About the Emmett Till Memory Project

The Emmett Till Memory Project is a website and smartphone app designed to commemorate the death and memory of Emmett Till. The Project uses Google’s Field Trip app to focus on fifty-one sites in and around the Mississippi Delta that played a significant role in the memory of Emmett Till’s murder. Field Trip is a location-based smartphone app that allows people to learn new stories about the history and memory of Emmett Till’s murder—stories that, in some cases, have never yet been told—from the very places where they happened.

BACKGROUND

In August of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was visiting a grocery store in Money, Mississippi when he violated the racial customs of the day by whistling at a white woman. Three days later, these customs were enforced: Till was kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and thrown into a river with a 70-lb. cotton-gin fan attached to his neck with a length of barbed wire.

Parts of Till’s story are well known and uncontested. For example, everyone agrees that Till was kidnapped from his great aunt and uncle’s home at 2am on August 28th. But there is much that remains unknown or, at best, contested. For example: from where was the gin fan stolen? Where was Till killed? At what point was he murdered and where, precisely, was his body recovered? For the last sixty years, these questions and others have been debated, answered, challenged, called into question, and answered again. And again.

The Emmett Till Memory Project provides a comprehensive history of Till’s memory. Through the use of GPS technology, we will help users sort out precisely what happened (and where) on the night Till was murdered. The App gives users access not just to the facts of the case, but also to the stories people have told about Till’s murder (true and false). We want users to know not just what happened in 1955, but what has been done with those facts (and by whom) since 1955.

Consider the example of the murder site. The trial transcript is silent on this point and, in fact, the counsel for the defense made a big deal of the inability of the prosecution to determine a murder site. But this ambiguity would not last long. Weeks after the trial, freelance journalist William Bradford Huie paid two just-acquitted murderers $3,150 for their story. They gave it to him, he wrote it down, and shipped it off to LOOK Magazine for publication. But, since the story accused legally innocent men of murder, LOOK required that each named participant sign “consent and release” forms. Huie was in a bind. He knew there were at least four men in the murder party, but he only had two release forms. He thus edited out of his story the part played by Leslie Milam, brother of the just-acquitted murderer J. W. Milam and manager of the Sturdivant plantation in Sunflower County, the place where Till was most likely killed. To avoid implicating Leslie Milam (from whom he could not obtain a release form), Huie moved the murder site 16.5 miles east to an uninhabited spot of riverbank in Tallahatchie County. Huie’s account was so influential that every single map of Emmett Till’s murder produced between 1956 and 2006 placed the murder in Tallahatchie County and left Sunflower County off the map entirely. To this day, Sunflower County remains the only relevant county in the Mississippi Delta without a single commemorative Emmett Till marker.

Given the uncertainty and the politics that have defined the history of Till’s murder site, how can it be commemorated? A GPS smartphone app!

THE APP

Google’s Field Trip app enables smartphone users to visit precise locations relating to the murder, trial, and memory of Emmett Till. The GPS technology embedded in Field Trip allows the Emmett Till Memory Project to calibrate the history of Emmett Till to a user’s location in the Mississippi Delta. Wherever a person happens to be standing, Field Trip will provide engaging narrative descriptions and accompanying media that tell the history of Emmett Till from the perspective of that place. For example, if a person is standing on the plantation once run by Leslie Milam, she will learn about the testimony of Willie Reed and the under-cover work of Medgar Evers and Amzie Moore—each of whom helped the FBI locate the murder in Sunflower County. By contrast, if the same person is in Tallahatchie County, she will learn of Huie’s story, his consent and release forms, and why, for so many years, people thought the murder happened there.

The Emmett Till Memory Project is designed to emphasize the fragility of memory rather than its finality. Rather than determining the facts once and for all, our bigger aim is to record the ever-shifting memory of Emmett Till. Simply by moving around the Delta, a Field Trip user will be confronted with dozens of different stories of Till’s death—some of them in conflict with each other. This is important because it draws attention not simply to the facts of 1955, but also to what has been done with those facts since 1955. The Emmett Till Memory Project is designed not simply as a refresher course for memory, but as a lesson in the politics of commemoration. It will teach the user, not simply where Till was killed or his body was recovered, but how, why, and through whom we think we know the answers to these questions. We aim to preserve the uncertainty of the past while commemorating the brutality of the crime and the politics of its memory.