhumed Till’s body to prove he, and not someone else, was buried at his gravesite in the Chicago suburb of Alsip. The grand jury declined to issue indictments.
The Justice Department reopened an investigation in 2018 after a 2017 book quoted Carolyn Bryant — now remarried and named Carolyn Bryant Donham — saying she lied when she claimed Till grabbed her, whistled and made sexual advances. Relatives have publicly denied Donham, who is in her 80s, recanted her allegations. The department closed that investigation in late 2021 without bringing charges.
This year, a group searching the Leflore County Courthouse basement found an unserved 1955 arrest warrant for “Mrs. Roy Bryant.” In August, another Mississippi grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Donham, causing consternation for Till relatives and activists.
Although Mississippi has dozens of Confederate monuments, some have been moved in recent years, including one that was relocated in 2020 from a prominent spot on the University of Mississippi campus to a cemetery where Confederate soldiers are buried.
The state has a few monuments to Black historical figures, including one honoring civil rights activist Fannie LouHamer.
A historical marker outside Bryant’s Grocery has been knocked down and vandalized. Another marker near the site where Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River has been vandalized and shot. The Till statue in Greenwood will be watched by security cameras.
“Anytime they take it down,” Jordan said, “we’ll just place it back up.”