Jan 20, 2020

AUSTIN, Texas — In 1955, a 14-year-old African American boy named Emmett Till was brutally lynched after he allegedly whistled at a white woman working at a grocery store.

The woman’s husband and his half-brother faced charges of Till’s kidnapping and murder, and were later acquitted by an all-white jury, attracting national attention.  

Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, requested an open-casket funeral, allowing his tortured body to be photographed. Many consider Till’s murder a catalyst in the Civil Rights Movement.

Largely forgotten by those outside of the African American community for decades, the Emmett Till story resurfaced in the 1990s and 2000s, becoming the subject of books and documentaries. Today, the murder and surrounding events are recognized at the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center in Glendora, Miss. And it is also part of The Mississippi Freedom Trail, which was created in 2011 to recognize people and places in Mississippi that had a significant role in the struggle for civil rights.

Stephen King, chairperson and professor of communication at St. Edward’s University, is co-writing a book with Assistant Professor of Communication Dr. Roger Davis Gatchet (West Chester University),  looking at how Till’s murder along with other significant events are remembered through the lens of civil rights tourism in Mississippi. The majority of King’s research has been centered in Mississippi, primarily focused on issues of public memory and authenticity.

In academia, the term public memory, “refers to the ongoing choices made when a group of people remembers a particular part of its history, and the group highlights that part of history within a container available for everyone to experience.” These containers can include museums, historical markers and signage.

Examining public memory is important because it may reveal problems in representation or in how the past gets remembered to fit specific goals, King said.

“One of the book chapters looks at the different ways Mississippi remembers Emmet Till. If you go to the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center in Glendora, there’s a detailed account of his execution,” King said. “In contrast, Greenwood, Mississippi uses Till’s memory to promote the area as the birthplace of the civil rights movement.”

One of the criticisms of civil rights tourism is that it presents the civil rights movement as a relic of the past and implies that the struggle does not continue, King said.

As part of their research, King and his collaborator toured civil rights sites and drove through predominately African American areas, some with high rates of poverty.

“If anyone is paying attention as they are touring these sites, they’d realize that the struggle still continues with issues of incarceration, police brutality, racism, income inequality and food deserts in Mississippi — it all points to civil rights as an issue today,” King said.

Illustrating the complexity of public memory, a sign marking the site where Till’s body was discovered was twice stolen and shot with bullet holes. In late 2019, the center erected a bulletproof sign with security cameras at the site, and placed one of the denigrated signs on display at the center.

In addition to civil rights tourism, King has also written about the appropriation of Blues music in Mississippi and Reggae music in Jamaica by government entities in order to promote tourism and culture.

“A lot of my research is connected to social justice,” King said. “I am focused on how agents of power attempt to co-opt aspects of marginalized cultures for their own purposes, including the blues and civil rights.