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Emmett Till Memorial Sign To Be Replaced After Being Defaced

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been almost 64 years since the body of Emmett Till was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in northwest Mississippi. Emmett Till was 14. He was black. He was tortured and murdered after allegedly whistling at a white woman. Had he lived, Emmett Till would have been 78 years old yesterday. Yesterday was also the day that a photo of three Ole Miss students, two of them holding guns, went viral. They were photographed in front of a bullet-scarred sign commemorating that spot where Till's body was recovered.

The photo was uncovered by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Journalist Jerry Mitchell is head of the center, and he is here to tell us more.

Jerry Mitchell, good to speak to you.

JERRY MITCHELL: Good to be with you.

KELLY: Tell me a little bit more about this picture, what it shows.

MITCHELL: Well, there are three Ole Miss students. They're all members of the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity. And one of them posted it on his Instagram account on March 1. And it got 274 likes, which I found kind of shocking. And five days after that, someone anonymously complained to Ole Miss - University of Mississippi - about this photograph. But it was still up when we started asking questions.

KELLY: And when was that? How did you get involved?

MITCHELL: We got the photograph last week and just were stunned that someone would take a picture in front of a bullet-riddled sign. And they're all smiling and holding - kind of hoisting the guns. And it really shocked, to be honest - and then began digging into, looking, asking questions and things like that.

KELLY: So you start digging and asking questions. The photo gets taken down. I know you've reached out to the three students pictured here.

MITCHELL: Yes, we have.

KELLY: And they haven't commented, you said.

MITCHELL: No, no comment at all.

KELLY: What's happened to them? What have been the consequences?

MITCHELL: Well, they were suspended from their fraternity. When we asked the fraternity for comment, in less than 24 hours, the Ole Miss chapter of that fraternity suspended those students. Then once that happened, of course, we had to break the story.

KELLY: And anything beyond being suspended from their fraternity? I saw Ole Miss has put out a statement calling this offensive, calling it hurtful but saying it doesn't violate the student code of conduct.

MITCHELL: Well, that's kind of interesting. I guess I need to read what the student code of conduct is. I don't know what all - I think someone sent out the Ole Miss creed yesterday, and it certainly would violate the creed, you would think. But, you know, kind of more broadly, I think the other question is whether a crime was committed. And so the U.S. attorney in Oxford has sent this on to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington. So they're going to be examining that.

KELLY: Well, you've covered the legacy of the civil rights movement...

MITCHELL: Oh, yeah.

KELLY: ...For so many years and from all kinds of directions. What do you think is going on here? Why would a sign marking Emmett Till and the place where he was pulled from a river - why would that resonate with students today, prompt this kind of action today?

MITCHELL: You know, that sign has really drawn a lot of hatred. It seems there are some of these signs and events that seem to engender a lot of anger, you know, backlash. And I think that's kind of what we're witnessing in this country as a whole right now. There is a certain amount of backlash. It's kind of this idea of we want to take it back or we want to - this is ours. It's almost like wanting to say, you know, you have this icon or this symbol, and we don't like it. And so we're going to take it back or we're going to deface it or we're going to erase it. Which is really fascinating when you think about it. You know, like, we don't like this history, so we're going to try to erase it.

KELLY: The we you're talking about there is white people, and you're linking this to the broader, you know, rise we have seen of certain white nationalist, white supremacist groups.

MITCHELL: Yeah. I think there's been - within recent years, I mean, the - those groups have been emboldened to be able to speak more boldly that, you know, kind of some of their white nationalist or white supremacist views and things like that and be bold about it.

KELLY: That's Jerry Mitchell. He runs the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

Jerry Mitchell, thank you very much.

MITCHELL: Thanks for having me, appreciate it.

KELLY: And an update on the sign. Officials took it down last week. It was damaged, as we heard, by bullet holes. They say a new sign designed to better withstand attacks will be installed soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.