Viewpoint – An Ole Miss Snapshot

It came to light this past week that three University of Mississippi fraternity members posed with guns in front of an Emmett Till marker. In this same stretch of summer, tragically, a student from Ole Miss was gunned down, allegedly by a fellow student, her body dumped on a road near Sardis Lake, north of the college.

Two murders, two lives cut short. Both senseless. Both garnered national attention, for very different reasons. Two you say? Yes. The murders of Emmett Till and Ally Kostial.

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And before I go on, let me be clear. My heart breaks for Ally and her family. My own family had a member taken at age 18, although simply from a car wreck. Regardless, the loss of someone so young, so full of promise, with so much still in front of them, especially in the manner in which she died, is just awful. My thoughts are truly with her family.

Rather, this is about these guys.

Ole miss frat guys by Emmett Till sign

You can read a local article about their deed here.  Or pick a national news pub, which has picked up the story.

Now it would be easy and sensationalist to rant about how this was a hate crime, they need to be investigated, call the DOJ, FBI, etc. And in fact that sort of reaction is well under way.

I would rather encourage these three fellas to simply read a book. Maybe develop a sense of the history of white men in Mississippi with guns.

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We have two murders.

Ally came from St. Louis to Mississippi. She was 21.

Emmett came from Chicago to Mississippi in August 1955. He was 14.

It would appear Ally was possibly murdered by a 22-year-old man in a fit of rage, shot multiple times and dumped on a road.

Emmett was murdered for breaking a Jim Crow code of interaction with white people, only seven days after arriving, by two men he didn’t know. Beaten, tortured and shot in a barn in Drew, Mississippi, then dumped in the Tallahatchie River.

An all white jury took an hour to acquit his murderers in the Tallahatchie County courthouse in Sumner, MS, only 15 minutes from where these frat bros posed. They then gleefully did a PAID confession to Look Magazine in 1956.

One of the killers was Roy Bryant, a store owner barely 24 years old himself. His wife Carolyn, whom Emmett had encountered, only 21.

So much youth in these events…

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So we have murders decades apart with a common thread of Ole Miss students getting into the narrative. The first being Ally’s alleged shooter, Brandon Theesfeld, only 22, and the others being the “finest” of young men in front of the Till sign.

Two different murders. two different families devastated. A region of the country still grappling with a race and class system built from the residue of Jim Crow.

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Ally’s has justifiably been met with horror. It is a parent’s worst nightmare and my heart goes out to her family. The entire Ole Miss community has been shaken to its core. Brandon, assuming he is the culprit, will pay dearly for the crime. It’s possible memorials will be created, scholarships in her name given, etc. And that is what should happen, if anything to keep her name and spirit alive.

It’s a senseless crime and any way that community and her family in St. Louis can find a way to carry on her legacy they must.

Yet so to was the Till crime.

He was 14. Barely a teenager. But he was Black. One of thousands of victims of lynchings from Reconstruction to the 1950s. His killers were white, protected by a brutally racist Jim Crow class system.

The men that killed him, he had never met until the moment they kidnapped him at 2 in the morning from his great-uncle’s house.

I have worked on a photo project about the four sites of the Till case – the store where he interacted with Carolyn Bryant, the barn where he was murdered, the river where they found him, and the courthouse. I’ve spent days at these sites, trying to make sense of how senseless this crime was as well.

And then Moe Curly and Larry decided to pose in front of the River Site sign.

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A few things about that sign. First, to get to it you have to drive to Glendora, MS which is in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the Mississippi Delta. Then you have to cross the Tallahatchie and take a dirt farm road about two miles to a little turn-off access point for the river. In other words you don’t just whiz by this sign on the highway. You have to WORK to get to it.

There are actually TWO signs – one near the bridge pointing the way to the river site, and then the actual river site sign where the guys took the photo. Both signs have been shot to bits and replaced. Repeatedly.

Nice job Mississippi.

 

See the holes? That takes high powered rounds to accomplish.

And finally, the sign is in the wrong place anyway. Emmett was found farther south at a place called Pecan Point.

But that’s beside the point.

The point is this. These three “young men” had to decide, and consider for a bit, the idea of posing in front of that sign with firearms. They might have even decided to crank a few rounds off themselves. Who knows.

Which leads me to wonder, do they know who Emmett Till was?

If they have no clue of the racial and cultural history in their own back yard then I would say Ole Miss and their parents have failed them. Simply ignorant of the facts.

Or, and maybe more likely, they had a sense of who Till was and thought it would be lots of frat bro fun to take an armed selfie in front of the sign marking the place (in general) that a 14-year-old murder victim – simply down for the last week of summer in the great state of Mississippi – was pulled from the river.

Which do you think it was? Ignorance or bigotry?

Now I can’t know what was in these guys’ hearts. I don’t know them. But the optics of the photo are quite bad. Especially from members of the Kappa Alpha fraternity, one steeped in Confederate history.

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Maybe the three young men could ride with me and I could take them to the barn where on an early Sunday morning Emmett was tortured, beaten until disfigured, then shot behind the ear with a .45. Maybe I could show them a cotton gin exhaust fan and have them imagine their families looking for them while they were weighted down, naked for three days in a muddy delta river.

What would it take for them to understand that Emmett’s death, the tragedy of it, deserves the same introspection and decency as Ally’s. They are both equally horrifying.

And lest you think this is some overblown reaction to ancient history, people involved in the Emmett case are still alive, including Carolyn Bryant and Wheeler Parker, the cousin Emmett was with the night he was kidnapped. I’m sure Wheeler can still feel the pain of losing his cousin like it was yesterday.

Emmett was a person, not a sign.

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Taking that photo is not cool fellas, especially in a state with a long long history of white supremacy. I bet you didn’t know that the Mississippi Legislature didn’t even ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in 1865, until 2013.

It took the state 148 years.  True.

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Yet these guys will get past this, hopefully a little wiser, a little more informed, maybe a little ashamed.

And maybe others will think twice about taking a giggling photo, lit by the headlights of a truck, guns akimbo, at the river site. The University of Mississippi has worked hard the last 20 years to move past the idolization of the plantation South. Photos like this one, even taken mildly in jest, embarrass the school and reinforce the idea that African-Americans are second class citizens in the region.

The Till sites, and his death, deserve our respect. He, just like Ally, was robbed of a long life at the hands of evil.

Tragically though, the sign will be shot again.

The last thing Emmett saw before he was taken? Headlights from a truck, and white men with guns.

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Any mans (or woman’s) death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; – John Donne

 

Our thoughts go out to the family of Ally Kostial, and to the descendants of Emmett Till.

 

 
 

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