On Feb.18, Dave Tell, Ph.D., a professor from the University of Kansas, discussed the history of how Emmett Till’s story has been remembered in the Thad Cochran Center as a part of the university’s celebration of Black History Month.
At 14, Till was murdered in 1955, days after allegedly flirting with a white woman outside of a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. His story became a catalyst for the start of the civil rights movement.
Tell has researched Till’s story for years and is involved in various commemoration efforts. His presentation focused on the challenges and controversies behind the commemoration of Till’s history, which he read from his book, “Remembering Emmett Till.”
“The murder of Emmett Till cannot be confined to 1955,” Tell said.
Before attending the event, junior psychology major and SGA Attorney General Jourdan Green said she already knew Till’s story, but was surprised by the topics that Tell discussed in the forum.
“I had no idea about how people over time have tried to change stories about his death, so that was very surprising,” Green said.
A group of students from the University of Guelph and Western University in Ontario, Canada, were in attendance. The group of 35 students was visiting Hattiesburg on their reading break to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and the intersection of race and poverty.
Emily Kerr and Sydney Turack, juniors from the University of Guelph, said their knowledge on the civil rights movement is limited, but they are learning through experiences such as Tell’s presentation.
“Coming from Canada, we don’t talk about the civil rights movement at all. Other than some basic research, we were coming here with almost no experience of who the really important activists were or what influencing events there were,” Kerr said.
Turack said she had learned about Emmett Till’s story a few days before the trip.
“I was taught MLK’s speech and the stories of Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks, and that was the extent of my knowledge about Black History Month and the Civil Rights Movement,” Turack said.
Tell showed that the effort to properly commemorate Till’s story is a struggle, now 65 years after his death. Tell discussed this through examples such as the newest historical marker at Graball Landing, the area where historians believe Till’s body was found.
The marker had been stolen, vandalized and shot multiple times. A new bulletproof marker was erected in 2019 shortly after a picture of three students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns by the shot marker went viral.
Tell finished his lecture by describing historical markers as important places to understand current racial tensions in America.
“Memory sites are the new lunch counters,” Tell said.
“The thing that came through the clearest for me is that racism does not end on the event that something racist happens,” Kerr said. “I think having these personal experiences has opened my eyes in a way you can’t get through literature and news reports.”
Turack said she and her group hope to apply what they learn back home in Canada.
Specifically, Turack said they are questioning, “How can we take the things we learned here about how you guys have celebrated black history, made memorials and talked so much about it and how can we do the same at home, both for black and indigenous history in Canada?”
Green emphasized the importance for students at Southern Miss to learn Till’s story.
“We had a great turnout, but it would have been better if more people would have come,” Green said. “The word needs to be spread because this is a big part of American history—not just black history.”