The group of 24 high school students had traveled the country for three weeks learning about civil rights, social justice and some of the darkest chapters in American history. They’d met with notable figures such as Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Rev. Al Sharpton.
So when they came across a vandalized memorial to Emmett Till, the African American boy whose murder in 1955 helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement, they knew exactly what to do.
The students, participating in the St. Louis-based Cultural Leadership program, were near the end of their trip when they stopped in Money, Mississippi, on June 25 to visit Bryant’s Grocery. The infamous store is where Till encountered the woman who accused him of flirting with her, an interaction that ultimately led to his death. Decades later, it was revealed that the woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, was not truthful about parts of her accusation.
Near the grocery stood a sign dedicated to Till’s life and tragic death. Except, as the students found, it had been seriously damaged. Text and photographs had been removed from the sign.
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“All of us were really quiet, staring, wondering what can we do,” said Camille Denton, 17, one of the students on the trip.
The damage made it appear that “people were trying to get rid of a history that people need to know,” said Josh Hagene, 17.
The group debated about what action to take before settling on repairing the sign with handwritten notes and drawings that both memorialized Till but also did what the sign no longer could do: educate others about what had transpired at that place.
“Speaking out and taking action are two of the many leadership and social justice advocacy skills students learn in Cultural Leadership,” said Holly Ingraham, executive director of Cultural Leadership and Hagene’s mother.
Denton asked a friend with better handwriting to inscribe her message, which read in part: “You can destroy this marker, but you cannot destroy history.”
Hagene, who is passionate about art, drew a picture of Till when he was alive. “I thought it was important to show he was just a little boy,” he said.
“I put that his legacy will live on and that we will continue to fight for justice and freedom and equality in his name,” another student, Promise Mitchell told KMOV News.
The Cultural Leadership program describes itself as “an award-winning local nonprofit youth leadership development organization that gives them the tools to be activists, community organizers, and ‘trouble makers of the best kind.’” This year’s participants came from diverse backgrounds and several public schools in the area.
They certainly raised trouble when they encountered the sign, tweeting at the Mississippi Department of Transportation with a plea to fix it. The department replied on Twitter that they would “get this fixed as soon as possible.”
The students also spoke with journalist Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger, who wrote a story about the vandalism that was picked up by several news outlets.
It was the second time this particular sign had been damaged, The Post’s Peter Holly wrote. In October, a different sign dedicated to Till had been riddled with bullet holes.
“We continue to see an increase in vandalism, and it reminds us of the need to stay vigilant in telling this story,” said Patrick Weems of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. “We remember as a way to move forward, but sadly, there are those who want to remain in the past.”
But the students of Cultural Leadership are looking toward the future as they return home from their journey.
“For me it was kind of like a moment of realizing that I didn’t have to just walk away,” Denton said. “We all could have gotten on the bus and kept going to our next destination instead of actually fighting back,” but instead they took action.
“I’m starting to think about times where I just walked away from something, even though I felt bad about something, even though I could have done something little,” Denton said of her time on the trip. “So now I’m trying to be cautious of situations I come across where I can make an impact.”