In my experience, people in the Mississippi Delta are culturally rich and well aware of the racial history they’ve inherited living there. But the land on which they live is remarkably nondescript in that regard. Although the place is inextricably linked to a brutality that galvanized the civil rights movement, I saw only minor acknowledgments of Till’s murder. Until recently, a bullet-riddled marker acknowledged where his body had been cast into a river, along with various other markers officials have strategically written and placed to obscure what actually happened: a racist murder that ignited an ongoing fight for justice and equity.
My tour guides were members of Till’s family and Dave Tell, a historian, humanities professor and author of the book “Remembering Emmett Till.” Tell specializes in projects about preserving historical memory, including the Emmett Till Memory Project, for which he was lead investigator.
He and I both love talking about history and the ways we can protect it, so I called him up to discuss the latest conservative attacks on our historical memory — and how to fight them. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity.
On the Justice Department’s decision to close its investigation into Till's murder and the fight over historical truths:
Dave Tell: One wishes the DOJ’s inquiry would have led to justice in a legal sense of the term, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. But truth can come from other places. The nonprofit that I work with down in the Mississippi Delta — the first line of their mission statement is “we believe that racial reconciliation begins with telling the truth.”
The DOJ closing the case is not a reason to stop pursuing the truth. We’ve got to pursue it all the more because we don’t have the courts helping us.
On preserving truth when courtrooms fail to mete out justice:
Tell: We’re back to doing the hard work of telling the truth without the courts.
I often wonder if the courts are really a good way to tell the truth about our history. Maybe there are better ways to do it, because the courts are so bound up with what they can prove and what they can’t prove. Honestly, I think everyone with a fair sense of justice has known that Carolyn Bryant lied for decades.
But the Justice Department basically said, “We can’t tell you that.” So we need other ways to tell the truth.
And that kind of speaks to the importance of the Memory Project, traveling exhibits, museums and more. The courts are not going to do our job of getting the truth out there. So we need to double down.
On conservative attacks and the essential role of history in civil rights:
Tell: You and I would agree that it’s vitally important that we teach difficult history, but we have to think of the obstacles. I think of the Texas legislator, Matt Krause, who drew up a list of books that can no longer be taught in schools, to the shootings of the Emmett Till sign, to the fight over the 1619 Project, to its response from the 1776 Commission.
I think of Monument Avenue in Richmond, or all the Confederate statues that have come down across the country. I think of the fight at the University of Mississippi to relocate a Confederate statue. All this stuff suggests the fight over America’s history and our past is one of the most pressing fronts in the fight for racial justice.
On why the fight over history is unending:
Tell: History is not something like God or gravity, that you can turn your back on, come back to at your leisure, and it will still be there intact. If we don’t guard our history, and if we don’t tell our stories, they will be taken from us. And honestly, there’s a long tradition of having them taken from us.
On potentially exciting ways to teach and preserve history, now and in the future:
Tell: I did a [virtual reality] prototype made by a professor named Derek Ham that put me on the ground as part of the “I Am A Man” March in Memphis, right before the King assassination. I came to this experience as a historian who thought I knew a lot about what I was about to see, but man, it was an incredibly powerful experience to put on those goggles. To turn physically and see the Memphis streets turn as I turn. So one of my goals for the memory project is to bring the Till story forward to show why it’s still relevant for the 21st century. I think we’ve got to be looking to things like [augmented reality] and VR to help tell these stories.
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