Confronting Uncomfortable History: Emmett Till and Contested Memorials on the American Landscape

Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Image by Dave Barger from Flickr

Americans are engaged in a persistent pathological debate over the nation’s core values and identity. The Constitution espouses a commitment to the liberal principles of freedom, democracy, and human equality, but these principles never applied universally. From the United States’ founding, national dialogue vacillated over the scale and scope of American citizenship. Many laud the ideals of freedom and equality, yet an equally vocal contingent believe these values are best protected through exclusionary laws and policies aimed at limiting civil and human rights. This contestation over American identity bleeds into a larger romantic narrative of the American people and their past—or more precisely, a mythology—that accentuates the extraordinary nature of the American nation and its belief in the liberal ideals of freedom and human equality.

This mythos has become a public battle in contemporary politics as parents and politicians fight over the lessons that teachers may impart in their classrooms. Yet these power struggles over history education are not limited to classrooms or the halls of Congress. In fact, they are perhaps most visible or “invisible” on the nation’s memorial landscape. The lynching of Emmett Till embodies the clearest contestation between U.S. idyllic memory and public space—particularly because his murder challenges patriotic notions of progress and equality. It recasts the American idyllic self into a confrontation with the violent consequences of a deeply-entrenched racism that continues to plague the nation.

Memorials, at their most basic level, are a form of remembrance that remind the living of the past. Nevertheless, these towering statues and commemorative markers should not be mistaken for passive or static forms of remembrance. National monuments and memorials are inherently political as they serve as a physical reminder of, and testament to a specific set of societal values—which may or may not embody those enshrined in the Constitution. To fully assess memorialization in the United States, it is also important to consider not only visible monuments but also, conspicuous absences on the landscape—people, places, or events that are shrouded in silence. Neglecting or muting the related narratives effectively preserves the mythos by obscuring the fact that national values and individual experiences often fail to align.  

The October 28th nation-wide release of Chionyne Chukwo’s Till offers modern audiences an opportunity to confront this memorialized history in a cinematic setting.

Nevertheless, the absence of a public monument in honor of the “sacrificial lamb” of the Civil Rights Movement is telling.

The crux of Till’s story is set in Money, Mississippi and specifically, at the grocery store in which he allegedly made inappropriate remarks to Carolyn Bryant whose husband and brother-in-law kidnapped and murdered the Chicago teen. Though the site features an understated plaque that pays tribute to the history of the space, its memorialization is, nonetheless, mired in controversy.

In 1955, the town Money was home to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a small shop run by Roy Bryant and his wife Carolyn. On August 24th of that year, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old from Chicago, ventured into the store with his cousins and their friends to purchase candy and other small food items after working in the fields all day. Unaware, or perhaps, doubtful of the severe level of racial intolerance in the South, Till allegedly made inappropriate, flirtatious comments—perhaps even going as far as letting out a “wolf whistle”—directed at Carolyn while in the store. When her husband, Roy, heard about the incident several days later, he, his half-brother J.W. Milam, and quite probably several others, kidnapped Till from his uncle Moses Wright’s home in the middle of the night. The men tortured Till for several hours before ultimately murdering him and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie river. In a case that made national headlines, Bryant and Milam were tried, and summarily acquitted for their crimes.

For many, the lynching of Emmett Till marked the start of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, it took over fifty years for the state of Mississippi to memorialize the teen. In May 2011, the Mississippi Development Authority announced plans to create the Mississippi Freedom Trail. Later that month, the state held a dedication ceremony at the first stop on the tour: Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Though the store now has a historical marker out front, the building has slowly deteriorated over time. In 2005, the Mississippi Heritage Trust placed Bryant’s Grocery store at the top of their list of the “10 Most Endangered Historic Places” in the state. Now, all that remains is the bare skeleton of a building covered in overgrown vines.

Despite much interest from various civil rights groups seeking to preserve the former grocery store, all efforts to restore and memorialize the space have been thwarted by the current owners, siblings Annette Morgan, Harold Ray Tribble, and Martin Tribble. The family claims to be interested in preserving the historic site, but they are unwilling to start the restoration process or to sell the building for a fair price. Though the store—or more likely, the land it sits upon—is only worth a few thousand dollars, the family refuses to sell it for anything less than $4 million—a startlingly high price for some, but a bargain compared to the $40 million they originally wanted for the decrepit structure.

Nevertheless, Harold Tribble maintains, “We want to restore it. . .  It’s a part of history, and it’s about to fall down. We’ve got all the signs, the cash registers, the shelves.”[1] While Bryant’s Grocery holds important symbolic meaning for many Americans, it also holds a special personal meaning to the Tribble siblings. Their father, Ray, served on the jury of men that acquitted Bryant and Milam of Tills’ murder in 1955. Given this connection, it is certainly possible that the family has no desire to preserve the building and would indeed prefer it if the space—and along with it, their family’s connection to the vile crime—faded into oblivion.

Yet the family’s inaction continues to frustrate those who want to preserve the space.  Sherron Wright, the great niece of Moses Wright, has characterized the Tribble family’s continued ownership of the property as “a hostage situation.” She explained, “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to hold this building hostage, and once it crumbles, it’s no good to nobody.’” President of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, Alvin Sykes agrees. They are “holding history hostage,” and he contends, “They are demanding a ransom that no one can afford, ensuring that one of the nation’s most important civil rights sites will soon lie in ruins.”

MS Freedom Trail, Emmett Till, Bryant’s Grocery. Image from Flickr[/caption]

The Mississippi Freedom Trail memorial plaque remains outside of the store. However, it has been vandalized on several occasions, like many of the plaques that commemorate sites related to Till’s lynching in Mississippi. Perhaps this is why so many would like to see care and attention paid to the physical building in which Till’s devastating story ultimately began. Unfortunately for all those who seek memorialization of Till at Bryant’s Grocery, it is the right of the Tribble family to let the story fall into disarray as it is indeed private property. And while the family’s behavior in this case is aggravating (especially considering that they applied for, and received, a Mississippi Civil Rights Historic Sites grant to restore the gas station that is adjacent, but otherwise unrelated, to the grocery store), it is illustrative of larger problems of memorialization in a country plagued by contested national values.

Given persistent debates surrounding national ideals, and the level of discord about the types of stories that should be included in history books, it is unsurprising that the memorial landscape in the United States is controversial and chaotic. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 377 Confederate memorials have been removed from public spaces in the United States. Though Americans may debate the future of these discarded monuments, their removal from public view limits their influence on the national mythos of progress and unity. Expelling Confederate memorials without offering further interpretation or explanation at the site allows Americans to ignore the illiberal impulses that led to their erection in the first place.

Avoiding memorialization of Till in Money has an analogous function. On both the memorial landscape and in historical narratives, a constant tension exists between presence and absence; that which is included in contrast to that which is silenced, forgotten, or ignored. The national mythos relies on these lapses in order to contain or erase the most sordid actions and inclinations of the American people. In its rise, the mythos softened and silenced episodes of trauma and cruelty that threatened the notion of American exceptionalism—narratives that exposed the United States’ deeply embedded roots of violence and intolerance.

In 1955, Till’s story made national headlines and startled many into action. With renewed attention from the film Till and recent efforts to locate and try the surviving perpetrators in this crime, it has the potential to do so again. For this to happen, Americans must confront this uncomfortable narrative and restore it to the larger story of the nation’s past.

[1] Jeffery Mitchell, “Symbol of the Movement Sits in Ruin; Family Looking for Buyer,” Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, February 11, 2007

Adrienne Chudzinski is a history Instructor at Stanford Online High School. Her research focuses on racial violence and the memory of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

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