A year has passed since an Instagram photo went viral of Ole Miss fraternity students hoisting guns in front of a bullet-riddled sign for civil rights martyr Emmett Till, and authorities still have not questioned those involved.
The FBI balked at investigating, concluding there had been no violation of federal law.
“That these three young men never were held to account for their racist exhibition and then actively publicized it on social media sends exactly the wrong message,” said Davis Houck, co-author of the book, Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press.
The photo, obtained by MCIR and ProPublica, shows an Ole Miss student named Ben LeClere holding a shotgun while standing in front of the bullet-pocked sign. His Kappa Alpha fraternity brother, John Lowe, squats below the sign. A third fraternity member, identified by fellow students as Howell Logan, stands on the other side with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. The photo appears to have been taken at night, the scene illuminated by lights from a vehicle.
Repeated efforts by MCIR to reach the students proved unsuccessful.
Historian Dave Tell wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “The faces are smiling, the weapons are visible, and the sign is conspicuously damaged, all of which make the photograph read as a racially charged trophy shot – as if the boys were posed with their weapons above a 12-point buck.”
Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, said authorities never asked to examine the sign.
He let MCIR borrow the sign so gun experts could examine it. Those experts concluded that all 10 holes in the sign were made by what appears to be a .223-caliber rifle cartridge, the same bullet fired by an AR-15.
On March 1, 2019, LeClere posted the photo on Instagram, gathering 247 “likes” within a day.
Five days later, a person contacted the university’s Office of Student Conduct. “The photo is on Instagram with hundreds of ‘likes,’ and no one said a thing,” said the complaint, a copy of which MCIR and ProPublica reviewed.
When the photo became public, Ole Miss’ Kappa Alpha chapter suspended the students, saying the picture was “inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable.”
After viewing the photo, U.S. Attorney Chad Lamar of the Northern District of Mississippi in Oxford referred the matter to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for further investigation. The department looked to the FBI, which had already determined the agency lacked the jurisdiction to pursue the case.
While Ole Miss officials said last year they considered the picture “offensive,” they concluded the image did not violate the university’s code of conduct and, therefore, the students could not be punished. (The students left Ole Miss.)
Asked recently about its handling of the matter, Provost Noel E. Wilkin and Shawnboda Mead, the university’s interim vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement, told MCIR that Ole Miss officials reached out to “address the hurt that the image caused in our community,” sponsored a forum on Till and met with his family to “discuss impact and opportunities for future collaboration.”
Arielle Hudson, a Rhodes scholar at Ole Miss who served as president of the Black Student Union when the Instagram photo emerged last year, recently questioned the university’s failure to step up, pointing out that the university removed the name of a major contributor from a building after he posted racist pictures.
If that could happen to an alumnus, “you could definitely do something about students,” she told MCIR.
Ole Miss has struggled to move beyond its past in the decades since the 1962 admission of James Meredith, the first known African-American student to attend, that sparked a deadly riot.
In 1988, the first black fraternity house to integrate the campus burned down. The university rallied and raised money to rebuild it.
In 2008, Ole Miss hosted its first presidential debate on campus, only to see white students burn Obama campaign signs four years later, while chanting, “The South will rise again.”
In 2014, three students from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house placed a noose around the neck of a statue on campus of Meredith. They also placed a Georgia flag of the past that contains the Confederate battle emblem.
The three Sigma Phi Epsilon members withdrew from Ole Miss, and two pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges.
A Battle For Memory
Signs commemorating the civil rights movement, especially those remembering Till, have long been the targets of violence in Mississippi.
The first sign honoring Till, renaming a portion of U.S. 49 in 2006, was spray-painted “KKK.” In 2017, the historical sign outside the former Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money was attacked with chemicals, leaving much of the sign blank.
In 2008, when a sign was put up to remember where Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River, vandals threw the sign in the river.
When the first sign was replaced, they blasted the second sign with 317 bullets or shotgun pellets before it was replaced in 2018.
Thirty-five days later, the third sign – the one the students posed in front of – had been shot up. On Oct. 20, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission replaced the damaged sign with a bullet-proof one that weighs 500 pounds.
Days later, members of the League of the South gathered in front of the new sign, led by Michael Hill. A hidden camera captured their actions.
“We are here at the Emmett Till monument that represents the civil rights movement for blacks,” he said. “What we want to know is, where are all of the white – ?”
An alarm interrupted his speech, and the group fled.
Tell, author of Remembering Emmett Till, said the nation is undergoing a battle for memory, for whose stories society tells.
“Memorials are the new lunch counters,” he said. “In the 1960s, Americans gathered at lunch counters to work out their racial politics. In the 21st century, Americans gather at memorials. They gather at Confederate memorials either to guard them or tear them down, they vandalize Emmett Till signs and put them back up, they reclaim and repurpose memorials, or they take them down altogether.
“All this memorial controversy suggests that one of the major issues of our time is a basic disagreement over what stories get dignified in public places and passed down to the next generation.”
Investigative intern James Finn contributed to this report.
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for MCIR’s newsletters here.
Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.