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Alabama white supremacist group’s visit to Emmett Till memorial sparks donations

Eddie Burkhalter

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If an Alabama-headquartered white supremacist group’s visit to the Emmett Till memorial sign in Mississippi on Saturday was meant to divide people through racial hatred, it’s having the opposite effect, said the director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. 

“We’ve seen an outpouring of support from across the country, from people of all stripes, who want to honor Emmett Till and use Emmett Till’s memory as a way for racial healing,” said Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, speaking to APR on Monday about the incident. 

First reported by Ashton Pittman at The Jackson Free Press, members of the League of the South visited the monument site in Tallahatchie County and filmed a brief video in front of the sign, which tells the story of Till, the 14-year-old tortured and murdered by two white supremacists in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. 

The League of the South (LOS), headquartered in Killen, is named as a defendant, along with Hill, in a lawsuit over the LOS’s involvement in the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 in which an anti-racist counter protestor, Heather Heyer, was run over and killed by a white supremacist. An LOS members in August was sentenced to two years in prison for beating a black man during the rally.  

Surveillance footage taken at the roadside Till memorial, which was provided to The Jackson Free Press by the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, shows Michael Hill, founder and president of LOS, and several other members from Alabama and Mississippi standing in front of the sign while others film a brief video. 

In a separate surveillance footage the group members scatters for their vehicles as an alarm installed at the site blares over a speaker. In a statement posted to the LOS website on Sunday, Hill downplayed the group’s hasty departure, writing “As usual, we got in and out quickly and avoided any trouble from the locals, including law enforcement, but we thought it best to avoid contact with any politically-biased law enforcement or the local legal system.” 

APR will not share LOS’s 25-second video taken at the sign, but in the video Hill asks when such a memorial for white victims of black violence will be erected. As the Jackson Free Press noted in its reporting, U.S. Justice Department statistics show that an overwhelming majority of violent crimes against whites were committed by other whites. APR‘s Messages to Hill on Monday went unanswered.

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“This group was out there to divide us,” Weems told APR. “Our community has been working hard for the last 10 years, across racial lines, to honor Emmett Till, and this group came out to divide, and I think the exact opposite has been the response.” 

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Instead, the story of the LOS visit went viral – CNN, The Washington Post, USA Today, NBC News and dozens of other news outlets have covered it – and donations to the center started pouring in. 

As of Monday afternoon the center had received more than $10,000 in donations, which will go toward the development of a smart phone app that tells Till’s story, and help develop the site at the Tallahatchie River where young man’s body was found. A farmer donated the land on the bank of the river to the center, which plans to erect a memorial there.   

Weems encouraged anyone who’d like to donate to visit the website here and do so via Paypal. He said he’d like to see the site declared a National Park Service site, which would mean federal protection. 

The sign LOS members stood in front of on Saturday, protected by bullet-proof glass, was unveiled in October. It replaced an older sign that had been vandalized, shot through 20 times. It was the fourth time a Till memorial sign had been replaced because of vandalism. 

Three University of Mississippi students were photographed standing in front of the former bullet-riddled sign, two of them holding rifles, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica reported in July. 

“I think there’s a lot of importance at the sites…,” Weems said in a video posted to the center’s website on the new sign. “If that signs not there then nobody knows the site’s here, and if the site’s not here then the story is incomplete. This isn’t tourism. This is a national story that needs to be told.”

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