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Emmett Till Memorial Dedicated For 4th Time After Vandalism

NPR's Scott Simon talks to Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, about this weekend's rededication of a memorial sign after after the first three were vandalized.

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Transcript:

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mississippi's Emmett Till memorial is being rededicated for the fourth time. The previous signs were vandalized with bullet holes and spray paint and acid. The new sign will be dedicated today near the Tallahatchie River, not far from where the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till was found 64 years ago after he was brutally murdered by two white men.

Patrick Weems is the executive director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission and joins us. Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Weems.

PATRICK WEEMS: Thank you.

SIMON: How is this new memorial different from the three that were vandalized?

WEEMS: This one is a little bit different in the sense that we hopefully have a vandal-proof sign. We've created a sign that has bulletproof glass on the front, weighs over 500 pounds and has adequate security so that we don't continue to run into this problem of vandalism.

SIMON: Can you help us understand what happened to the previous signs?

WEEMS: Yeah. So since 2007, we've honored Emmett Till, beginning with an apology from our community. It was 50 years until the first sign honoring Emmett Till took place in Mississippi. That sign was a highway memorial sign. And once it was put up, someone wrote KKK on it. Since that time, our signs have been shot at, thrown in the river. Someone threw acid on one of them. And so it's been this constant struggle on how to memorialize Emmett Till's memory and how to keep these markers up.

SIMON: Yeah. Who will help you dedicate this memorial this weekend?

WEEMS: So we've got a good group of folks. Our organization is made up of community leaders - both black and white - who've been together for the last 10 years. So our community board and then members from the Till family are traveling from Chicago to be with us - in particular, Reverend Wheeler Parker, who is the last living cousin, who was with Emmett Till coming down the train from Chicago, at the store in 1955 and in the house the night of the kidnapping.

SIMON: What's the range of feelings in Tallahatchie County - as you've experienced it - about having the Emmett Till memorial?

WEEMS: It's been a range of views. I think early on a lot of people were skeptical about what this work would really look like and whether it was opportunistic or whether it was just too hard of a story to talk about. Right? Let's just not talk about that. Let's leave that alone.

Fortunately, we had a group of stakeholders who knew that this was an important story, knew that this had to be told. And since we took the track of beginning our commission and beginning our organization by - with an apology, it really set the tone for what the work was about. Right? That we're not remembering Emmett Till to bring up ill will. We're not remembering Emmett Till to bring up divisiveness. We're using it as a tool for racial healing. And since we've been doing this work, we've seen a lot of changes in the community that we think have spawned out of that work.

SIMON: I guess it's hard to imagine but good to remember that Emmett Till was - at the time of his death - was just 14 years old.

WEEMS: That's correct. Yeah. So he came to visit his Uncle Mose - Great-Uncle Mose - and wanted to spend the summer with his cousins in Mississippi and, unfortunately, did not make it out. And his mother - she wanted to make sure that he didn't die in vain. And so she made sure that his body was brought back from Mississippi and held open casket in Chicago.

And so 100 days later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. And many years later she was asked why. And she said, I was thinking about Emmett and I couldn't back down.

SIMON: Patrick Weems is executive director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. Thank you so much for being with us.

WEEMS: Thank you all.

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