Three white University of Mississippi students have been suspended from their fraternity house after posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled sign memorializing Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched after accusations that he flirted with a white woman.
A photo surfaced this week showing the three young white students from Kappa Alpha fraternity smiling as they held the firearms, including an AR-15–style semiautomatic rifle, in front of the memorial at night.
Till’s memorial, which is located outside Glendora, Mississippi, marks the spot where the African-American boy’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in 1955, after his senseless killing by two white men that would set the growing Civil Rights Movement into motion and cause a rallying cry nationwide.
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The photo, which was obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting (MCIR) and ProPublica, shows an Ole Miss student named Ben LeClere holding a shotgun while standing in front of the bullet-riddled sign.
The other student, John Lowe, squats below the sign. A third fraternity member stands on the other side with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle has not yet been identified.
It is also not known if the students shot up Till’s memorial or if the sign, which has been vandalized over the years, was already riddled with bullets when they posed for the photo.
The photo was posted to the private Instagram account of LeClere in March, which was Lowe’s birthday, according to MCIR. “One of Memphis’s finest and the worst influence I’ve ever met,” LeClere wrote in the caption. The photo has since been referred to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for further investigation.
The Kappa Alpha, which suspended the three students on Wednesday, said: “The photo is inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable. It does not represent our chapter.”
“We have and will continue to be in communication with our national organization and the University,” said Taylor Anderson, president of Ole Miss’ Kappa Alpha Order.
However, the University of Mississippi has not taken any action against the students because the photo did not violate the school’s code of conduct and the incident took place off-campus, Rod Guajardo, a spokesperson for the school, said.
Guajardo explained that an Ole Miss official received a copy of the Instagram picture in March and the university referred the matter to the university police department, which subsequently gave the photo to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
According to Guajardo, the FBI told the police it would not further investigate the incident because the photo did not pose a specific threat.
The photo and its related matters had come at a time when Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, was already planning a moment of silence Thursday with supporters and friends to honour her cousin of what would have been his 78th birthday, reports Clarion Ledger.
“We are experiencing, I think, an uptick in terms of hatred, violence and people feeling emboldened to take that kind of action.”
“When I think about that photo – it’s a motivator,” Watts told CNN. “It means our work is more important today than it has ever been.”
Since the first Till sign was erected in 2008, it has been vandalized on several occasions. Vandals threw the first sign in the river while the second was blasted with 317 bullets or shotgun pellets before the Emmett Till Memorial Commission officials removed it, according to the Clarion Ledger report.
The third sign, featured in the Instagram image, was damaged by 10 bullet holes before officials took it down last week, the report added. At the moment, a fourth sign – a bulletproof sign – is expected to be installed at the site soon, said the Emmett Till Memorial Commission.
This is not the first time Ole Miss fraternity students have been found in a racial controversy. In 2014, three students from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house placed a noose around the neck of a statue on campus of James Meredith, the first known black student to attend Ole Miss.
American history has provided an ongoing narrative of racism and xenophobia enacted by Whites against young Black people as witnessed in the cases of Michael “Mike” Brown, Ezell Ford, Ramarley Graham, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, among others.
The murder of Till remains one of the most heinous crimes ever committed. An all-white, all-male jury acquitted two white men accused of the killing.