For more than 50 years after the murder of Emmett Till, no historical markers in the Mississippi Delta told the story of the 14-year-old African-American boy who was dragged from his bed in the night, lynched and then dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
That changed in 2007. Eight signs were erected in northwest Mississippi, including at the spot on the river where fishermen in 1955 discovered Emmett’s mutilated corpse tethered to a cotton-gin fan.
But a year later, vandals tore down the sign on the riverbed. It was replaced. But then bullets were fired into that marker — more than 100 rounds over several years. A new sign was installed in June. Thirty-five days later, on July 26, it was shot up again.
“To drive up and see it like that, I was sad,” said Patrick Weems, a founder of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss. “When we finally replaced it, it was an amazing feeling that this sign that had been obliterated was finally restored.”
The purple marker titled “River Site,” off a dirt road between a riverbank and cotton fields outside Glendora, Miss., was pierced by four bullets. One punctured the word “mother” in a sentence about how Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, wanted his body returned to his hometown, Chicago, where she displayed it in an open coffin for everyone to see.
His mother’s decision not to hide Emmett’s disfigured body in a closed coffin helped make the crime a symbol of the brutality of the Jim Crow era, shocking the nation during the early civil rights movement. Emmett was abducted and killed after a white woman complained that he had grabbed her and wolf-whistled at her, an account that she later changed and then retracted.
The Justice Department reopened its investigation into Emmett’s death this year, saying it was “based upon the discovery of new information.” The federal government has not elaborated on what changed, but the decision appears to be linked to the woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, recanting her allegations.
The current sign, which is identical to the one that came before it, was unveiled at a ceremony on June 21. Several dozen people attended the ceremony, including Wheeler Parker, 79, a cousin of Emmett’s who was 16 when he saw him get abducted on Aug. 28, 1955.
“I’m not surprised,” Mr. Parker said in an interview. “People fear change and when they see change coming, they will try to destroy things. You have a few people out there like that.”
Mr. Parker said the sign should be replaced. So did Annie Wright. Her husband, Simeon Wright, was 12 and sharing a bed with Emmett, his cousin, when he was kidnapped.
“I would keep putting it up, and someone is going to get tired after a while,” Ms. Wright, whose husband died last year, said by telephone. “It’s hatred. It’s all I can say.”
Mr. Weems said that two companies in New York had agreed to design and create a new sign made out of steel, which would be much stronger than the current one, made of a thinner metal. The companies will supply it for free, he said.
For all that Emmett’s case came to signify in the United States, it was largely ignored in the part of Mississippi where he died. There was a highway marker with his name on it, but that too was vandalized when the letters KKK were spray-painted across it. It was later completely covered in black paint.
Mr. Weems said that in the decades after Emmett’s death, people in the Mississippi Delta region wanted to forget about the crime and act like it never had happened. While that sentiment holds true with some people there, he said, most people in the area have voiced support for preserving Emmett’s story in the historical markers.
“In truth, this is a story about a local community — black and white, Republican and Democrat, plantation owners and former sharecroppers — that came together and took responsibility,” Mr. Weems said.
No one has been caught for defacing the sign in previous years. The Tallahatchie County sheriff did not return a phone call on Monday about the latest act of vandalism.
“My sense is that it only takes one person to do this,” Mr. Weems said.