You Cannot Destroy History

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Photo by Cultural Leadership

The bad news (which we know seems unending): Unknown perpetrators have vandalized, not for the first time, a Money, Miss. civil rights memorial to Emmett Till, scratching it so badly the facts and photos of Till’s brutal death at age 14 have been obliterated. The sign, the first erected by state officials in 2011 as part of the Mississippi Freedom Trail, was outside the former Bryant's Grocery, where Till first encountered Carolyn Bryant; it was her (false) claim he whistled at her that led to his 1955 beating and murder by Bryant's husband and half-brother, who were acquitted by an all-white jury but later confessed to the crime. Till's mother famously insisted her son's casket remain open at his funeral because "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby." The maimed sight helped spark the civil rights movement.

Over the years, his and other civil rights memorials have been vandalized often enough the acts are viewed not as random pranks by harmless kids but a proxy for political action, a "low-risk outlet for racism." This most recent defilement seemed more "sinister," said a member of the Emmett Till Memory Project, because it felt like "not a defacing, but an erasing." The good news: When high school students with the St. Louis non-profit Cultural Leadership, which gives social justice leadership training to black and Jewish kids, came upon that violence Sunday on their cross-country trip to sites of activist history, they acknowledged the tragedy - "You can kill a boy" - then acted to honor Till in their own way. Among the messages they posted on the defaced sign: "It’s not who killed him. It’s what killed him," “You can destroy this marker, but you cannot destroy history,” and "Our fight for freedom, justice and equality continues." May the kids hold fiercely to their hope and strength; the times demand it.

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