LAWRENCE – It was as predictable as hot weather in a Mississippi Delta summer. Once again last month, the shot-up sign marking the spot where the body of civil rights martyr Emmett Till was pulled from the Tallahatchie River was the site of a vandalism controversy.
That’s why, in time for the 64th anniversary of his murder on Aug. 28, a group of grassroots campaigners led by a University of Kansas researcher has debuted the Emmett Till Memory Project, a new mobile phone app and related website that cannot be physically vandalized.
Dave Tell, professor of communication studies, has been involved with the project since its inception. He is also the author of a new book that deals with the commemoration of the crime that sparked a movement, “Remembering Emmett Till” (University of Chicago Press).
Tell said the app and website were conceived in 2014 after another in the series of the destructive acts against the Till memorial signs. Tell worked with the Delta-based Emmett Till Memorial Commission and Davis Houck, Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies at Florida State University, to create the website/app and contents.
The app and website highlight 18 of the most important places related to the Till murder, from the site of Till’s alleged wolf whistle at a white woman at Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi, to the farm where he was kidnapped, tortured and killed to the river site where his body was recovered, despite having been weighted down with a cotton-gin fan. The last of those sites was the place of the latest controversy.
Grants from KU’s General Research Fund helped pay for the app’s creation. Another grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services will be used to procure historic photographs, to expand the site’s content to Till’s home city of Chicago and to pay for consultants to evaluate the site/app’s contents.
Perhaps most importantly, the app will be GPS-enabled, meaning it will provide turn-by-turn driving directions to the various sites, enabling people to find them, regardless of whether a memorial sign still stands at the place.
“We’ve created a web page where you can group the sites together into tours,” Tell said. “We created the Tallahatchie Civil Rights Driving Tour, with 10 locations selected by the commission, so the tour can take you to all the places the commission has tried to commemorate, but which have been plagued by vandalism.”
Tell said many people have already expressed to him their concern that the internet-enabled commemorations might be vandalized, too, by cybercriminals.
“I am worried about that,” Tell said, “but far less. Cybervandalism takes a lot more effort and a different skill set.”
Photo: Department of Communications Professor Dave Tell helped conceive and create the content of the new Emmett Till Memory Project app, which debuted in August 2019.