In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Curtis Hill of Mississippi writes about equity, justice, inclusion – and an Emmett Till memorial. Hill is a Marguerite Casey Foundation Sargent Shriver Youth Warrior Against Poverty Leadership Award recipient.
I am a 22-year-old Black student at the University of Mississippi who aspires to be an attorney. I grew up in Holmes County, Mississippi, one of the poorest in the U.S. My parents encouraged me and supported me with everything they had, and I am the first in my family to attend college.
In late 2019, as part of a job shadow, I accompanied a White judge in my home state to learn about its justice system. We discussed everything from our love of deer hunting and farming to food insecurity in the Mississippi Delta and law schools. I enjoyed our conversation, and court workers welcomed me.
When I scanned the judge’s courtroom, I saw a sea of Black and Brown people dressed in work and casual attire. Many people of color were being represented by White men in well-pressed suits. On the walls of the courtroom, there were paintings of past judges, all White males. For a moment, I thought about America, my place in it and the idea of justice.
The visual representation in the courtroom mirrored the America I know. It represented an America that is not inclusive of all people – especially people of color. Sitting there, I thought about my family, friends, mentors and neighbors in Holmes County. In some ways, the courtroom mirrored my university, Ole Miss.
In March of 2019, three White males, all Ole Miss students, posed for a photograph beside a memorial to Emmett Till. The memorial was bullet riddled. Two students were holding rifles.
Till was a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who died on Aug. 28, 1955, while he was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. He was brutally beaten and killed for allegedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a White woman, and his death gave rise to the civil rights movement. The men accused of murdering him were later acquitted by an all-White, male jury. Where was justice then?
The three Ole Miss students who posed beside Till’s memorial plaque were only suspended from their fraternity. A university official was quoted as saying the image was “offensive and hurtful but did not represent a violation of the university’s code of conduct.” Where is justice now?
Because of the university’s response, many students were outraged. Many of us felt action needed to be taken. The campus atmosphere felt like 2015, when students organized to remove the Confederate flag from campus.
In October, I participated in a campus panel discussion with three classmates. We engaged in dialogue with students, school administrators and university community members about what happened and how we felt about the official response.
The room was filled with Black, Brown and White people – all of whom listened intently. Many might not have fully understood the psychological trauma of racism. But I sensed they all had a heart for justice. Although university officials were made aware of the photo in March of 2019, many students did not know about the event until it surfaced in news reports in late July. Many of us were not surprised. In our eyes, the young men had been unjustly acquitted. We knew action was needed.
After the panel discussion, there were no smiles from my classmates or myself. Instead, there were four stares of power, as we posed in solidarity next to the bullet-riddled memorial. As we were taking pictures beside it, we looked at one another. Yasmine, my classmate, suggested we carry the plaque to the Confederate statue on campus. We wanted to spotlight its removal because of what it symbolizes.
Without hesitation, Tyler, another classmate, and I lifted the memorial. We walked off the stage and realized it was light enough to carry half a mile to the statue. Tyler and I led the way with the plaque, as Yasmine and our classmate Isabel marched in solidarity behind us.
It was the evening before an Ole Miss football game. Crowds of people were standing in the way of our walk – our protest for justice. As we marched, cameras flashed. People stared at us, two young Black men carrying a plaque symbolizing the old South’s history that remains with us today.
As we walked, the plaque felt like it was getting heavier. But powered by the knowledge of what our ancestors had achieved, we arrived at our destination.
We lowered the memorial to the base of the statue. I’d somehow cut my hand on a piece of sharp metal on the plaque, and I was bleeding. Sweat was rolling off me. People were staring at us, as my classmates and I stood there without saying a word.
Before we left, we thought about leaving the plaque there, but the fear of someone stealing it weighed too heavy on our hearts. As we departed, I felt a hunger in my belly for positive change and wondered what more we could have done. Instead of letting fear consume us, we began thinking of the future. We were too invested to turn around and too brave to remain silent that day by doing nothing.
Though the march was spontaneous, the decision to end at the Confederate statue was not. Marching, we knew we stood on the shoulders of our ancestors, furthering their work and calls for dignity and equity. Racism was the reason for the Civil War, the civil rights movement and what prompted our act of defiance and demonstration.
It is terrifying that acts of racism are being normalized in Mississippi. Many people, including myself at times, have accepted racism as a normal aspect of society. But to normalize racism is psychologically damning. President Barack Obama once said, “even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us … but there’s not a Black America and White America and Latino America and Asian America. There’s the United States of America.”
What I saw in that courtroom and what happened with the memorial are slices of America. But they do not have to be the history we leave for our children. One cannot undo 400 years of oppression, but we can work – now and together – to make sure America is home to equity, dignity and justice for everyone.
Hardships, whether they’re physical or emotional, are part of the path to positive change. They can be overcome. The color of my skin should not prevent me from having a voice in America – just as your physical appearance or name should not exclude you.
We can work toward an America that includes all people. We will all be better off – even if it means enduring a bloody hand while carrying the bullet-riddled memorial honoring a Black youth in America.
Curtis Hill is studying English at the University of Mississippi. Since the eighth grade, he has worked with Nollie Jenkins Family Center, a grassroots community organization in Holmes County, Mississippi. He has interned for U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi and at a nonprofit organization in Spain, helping migrant families find housing. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.